I’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of contemporary story about high school and college sports. It involves programs where wealthy donors court spoiled players and break school and NCAA rules with impunity, where a jaded professional attitude infects even young players and every resource is put into creating stars. There are good and bad examples of this story, but it’s getting a bit familiar. In the end, I feel a little jaded after reading about another collection of athletes with disproportionately high opinions of themselves.
Muck City isn’t like those stories. It’s about Glades Central High School and a few other neighboring schools around Belle Glade, Florida, a place that is legendary for the athletes it produces on a regular basis (28 NFL players to date), but where there is no money to pour into the team. Belle Glade is a broken sugar town, a place where poverty, drugs, AIDS, violence, broken families, and unemployment are the rule, not the exception. Almost none of the players on the team have two-parent families. While Glades Central often wins or compete for state championships, its players are often in ragtag uniforms, drinking pickle juice on the sideline where other teams drink Gatorade, still playing both ways because the team can’t afford to travel a big squad.
Yes, the recruiters are after the Belle Glade kids, but Mealer’s book shows a squad driven as much by desperation as by fame. Football will be the only way out for most of these kids. Everyone in the community seems to have an opinion about how the team should be run, not just because they are sports-obsessed, but because the team is one of the few bright spots in a bleak place.
Mealer was given good access to the team and he uses it to good advantage, but focuses on half a dozen main characters. Quarterback Mario Rowley is a minor talent hiding major injuries, but through sheer force of will he competes for a college scholarship and to ease the memory of his dead parents. Jonteria Williams is a cheerleader trying to do something nobody at Glades Central does, make a better future through academics instead of football. Other players rise to the occasion, surprising their coaches and themselves, while at least one major talent falls prey to too much attention and not enough work ethic. Coach Jessie Hester, a former NFL player with his own demons, is trying to keep the team together while fending off a thousand second guesses and pressure to win at all cost.
And while other sports stories can turn into repetitive accounts of one game after another, leading inexorably to the big game that you know from the start the team will win, Mealer’s book is more about life, about what sports can solve and what they cannot solve. About the many tragedies that can befall those who live in the world’s forgotten places and the hard-won triumphs that occasionally can be scratched out. Yes, there are plenty of game accounts, but the real game here is life. That’s what makes Muck City a book not just for football fans, but for anyone who cares about the human drama.
Check the WRL catalog for Muck City
If you like writers as diverse as Joseph Heller, Neal Stephenson, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, or Charles Dickens, you’ll want to run to the novels of John le Carre’s son, Nick Harkaway. I can get away with that much name dropping in one sentence because Harkaway is that good.
His first novel, The Gone-Away World, takes place in a near future after some kind of event has left only a narrow band of land habitable, protected by the mysterious chemicals from a pipeline. In Harkaway’s tour de force first chapter, we discover that this pipeline has been breached and the refinery that fills it is aflame. A misfit crew of mercenaries, including the unnamed narrator and his lifelong friend Gonzo Lubitsch, is asked by a powerful bureaucrat to fix the problem.
After that, the story alternates between exploring the narrator’s adventures in the present and the past. Slowly, we discover the twisty story of how the world came to an end, how the narrator was rendered unreal, and how he attempts to recover his life. This plot is impossible to condense, but the astonishing thing is that although this story is halfway in fantasy, halfway in reality, half serious and half parody, and loaded with characters like pirates, ninjas, and mimes, in the end it all makes a perfectly bizarre kind of sense. There are plot twists you won’t see coming in a million years, enough eccentrics to populate a small country, and enough madcap but spot-on social observations to make every page an adventure.
This is a dense read. Expect a challenge. But whether you enjoy science fiction, literary fiction, or humor, I think you’ll find it truly rewarding, a book that’s worth the effort for vivid style, biting social commentary, audacious metaphors, and imaginative world building. Don’t expect a standard post-apocalyptic dystopia, expect a weird, bumpy ride through a surreal landscape. Strap in and enjoy!
Check the WRL catalog for The Gone-Away World
Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.
