If you like… Anne of Green Gables

anaofcaliforniaFirst of all, let me admit something: I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables until I was an adult, and I’ve never seen the beloved mini-series.  So I don’t have the connection to the story (or the crush on Gilbert Blythe) that many women of my generation do.  That said, I liked the book, and when I saw Ana of California by Andi Teran, which is being marketed as a modern retelling of Anne of Green Gables, I was intrigued.

I reviewed Ana of California for Margins Magazine. My review, in part:

“Look at the shelf of beloved books that mothers and daughters read together.  Anne of Green Gables. Betsy-Tacy. Ballet Shoes. The Secret Garden. Matilda. Harriet the Spy. Surely you notice what’s missing.

What would you change, if you could, about one of these books to make it more representative of your experience? What would you keep?

Andi Teran asked herself those questions about one of her childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables.  There is a lot to love about the book.  Anne is a bold and spunky girl who makes things happen.  She has inspired many young girls to do the same over the years.  The book’s themes of family and belonging are still relevant today.  But it is all so gentle and sweet in a way that modern readers might find fantastic.  And the all-white world of the book doesn’t represent Teran’s Mexican-American heritage.”

So Teran created a new story that felt more true to her.  She kept pieces of the original material, and fans of Anne of Green Gables will have fun finding them and making the connections.  Will those long-time fans of Anne fall in love with Ana’s story in the same way as they did with the original?  Probably not.  But I expect they’ll find it fun and interesting, nonetheless.

Check out more of my reader’s advisory posts here.

This is not a love story

thisisnotalovestoryI’m not sure what I expected when I started reading Judy Brown‘s memoir, This is Not a Love Story.  Probably an expose on the level of her novel, Hush, which was about sexual abuse in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community.  Certainly I figured it would be some kind of tell-all since Brown has now left the ultra-orthodox community. What I found in the book was not either of those things.

It was a family story.  A sibling story. An autism story.  It was perhaps a love story after all, even if the title claims otherwise.  It certainly explores the love between mother and child as seen through the eyes of eight-year-old Judy.  Her mother refused to send Nachum away, no matter how difficult he was.  Even if that’s what ultra-Orthodox families usually did with special needs children.  She would not give up on one of her children.

The ultra-Orthodox community is always in the background of Brown’s story with Nachum’s autism diagnosis taking the leading role.  Young Judy worries that her brother’s issues will ruin her marriage prospects. She makes deals with God to make her brother normal.  The background details might be different for her, but the story is one that many families can relate to.  She said in an interview with Salon:

“When it came to autism, there were superstitions and things that God knows how many other mothers had to deal with. There are universal things that just go through it. What may be surprising to readers is to see so much of what they empathize with, the parts [in which] you can see a little bit of a reflection of yourself. You don’t expect that in this weird place. That’s the way it is.”

I think that’s the strength of the book. It brings you into the ultra-Orthodox world so completely that you stop thinking about the religious details, and you see the real story, the real people who live that life. For whom that life is normal.  The empathy you feel for each person in this book may surprise you, and that’s exactly why I am recommending this book to you.

I look forward to what Judy Brown writes next, no matter what it is about. I have a feeling she can make it real.

Read excerpts of This is Not a Love Story here and here.

You can also read more about Judy Brown’s experiences inside and outside the ultra-Orthodox world in this series of essays for the Forward.

Reflections of a Book Reviewer

I recently turned in my last review for Library Journal. After eight years and over fifty reviews, I have decided to call it quits so I can focus on other aspects of my career. I have to admit: I will miss it.

Everybody is a reviewer these days. Thanks to sites like Amazon and Goodreads or social media, we can share all sorts of personal reactions to whatever media we consume when we feel compelled to do so, but there was something different about a review assignment.

newmomsIt was always something of an adventure to open a package from the LJ offices to see what my editor has assigned to me. Sometimes I was excited to dig into the book—sometimes not. Just once, it was the perfect book at the perfect time. I had recently returned to work from my maternity leave, and I had remarked on how few books there were for new moms that were about the moms (not the baby). The next book I received to review was The New Mom’s Survival Guide by Jennifer Wider. This assignment was also an example of having to separate the personal and the professional. My personal reaction to The New Mom’s Survival Guide: OMG! I am completely overwhelmed by all the things that might have gone wrong with my body. The professional version: “Sections are made for dipping into as needed rather than reading straight through.” It wasn’t about me. It was about the book.

glutenfreegirlAs a former English major, I know very well how being assigned a book can ruin it. But my LJ experience was different. More often than not, I ended up really liking books that I didn’t expect to enjoy at all. I never would have read Gluten-free Girl by Shauna James Ahearn if it hadn’t been assigned reading, and it turned out to be much more than a guide to eating for the gluten intolerant as I assumed. Instead, it was a beautifully written food memoir that would appeal to a much wider audience than you might think. It was a lovely surprise, and I’ve written before about how it inspired me to eat differently.

