Friday, May 30, 2014

May Reads

I'm constantly overwhelmed by all the fabulous new books that we receive (Fauquier County Public Library patrons should subscribe to Wowbrary to be among the first to know about recently ordered titles, DVDs, audio books, ebooks, and eaudiobooks.), as well as the many books that have been on my to-be-read list for some time.  This month was a great one for 2014 reads! (This post actually covers the last week of April to today.) 

At the time of Elizabeth Seton's birth, Catholicism was actually outlawed in New York; she grew up in an established, upper class, and devout Episcopalian household. Her conversion to Catholicism shocked and disturbed her family and friends; as New York associated Catholicism with Irish immigrants, her society had a very negative view of the faith, due to the attitude about Irish immigrants at that time.  Seton established a religious order for women in Maryland and faced many tragedies (including the death of two children) and other life-altering events that tested her faith. Joan Barthel convincingly portrays the inner conflict felt by Seton while deciding to convert, the horrors of medical treatment at the time and the immense suffering of those with tuberculosis (her 16 year old daughter's lingering suffering and death is sorrowful reading), and the difficulties Seton faced with the Catholic Church's hierarchy. Barthel ends with an overview of Seton's canonization as the first American-born saint.  I've often thought that biographies of the more modern Catholic saints would make for fascinating reading; occasionally, new biographies of  "classic" saints such as Joan of Arc or Francis of Assisi are published, but later saints have mostly been ignored by non-Catholic publishers. With the positive reception of American Saint, perhaps secular publishers will recognize that there is a market for general biographies of these intriguing women and men (in particular, Frances Cabrini and Katharine Drexel would be terrific candidates!) 

Most people are familiar with Ellis Island, but Angel Island is probably another story. Between 1892-1940, 1 million Asian immigrants passed through Angel Island in hopes of making a new life in the States. After the center was closed, it fell in disrepair until the Asian-American community in San Francisco lobbied to preserve it as a landmark.  First-person artifacts such as letters, memoirs, and most incredibly, poetry carved into the walls were discovered during restoration. Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain  is another great achievement from a nonfiction master. 

Fake ID  is a must read for teens (and fans of YA literature) who want a fast-paced mystery/thriller story with many twists. Nick's family is in the Witness Protection Program; unfortunately, those in charge are just about to wash their hands of his father. Settling into a new place and making friends is never easy when you are on the run, but Nick manages to find companionship in his new Georgia town. After earning a spot on the school newspaper, he begins to investigate the mysterious death of his friend's brother. As you can imagine, this leads to near-disastrous consequences for Nick. Racial issues are not brushed away (Nick is African-American and his friend is Latino), but they are not the focus of the story.

I finally get all the praise and multiple starred reviews for Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems. This book is GORGEOUS. The selected poems are fun to read. This is outstanding work.

Somewhere in the middle of reading The Harlem Hellfighters, I thought, "This needs to be made into a movie!" The story of the courageous Harlem Hellfighters of World War I, who never lost a man due to capture, nor lost any ground gained, is a little-known but important aspect of the long fight for civil rights in the States.  The men of the 369th faced tremendous difficulties before, during, and after their service, but their strength and dignity remained strong.  While searching for more information on the Harlem Hellfighters, I was delighted to learn that Max Brooks's graphic novel will indeed be made into a movie! Can't wait to see it. My favorite kind of graphic novels are memoirs or realistic fiction; would love to read more historical fiction like this.  Although not a YA graphic novel, teens interested in history or war stories would appreciate this.

Although How About Never? Does Never Work for You? is a must read for devotees of The New Yorker cartoons, readers interested in artists' biographies, cartooning, and the magazine industry will be enlightened as well.  As is standard in memoirs, Bob Mankoff, long time cartoonist and cartoon editor at the The New Yorker, discusses his childhood, early influences, and adulthood, but the most fascinating aspects are his insights into the history of magazine cartooning (starting with the British publication Punch Magazine in 1841),  the legacy of the New Yorker cartoons (which includes James Thurber and E.B. White), how cartoons for the esteemed magazine are selected, deconstructing the famous Seinfeld episode in which Elaine is obsessed with figuring out a New Yorker cartoon, the evolution of the magazine's cartoons, and the ins and outs of winning the weekly caption contest.  As you can guess, cartoons (from Mankoff's own collection and from the magazine's archives) play a huge part in the story, to great effect. Funny and illuminating.