I was a little late jumping on the bandwagon of The Fault in Our Stars. I’m usually not one to read what is popular, but rather what appeals to me content-wise. There was about a 10% chance that I would read a book about cancer, and less so one about kids with cancer. As many people have been touched by the hands of cancer, it still is a difficult subject to think about and talk about, let alone read about.
This was my second venture into listening to audiobooks, as I felt a greater sense of story while listening to Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater than the first time I read it. So I felt that I should try The Fault in Our Stars in audio book format, as I could multi-task while listening.
However, John Green’s words had other plans for me.
The Fault in Our Stars was engaging and witty, sharp-tongued and unique. I adored the way Augustus called her “Hazel Grace” instead of just “Hazel.” I was surprised with the sincerity that John Green wrote Hazel’s character, and the honesty of Augustus’s life and metaphors. There was a true appreciation of young adults in this novel that is hard to find, and John Green does it perfectly. He wrote two extremely smart teenagers that were realistic and three-dimensional. Young adults are the intellectuals of our generation. They feel everything and say what they mean with earnestness. This book tore at my emotions, something books rarely do for me, and I do think that this was enhanced by the wonderful performance given by narrator Kate Rudd.
This was the very first book I’ve read/listened to by John Green, and I can’t be more excited for the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars to be released in June 2014.
Check the WRL catalog for The Fault in Our Stars
Or check out the audiobook
Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always is a unique children’s book written and illustrated by Tao Nyeu. Squid and Octopus are friends for always! Even when the pair disagrees about whether they should wear mittens or socks on chilly days or they are feeling glum, they always cheer each other up. Nyeu writes about the friendship of Squid and Octopus as four short stories in one book. This makes it a great book to break up into short segments or to read all the stories at once. Given the structure of this book, it makes it a fine book for preschoolers and school-aged children.
Not only does Nyeu write four stories to celebrate Squid and Octopus’ friendship, but she also does beautiful, colorful illustrations with water-based ink and colored pencil that capture the Squid and Octopus’ endearing nature.
Read Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always to discover the tales of Squid and Octopus! You are sure to fall in love with this duo, too.
Check the WRL catalog for Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always.
James Garfield is an American president most don’t know more about than that he fell victim to an assassin. That’s a shame, because unlike so many of our presidents, whose lives stand up poorly to scrutiny, Garfield was a truly admirable man. If you read Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, you’re guaranteed to finish with a much better knowledge of a great American and the times in which he lived.
The book begins at the Republican convention of 1880, and reading about it will make readers understand how completely the political process has changed. Garfield is there to give the nominating speech for his fellow Ohio Senator John Sherman, the major competitor to the machine-backed Ulysses Grant. His speech is so good, that when the convention is deadlocked between the other two candidates, the little known Garfield sneaks onto a few ballots as a compromise choice. With each ballot, his support grows, until despite Garfield’s stunned objection, he finds himself the Republican nominee for President. Back then it was considered distasteful to stump for oneself much, so Garfield returned to his Ohio farm for the duration of the election, where he indulged his love of books, learning, farming, and family while others campaigned on his behalf.
Soon Garfield was President, but not without enemies. The powerful Roscoe Conkling, whose candidate Grant had been beaten by Garfield wanted someone his political machine could control. He even managed to get his stooge, Chester Arthur, a man with no real qualifications, on the ballot as Garfield’s VP. More dangerous to Garfield was the deranged Charles Guiteau, a failed commune dweller, lawyer, street preacher and writer, who was convinced that his support of Garfield during the election entitled him to an important appointment. When that wasn’t forthcoming, Guiteau started hearing voices that told him to shoot Garfield, and even imagined that he would be made a hero after he did it.
The book isn’t just about Garfield. It’s just as much about the medical practices of the time, and the lack of support for antiseptic techniques that killed Garfield more slowly and surely than Guiteau’s bullet. It’s about Alexander Graham Bell and his feverish attempt to create an invention that would locate the bullet in Garfield’s body exactly. It’s about the now hard-to-fathom practices that allowed a US President to travel without accompaniment or much attention in public. The pages are full of fascinating minor characters and detail that brings this little known period of history to vivid life.
