Monthly Archives: December 2015

Year End Diversity Audit

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wndbAfter last year’s KidLitCon, I checked the books I’d read that year to assess how diversely I’d been reading. I felt I’d been doing OK, but could do better and set myself the objective of actively looking out for books with more diverse characters this year. So how have I done?

Well, again the answer is I’d did OK, definitely better than last year but still room for improvement.

Firstly, thanks to Goodreads for sending me my 2015 in Books – it made my task so much easier! I have recorded 87 books this year and I looked at whether the main characters or support characters (important, not just background) were diverse. Here are my stats – note that I have only recorded each book once, no double dipping!

Racial/cultural diversity: 21 books with main characters, and 9 with support characters.

GLBQT: 4 books with main characters and 2 with support (showing the sad demise of the gay best friend for the white girl in my reading this year).

Mental or physical challenges: 5 books with main characters and 4 with support.

This gives a total of 45 books with a diverse main or support character – just over half the books I read.

I think some of this is because I read a lot more YA books this year, and also I did actively try to read more broadly. Overall, I feel it’s a decent proportion and I would like to keep that up, maybe even increase it over the next year.

My Favorite Books of the Year – 2015

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I’m deliberately calling these books ‘favorites’ rather than ‘best’, because I think what I enjoy reading is not necessarily going to be in the running for medals. My criterion is that I gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads. I thought I was being less profligate with my stars this year – I was very influenced by this article – but it turns out I have far more top-rated books this year than last (15 versus 9). Maybe I’m just choosing more appealing books to read?

Anyway, here’s this year’s list. Compared to last year’s there’s a lot less speculative fiction, and a lot more YA realistic fiction. I think this is probably more to do with what I’ve been interested in this year rather than a seismic shift in the market. They are in alphabetical order by title as it was too much work to rank them

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Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (realistic fiction)

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert (realistic fiction)

The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner (realistic fiction)

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming (nonfiction)

Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin (nonfiction)

A Sense of the Infinite by Hilary T. Smith (realistic fiction)

The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond (realistic fiction)

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley (realistic fiction)

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon (historical fiction/bio)

imaginaryMiddle/Elementary

Boys Don’t Knit (in Public) by T. S. Easton (realistic fiction)

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell (speculative fiction)

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (realistic fiction)

Greenglass House by Kate Milford (speculative fiction)

Moonpenny Island by Trisha Springstubb (realistic fiction)

The Imaginary by A. F. Harrold (speculative fiction)

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones (speculative fiction)

Happy reading in 2016!

 

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

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goodbye strangerGoodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, 2015.

I was never a big fan of Rebecca Stead’s Newbery medal-winning When You Reach Me – I was late to the party and was rather grumpy about all the gush it was getting, and I also got a bit hooked up on the mechanics of the time travel. I’m sure if I re-read it now I’d enjoy it a lot more. I lurved Liar and Spy, and used it very successfully for a middle school book club. And now Ms. Stead has come out with another absolute cracker.

Goodbye Stranger is a gorgeous book about adolescent transitions – physical and emotional, from child to young adult, from friend to more than friend – and the mistakes you can make, and joy you can receive, along the way.

Bridge(t), Em and Tab are the best of friends, but as they hit 7th grade some changes threaten to shift this. Em is developing curves and attracting a lot of attention, from boys and older girls. Tab has been inspired by a teacher to explore feminism and social justice. And Bridge’s new friendship with Sherm becomes increasingly important to her. I love that the girls’ friendship, though tested by Em’s rapidly escalating texting relationship with an 8th grade boy and Tab’s ‘judginess’, stays strong and true.

There are two other narrative threads. In one, Sherm writes unsent letters to his grandfather who had walked out on his grandmother after 50 years. Sherm’s hurt and bewilderment is unstated but clear, as he tries to make sense of this seismic shift in his life. In the other thread, an unnamed high school girl reflects bitterly on her betrayal of a new, real friend as she tried to stay connected with old friend who had moved on.

