If you like… Jane Austen

On this day in 1817, Jane Austen died at the age of 41. But what if you could change that? What if you could diagnose the mysterious illness that killed her? What if you could just meet her?

Jane Austen fans who are willing to entertain the idea of time travel may be interested in The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn. Dr. Rachel Katzman and her colleague haven’t gone back in time to save Ms. Austen. Actually, they aren’t supposed to change anything about the past. Their task is to make the acquaintance of the Austen family and find a way to steal a copy of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel as well as her letters. Of course, this is far more difficult than one might think, and all sorts of complications arise both from keeping their secret and from their attempts not to change the course of history. While it’s not necessarily in the same style of Austen’s works, it is certainly a well-researched opportunity to indulge in the fantasy of getting a chance to be BFFs with one of your favorite writers.

Or, if you happen to be in Minneapolis, you could always stop in the Jane Austen rooms open at the Minneapolis Central Library for the month of July to immerse yourself in her world.

What about sharks?

Everyone is afraid of sharks, right? They are fearsome creatures who come out of nowhere to attack when you’re swimming and having fun. Aren’t they? Perhaps there is more to it than that.

When we were in Boston a few months ago, we visited the New England Aquarium and caught a showing of Great White Shark 3D in the IMAX theater. The movie used suspenseful music and beautiful shots to explore the fear of sharks that is deeply ingrained in our culture while making it clear that sharks are in danger from humans far more than we are in danger from them.

My daughter was entranced by the film. First it was the 3D effects that caught her attention since it was her first 3D movie, but by the end, she had clearly invested in the shark’s plight. The call to action to protect sharks that ended the film earned a soft but firm “yeah” from her, which surprised me.

It’s been a few months since then, but I finally got my hands on a copy of If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams to share with her to reinforce and deepen the idea that sharks are important to the ecosystem—and to us. Imagine if the ocean became unlivable because plankton grew out of control because fish and pinnipeds disappeared because sharks disappeared. We are all connected. That’s the point here, and it is made in a way that even kids younger than my nine-year-old will be able to grasp. The scientific vocabulary and kid-friendly tips for helping protect sharks are just bonuses in an already powerful picture book.

I’m still afraid of sharks. I can’t imagine cage diving in shark infested waters, much less free diving in those places as was depicted in the film. But fear doesn’t negate the connection between us, which seems like an important idea to explore with kids whether we are talking about nature or other aspects of our world.

Great White Sharks 3D trailer:

If Sharks Disappeared trailer:

My Reading Reports

I’m reading for you. That’s what I wrote in my VOYA article published earlier this year, and I really believe that as a librarian, I have a responsibility to read beyond my personal choices. That’s the nature of the job. But it’s not always easy. No matter how professionally I view my reading choices, there is an element of the personal in there as well. And personally… I sometimes get stuck in a reading rut.

In an effort to hold myself accountable for my reading, I started creating monthly reading reports. It was partly a desire to see what I could do with Adobe Spark, which I had just discovered, and partly a way to visually organize the group of books I chose for the month to see where I might have holes. These reports are more for my own benefit than anyone else’s, but I have been sharing them on the chance that someone might be interested.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: Without some kind of accountability, I would probably read 95% teen fiction with female protagonists written by female authors. Contemporary realism with a bias toward romance. Mostly written by white authors. Not too surprising, I suppose.

But, honestly, some of my favorite books this year has been outside of that particular niche. I read Adi Alsaid’s North of Happy because I realized I had read very little written by men. It was excellent. I read The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse by Brian Farrey because I was really lacking in children’s fantasy choices. It was easily one of the best books I read this year. The Diabolic and The Passenger were my attempts to read science fiction, and both were un-put-down-able, if I may use such a word.

While I’m not going to keep up these reading reports anymore, I will say that the last six months of making and sharing them has been helpful and educational. It has kept me on my toes professionally, and that’s always a good thing.

Here are the links to each month’s report along with the highlights:

January – Okay, okay… I know this month was too heavy on teen fiction. Note to diversify audience for next month. My favorite books for the month were The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon.

February – I was still stuck in my romantic teen fiction rut this month, but I managed to read more children’s books and a couple of mysteries. Favorites from the month: The Lost Girl of Astor Street by Stephanie Morrill (historical teen mystery) and Alex Approximately by Jenn Bennett (contemporary teen romance).

March – So many different genres this month! Not terribly racially/culturally diverse this month though. My two favorites for the month were Posted by John David Anderson (children’s contemporary realism) and Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia (teen contemporary realism).

April – Focus is finally off teen fiction! I even included picture books and early chapter books. The focus on Latina authors was unintentional, but all four were good books. Favorite: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina.