Pair this with Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, another look at the unknown details of presidential assassination or Millard’s other great work of popular history, River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.
Check the WRL catalog for Destiny of the Republic
What if you built a machine that could receive messages from the future? What messages would you like to receive? Probably your first answer would be winning lottery numbers. But what if, along with the winning numbers, you also received an SOS? Tane and Rebecca receive just such a message, and they sent it to themselves. Something horrific is about to happen to their New Zealand home, and they must decipher their own messages to stop it. They follow the directions they receive to the best of their ability, but they still don’t know exactly what they’re up against. Early attempts to carry out their instructions don’t go exactly as planned, and when the threat does become clear, it might be too late.
A mist has begun moving South through New Zealand. At first, it is centered mostly over farmland, wilderness, and uninhabited land. The first reports from populated areas indicate that it rolled in without warning and then began to thicken. It moves at no consistent rate of speed and moves against the wind. The transmissions end there, and when backup is sent in, they are also never heard from again. Everyone who encounters the mist seems to simply disappear. If this is the danger Tane and Rebecca warned themselves of, how will they ever be able to stop it?
Falkner has written a suspenseful science fiction horror story that kept me turning the pages. While the reasoning behind the creation of the mist seems a bit heavy handed, I suppose that there had to be some sort of back-story for the “villain” of the piece. I won’t give it away, but it works as well as any for this type of sci-fi thriller.
Check the WRL catalog for The Tomorrow Code
Dinosaurs as pets?! Yessiree, the little boy in Natasha Wing’s How to Raise a Dinosaur convinces you that dinosaurs make great pets. In this fun to read children’s book, you can learn how to pick out the right size dinosaur and all the important things you need to take care of a dinosaur. For example, did you know that dinosaurs need to eat 10 times a day, and they need to be walked 5 times a day?
Find out what else you need to know in order to take care of a dinosaur by reading How to Raise a Dinosaur!
Preschoolers and school-aged children will love this interactive book as the author has included flaps for the children to lift. Illustrator Pablo Bernasconi does an incredible job with his colorful illustrations that are sure to keep children entertained and laughing.
Check the WRL catalog for How to Raise a Dinosaur.
I’m the kind of hardcore theater devotee that reads the scripts of plays as pleasure reading. Sure, I’d rather see a good production, but given the economics of modern theater, if you don’t live in a large city where there is enough demand that theater companies can draw an audience with some new or lesser-known plays, you most likely won’t get to see many of these shows on stage.
Besides, plays make for good reading. The time limits of the stage mean that a play is a quick read, something one can squeeze into a day if need be. I enjoy playing the game of imagining which of my favorite actors would be good in the roles as I read them. Even more fun, reading a play is an invitation to project yourself into the role of actor, even if you’d never go near a stage in real life. Plays are full of cracking good dialogue, meaty conflict, and even the heavy dramas often contain real belly laughs.
So it is with Seminar, a play headlined first by Alan Rickman then by Jeff Goldblum a couple of years ago on Broadway. Four aspiring young writers have pooled their money to schedule a private seminar from a literary icon, an event held at one of their homes. In her preface, playwright Theresa Rebeck notes that part of her pleasure in writing this play was to create a chance for an older actor take some younger actors to school. The writer Leonard is sour, used up, and manipulative, but one can’t help but stifle a nasty laugh at the way he finds the vanities and insecurities of the pretentious students and dissects them after reading a few sentences of their writing. He doesn’t have their best interests in mind and uses them in every way imaginable, but in the end, each learns something valuable from the contact.
If you’ve ever shaken your head at some of the blowhards that seem to populate the world of modern literary fiction, I think you’ll enjoy the way that Leonard puts a pin in the pomp of these four young writers while facing his own demons. Give this Seminar a look.
