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Staff Picks: Books

Girl Mans Up

Girl Mans Up is a teen book by M-E Girard about Pen, a girl who just doesn't fit in the way people want her to. She has to navigate the normal challenges of high school, which include supporting a new friend through an accidental pregnancy, figuring out her changing relationships with her guy friends, and dating for the first time. In addition, she is living the truth of her gender identity and sexuality, while fighting the intense disapproval of her traditional Portuguese parents and others at school and in public. Pen's honest, funny, and thoughtful perspective drew me into this novel, and the other characters were just as interesting. Pick Pen for your new favorite LGBTQ/teen protagonist.

Walking Through a World of Aromas

While preparing for a presentation on diversity in children's literature, I came across Walking through a world of aromas by Ariel Andres Almada.  What a delightful book.  It tells the story of Annie, a young girl that is vision-impaired.  Annie learns to overcome many obstacles and develops an ability to "smell" a world that she cannot see.  I am particularly impressed with the powerful, yet mellow illustrations.  This is a definite must read for preschoolers and early elementary school readers.

Perfume River

The Vietnam war, family secrets, marriage, and father-son relationships: Perfume River addresses all of the above and more...and my curiosity is piqued. Among reviews of this recent addition to our collection, Booklist calls it "thoughtful, introspective fiction of the highest caliber," while Kirkus declares it "a story that's both complex and meaningful." Finally, Publisher's Weekly says "the book speaks eloquently of the way the past bleeds into the present, history reverberates through individual lives, and mortality challenges our perceptions of ourselves and others." 

I'm adding it to my "to read" list. Maybe you will too...

The Serpent King

Jeff Zentner's The Serpent King is that rarest of young adult books; one about normal teens in a small town wasteland, quietly struggling with sadness and pain and the realization that darkness is part of many of us, hidden just below the surface. It's a book that doesn't sugarcoat the problems the characters face, but also doesn't exploit them- you can understand the quiet desperation and the need to make a change, if only you could just figure out how.

Lydia, Dillard and Travis are three friends united by their outsider statuses- Lydia for her outrageous fashion sense and smarts(not an easy thing in rural Tennessee, apparently), Travis by his love of a Game of Thrones-type fantasy world, Internet girlfriend, and ever-present wood staff, and Dill by his preacher father's horrific fall from grace and his family's long, dark past. The three form an unlikely triangle, with each holding up the others as they navigate the end of high school and the difficulties of rural life. Religion and faith play a large part in The Serpent King, but it's never trivialized or ridiculed, and it's a testament to first-time author Zentner's skills that he writes Dill's faith with sensitivity even in the face of powerful external forces.

The Serpent King is a powerful debut novel, and I can't wait to see where Mr. Zentner goes from here.

Banned Books Week --This One Summer

 Banned Books Week isn’t over yet, so here’s one more interesting, if controversial book to add to our blog discussion.


It’s no secret that I am a fan of graphic novels, and teen books, so it’s no surprise that I gravitated towards This One Summer written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her cousin Jillian Tamaki. This beautiful book was initially very well received, winning the 2015 Printz Honor Award for best teen book, based on literary merit, and the Caldecott award for its stunning illustrations.

However, earlier this year the book was banned at parents’ request in libraries in Minnesota and Florida for its profanity and mature themes. Honestly, most of the upset was probably due to misunderstanding. Because the book is a Caldecott winner, an honor usually bestowed upon children’s books, people probably read it, and took offense that the subject matter wasn’t suitable for let’s say their eight year old child.

The book follows two twelve year old girls spending the summer in a beach town. Standing right on the brink of adulthood, they encounter and discuss subjects that are happening in their life, and the lives around them. That includes puberty, crushes, sex, marital problems, miscarriage, and unwanted pregnancy.

It’s a shame that this book was banned, because it really is a lovely book, and the graphic novel format really amplifies the work with the idyllic setting being inked in shades of blue. It’s a great novel, and I hope you take the time to check it out.  

How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball writes the kind of novels that, while amazing and among my favorites, are often difficult to recommend to a lot of people. Not because they are of sub-par literary quality in any way, but because they are often experimental, hypnotic and seem intent on confounding the reader. Recommending a few of his titles to friends and family has made it clear that Ball really isn’t everyone’s “cup of tea”. But that may  change with his latest effort How to Set a Fire and Why. The book is a fair bit more accessible than his previous titles, but it is the narrative voice that Ball uses to give life to the books narrator Lucia that makes it a read that I feel more people would and should enjoy. Lucia is a high school aged, sharp-tongued straight talker very much in the tradition of Holden Caulfield. But Lucia is also a wannabe arsonist and potentially a real danger to society, yet her sense of humor and intelligence makes her immediately likable. Plus she spells out and follows a strict ethical code of her own design. Her circumstances are beyond tragic, but the boldness of Lucia’s wit and the power of her individuality ultimately assure you that despite the sad truth of her life, Lucia will survive. You may not go on to read more of Jesse Ball’s work, and that’s ok, but once you get to know Lucia you won't soon forget her and you won't put this book down.

