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Staff Picks: Books

2015 Thumbs Up! Award Teen Vote

Every year, the Michigan Library Association's Thumbs Up! Award work group spends months reading dozens of books published for teens. I'm proud to have been asked to be part of the group this year, and I got to read a ton of great books. After reading all these books, we had to choose our favorites (not an easy task) for this year's Top Ten list! The 2015 list has just been published, and now it's your turn to decide your favorites! Some of these books are ones I've written about this year, including Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle (one of my favorite books from last year) and Gene Yang's The Shadow Hero, and many other great books. But don't take my word for it: many of these books were also award winners at this year's ALA Youth Media Awards as well! The complete Top Ten list is:

 

  1. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
  2. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
  3. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  4. Noggin by John Corey Whaley
  5. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
  6. She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
  7. The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
  8. I Have a Bad Feeling About This by Jeff Strand
  9. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
  10. Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

 

You can vote for your favorite at the MLA survey page. How many of these great books have you read?


The Collapse

I was in grade school when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and very clearly remember the crisis that this act by the Soviet Union and the regime in East Germany engendered. It was the subject of many class discussions over the next several years, and of course, it was all over the news. I also remember how elated the world was when the Wall came down in 1989 and the people of East Berlin could be free again. Author Mary Elise Sarotte, visiting professor of government and history at Harvard University, indicates in this 2014 book that the breach of the Wall was neither planned nor the result of negotiations, but was an accident. This is a dramatic account of the events that changed Berlin, Germany, Europe, and the world.


Good for Amy Poehler!

I recently started listening to the audiobook of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and I love it. Amy Poehler is a modern feminist heroine to me; she’s funny, passionate, and confident, not to mention extremely successful and hard-working. Her book offers a glimpse into her life--relationships, career, and motherhood—and exudes all the happy humor you’d expect from the SNL alumni and Parks and Recreation star. Her motto, “Good for her! Not for me,” has really stuck with me; it’s a great way of admiring and encouraging other women while still being kind and confident with one’s self.
If you’re a fan of Amy Poehler’s television shows or movies, or enjoyed Tina Fey’s Bossypants, give Yes Please a try. I highly recommend listening to it, as born-performer Amy Poehler reads it herself, along with guest stars such as Kathleen Turner, Patrick Stewart, and Carol Burnett.


For Lizzie freedom means learning

 In Lesa Cline-Ransome's book Freedom's School, one day mama told Lizzie and her brother Paul that they “went to sleep ‘slaves’ and woke up free”. Mama said that being free means you have to work harder. “Real freedom means ‘rithmetic and writing.”

Lizzie was eager to learn but it was hard for her and Paul to leave their mama and daddy working so hard in the crop fields. Getting to school was not easy and sometimes they had rocks thrown at them. The first school was burned down. Daddy remarked that “at least they got a little learnin”. Lizzie and mama didn’t answer “Cause they knew that halfway to freedom feels like no freedom”.

Well, Lizzie got her wish. One day mama woke them up and said hurry up and get dressed and we’ll go check on Mizz Howard. They got there to see men working on rebuilding the school and Mizz Howard was ready to start lessons. 


Gordon Parks

Carole Weatherford Boston has written many children’s books; this one, Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, is one of her best.   A teacher told her black students that they would all grow up to be waiters and porters, and Parks did do that work, but then he taught himself photography and the rest of the world opened up to him.  Elegant illustrations and lyrical text help to tell the story of his remarkable life.

 

 

 


How Rich People Roll

If you are expecting a book about how evil the new global rich are, then you will be sorely disappointed. Well, not quite. The book basically takes a middle-path. It's a fascinating in depth look at the lives and, more importantly, the worldviews of the new global rich (the .1% of the 1%). Do they fly around the world in private jets? Yes. Do they care about profit, expansion, the bottom line, global markets, and moving companies to India for cheaper work? Well, yes.

But the book does a good job trying to humanize these people. For example, how they think of themselves as "world citizens," not just "Americans." And how we can hate them for shipping jobs to India, but the fact remains that people are being pulled out of poverty because of it. And how many of them did not "come from wealth" - they earned it. And how all of them are workaholics (sure, from their private jet, but still).


The book with no pictures

A children’s book with no pictures, just words? Where’s the fun in that? Well, those words might make you say silly sounds, in strange voices. And you do have to read what’s on the pages, after all….

This deceptively simple, imaginative book is titled (appropriately enough) The book with no pictures, by B.J. Novak. It introduces children to the idea that written words have power, and that words can also provide fun and just plain silliness.


The Invention of Wings

One of my favorite reads during the long winter was Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which follows the relationship between Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a Charleston slave, and Sarah, the Grimke daughter who is given ownership of Handful for her 11th birthday. Told in alternating points of view between the two, the book follows each girl's individual growth into adulthood as well as their ever-changing relationships with each other and with their families, all in the setting of the 19th century South. Both antislavery and women's rights movements play prominently in this fast-moving but captivating narrative that chronicles an important time (and an important figure) in our country's history. 


West of Sunset

It has been many years since I have read one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books but I have read several historical novels in the past few years about him and/or his wife, Zelda. The most recent one, West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, was published in January.

O’Nan focuses on the last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, 1937 – 1940, as he is trying to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter. These were troubled years; his literary success is well behind him, he was abusing drugs and alcohol, Zelda was in and out of a hospital being treated for mental health issues, his finances were in ruins, and the world was on the brink of World War II.

Although the focus is on Fitzgerald, there is also the romance of Hollywood and the movies, the relationship with Ernest Hemingway and movie stars of the times, and his affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.

One reviewer referred to it as a “bittersweet portrait of the once-great novelist.” In the end it is almost heartbreaking to see Fitzgerald slip away.

This is a strong addition to the Fitzgerald historical fiction literature.

 


Chris Stein / Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk

All great rock n roll is about more than just the music. Think of any great rock band and you think about their “look” as a component of the overall feeling you get from them. The band that first illustrated this for me was Blondie. I remember my dad receiving the album Parallel Lines (yes, original vinyl from 1978) as part of one of those mail order record deals that were big at the time, and before the shrink wrap was even off I remember looking at that album cover and thinking “Wow, those guys look so cool in their black suits and who is that woman?” Since that day the notion that a band or artist looking cool adding something to the way you feel about the music has stuck. So when I saw that Blondie founding member Chris Stein had a new book of photographs taken mostly during the late seventies and early eighties – which is visually and musically an era that fascinates me – I was thrilled. The photographs do not disappoint and directly illustrates that visual element in rock n roll that I first felt when I saw the Parallel Lines cover.