Check the WRL catalog for Seminar
I enjoy the work of children’s book author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, particularly his 1984 book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. This is not your average children’s picture book; instead, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a series of 14 exquisitely detailed, black and white illustrations, each accompanied by an enigmatic title and caption. Alternately whimsical and haunting, the illustrations in this book inspired me (and countless other readers) to invent stories to explain what was going on in the pictures. Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit a cherished part of my childhood by reading The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, an illustrated short story collection in which 14 authors, including Stephen King and his wife Tabitha King, Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, and Cory Doctorow, have contributed stories inspired by the illustrations in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
All of the stories are original to the collection with the exception of Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street,” which originally appeared in his 1993 book Nightmares & Dreamscapes. The stories themselves are not linked by any recurring characters or situations, so readers shouldn’t feel that the stories need to be read in any specific order. Like Van Allsburg’s illustrations, each story has its own unique tone and style; some are dark, like Jules Feiffer’s “Uninvited Guests,” while others, such as Louis Sachar’s “Captain Tory,” are sweet and poignant.
One of my favorite stories in the collection was M.T. Anderson’s “Just Desert,” the tale of a boy named Alex who, on the eve of his 10th birthday, discovers that nothing in his world is as it appears. I felt the authors did a fine job of capturing the surreal atmosphere found in Van Allsburg’s illustrations. Lemony Snicket’s introduction is also a real hoot.
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a good, quick read that should appeal to readers who grew up intrigued by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
Check the WRL catalog for The Chronicles of Harris Burdick
Check the WRL catalog for The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is as heart-wrenching as you’d expect from a book about a deadly disease, but it is also a majestically hopeful story because of its descriptions of the great strides in treatment. Practicing oncologist and researcher, Siddhartha Mukherjee, covers the vast sweeping history of cancer and its treatment, while focusing on a huge range of real people who played a role in cancer’s study, research and burgeoning cures. He always comes back to real individuals with cancer whom he has treated or studied and how their own struggles with their own disease are impacted by improvements in treatment. This is definitely a book about a disease but Siddhartha Mukherjee comes across as a deeply humane man writing a deeply humane book.
The earliest mention of cancer that the book talks about is a quote from scroll written by the Ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep over 4000 thousand years ago. The scroll gives a perfect description of breast cancer, but unfortunately for breast cancer sufferers from that time up until recently Imhotep concluded that there was nothing that could be done to help. Two centuries ago the standard treatment became a mastectomy without an anesthetic which is horrible to even contemplate. Today a range of options including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation mean a much higher survival rate.
Siddhartha Mukherjee points out that cancer is actually more than one disease and survival rates for some forms of the disease have improved rapidly, while others haven’t changed much. One joyful and astonishing story is the treatment of some common forms of childhood leukemia which went from a 5-year survival rate of less than 10% in the 1960s to a 5-year survival rate of over 90% today.
The Emperor of All Maladies is very readable and extremely compelling. It won the Pulitzer Prize for non fiction in 2011. Unless you are an oncologist be prepared to learn a lot from this 500-page epic of human ingenuity in overcoming a horrible disease that has caused untold suffering. I learned some astonishing facts, for instance that a chemical similar to mustard gas, the World War I trench horror, is used in chemotherapy.
As you’d expect from a reliable scientific book, The Emperor of All Maladies includes extensive notes with references, a glossary and an index. It also has some black and white photographs and drawings of notable people, events and procedures in the fight against cancer. The Emperor of All Maladies is a good choice if you like Oliver Sacks for his deep compassion for the people he treats and his profound knowledge of his area of expertise.
Check the WRL catalog for The Emperor of All Maladies.