Henna House

A few of my fellow KPL librarians decided to try a Reading Challenge this year just for the fun of it.  There are a ton of challenges out there but this is the one we’ve been using.   It’s been a great experience since it’s given us a chance to discover good books we otherwise would have avoided.  I was nervous about “The First Book You See in a Bookstore” challenge but the book I first laid eyes on has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.  Nomi Eve’s Henna House may have been on that bookstore’s bargain cart, but it was a hidden gem.  

The book follows the life of young Adela as she grows up in 1920s Yemen.  Her family is Jewish and her father’s health is failing.  If she is orphaned, she risks being taken by the Confiscator who will place her with a Muslim family, forcing her to give up her religion and her family ties.  Her parents desperately try to arrange a marriage for her, which would save her from the Confiscator’s grip, but misfortune keeps following poor Adela.  Despite her situation looking hopeless, she finds solace and acceptance in her aunt’s house where she learns the tradition of henna and develops a close friendship with her cousin, Hani.

Reading this book was a delight since it was easy to get swept away in Adela’s storytelling.  It’s as if she is taking her life story and turning it into a beautiful henna that weaves in all her joys and sorrow.  You also learn a lot about the traditions and history of the Yemenite Jewish population pre-World War II; it’s eye opening to see how their lives were affected even before the war began.  I’m grateful that my 2016 Reading Challenge allowed me to stumble across a great book that I otherwise may not have noticed.  This is why I’m challenging you- the next time you stop into KPL and pick up your copy of Henna House, also check out the first book you see in the library.  You may be surprised at what you find!

A Different Kind of Graphic Novel

Let’s talk about Here, a fascinating book by Richard McGuire. Classified as a graphic novel, it’s less of a comic book, and more of a subject study as the entire book never leaves the living room of McGuire’s childhood home. The book travels backward and forward in time, exposing ordinary events that happened in that very spot, almost like players wandering on and off the stage.

Things get interesting however, when little windows start to appear on the page. A woman in 1957 stops to try and remember why she walked into the room while a cat from the year 1999 saunters through. A baseball that crashes through the window in 1983 has no impact on the man trying to tie his shoe in 1991. The room begins to get crowded as people from the distant past, present, and future all begin to appear in these trans-temporal windows. As if something about the ordinary-seeming space has unraveled the space time continuum.

It’s a fun, and thought provoking book. After reading it, you can’t help but think about the people who stood where you are years before, and who will be here years after you’re gone.

The Bees

In her novel, The Bees, Laline Paull tells the story of the not-so-secret life of an actual bee, in the vein of the rabbits of Watership Down.

Based on the science of bee biology and behavior, the book looks at one bee as an individual--and so, daringly, does the character herself. Flora 717 is a worker bee but is physically different from others--a likely death sentence in the hive’s totalitarian society. But through a chance encounter, one of the “priestesses” who run the hive spares her, and Flora is afforded opportunities not normally available to her “kin” (all Floras are lowly sanitation workers). 

It isn’t clear whether her curiosity is another innate difference or is brought about her experiences, but one after another, Flora is allowed to perform many of the different roles of the hive. Her strength and intelligence contribute to her success, and she comes to the hive’s rescue in various crises.

Flora is not universally appreciated, however. The Sage priestesses in particular see her as a threat to their dominance, and she becomes a fugitive when she breaks the hive’s cardinal commandment through an involuntary action (based on a true natural phenomenon that occurs in one in 10,000 worker bees, according to an interview with Paull).

As in Watership Down, animals (and even plants) are personified without being entirely anthropomorphized. The Bees is a mix of reality and imagination: bees express human thoughts and emotions but communicate primarily through scent and vibration; they not only serve the queen but consider her fertility sacred and worship her in ceremonies of "devotion"; and the male drones are lesser characters in the operation of the hive but also provide comic relief through their self-important and bawdy conduct.

The Bees is a font of fascinating information about these social insects and also calls attention to the environmental threats to their survival, but it is also just a good read. Flora’s story is one that would be compelling regardless of her species, and it certainly made me think about bees differently!

Say Goodbye to Dietland

Plum Kettle is fat, and she doesn’t want to be. She spends her days in solitude, dreaming of the day she’ll be thin after her scheduled bariatric surgery and buying clothes for her future thin self—that’s when she’ll be happy and finally start living the life she wants. But there would be no story here if that’s what happened to Plum; instead, an encounter with a mysterious woman leads Plum to discovering an underground faction of fierce feminists who challenge how Plum sees herself and the whole wide world. The book jacket describes Dietland as “part coming-of-age story, part revenge fantasy,” is which absolutely a great description of this darkly funny, feminist novel.