It was a busy week on my blog:
- I shared my Top 10 Reading Goals for 2015
- I listed my Top 20 Picture Books published in 2014
- I reviewed my reading year and selected the Top 14 Books of 2014
- I reviewed my blogging year and posted my 5 most popular posts and my personal 3 favorite posts
- I committed to a few reading challenges and a #MustReadin2015 list
- I made a #nerdlution
- I celebrated making it through the holidays
- I curated some good stuff online
It was a busy reading week too, at least until December 31 at 11:59 pm, when I finished my 200th book of 2014. Then I proceeded to start a whole lot of new books and not make very much progress in anything.
I’ll be honest: I thought I could resist the charms of Counting by 7s. I didn’t find the voice in the early chapters very believable, and in fact, the whole scenario strained credulity for me. What are the chances that one girl could lose two families? Please let them be very small. Because this is my personal nightmare as an adoptive mom. Nothing, absolutely nothing, terrifies my son as much as the thought of losing me; consequently, nothing terrifies me as much as the thought of being lost to him. Bit by bit, this story reeled me in. I loved the main character, Willow, and I especially loved all of the secondary characters, who are well-developed, interesting, and surprising. (Though I wish Willow’s parents had been more developed; I found it hard to miss them or grieve for their loss except in an abstract way because I barely knew them.) I thought this was going to be a story about grieving for a loss, and it is, but it’s also the story of finding our people and a way to be in the world. This was one of two final titles I completed on my #MustReadin2014 list.
Ask the Passengers was the final title I completed for the #MustReadin2014 challenge, which brought my grand total to 13/15. I really liked this book at the beginning, but as I continued to read, it began to wear on me. I think it’s an important book–I think all of A.S. King’s books are important books–but it went on a bit too long for me. I want to go buy Astrid Jones an ice cream cone and introduce her and Kristina and Dee and Justin and Chad to the It Gets Better Project.
Shannon Hale and Dean Hale’s easy reader chapter book, The Princess in Black, is every bit as delightful as everyone has been saying it is. Finally! A main character who’s a princess AND a superhero! There is so much potential for fun sequels here.
I read Sounder for one reason: it was the shortest Newbery Medal winner that I hadn’t already read. (I made a valiant last-minute effort to complete my Newbery goal for the year. Finished 11 of 12–and only got that many read because I decided that Honor books count). I can’t say that Sounder is a bad book exactly. It’s tightly written, atmospheric, and thematically rich. But it’s problematic. First, there are serious issues with the representation of race. William Armstrong is a white author writing about a black sharecropping family in the South. He chooses not to give names to any members of the black family he’s writing about. Only Sounder has a name. I assume he thought he was making the story more universal by calling the main character “the boy,” but I found it off-putting and offensive. The book is also bleak, bleak, bleak. What happens to the boy’s father (“the man”) is really horrible: his family is starving, so he steals a ham, which lands him in jail and then doing hard labor for YEARS as punishment. And since it’s a Newbery and there’s a dog on the cover, you can probably also already guess that the dog dies. I don’t believe in spoiler alerts when it comes to dead dogs in fiction: I’m just telling you straight out that the dog dies. Only it’s worse than you think because FIRST, the dog has to get shot by horrible racist brutes and it’s a very VERY grisly scene, and then he’s horribly maimed for the rest of his long life, which he spends waiting patiently for his master to return home. The master does eventually return–ALSO MAIMED–and then master and dog die. Thank you, Newbery, for yet more scarring for life.
Sounder had some competition as my least favorite Newbery of the week because I also read Kira-Kira. I did think it got better towards the end, but so much of it was tedious for me.