The theme that braids all these strands together is the idea that any person has ‘9000 things’ about themselves, and any relationship is, at best, only a matching of ‘1000 things’, and sometimes you don’t even know what the other ‘8000’ things are. Adolescence is a time for discovering much about yourself; as Sherm muses: “Is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?” (I think the title of the book gives us a clue to the answer to that).

Ms Stead is masterful at developing wonderful, rich characters that thrill with their authenticity. She also places them in a warmly recognizable New York setting, and casually slips in the diversity that you would expect to find there: Bridge’s father is Armenian, Tab’s parents are from India.

There is no drama or mystery in this book, other than what is happening every day in middle and high schools – yet the author renders it enthralling and enlightening, familiar and also revealing.

Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc by Tony Lee; illustrated by Sam Hart

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messengerMessenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc by Tony Lee; illustrated by Sam Hart
Candlewick, 2015.

From the writer/illustrator team of Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood (2009) and Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur (2011) comes this dramatic graphic novel interpretation of the story of Joan of Arc, set during the 100 Years’ War, and framed by her trial for heresy in 1431.

Following a fall and head injury, Joan (or Jehanne) has her first saintly vision when she was 13. She follows her ‘voices’ and leads the French army to drive the occupying English back. With the coronation of Charles VII, the French impetus stalls, and the English surge back; Joan is captured, tried, found guilty and burnt at the stake.

Joan is depicted as a punky, driven young woman, a leader utterly sure of her destiny. Her conviction and courage in the face of doubters, as well as the risks she takes by, for example, wearing men’s clothes, come through, but she is still a very human character as well.MESSENGER_spread

The historical narrative – the battles, the strategy, the trial – is well laid out, though occasional details are confusing, not helped by some of the characters being indistinguishable. Described as a work of fiction, there is, unfortunately and irritatingly, no author’s note to separate what is invention, and what is real and “used fictitiously.”

The illustrations are dynamic, but sometimes indistinct on details, and a strong use of color denotes the mood – a melancholy blue for the trial, a fierce red for battle scenes, an intense gold for Joan’s visions.

Overall this is decent, accessible historical fiction, ideal for tween and young teens.

The Detour by S. A. Bodeen

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detourThe Detour by S. A. Bodeen
Feiwel and Friends, 2015

This intense YA chiller is a challenging book to review. What it does, it does very well. It’s just that I found it so crawlingly unpleasant that I would have jumped ship very early on if I wasn’t obliged to finish it for a review.

17 year-old Livvy Flynn is a best-selling author and enjoys the status and financial benefits of her position. Driving through a remote wood in Oregon to a writers’ retreat, she flips her car, is injured, and her rescuer then turns into her worst nightmare. When Livvy comes round she finds herself locked in a basement, and her two kidnappers, Peg and her young daughter, alternating between being callous and cruel prison wardens, and demanding an apology for something Livvy is unaware of.

Bodeen (The Compound, 2008) makes Livvy an unlikable, entitled protagonist who spunkily uses movie references to plan her escape. She develops no empathy for or relationship with her captors, even after the violent denouement, though she has developed some self-determination. Her backstory of being bullied at school feels horribly authentic, and it is entirely credible that, outside her overprotective parents and self-interested agent, her only relationship is an online boyfriend.

Acknowledging its similarity to Stephen King’s Misery (1987), the plot is tightly, often claustrophobically, gripping, though the twists at the end will not surprise a reader who has been paying attention. This taut and fast-moving book will appeal to teens who enjoy suspense and thrills.

Reviewed from an ARC

Taking Aim: Power and Pain, Teens and Guns edited by Michael Cart

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taking aimTaking Aim: Power and Pain, Teens and Guns edited by Michael Cart
HarperTeen, 2015.

As the New York Times (12/3/15) reports that mass shootings now take place on average more than once a day, this timely collection of short stories and essays by some big name teen writers takes on the topic of guns and gun culture.

The book opens with a prologue and strong nonfiction essays by Marc Aronson, Will Weaver and Chris Crutcher reflecting on the place of guns in their families. For me, as an adult, this was the most resonant writing in the book and I would have liked more of it. (I would also have liked the statistics to have been source-noted).