May – I actually read some graphic novels for kids for a change. Favorite: Real Friends by Shannon Hale.

June – It was a busy month, and I was feeling a bit fickle as far as books were concerned. Favorite: The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse by Brian Farrey.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned here is that just because I have selected books more purposefully of late doesn’t necessarily make them into “assigned reading” that I dread reading or hate on principle. Does that mean I have finally grown up? Probably not, considering I’m reading 80% children’s/teen books. Still, I’m counting it as a win.  Honestly, forcing myself out of my usual has been full of fun discoveries and challenges. Six months into this, I am probably more enthusiastic than when I started.

If you like… Roald Dahl

The most consistently popular posts on my blog are these “If You like…” posts, so I thought I might try to do more of them. What better author to start up the series again than Roald Dahl? His books are beloved by kids and grown-ups. His quirky, subversive style has endured for over 50 years with a strong base of adoring fans. But once you finish the 19 children’s books Dahl wrote, what next? While I imagine that very few authors measure up to Roald Dahl in most fans’ eyes, here are a few books that might satisfy readers looking for something similar:

Ms Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera is a whimsical adventure that includes the social satire that Dahl fans enjoy. I read it aloud to my daughter, and we both found it quite charming.

The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld is an absurd fairy tale style story full of wit and wordplay. It’s a princess story, but it’s sarcastic and funny. What could be better than that?

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon is another whimsical adventure story with quirky characters that reminded me a lot of Roald Dahl’s books.  And I wasn’t the only one who saw the similarities. Both the Booklist and the School Library Journal reviews compared the book to Dahl. I will say that it’s a bit long and slow moving at times, but the dreamy nature of the story pulls the reader along well enough.

Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner stars Emily Vole, an abandoned child who has been adopted by a pair of terrible parents who treat her like a servant. But things change for Emily when she gets to know her neighbor Miss String and all sorts of magical things start happening. This is a silly adventure full of the sort of humor and wit that Dahl fans know and love.

Need more suggestions? Try these:

Weird and Wonderful Books for Kids who Like Roald Dahl

If you like Roald Dahl you might also like…

The BFG Readalikes

Check out my stickers

During my second week at my new library job, I found myself sitting at the reference desk applying stickers to my prosthetic arm. When I was finished, I had a trail of assorted insects (and a few spiders) zigzagging around my arm. It didn’t take long for someone to comment on my bugs. That, of course, was the point.

It had been so long since I’d worked with the general public that I had almost forgotten why I used to keep my arm decorated with stickers. It wasn’t the love of stickers or the desire to show off my favorite bands or opinions. It was an opening. It was for all those people who would never ask me directly about my prosthetic arm, but would say something about my stickers. It was my way of saying that I’m not taking this too seriously. I’m not pretending that you don’t notice my difference. I’m saying it’s okay to notice.

I started the sticker thing when I was working as a server. I was a college student looking to make a decent amount of money with a flexible schedule. What better job than waiting tables, right? I was fortunate enough to find someone willing to give me a chance despite the obvious question: can a person with one arm do this job?? It turned out that yes, I could do the job. I did it for the next several years. It didn’t take long for me to learn the particulars of the job. It probably took me even less time to learn that unaddressed curiosity is THE WORST.

Maybe you don’t know this, but I can tell when you’re curious about me. I can feel it. You might think you are keeping your questions quiet, but you wear them in your body language. Most people do, anyway. And when I have to interact with you repeatedly, like when I am serving you a meal at a restaurant, it’s uncomfortable for both of us to ignore the questions you are trying so hard to hold in.

You know what’s bad for tips: awkwardness. It just is. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a bigger tip because the customer feels guilty about the awkwardness. But most of the time, awkward = bad tip. That wasn’t good for my pocketbook, and it made my job way less fun. So I stuck a few stickers to my arm.

It’s funny what a few stickers can do. They’re an icebreaker. They’re a signal. They cut the awkwardness down to almost nothing. They give people an out if they are caught staring.

When I started working in a public library, the stickers became even more important. I wanted to be approachable to my library patrons (and successful in my career) even more than I had wanted good tips in my serving job, and I really didn’t want the many, many kids I saw at the library to feel uncomfortable around me or afraid of me. No one wants to be an object of fear.  Librarians especially so. I wanted kids to know that they could ask me anything, and I wouldn’t judge them for it. I wouldn’t be in this field if I didn’t value curiosity, and I wouldn’t have chosen to work with young people, if I wasn’t comfortable answering these kinds of questions.  I’ve found it helps to dive into the questions, get them answered, and move on from there. Watching people hold questions in makes my job way less fun.