Not that I liked every book I reviewed. More than a few times, I trudged through a book reluctantly and breathed a sigh of relief when the review was finally turned in. But it was always a lesson in what it means to be a librarian. I had to ask myself about the book’s audience and accuracy (to the best of my ability to determine such). It wasn’t always easy to answer these questions—I am far from an expert in some of the topics I was assigned—but I took the job seriously. I tried hard to take the time and do the research to write a helpful review for the librarians who used them as they considered books for purchase.

I’ll miss the serendipity, the challenge, and the free books. ;) Maybe I’ll return to professional reviewing in the future, but for now I look forward to reading more for myself.

A few of my favorite review assignments from LJ:

Speaking of pirates…

While I am on the subject of pirates, which I referenced in this post, I’d like to bring up the only one-handed fictional character everyone knows: Captain Hook.  I spent most of my life really hating that guy.  You can imagine why.  It’s not easy having something so obvious in common with a terrible villain, especially as a kid.

I had to re-evaluate my anti-Captain Hook stance (a little) when my daughter started watching “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.”  In the show, Captain Hook is not only a villain but also a bumbling oaf.  It was hardly an improvement.  But as I watched, I noticed something.  He might have been a bad guy and a stupid guy, but he was never helpless because of his lack of an arm.  The show never, that I saw, had him struggling as a one-handed person.  He struggled with bad decisions and was defeated fair and square by the good pirates.  I’m still not crazy about the whole disability = villain trope, but at least it doesn’t equal helpless.  I think that’s a win.

In my new-found not-hatred for Captain Hook, I happened to read a couple of interesting books recently:

  • aliashookAlias Hook by Lisa Jensen is a re-imagining of the Peter Pan story.  In the book, Captain Hook isn’t the villain at all.  He’s a tragic hero who may be able to find a happy ending after all.  It’s part-historical novel, part-fairy tale fantasy, and an odd sort of coming-of-age novel.  There’s also a romance, which I appreciated.  How often do you see the person with the disability get the girl?  ;) It is far from my usual reading choice, but I rather enjoyed it.
  • hooksrevengeHook’s Revenge by Heidi Schulz is a children’s novel for middle graders (roughly ages 10-12) that follows Captain Hook’s daughter as she takes command of the crew after her father has died.  It’s a fun adventure full of humor and action with a girl at the center.  Jocelyn Hook is a two-handed heroine, but the book has some funny references to the disabled pirate stereotype that made me laugh.

Maybe pirates aren’t so bad after all.  And maybe people with differences aren’t as helpless as people think either. :)

Princess Talk

princesspI am sick of talking about princesses.  I am sick of my daughter talking about how much she loves princesses, but I’m also sick of hearing and reading about parents hating princesses.  So when a review copy of The Princess Problem landed on my desk at work, I rolled my eyes and ignored it for a while.

Princesses aren’t going anywhere however, and neither was this book.  When I finally gave it a chance, I was pleasantly surprised.  The Princess Problem was more than a rant about how princesses are ruining our daughters.  It’s actually a guide to talking to our kids about the media they consume as it relates to princesses.  There are discussion questions for movies and ideas for healthy media consumption.  It’s a fantastic resource with a practical sensibility.  Find out more on the author’s web site.

While I’m on the topic of princesses, I want to recommend a couple of books that will appeal to both princess-loving kids and princess-hating parents:

  • The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale is an early chapter book about a princess who is secretly a superhero.  My six-year-old daughter was obsessed with this book for months, which is a pretty strong endorsement right there.  Definitely a fun pick for the kids who want to dress up in pretty clothes and do the rescuing.
  • Princess in Training by Tammy Sauer features a disappointing princess.  She’s not very princessy, but those non-princessy interests come in handy when a dragon sneaks in the castle.  This picture book is cute and fun.
  • Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider has enough pink sparkles on the cover to attract the princess loving kid, but the story isn’t really about princesses.  It’s about a girl and her doll and what happens when that doll is attacked by the family dog.

Parents and other people who interact with kids might also be interested in this post on Princess Shaming in which a librarian advises, “Find out what it is about the princess that makes your kid want to read about her and be her; find out what your kid thinks it means to play princess.”

Right on.  Instead of hating princesses, let’s think critically about them.

An unexpected gratitude

I meant to post something about gratitude during the week of Thanksgiving, but the days were full of holiday preparations to the point that I had no time to spare on putting such words together. Now that I have a moment, let me express a surprising bit of gratitude: I am thankful for my mornings.

No one in my family is a morning person, least of all me, so any positive feeling at that time of day is outside of my usual. But things have shifted with the beginning of this school year. After years of getting up super early to take the bus to work well before my daughter woke for school, I have traded in my bus pass for a set of car keys.

