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Staff Picks: Books


This is a truly captivating book by acclaimed author and illustrator Katherine Roy who had previously written the very well received tome "Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California's Farallon Islands". Titled How to be an Elephant:Growing Up in the African Wild, this volume focuses on the anatomy, environment, family life and survival skills of a newly born elephant as she matures and becomes part of her herd. Roy vividly captures the way that these 7,000-pound giants live in the African savanna concentrating on the challenges that they face throughout their lifespans.

The accompanying large , earth-tone illustrations are stunning, and show the stages of elephant development, their bone structure, keen sense of smell, their very utilitarian trunks, their use of sounds to communicate, how they cool their bodies in hot weather, as well as several other fascinating elephant facts. These pictures are dynamic in their depiction of real elephant life, making them a wonderful, integral part of this book.

this title would be a great and meaningful addition to any library collection that serves early to middle elementary school kids. It would also be a great read for animal lovers of any age.


When a little girl comes home from school one day and asks her grandfather how to say something in his first language, Cree, he is sad because he cannot. Stolen Words, by Melanie Florence, is a recently published picture book that uses the modern-day relationship between a granddaughter and grandfather to tell the story of how residential schools systematically removed children from their families in order to replace their language and life ways. It conveys the great injustice that the residential schools perpetrated on native communities. With an optimistic and touching resolution, Stolen Words is a good introduction to the history of residential schools, a tool of European colonization established as institutions in North America and elsewhere.

As much as anything, Stolen Words helped me to appreciate another picture book about the Canadian residential schools: Shi-shi-etko by Interior Salish and Metis author Nicola I. Campbell. Shi-shi-etko, the title character, whose name means “she loves to play in the water," seems perhaps nervous but hopeful - “only one, two, three, four mornings left until I go to school”. The prose and pictures combine to portray a family’s loving efforts to help their daughter preserve her culture in the lead up to Shi-shi-etko being taken, by cattle truck, to residential school. This picture book, unlike Stolen Words, is set in the times when these schools existed, not looking back from contemporary times. The portrayal of a family doing what they can to persevere amidst the intentional misuse of power – racism – makes Shi-shi-etko a powerful book. Residential schools existed in the United States, too. How recently did the last residential school in Canada close? The answer, which is in the author’s introduction, might surprise you. 

National Book Award Winners

The winners of this year's National Book Awards were announced in a ceremony in New York last night.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen

Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart

Young People's Literature:
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

You can check out all the winners at KPL.


Autumn is one of four seasons--portions of the year which are distinguished from each other by particular characteristics of daylight, temperature, and weather. In autumn, the whole world seems to be preparing for restor death. The days grow shorter, the temperature cools, and plants and animals prepare for the cold months of winter. Wild animals migrate to warmer places or take on calories and build warm shelters, deciduous trees drop their leaves to conserve energy, and humans, who in this country call autumn “fall,” get out their warm clothes, turn on the furnace, and rake the fallen leaves from their yards.

Autumn is also a book by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, and the above paragraph is a feeble attempt to imitate his writing style. Autumn is a collection of short essays on a curious variety of topics: apples, plastic bags, infants, fever, lice, churches, dawn, and chimneys, to name a few. Most of the pieces consider natural and man-made things or physical experiences, but a few discuss more abstract concepts like loneliness and forgiveness or the works of particular writers or artists.

These pieces are presented as Knausgaard’s introduction to the world for his unborn daughter, and according to the book jacket, it is "the first of four volumes marveling at the vast, unknowable universe around us." Each piece describes its topic in precise details which I, for one, rarely ever think about. Some of Knausgaard’s observations are quite frank and disturbingly graphic, yet each piece eventually moves beyond concrete facts to the strange ways we relate to the thing being considered. For example, Knausgaard concludes an essay called "Vomit" (of which I confess I skimmed the beginning description) with a memory of a time when one of his children vomited, like this:

"… but it was neither disgusting or uncomfortable, on the contrary I found it refreshing. The reason was simple: I loved her, and the force of that love allows nothing to stand in its way, neither the ugly, nor the unpleasant, nor the disgusting, nor the horrific."

With his keen attention and the connections he makes between the mundane and the deeply personal, Knausgaard shows the very familiar things that make up daily life in a fresh and vivid light, in the same way that the world can look brand new just after an autumn rain.

More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers

Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s new book of short essays, reviews, introductions, and a hilarious, imagined interview between the filmmaker Spike Jonze and one of Lethem’s fictional characters, More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers will appeal to those who enjoy Lethem’s spirited, polygonal criticism and literary ephemera. Lethem’s enthusiasm for delving into the essence of the books and writers that have moved him over the years is infectious from the first essay onward and will inspire readers to seek out the authors and books discussed. His reflexive, stylistic musings, collected over the course of a decade, engage with both the canon (Kafka, Melville, Dickens) and the lesser known (Steven Millhauser, Vivian Gornick, Thomas Berger), the long ago, dead authors (Bernard Malamud and Philip K. Dick) and those still working and alive (Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Kazuo Ishiguro).