“Hi, Pizza Man!” by Virginia Walter, with illustrations by Ponder Goembel, was inarguably the biggest hit of the pizza-themed toddler storytime I led last spring. My listeners loved the story’s humor and frequent opportunities for audience participation. Since then, I have read this book to a variety of groups, and it has never let me down. At the beginning of the story, young Vivian and her mother are waiting for a pizza to be delivered to their house. Every page spread in the book features a view of the same room in Vivian’s house, with her front door (sometimes closed, sometimes open) always appearing on the right-hand page. To pass the time while they wait, Vivian’s mother asks her what she’ll say when the doorbell rings and she opens the door. The girl’s answer is, “Hi, Pizza Man!” These words are accompanied by a picture of a man standing in the open doorway, holding a pizza box. On the next page, the door is closed again, and Vivian’s mother asks, “What if it’s not a pizza man? What if it’s a pizza woman? Then what will you say?” The answer, of course, is “Hi, Pizza Woman!” and is accompanied by an illustration of an elegant woman delivering a pizza. Vivian’s mother then invites her to imagine a variety of comically-dressed animals delivering the pizza. Vivian plans to greet each animal by making its sound. For example, to the cat wearing a top hat and cape, she’ll say, “Meow meow, Pizza Kitty!” This book offers listeners lots of opportunities to practice waving and making animal sounds to greet each imaginary pizza deliverer. At the end of the story, the doorbell rings. The pizza has arrived, and the reader finally gets to find out which person or animal is delivering Vivian’s dinner. This book’s silly humor appeals to young children. Animals don’t deliver pizza or wear fancy clothing, so it’s funny to see them doing these things in the story. “Hi, Pizza Man!” is a great read-aloud for toddlers and preschoolers, either in a group or one-on-one. I plan to read this sure-fire winner to many young listeners in 2014.
Check the WRL catalog for “Hi, Pizza Man!”
Talmadge is a lonely man, living quietly in his orchard, enjoying the quiet rhythms of the seasons and nursing the loss of his mother and the unexplained disappearance of his sister decades earlier. When two feral and visibly pregnant girls steal fruit from his market stall, he is intrigued rather than angry. Talmadge manages to befriend the girls, but only on their own terms. He shelters the girls and tries to protect them from imminent danger, but an evil man appears from their past with shockingly tragic consequences.
A powerful story, deep and quietly told, The Orchardist entraps the reader into its world. First time novelist Amanda Coplin breaks tradition by leaving out quotation marks, and telling some events from multiple viewpoints, and she succeeds in creating a compelling novel that exquisitely captures a time (around 1900) and a place (the Pacific Northwest). But she most effectively captures the lives of ordinary individuals caught in extraordinary circumstances. The Orchardist is a moving portrait of people who are damaged but who remain remarkably resilient. The characters, like real people, would be better off if they could put the past behind them, but also like real people, some of them cannot forgive and they must survive however they can.
Try The Orchardist if you like to get caught up in a sweeping historical novel with hardship and misfortune, but also with burgeoning hope, such as The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman or Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks .
I listened to part of The Orchardist and I highly recommend Mark Bramhall’s reading as his gravelly voice captured Talmadge’s gruff personality and the slow unfolding melancholy of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist.
Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist on CD.
Emerson can see dead people. Or, to be more precise, she can see people from the past. Sometimes they are easy to identify—the Scarlett O’Hara wannabe in the hoop skirt was easy to peg—but others look just like the living. It’s not until she brushes against them, or tries to interact with them, that she realizes they aren’t really there. It has become especially problematic now that more and more of the past is bleeding into her present. Where she would once see only individuals, now objects and entire scenes from the past are visible. Emerson’s visions began just before the tragic death of her parents, and now her brother and legal guardian Thomas is determined to find Emerson some help. She’s tried shamans, psychics, therapists, and nothing has worked. When she is heavily medicated the hallucinations stop, but she can’t function in that zombified state forever.
Enter Michael, a consultant from The Hourglass, who Thomas has hired to work as Emerson’s mentor. Michael is surprisingly unfazed by Emerson’s visions, and even has terminology for the things she can see. He calls them Rips, short for Ripples, and is adamant that The Hourglass can help her. Michael is slow to reveal his secrets, but Emerson soon realizes that Thomas’s hiring of Michael wasn’t exactly coincidental. She (and her ability) would be extremely useful to Michael’s latest project.
Hourglass is the first in a series, and I’m looking forward to reading more stories set in the world McEntire has created. She spends a bit of time setting up the rules that her characters must live by, and dropping hints for future novels, but succeeded in leaving me wanting more. There is enough going on that McEntire could have left out one of the romantic rival sub-plots (which has hopefully been permanently resolved) but that ultimately amounts to only a minor annoyance.