My mornings are no longer a frenzied rush to make my bus. They are comparatively slower and much happier.  They have become my most treasured moments with my daughter. We talk about our dreams and plans over breakfast, and sometimes we even have time to share a story or two.  By the time I send her off to school and leave for work, I am smiling.  I can’t help it.

Best Time of Day by Eileen SpinelliOne of my favorite morning moments was from a story we read one day before school. The book was The Best Time of Day by Eileen Spinelli, and my daughter shared her own best, which was not far off from my own. She had a dreamy/happy voice when she said how much she loved mornings–at school. Her favorite time of day is that moment when she first gets to school. “There are kids and teachers talking and laughing. The piano is playing, and everyone is saying hi to each other and rushing around. I just love it so much.”

These are the moments I don’t want to miss.  It’s the stuff of happiness, right?  Watching this little girl experience the world as her own individual while sharing so much of who she is with her father and me makes me happy.   I’m grateful for moments like this.

alljoyHappiness is complicated though, especially when it comes to our kids.  Parenting is not all sunshine and lollipops.  You don’t need me to tell you that, I’m sure.  I probably didn’t need a whole book telling me that over and over in different ways, but I still read All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior.  And somehow, I even loved it.  For all the bleak stories and statistics in the book that threatened to be pretty depressing, it was all so fascinating.  She chronicles how the word “parent” turned into a verb, how kids went from being “economically worthless to emotionally priceless,” and how happiness plays a role in all of this stuff in a shifting world where there is no script for any of us.

In the absence of a script, it’s just love.  It’s just little moments where we read stories and talk about our favorite things.  It’s the days when we can’t help but smile.


Read or watch more:

Looking closely for science

eurekabookYou probably don’t think about science when you’re poring over a Where’s Waldo? book, but in the upcoming book Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, Chad Orzel spends a whole chapter connecting seek-and-find books like Where’s Waldo? to science.  He talks about patterns and whatnot, but for kids, it’s about looking closely and observing details, which is just the beginning of thinking like a scientist.  Even if it doesn’t seem like it.

mrtweedsgooddeedsI was thinking about that as my daughter and I pored over a different seek-and-find book recently.  I chose Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds for the good deeds part of the story, but in the end it was the opportunity for looking closely that was the real strength of the book.  The spreads are full of details, and they were just challenging enough for my six-year-old to keep her attention without being too easy.  Once she got to the higher numbers, we found it was hard to remember which of the objects we’d already found, so we laid the book flat to use coins to mark our finds.  We recommend it for those looking to spend some time with something quirky, practice their observation skills, and get closer to their inner scientist. ;)

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Read more about Mr Tweed’s Good Deeds on Brain Pickings or read more about how observation relates to science in this post.


Disclosure: I received a review copy of Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds from the publisher.



Kindness in Chalk

You could still see the messages written three different languages chalked on the sidewalk in front of my daughter’s school earlier this week from the October 10th Kindness in Chalk event. The words were faded then, but they still have me hope.

I couldn’t watch this video without getting a little teary. I know I’m kind of a sucker for this kindness stuff, but give it a chance. :)

Words matter, and small kindnesses matter. I really believe that, and I believe that we need to take this message beyond Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.  As always, I’m planning to spread the idea with books.

smallestStart with some picture books:

  • The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts – In this picture book, Sally notices everything, and she ends up making a big difference.
  • Because of You by B.G. Hennessy – A picture book to share the idea that every person can make a difference.
  • Plant a Kiss by Amy Krouse Rosenthal – Start talking about paying it forward with kids in this picture book.

You might also wish to check out the Year of Minnesota Nice blog–not to mention the Be Nice Box–for more ideas to spread kindness in your community.


Putting stories together

BookUnknownAmericans-400“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.” –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, The Danger of the Single Story, I could not help but think of a book I had just read, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  This novel shares many stories.  They are all from Latin American immigrants, and they tell different stories of why and how they came to the United States.  Perhaps we think we know the immigrant story.  Perhaps this book is an opportunity to create a more complete view, to move beyond a stereotype.

Add in The Burgess Boys, Vaclav and Lena, and Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea for an even wider view.

What books opened your mind to a world beyond stereotypes?


January Book Pick: Handling the Truth

handlingthetruth“Memoir is a strut and a confession, a whisper in the ear, a scream.”

–Beth Kephart in Handling the Truth

I sometimes think I have a story to tell about my life, but then I’m not entirely sure I’m ready strut, scream, or, worse, confess.  If there is a book that can turn off my doubts about my story, it is Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart.  The book ranges from practical to motivational, and I finished reading it feeling like I’d received a crash course in the art of memoir.  Not to mention I had a huge reading list of all the memoirs referenced and quoted in the book.

There was so much in this book that went beyond writing, beyond memoir.  It was a book about seeking truth and love, about telling stories in a way that connects readers and writers.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in telling true stories.  Perhaps you will find your strut in its pages.

Find this book at your local library or indie bookstore.