Particularly Awesome Books of 2016

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I know it’s been ages since I’ve posted on this blog. And even now that I finally am back here clicking that “Publish” button again, it’s just a reblog from my other blog. But this is something I spent a lot of time compiling, and besides, my 2014 list and 2015 list made their first appearances on Kaleidoscope49. It only makes sense to stick the 2016 list here, too. So feel free to ignore this post or to read it thoroughly and then find and read all of the books that pique your interest. And hopefully, I’ll be back with more new posts sometime soon.

Particularly Awesome Books of 2016

This list has been a long time in coming. Not only have I spent an entire year reading a whole lot of children’s literature and keeping a running list of books that I especially liked, but it’s tak…

Source: Best Books of 2016

25 Years Old

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I was born on September 6, 1991. Thus, today is my 25th birthday. Rather than going into a ramble about how I feel about being 25, I thought that an interesting way to observe my birthday online would be to compile a list of other interesting things that are turning 25 this year. As it so happens, though, I didn’t really participate in ‘90s pop culture. I’m not even familiar with many of the movies, TV shows, songs, and albums that came out when I was a kid. But here are a few things my age that do mean something to me.

Books

For those of you who don’t know anything about me, I’m a librarian, so this is the obvious place to start this list. I had thought I could pull together a much longer list of 1991 books that I’ve read, but this is what I found with a moderate amount of googling. (The NoveList website appears to be temporarily down, which is annoying.)

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

My parents gave me this book for my birthday when I was a child; I think it was my eleventh birthday. It’s a Norwegian book about a teenager named Sophie Amundsen who starts receiving mysterious letters about philosophy. Over the course of the novel, Sophie learns about the history of philosophy from ancient times up to the late twentieth century and discovers the strange truth about the reality in which she lives. I very much enjoyed this book and have read it a number of times over the past fourteen years.

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Apparently, I really loved this book when I was little. I don’t distinctly remember that, and I don’t even remember what happens in the story, but I do have a vague sense of long-term positive associations with Henkes’ mouse books.

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Okay, time for a confession. I’ve never read Shiloh. I know, it’s a classic, and it even won the Newbery medal. I should have read it as a child and I should have read it as a children’s librarian. But I still haven’t read it, so I don’t actually have anything to say about it.

If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Numeroff

It’s not quite as noteworthy as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, but it’s still a really good picture book. I vaguely remember hearing Numeroff books in library storytimes. For the record, her books are still popular among preschool-aged kids. Last I knew, my cousin’s daughter was fond of them.

Bone by Jeff Smith

This graphic novel is the first in a series that, as a children’s librarian, I can tell you from personal experience is still immensely popular. To be honest, I really didn’t care for this book and I never bothered to read the rest of the series. I think it’s a genre preference thing, and this just isn’t the type of story that appeals to me. I actually hadn’t known that it had been around for so long.

Meet Felicity by Valerie Tripp

The American Girl series played a really large role in my childhood. My mother started reading the books to me and my sister as bedtime stories. I think we were about six at the time. As I got older, I read and reread the American Girl books so many times that it became a personal tradition, and I was still reading them for nostalgia purposes in my late teens. When I was little, I don’t remember having a particular affinity for Felicity, (for any of you unfamiliar with the American Girls franchise, Felicity is a nine-year-old girl living in colonial Virginia) but as an adult, I think that Felicity is notable for the character development she shows across the sub-series about her. The American Girls were such a big thing in the ‘90s that sometimes I feel as if it’s strange that not everyone is familiar with them now.

Movies and TV shows

I don’t watch a lot of ‘90s TV. For this list, I’m only including movies and TV shows that I’ve actually seen, and that eliminates a lot of stuff that’s actually really famous, like Terminator 2 and the show Seinfeld, which debuted in 1991. But there are at least four 1991 movies that I’ve seen, which are as follows:

Beauty and the Beast

I remember Beauty and the Beast  as one of those classic Disney movies that has literally always been around. But it hasn’t been around forever. In fact, I was around for eleven weeks before Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was. I had been completely unaware of that fact until I started looking things up for this blog post.

Drop Dead, Fred

At one point a couple years ago, I would sometimes watch full-length movies on youtube late at night, and this was one that I discovered on one such occasion. It’s about a woman who starts seeing her childhood imaginary friend after going through rough times and moving back in with her mother. Although Fred, the imaginary friend, is goofy and acts like a character in a light-hearted children’s movie, I wouldn’t classify this as a kids’ movie. I wouldn’t rank it anywhere near the top of the list of my favorite movies, but it definitely has a few good one-liners.

Star Trek VI:: The Undiscovered Country

I know I’ve seen this one, but to be honest, I don’t specifically remember what happens in it. I do know that it isn’t nearly as good as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. But really, when it comes down to it, there aren’t many things out there that are as good as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

What About Bob?