Check the WRL catalog for Hourglass.
The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, by Josh Hanagarne
This sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.
At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.
Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.
Don’t assume this is a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”
Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.
Little Chicken & Little Fox by Brigitte Sidjanski, with lovely illustrations by Sarah Emmanuelle Burg, is a sweet story of compassion and friendship. When winter arrived this year, I was excited to pull this book off the shelf and add it to my stack of storytime selections. At the beginning of the story, Little Chicken is snuggled in her nest inside a warm chicken coop when she hears a tapping at the door. It is poor Little Fox, who is lost and freezing out in a snowstorm. The other chickens are afraid to let Little Fox enter the coop because foxes eat chickens, but Little Chicken decides to jump out the window and help him find shelter for the night. The next day the two friends set off to find Little Fox’s parents. Though the animals they meet along the way remind Little Chicken that it’s dangerous to spend time with a fox, she nonchalantly ignores these warnings, feeling she can’t abandon her companion. Readers will be very curious to find out whether Little Fox is a true friend, or whether he is leading Little Chicken into a trap.
Sidjanski keeps the story lively through the use of lots of dialogue and frequent setting changes. On their journey, Little Chicken and Little Fox meet a variety of animals, including wild pigs and a badger. When I read this book aloud to groups, I enjoy inviting my listeners to identify the more unusual animals. The tale isn’t especially humorous, but last time I read it aloud some of my listeners laughed at a few plot events, including Little Chicken jumping on top of a deer’s head. Little Chicken & Little Fox has some exciting parts, but overall it’s a quiet, heartwarming tale. This book could be effectively used for contrast during a read-aloud session filled with more boisterous stories. Burg’s soft illustrations were created using pencil and watercolors. The animals are very appealing and expressive. Burg’s fuzzy outlines and color choices make some of the illustrations quite low-contrast. This characteristic of the pictures means that they might be difficult for very young children to see clearly. I recommend this story as a group read-aloud for kindergarten and up. It could also work well with one preschooler, or with a group of preschoolers with abridgment of the wordier pages. Since it is set in a snowy landscape but does not mention any holidays, this sweet story is a great read-aloud all winter long.
Check the WRL catalog for Little Chicken & Little Fox.
On the arresting cover of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil we see one chubby baby’s arm labelled “Good” and the other labelled “Evil”. Like many people, I instinctively feel that babies as young as those pictured can’t be described as “good” or “evil,” no matter how annoying their habits, because their moral sense isn’t developed. I certainly feel older people can have these labels, so is the moral sense of older children and adults learned (Nurture) or innate (Nature)? This debate may never be completely settled but developmental psychologist and author Paul Bloom argues that “some aspects of morality come naturally to us.”
Paul Bloom is a working scientist and has performed numerous experiments and published several scientific papers designed to tease out the moral behavior of those who can not yet talk. He broadly concludes that babies of around six months feel empathy and compassion, have a sense of fairness, and are capable of judging the actions of others. He is not doing this as a parlor trick (see, I can upset a baby by pretending to be hurt) but because ”an appreciation of the moral natures of babies can ground a new perspective on the moral psychology of adults.” He adds that “moral deliberation is ubiquitous” and all societies create a formal and informal moral code. Many observers over millennia have noted that “people everywhere have a natural disapproval toward actions such as lying, breaking a promise, and murder.” He then argues that the circumstances under which the great human capacity for kindness can turn into a terrible human capacity for horror occur when people assign other people to categories, and then decide that some categories are deserving of compassion and some are not. As travel, migration and communication have developed, many people are learning compassion for an ever widening circle, and Bloom asserts that this is a wonderful thing.
Paul Bloom concludes his book with a chapter called “How to be Good,” in case you were wondering how to achieve this. Babies have a strong desire to “be good” and see others around them being good, but so do adults although we usually express it a more sophisticated way. He points out that many real life moral challenges have no clear cut right answer, but if we are aware that some of our moral reasoning is innate, but that most importantly, we can use our reason and judgement as well to expand and reveal our full humanity because ”our enhanced morality is the product of human interaction and human ingenuity.”