Although the debate over cochlear implants is nowhere near the intensity it had in the 1990s, deciding to implant the device into a toddler or young child is still fraught with emotion.  Lydia Denworth's son was diagnosed with profound and progressive hearing loss at the age of two; as a science journalist, she was very much aware of the importance of language acquisition and enrichment in the early years of life. However, she was also sensitive to the supporters of using American Sign Language and the struggles the deaf community has fought in order to have it be recognized as a genuine form of communication.  Not only does Denworth chronicle the anguish and worry she felt over her son's diagnosis and her thoughts on her son's deaf identity, but she also provides insights from top neuroscientists on language acquisition and activists in the deaf community.  I Can Hear Your Whisper: An Intimate Journey Through the Science of Sound and Language  is definitely one of my top reads for 2014. Anyone interested in brain science, language, deaf issues, or intimate memoirs would appreciate this remarkable read.

The need for greater diversity in children's and YA literature has long been a concern.  While most agree that we need more books in which the color of a character's skin is not the main focus of the story, there are many who caution that issues concerning race and ethnicity should not be forgotten. The No-Dogs-Allowed Rule strikes a fine balance between the character's ethnicity not being a central aspect of the story, but not being ignored. Ishan Mehra, like many third grade boys, really, really, REALLY wants a dog. Mom, on the other hand, is not nearly as enthusiastic.  Ishan's brilliant plan is to become more helpful around the house...which leads to comedic results.  Ishan's ethnic identity (he is East Indian and speaks Hindi) is established seamlessly in the novel through his enthusiasm for his family's favorite foods and through the Hindi language; details about his culture are explained without interrupting the narrative. An important subplot with an elderly neighbor touches upon latent prejudicial ignorance (he can't be bothered to tell Ishan apart from his brother or to remember to say his name correctly) in an effective and subtle manner.  This is a funny and touching read that many young readers of all ethnic backgrounds would identify with and enjoy.

Out of all the Newbery Medal and Honor books I've read so far, To Be a Slave is definitely one of the most hard-hitting and mature reads I've completed. Originally published in 1968 and named as a Newbery Honor title the following year, this chronological arrangement of slave and former slave testimonies is a harsh and unyielding look at this dark time in history.

YA novels that look at the actual reality of "reality" shows are not new; the most famous, of course, is The Hunger Games trilogy. We also have Surviving Antarctica: Reality TV 2083 (published before The Hunger Games and involves contestants reenacting Robert Scott's 1910 Antarctica expedition) and Reality Boy, which also look at the dark side of reality programs. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, on the other hand, is a funny yet thoughtful story about the impact of an arts-based high school being the center of a reality show contest (also, no one has to battle to the death at Selwyn).  Ethan and his friends are fed up with the disruption of their school life and the divide it has created between the students competing on the show and the students who are not profiled in the series; Luke anonymously publishes an epic poem in issues of the school newspaper derailing the artificiality of the show. Much to Ethan and his friends' surprise, Luke's poem takes a decidedly unexpected viewpoint, resulting in a dramatic change to the show's script (oh, yes, it is scripted and scenes are shot several times). Although it's quite hilarious, it's also reflective on the importance of art, questions of whether an artist's behavior should influence how we feel about his/her work (Ezra Pound is an important part of the storyline), sacrifices aspiring artists make, and dilemmas over compromise.

When I Was the Greatest is Jason Reynolds's debut novel; now that I've read it, I'm already anticipating his next novel. Bed-Stuy is a rough and tumble neighborhood in Brooklyn (the "non Cosby" part of Brooklyn, as Ali describes it); life is not easy for Ali, sister Jazz, and friends Needles and Noodles. Ali does his best to stay away from the drugs, guns, and fights that plague his neighborhood, but Noodles seems to be always itching for a fight. His brother's Tourette's makes the family stick out in the neighborhood. Needles's obsession with knitting, which was taught to him in the hopes of keeping him calm and focused, also causes teasing and remarks. Reynolds is a genius at creating multi-dimensional characters with whom many readers will empathize. Although the difficulties of inner-city life are established, the connection between neighbors is also brought to life. Needles's Tourette's Syndrome is expertly portrayed without being sensationalized.  Ali's relationship with his father is complicated (his father has run-ins with the law) but is sensitively and even lovingly created. This is one of the exceptional YA novels of 2014.

Are you ready for summer? We will have information on our amazing summer reading program shortly (print schedules are available at all locations), and we have made sure that our new books shelves will be well-stocked for summer time reading fun. If you're already in the mood to explore summer reads, check out my post on summer fun themed books on the ALSC blog.

Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library 

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