Bob Wiley suffers from severe phobias until his new psychiatrist somehow cures him with just a brief, cliché-ridden consultation. But now Bob is obsessed with Dr. Leo Marvin and follows him to his vacation home. Through a series of comedic events, Bob simultaneously makes Dr. Marvin miserable and endears himself to everyone else. The title role is played by Bill Murray. It’s very entertaining, but I can’t help but feel sorry for the “bad guy”. Dr. Marvin may be flawed and self-centered, but he doesn’t deserve all the terrible things that happen to him in this movie.

Music

I spent way too much time searching for music I recognized from 1991, and I sure didn’t find much. I do know some ‘90s music, but just by coincidence, hardly any of it is from ’91. It’s actually kind of weird.

(Everything I Do) I Do it For You by Bryan Adams

Since my parents still listened to current pop music at the time when I was born, I have been informed many times that this song was #1 when I was born. It also happened to be the biggest hit of the year. To be honest, I don’t really like it. I’m not the biggest fan of ‘90s music in general.

Don’t Cry by Guns N’ Roses

I definitely didn’t know this song when I was a kid. But I know it now, so on the list it goes. It’s a good song. I like it.

You’re in Love by Wilson Phillips

The only reason I know this song is that it’s on a cassette tape that my father recorded to celebrate Christmas. In fact, the chorus is the only part that I know at all. I’m actually a little confused as to whether this is actually a ’91 song. Youtube says 1990, but my Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits says 1991. Maybe it was on an album before it came out as a single?

Other

Dr. Seuss died on September 24. That’s right, folks, for eighteen days, Dr. Seuss and I were alive at the same time. Other notable deaths include British ballerina Margot Fonteyn, modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and Gilligan’s Island actress Natalie Schaeffer.

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the United States. I’m not much of a gamer, but I recognize that this was a significant cultural event. I have no idea, though, what distinguished the 1991 Nintendo from the 1985 Nintendo.

The internet became a thing. Actually, the development of the internet was a gradual process that spanned over a significant portion of the late 20th century. But the first web browser was created in 1991, and that’s a pretty significant milestone. If I understand correctly, that’s what really made the internet accessible to the public rather than just to computer experts. The web browser was called WorldWideWeb, but later named Nexus because it’s kind of confusing that WorldWideWeb and the world wide web aren’t the same thing. Nexus no longer exists.

Many of the biggest news events of the year had to do with the Gulf War, but the biggest political change with the end of the Soviet Union. Depending upon which events one defines as the birth of an independent country, one could say that I share a birthday with Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. (But it probably makes more sense to go with the late August dates.)

There’s This Book I’m Reading, episode 9

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Star Wars bookWhile killing time in a bookstore with my sister and brother about three weeks ago, I came across a book with an intriguing title: Star Wars Psychology. (edited by Travis Langley, PhD, 2015.) Upon taking it off the shelf and looking at it, I found that it is a series of short essays by various Star Wars fans who also happen to have knowledge (and, in most cases, advanced degrees) in psychology or related fields. As a side note, I later looked at the contributor bios in the back and was fascinated by just how cool and nerdy most of those people are. One of them, Star Wars fan by the name of Jay Scarlet, is even a librarian like me, except cooler because he has a master’s degree in psychology as well. Anyway, as you have probably guessed, I purchased the book.

I haven’t finished reading it, but I probably will yet this evening or perhaps tomorrow. I recommend it for anyone who has interest in both Star Wars and psychology. It is slightly less academic than I had initially expected, making it a relatively light read, especially given the brevity of most of the essays. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At the very least, the book is an analysis of the motivations of certain Star Wars characters. Just for fun, here are my comments on a few of the chapters that particularly caught my attention.

The second chapter in the book, written by Jenna Busch and Janina Scarlet, PhD,  is “So You Want to be a Jedi? Learning the Ways of the Force through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” I don’t know a lot about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but I was already aware that it focuses largely on the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness, which is similar to but not synonymous with meditation, has received a lot of positive attention in the media and mental health world. I have mixed feelings about the very concept, because so many people praise it as a cure to mental illness or a way of solving everyday life problems, neither of which is scientifically feasible. However, I am given to understand that research does show that practicing mindfulness is helpful in reducing stress and handling emotions without shutting them down. Contrary to how some people describe it, mindfulness is not a mystical experience or a secret technique. Busch and Scarlet define it as “paying attention to the present moment on purpose, without judgment or distraction,” which is really the same as what the word means in vernacular usage. The writers of this essay assert that mindfulness is a core aspect of Jedi training. It may sound a little funny, but seeing mindfulness framed as a Jedi-related concept helps me to understand it as a beneficial and legitimate concept.