Try Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil if you are interested in the intersection of science, social science, and everyday behavior, such as in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by the popular Malcolm Gladwell. It is also a good choice if you are fascinated with questions of justice, retribution and meaning in books like Man’s Search for Meaning. Or just read it for a well-written, very readable book written by a real scientist explaining his own life work.
Check the WRL catalog for Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
A teenage girl shoplifts a too-tight, red, sleeveless turtleneck from Walmart. Immediately afterwards, the only adult in her life (who turns out not to be her mother or official stepmother) drops dead in the checkout line. This roller-coaster start sets the tone for this stirring tale of Lutie and her young brother, Fate, as they struggle to survive alone.
The plot bounds along as appalling events follow closely one after another. The children end up living on the streets of Las Vegas where they are prey to a parade of unsavory characters who seem to offer a helping hand but really want to exploit them. Teenage Lutie is often flawed, sometimes to the point of not being likable, but I realized that she has adult responsibilities without any help or guidance. Ultimately, she knows she loves her shy, bookish brother and wants to do what is best for him. A series of plot twists and turns ensue including Lutie’s forays into child prostitution and drugs. I found this very plausible and and also very disturbing.
Lutie and Fate’s desperate situation and downward spiraling luck drew me into their story, but I found it increasingly difficult to believe that they would ever extricate themselves from the mess their lives had become. Readers of Billie Letts’ other novels, such as the popular Where the Heart Is, know that she leans towards tearjerking but heartwarming endings, and Made in the U.S.A. follows that pattern. Who knows, maybe some of the exploitative strangers are genuinely kind? And maybe Lutie will find a practical use for her gymnastic talents?
This book is for you if you like a fast-paced, human interest novel with strong, quirky characters, that shows the dark side of life but ultimately has a joyous ending. I was glad that their story ended how life should proceed rather than what often happens to the many real Luties and Fates alone and lost on city streets.
Check the WRL catalog for Made in the U.S.A.
I guess you think you know this story.
You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.
These are the first lines of Roald Dahl’s retelling of Cinderella, but it applies to all his Revolting Rhymes. They are all familiar stories with characters such as Jack climbing his beanstalk or Goldilocks breaking into the bears’ house, but as readers of Roald Dahl’s acclaimed children’s books know – he never sugar coats the nastier aspects of life.
With wonderful rollicking rhythm and Roald Dahl’s hallmark mastery over words, Revolting Rhymes is full of quotable tit-bits. My family has been quoting them for over twenty years. I am not sure what it says about us that one of our most quoted lines is, “She beat the boy for half an hour, with (and nothing could be meaner) the handle of a vacuum cleaner” from Jack and the Beanstalk.
All the old favorites are here including Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. In these retellings the hero isn’t always who we assumed it was. Goldilocks is described as a “brazen little crook” because after all she does break into a stranger’s house, steal their food and break their furniture. The morals of these stories might not be what you expect either. Which one of these well-known tales do you suppose has the moral of “A bath he said does seem to pay. I’m going to have one every day” or “Which shows that gambling’s not a sin. Provided that you always win”?
These are great read-aloud poems for all ages. I read them with great enjoyment (on both sides) to my children for years. Before I had children I read them to the residents of a continuing care home where I worked. Even those who were confused seemed to enjoy the readings. They are familiar stories and these versions are fast, punchy and funny. Try Revolting Rhymes for something light and humorous to be shared among the generations these cold winter days.