I was reminded of that as I started my new job—back in public service at a library after several years in the not-public side of the library world. This week I changed the bugs to something more summery just as I had told a young library visitor I would. “Come back in a couple of weeks,” I’d said. “I already have my summer stickers picked out. Wait’ll you see ‘em!”

Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it wouldn’t be what you would do if you were me. Maybe a lot of things. For now: wait’ll you see my new stickers. ;)

Living in a Multilingual World

Every document that comes home from my daughter’s elementary school comes in three different languages: English, Spanish, and Somali.  In the hallways, you can see various languages on signs and posters.  Her school isn’t a language immersion school; it’s just a typical school in Minneapolis.  According to the school district, there are 96 languages or dialects spoken by students or their families throughout the city, and her school is only 31% white.

Our kids are growing up in a world in which you can’t count on the people around you speaking your language.  You might have to meet people somewhere between your language and theirs or listen for more than just the meaning of words.

I was thinking about this as I read Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, which is written in journal format and includes a lot of Spanish words and phrases throughout the book.  Gabi’s life is in both languages, and it feels real to have both languages represented in her journal.  I don’t speak Spanish, but I loved Gabi’s story.  I connected with her through her intimate and humorous diary entries as she sorted out big issues like cultural identity, family problems, and feminism all while discovering the power of poetry.  It’s a story that will stick with me for a long time.  Sure, I didn’t always know the Spanish words, but I did know Gabi.

At the AWP Conference in Minneapolis in 2015, I attended a session in which M. Evelina Galang spoke about her book Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, and she shared her experience that young people never seemed to question the inclusion of Tagalog in her book the way adult readers did.  The teen readers accepted that it was part of the story and created their own context around it.  Galang advises readers in a post you can download on her web site to “feel the words” they don’t understand.  In her book, Galang creates a rich world full of feeling that will give readers an opportunity to connect with Angel’s experience whether they know any Tagalog or not.

My daughter, a third-grader, is far from reading these teen novels, but she could “feel the words” in Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina, which includes lots of Spanish words in the text as the story follows a young Colombian girl as she learns English. Juana is a wonderfully likable character, and it is easy to relate to her even with a limited knowledge of Spanish.  Her story is just the thing to generate enthusiasm for learning a new language!

I also made sure to share I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien with her last year when a new student arrived in her class. The student had only recently arrived in the country from Somalia and spoke very little English, much like Fatimah in the book. I’m New Here helped us to talk about how it would feel to go to school in a different country and explore how we might connect with people when we don’t share a language. This conversation could easily be had in a classroom setting, and teachers may be interested in the resources available on O’Brien’s web site, including a community event kit and a video. Pair it with Meg Medina’s Mango, Abuela, and Me for the way the story blends English and Spanish as grandmother and granddaughter attempt to communicate despite not speaking each other’s language.

These are the books that reflect the world in which we live, and I hope to see even more cultures and languages (especially Somali!) represented on the shelves of our libraries to help us remember that there are ways to connect with people and things we share with them even when we don’t share a first language.

Monday Morning Music with The Smoking Popes (sorta)

The Smoking Popes (a long-time favorite band of mine) meets ska. Thanks to a band called The Pomps, who recently released an album of ska covers of Smoking Popes songs. Ska has never been my preferred musical genre, but it is fun to hear these songs re-imagined. So if you happen to be a fan of the band or the genre, don’t miss The Smoking Pomps.

 

While I’m sharing re-imaginings of old favorites, I would be remiss if I didn’t direct you to Shoegazi (Fugazi songs done in the shoegaze style). Seriously worth checking out. Of course, shoegaze is my preferred musical genre.

Exploring Japan

A few years ago, my daughter and I spent a summer exploring the world. Well, not literally. Our family travel budget isn’t nearly large enough to accommodate a world tour. But we felt like world explorers as we read each book in the Dodsworth series by Tim Egan that followed the title character from New York to London, Paris, and Tokyo. For each book, we would seek out as much of the location we could experience from afar as we could.  It may seem silly, but we had a great time armchair traveling to all of these places. Thanks to our imaginary trip to Paris, chocolate croissants have become a favorite treat in our family.

Recently we took our first non-imaginary mother-daughter trip to visit family in Boston, and we were delighted to discover an opportunity to explore a faraway place while we were there thanks to the Boston Children’s Museum. Amid the usual children’s museum exhibits in which kids can play, build, and create is a unique exhibit that allows museum visitors a special glimpse of life on the other side of the world: The Japanese House.