The theme of the 13 stories comes from the subtitle of the book, Power and Pain. In most of the stories, the protagonist is an underdog, bullied or abused, and he or she seeks out the power embodied in a gun to redress the balance. Nearly all reach the conclusion that nothing good comes of using a gun, or the power of the gun.

With the notable exception of Walter Dean Myers’ urban Roach, the stories have rural or suburban settings. There is a roughly even split between male and female protagonists, though I think those with young women leads are largely more compelling.

For me, stand out stories include The Babysitters by Jenny Hubbard about the fallout from a school shooting, Ron Koertge’s quirky fable in which two deer hire a human bodyguard for the hunting season, and The Gunslinger by Peter Johnson in which a young woman buys a gun to get vengeance on the boy who raped her. I also enjoyed Elizabeth Wein’s tale set in World War II Scotland, the only story with a historical setting, and Eric Shanower ‘s whimsical comic strip on Cupid’s weaponry.

None of the stories are real duffers, though Joyce Carol Oates’ Heartbreak is overlong and Certified Deactivated by Chris Lynch doesn’t quite take off. I really liked the beginning of Alex Flinn’s story about a gun-loving girl, but felt it could have have taken a much more interestingly direction than a zombie apocalypse.

As we all try “to make some sense of (guns’) place in our national life” (Will Weaver), this collection of cautionary tales is a worthwhile and important read for teens.

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

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MostDangerousCover1Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook, 2015

Steve Sheinkin (Bomb, Flashpoint, 2012) is a master of narrative nonfiction for teens, and he’s done it again with Most Dangerous – the story of Washington insider turned Vietnam war whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

When Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, asked his team to put together a report called ‘History of U. S. Decision-Making in Vietnam’, he intended it as a document for future scholars and government officials to be able to draw lessons from.

Instead, this dossier, which became better known as the Pentagon Papers, came into the hands of Ellsberg, and “what struck him was the pattern of deception – and how clearly it was documented”. Ellsberg believed vehemently that this record of Presidential secrets and lies should be public knowledge, and he leaked it to the media. However, as Sheinkin makes clear, in the 1970’s, copying and distributing a 7000-page document was not quite as easy as it would be in these digitized days.

Sheinkin uses his superlative research and writing skills to weave a truly compelling story, tracing Ellsberg’s stance on the war, first as a committed hawk and then as a passionate opponent: His belief in the nobility of fighting Communism turns to opposition as he witnesses first-hand in Vietnam the unwinnable nature of the war, and comes to realize from the Pentagon Papers that a succession of Presidents were not prepared to commit the resources to win the war, but none of them wanted to lose it. Also, and fascinating for me as a not very knowledgeable Brit, the book gives a thorough overview of the roots, causes and path of the war in Vietnam and responses to it in the U. S.ellsberg and russo

The author has some fun with the incompetent team of ‘Plumbers’ (they fixed leaks) set up under Nixon’s auspices to dig up dirt on Ellsberg, and who went on to become infamous as the blunderers behind the Watergate scandal. More seriously, he shows the sheer weight of Nixon’s vengefulness as he pursues the prosecution of Ellsberg.

Most Dangerous becomes more than just a fascinating historical drama when drawing the parallels with a contemporary whistleblower, Edward Snowden. The author clearly has a point of view on the need for freedom of information, so there is no significant opposing viewpoint on the ethics of leaking Government documents.

As we’ve come to expect, Sheinkin draws on many primary sources, including conducting his own interviews with some of the major players, and extensive secondary sources, and he meticulously source-notes them and lists them in the bibliography. There is a dauntingly long cast of characters at the beginning, but I found I didn’t really need to consult it as the author does such a good job of establishing the individuals and their connection to the narrative.

Overall, this is an exciting story, grounded in substantive research, and perfect for teens who like intrigue, real-life history – I’m pretty sure it will be among the award winners for 2015.

Reviewed from an ARC.