Check the WRL catalog for Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes
Boo and Baa Have Company by Lena and Olof Landström is charming picture book filled with droll humor. The story is translated from Swedish, and stars Boo and Baa, a male and female sheep whose good intentions get them into sticky situations. Other books featuring these characters include Boo and Baa in Windy Weather, Boo and Baa at Sea, and Boo and Baa on a Cleaning Spree. In Boo and Baa Have Company, the two sheep are raking leaves when they notice a cat sitting on a high tree branch. Believing that the cat is afraid to climb down, Boo and Baa try various methods to tempt it from the tree. Their attempts to help go awry, leading to slapstick humor in the illustrations paired with deadpan humor in the text. Boo and Baa eventually decide that maybe the cat prefers to be in the tree, and they go inside and go to sleep. At the end of the story, only the reader sees that the cat has climbed in through the window and fallen asleep on the rug in the sheep’s bedroom.
Boo and Baa Have Company features colorful line drawings. Boo, Baa, and the cat are the only characters, and they all have very expressive faces and bodies. On some pages, the text describes exactly what is happening in the illustrations. For example, when Baa is greasing the axle of the wheelbarrow, the text reads, “She greases the axle.” This supportive relationship between image and text could be helpful for young readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of greasing an axle. On other pages, however, the spare text provides droll commentary on the action taking place. For example, one attempt to rescue the cat leaves Boo stranded in the tree. When Baa tries to use a rope to lower Boo to the ground, both sheep fly into the air and fall into a leaf pile. Instead of describing the action on these pages, the text simply reads, “Baa is lighter than Boo. She hasn’t eaten any sandwiches. It’s lucky there is a pile of leaves.” Text like this requires the reader to pay attention to the illustrations. When I read this book aloud to kindergarteners, I had several opportunities to invite the kids to describe what was happening in the story. These listeners especially enjoyed the spread where Baa is making a variety of “disgusting” sandwiches, including a cucumber sandwich and a sardine sandwich. I shared Boo and Baa Have Company at a fall-themed storytime. It was nice to have a book in which autumn is the setting but not the focus of the story. This funny book would work well year-round as a read-aloud for preschool and up.
Check the WRL catalog for Boo and Baa Have Company.
At the opening of this postapocalyptic novel, Sheriff Holston is walking up a spiral staircase to his death. For generations, his community has lived and died on the 144 levels of an underground silo, and Holston has just committed a capital crime—asking to go outside. Technically, it’s a suicide. Everyone knows the outside world is a toxic wasteland. Three years ago, on the big-screen monitors that show the surrounding desolation, Holston watched his wife die out there, and now he’s going to join her. Just like all the others who have been pushed out the airlock, he’s given a protective suit. It lasts just long enough for the condemned to do some silo cleaning and maintenance—for one thing, scrubbing the grimy outdoor camera lenses so that folks inside have a nice, unblurred view of your death. Now, why the condemned should care what’s shown on the big screens…that’s what Holston is about to find out.
My brother, who hasn’t read a book in dead-tree format since the invention of the smartphone, insisted that I read Wool, and read it immediately, sending it from his app to my app with a tap and a swipe. In a nutshell, that’s the success story of Wool. At the time author Howey first self-published the story direct to Kindle, Holston’s atmospheric, claustrophobic story was all there was to the Silo universe. But as word-of-mouth reviews drew more and more readers, Howey began to elaborate.
In later, serial-style installments, the search for a new sheriff takes the silo’s mayor and deputy down through the floors of the silo, through hydroponics and the nursery and IT to the mechanical levels. As they descend, readers learn more about how this society works, and doesn’t work, stratified both literally and by an inflexible class structure. With the appointment of a hardworking mechanic, Juliette, as the new sheriff, a longer story arc begins. An outsider from the bottom levels, Juliette shakes up the power struggles of the upper floors. She’s a character that readers rally behind, as she learns more about the factions governing the silo, especially on the IT level, which controls what’s left of the silo’s forgotten history on its closely-guarded servers.
The original, novella-length Kindle releases have been collected in omnibus print editions, starting with Wool and continuing with Shift and Dust. It’s a little bit old-school Twilight Zone, a little bit Shirley Jackson, a little bit Lost, without quite so many characters. With a compelling storyline and characters who you can root for, Wool should appeal to teens as well, and it fits right in with the current YA mania for dystopias. Plus you can get in on the ground floor—see what I did there?—before the inevitable movie.
Check the WRL catalog for Wool.