The house, which was a gift to the city of Boston from sister-city Kyoto, is a traditional live-work space from the textile district of Kyoto. We learned that very few of these houses still exist in Kyoto.  In fact, a 2012 National Geographic article featured Kyoto as one of “9 Places to See Before They Slip Away” citing this architectural style as a highlight of Kyoto that is losing ground to modernization. We may never get to Kyoto ourselves, so I really appreciated that this house was preserved and shared this way. For those who are far from both Kyoto and Boston, you can armchair travel via a virtual tour or this video.

My daughter left the exhibit with all sorts of questions about what life is like in Japan now compared to the lifestyle preserved in the exhibit, so when we got back to Minneapolis, we found ourselves poring over books from our local library about children’s lives in Japan and watching this video.

Our favorite book we found was My Awesome Japan Adventure, which is a fictional travel diary about a boy spending four months in Japan. I liked it because it modeled the idea of a travel diary while sharing all sorts of information about Japanese culture. My nine-year-old liked it for the cartoon style, the humorous tone, and the spread that included origami instructions. Either way, it was a winner. ;)

Wherever we end up on our next mother-daughter trip, I hope to find hidden gems and surprises like the Japanese House exhibit there too. Perhaps we’ll keep our own travel diaries as we move from imaginary adventures to real ones out in the world. We may not always be able to go far, but we can always keep a sense of adventure with us.

Book Review: Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez

My initial reaction to Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez was, embarrassingly, “huh?” I was excited to receive a review copy from the publisher because the art looked beautiful, the setting was unusual in a children’s book, and my nine-year-old loves graphic novels.  I expected this to be a rave review all around, but upon receiving the book, I found I didn’t know what to make of it. Sure, the illustrations were as beautiful as I had expected, and the story’s Colombian setting isn’t one often found in books for kids. Those things are true. But I wasn’t expecting a story that was so dark and creepy. Could I share this with my sensitive nine-year-old? It was the stuff of nightmares, I thought.

The book, however, has stuck with me in a way that had me rereading it multiple times. To appreciate the illustrations. To make sense of the story that seemed so unsettling and almost unfinished. It was a book that wouldn’t let me go. That alone must mean something, I thought.

As I reread the story again and again, I found it shifted from the dark and creepy nightmare I saw at first to something empowering. The little girl in the story encounters a strange darkness and instead of running from it, she finds a way to live with it. To allow what might have been scary to be part of her world. The openness of the ending, so unsettling at first, seemed more appropriate when viewed through this lens.

Maybe the monstrous character of Morfie is Sandy’s doubt and insecurity. Maybe the story shows Sandy learning to live with that kind of anxiety and still be creative. I’m not sure what the author intended. But I know that Nightlights deserves to be read. Maybe more than once.

More about Nightlights:

Finding Mother Goose

 

“Mother Goose was a real person?!” my nine-year-old asked in confusion as we walked along the Freedom Trail in Boston last weekend.  Our tour guides (my brother and sister-in-law) had pointed out some of the famous people buried in the Granary Cemetery, including John Hancock, Ben Franklin’s parents, and Mother Goose.

I admit I hadn’t given much thought to whether Mother Goose was a real person or not despite having written an old blog post about the value of nursery rhymes. I figured that her identity, if known at all, was probably lost to history. It turns out that I was right. The woman buried in Boston was probably not the woman behind the rhymes, but legend has it that Mary (or Elizabeth) Goose enthralled the children in her community (including sixteen of her own) with stories and poems which were eventually published. Is this true? I have no idea, but I like the story.

Whoever she may have been, Mother Goose has endured as an almost ubiquitous part of childhood in the English-speaking world for hundreds of years.  Among the loads of picture books that offer the rhythm and rhyme that our little language learners need, Mother Goose’s rhymes have stayed in print. Perhaps it’s adult nostalgia that drives the demand? Perhaps there’s something universal about the poems or the time period they represent?

Whatever the reason, there are many, many editions from which to choose for your little ones. I happen to like Mary Engelbreit’s version for the way Mother Goose’s poems are described in the introduction written by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus: “Her words are both merry and wise. Mother Goose rhymes meet children at eye level with their colorful characters, disarming honesty, and playful feeling for life.”

Of course, I think we can agree that some of the rhymes could use an update like the one that Jane Cabrera gives to “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” In Cabrera’s version, the Old Woman is resourceful and capable as she cares for her many children by solving problems, fixing stuff, and working hard.  A brief author’s note shares Cabrera’s desire to celebrate mothers with a version that showed a mom who could take care of her family “despite being very out-numbered!” That’s a sentiment I can get behind.

May 1st is the day Mother Goose is celebrated in schools and libraries around the country. Even if you think you’ve outgrown her poems or you think they aren’t relevant to modern life, take a moment on that day to explore the legend of the person behind the poems and select one of the many editions of her work to share with a child. Let the bouncy rhythm and the silly rhymes remind you that “childish” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just right.