And then there was Invincible Louisa, a biography of Louisa May Alcott written by Cornelia Meigs and winner of the 1934 Newbery medal. Invincible Louisa isn’t a bad book either, just dated, though more readable than you might imagine a biography published in 1933 still could be. If you love Little Women, you might enjoy Meigs’s old-fashioned story. What this book convinced me of, however, is the burning need for feminist biography. Meigs views Bronson Alcott through impossibly rose-colored glasses and apologizes incessantly for his inability to provide responsibly for his family. Meigs presents the Alcotts as a real-life version of the family in Little Women plus a wonderful, loving, if tragically misunderstood, father, but they all seem pretty dysfunctional to me. Mostly I will remember this book for its extreme euphemism surrounding death. If I hadn’t known that Louisa’s younger sister DIES, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have figured it out from this sentence: “It was March when Elizabeth went away.”
Another fun and informative title from Nicola Davies and Neal Layton filled with interesting facts about “the toughest creatures on earth.” I interrupted my saintly husband’s video gaming with our son many times to share fascinating tidbits about shark fat and penguin feathers.
How I loved Aitnuke’s The No 1 Car Spotter! Number One is obsessed with car spotting: he loves to sit by the highway and identify the cars that pass by his African village. In fact, that’s how he got his nickname–from being the first one in the village to spot the cars. It turns out that he’s quite a creative problem solver as well. Each chapter finds him, his family, or his village in a bit of a bind and he figures out a solution. Lots of humor and heart in this very short book by the author of the Anna Hibiscus series. One of my favorite moments will give you a taste of Atinuke’s style and humor. Number 1 is spending the night with his friend, Coca-Cola, whose mother starts to shout orders at her son. “Coca-Cola shot off his mat and started to run around. As I was an able-bodied boy in the vicinity of a shouting mama I started to run around as well.”
Around the World is Matt Phelan’s nonfiction graphic novel account of “three remarkable journeys” to circumnavigate the globe taken by intrepid adventurers in the 19th century. Thomas Stevens makes his trip by bicycle, Nellie Bly uses every kind of transportation she can in an effort to beat the clock, and John Slocum sets out in a 36-foot sloop. Matt Phelan’s art is exquisite, of course, but what impresses me most about his work is his ability to find and linger on these quiet significant moments of realization and feeling. There’s plenty of action, adventure, and excitement in this book, but what stays with the reader are the quiet moments of reflection that he gives his characters. Phelan’s work always surprises me with its depth and complexity.
Explorer: The Lost Islands is not a very deep or complex work, but I know it’s going to be popular in my classroom. I only enjoyed one of the short stories in this collection. It was probably a bad idea to read it right after finishing Around the World.
Even though I’ve read books illustrated by E.B. Lewis before, 2014 is the year that I really fell in love with his work. in 2015, I hope to read many more of the picture books he’s illustrated (over 60 of them!) Tololwa Mollel’s My Rows and Piles of Coins is gorgeous to look at, of course, and also tells a compelling story of a Tanzanian boy, Saruni, who saves his coins to buy a bicycle only to be humiliated when he discovers how much bicycles really cost. How he gets his bicycle in the end is a sweet surprise.
Mina Javaherbin’s Soccer Star, illustrated by Renato Alarcao, is a new favorite. Paulo Marcelo Feliciano, who lives in poverty in Brazil, dreams of becoming a soccer star and hearing the crowds chant his name as he scores the winning goal. In the meantime, he can’t attend school because he (and most of his friends) have to work odd jobs to help support their families. He barters lessons with his little sister, who does go to school: she teaches him how to read, and he teaches her soccer moves. The story follows him throughout a day in his life as he takes his sister to school, shares cheese buns with his friends, works for a local fisherman, and meets up with friends for the big soccer game on the beach. This is an important book to share and discuss: Paolo’s story is the story of so many poor children around the globe (my son grew up in Ethiopia, and this could be his story too).
I love C. Roger Mader’s picture books about cats. In Tip Top Cat, our unnamed hero loves to explore his new apartment, especially the balcony, which gives him access to the roofs of Paris. He travels everywhere with full confidence–until his confidence is sorely shaken after a fall. There is some cowering and hiding for awhile, but our intrepid hero is soon on the prowl once again. The cat’s unique perspective brings Paris to life in Mader’s gorgeous paintings.