I love science fiction. I love the sleek spaceships and visiting other worlds.  I love  imagining how current trends may impact future society. But the stories being told in this genre are so limited.  Think of the last science fiction movie you saw, or saw advertised. Who was the main character? Was it a man? Did he have blue eyes? Was his name Chris? Yeah, I thought so. Why is it that when we get the chance to travel off planet, we’re always stuck with the same guy who can only classify aliens into two categories: the ones who look like supermodels in tight spandex, and the ones who don’t?  


There are so many aspects of space travel that have yet to be explored, and stories that can only be explored by people who aren’t Chris. That is why Binti by Nnedi Okorafor is so refreshing.  Binti is the story of a girl from the Himba tribe in northern Namibia. She sneaks off in the night to catch a ride on the spaceship heading off to Oomza University, where she’s been accepted to complete her studies. Her plans are violently interrupted when aliens board and attack the ship.


Coming in at a succinct 97 pages, this story is gripping and fast paced. It is the mark of a master to guide the reader from point A to point B with no excess frills, or empty exposition. To pull that off in science fiction, a genre known for elaborate world building and description is incredible. Winner of the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and finalists for many others, this is one space adventure you do not want to miss.


What Is Hip-Hop?

I absolutely LOVE THIS BOOK!  Beautifully written in rhyme, it provides younger children with a great introduction to the history of Hip Hop music.  Anny Yi's amazing 3-D clay art form kept me laughing all the way through.  From DJ Cool Herc to LL Cool J, Flava Flav to De La Soul, Salt-N-Pepa to Eminem… I really enjoyed this trip down memory lane and seeing all the Hip Hop artists represented.  Anyone who grew up on Hip Hop will want to read this picture book.  Listen here to author Eric Morse as he talks about his exposure to Hip Hop music and writing this wonderful book.  


Another Masterpiece by Coates

I would say Ta-Nehisi Coates is a reincarnation of James Baldwin, and no doubt he would take it as a compliment, but I think it does a disservice to his unique brilliance at writing. He doesn't write to simply inform. As he says, he wants to leave the reader haunted by his words. Indeed. He is arguably the greatest African American writer to ever live and - with comics and screenplays coming - he's very much in his prime. And I only say "African American writer" because he chooses to write about race - that's his beat and he does it so powerfully well.

The title - We Were Eight Year in Power - has a double meaning. After the Civil War, in the South, for a brief period of eight years, American was able to witness "negro government" for the first time. And it was good - schools were built, institutions established, jails were built, education provided, ferries rebuilt. White supremacy put an end to that, reconstruction failed in the South, and Du Bois knew why: "If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more that bad Negro government, it was good Negro government." With the election of Donald Trump, the parallels are obvious.

Although most of the book contains essays you may have read in the Atlantic (e.g. "The Case for Reparations"), the book is well worth it. Before each easy, Ta-Nehisi offers great commentary about his life at the time and what he thought of the piece and how it relates to today.

In regards to his writing style, two things leap off the page. For him, the history of racism is extremely physical and violent. No euphemisms here. Second, his atheism influences his thought and writing tremendously. "Nobody will save us." The story is constant struggle and valiant suffering. People call him overly pessimistic; I would say he looks at history bravely and fiercely.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, Literary Treasures

I find it hard to believe that it has been 26 years since the Kalamazoo Public Library gave up its card catalog in favor of an online catalog. This means that a fairly large segment of the population has no memory of this iconic entity. As do a few others on the staff here at the library, I remember well the days of walking to the card catalog from the desk to determine whether we owned a certain book or not. While I would never want to return to this method of library service, I did enjoy looking at this 2017 book produced by the Library of Congress. In it are five chapters: 1) Origins of the Card Catalog, 2) The Enlightened Catalog, 3) Constructing a Catalog, 4) The Nation's Library and Catalog, and 5) The Rise and Fall of the Card Catalog. There are lots of illustrations, not only of the furniture, but also individual cards as well as photographs of original book jackets to go along with the cards depicted. I loved seeing covers of books such as those for To Kill a Mockingbird, The Cat in the Hat, Charlotte's Web, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and many others. This book evokes nostalgia for the past as well as gratitude for the present.

Meatless? A Fresh Look at What You Eat

When I talk to others about being vegan, I always say that it's not for everyone, but it is for me. It has worked for me for the past 6 years. Meatless? A Fresh Look at What You Eat takes a similar approach; it's not for everyone, and that's okay. We don't have to compare ourselves to each other, and what is healthy and comfortable for one person may not be for another. 

Author Sarah Elton offers a brief history of meat eating and explains why people consider a flexitarian, vegetarian, or vegan diet, including cultural, religious, and environmental reasons. She shares ideas about how to adopt a new way of eating if the reader wants to try it. The book's tone is non-judgmental and informative. It doesn't attempt to persuade, scare, or guilt readers into limiting or removing animal products from their diets. Adults may modify their eating habits to lose weight or improve their health, or to test out a new trend (Beyoncé did it, right?). Kids may simply be curious. If so, this book is a great resource.