Another psychological idea that this book clarified a little for me is self-actualization, as described by the famous humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. It’s a phrase that I’ve heard quite a lot, but I didn’t have a clear sense of what exactly it meant. Apparently, it just has to do with feeling content with who you are and/or where you are in life. In this book, the concept was described using the example of Darth Maul, in chapter four, by Travis Langley and Jenna Busch. (Apparently I like her writing, since I’ve mentioned both the parts she wrote) Darth Maul doesn’t get much screen time, really, and his movie is my least favorite of the six, but he is a pretty cool villain. Busch, Langley, and Sam Witwer (who voices Darth Maul in the animated Clone Wars series) describe Darth Maul as being self-absorbed, but highly insecure, in contrast to being self-actualized. It’s interesting seeing self-actualization described as an antonym for self-absorption. But it makes sense that extreme insecurity is just as self-centered as over-confidence.

Although I find psychology fascinating in general, I don’t often gravitate towards topics relating to gender psychology; however, the aspects of this book that touch upon those topics interested me very much. (Not to mention the fact that this book took a very balanced approach to gender psychology, which I appreciated.) The chapter on “Grief and Masculinity: Anakin the Man” by Billy San Juan, PsyD, describes the emotional journey that led Anakin to the dark side. While no one who has watched Episodes II and III will be unfamiliar with that journey, it’s fascinating and even somewhat eye-opening to observe the way that parallels some people’s real-world experiences. And a later chapter, (“A Distressing Damsel: Leia’s Heroic Journey” by Mara Wood) describes Princess Leia’s character development throughout the original trilogy by drawing from the research and writings of a therapist named Maureen Murdock, whose works I am now interested in reading myself.

There are a number of other particularly interesting parts of this book, such as the short passages on personality traits that come at the end of each of the five parts. But in the interest of relative brevity, I will conclude here. If you want to hear more, read it yourself. (And don’t worry about spoilers; it was written before The Force Awakens came into being.)

Particularly Awesome Books of 2015

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I have been looking forward to writing this blog post for a whole year. After my list of the best books of 2014, I decided that I wanted to do this every year. All of 2015, I have kept a running list of new books I’ve read that were really, really good. (I’m a children’s librarian, and as it so happens, all of the new books I read were children’s or YA books.) I’ve sorted them into seven categories and picked two to seven favorites from each one. For the picture books and the middle-grade novels, I had such a long list of favorites that I included ten additional titles that I particularly liked, mostly ones that I think have a shot at the ALA youth media awards to be announced later in January 2016. Before I go ahead and get started on the list, I want to reiterate some of my disclaimers from last year. Although I have read quite a lot of great books this year, including most of the children’s books that have gotten good reviews, I obviously have not read everything worthy of attention, so if your personal favorite is on this list, that might just mean I haven’t read it. Although I like to consider this “The Kaleidoscope49 Book Awards”, it is in no way official and is really just a list of my individual personal opinions. And the little annotations I’m writing are in no way intended to be formal book reviews, although you are encouraged to use them as book recommendations.

 

Picture Books

McToad Mows Tiny Island by Tom Angleberger

McToad Mows Tiny IslandThe author of the popular Origami Yoda series has now come out with a charming picture book about a toad with a lawn mower. Thursday is McToad’s favorite day of the week. Instead of mowing the grass on Big Island, on Thursday, McToad mows Tiny Island. The book enumerates the various forms of transportation, each listed in a different font, that are used to take the lawn mower from Big Island to Tiny Island, which will fascinate children who like to read about trains and airplanes and the like. But what really makes this book special is John Hendrix’s gorgeous, warm-toned artwork. This is a fantastic read-aloud for preschoolers.

Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups by Tadgh Bentley

Unlike the majority of books on my list, I haven’t noticed this one getting much hype in the world of children’s literature. But I think it deserves some attention because it’s funny, the penguin is adorable, and it’s just the sort of book that’s sure to entertain preschool-aged kids. It gets bonus storytime points for being interactive; the kids get to yell BOO to scare Penguin’s hiccups away.

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman

Zachariah Ohora’s two-dimensional acrylic artwork has a sentimental, old-fashioned feel to it that will appeal to readers of a variety of ages, but the humor is perfectly geared towards preschoolers. When the Bunny family finds and adopts a baby wolf, Dot is concerned that Wolfie is going to eat them all. This book will leave readers guessing about who is going to eat whom right up until the end, (spoiler: nobody gets eaten except the carrots) and Dot and Wolfie’s adoptive-sibling relationship gives the story a bit of depth beyond the humor.

Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast by Josh Funk

Lady Pancake and Sir French ToastIf you’re ready for a break from cute anthropomorphic animals, try this book about cute anthropomorphic breakfast foods. The rhyming text tells a story about a race through the refrigerator, with the syrup as the finish line. The slapstick humor and the feel-good message about friendship round out the list of appealing factors of this book. Because of the amount of text, it isn’t ideal for a storytime book, but it could be enjoyed as a read-aloud at home for children of a variety of ages.

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall

The red crayon has a problem. His drawings never look quite right. Everyone has suggestions, but no matter what he does, he just can’t draw red. When his new friend purple asks him to draw an ocean, the red crayon realizes that he is, in fact, blue. If the message about acceptance goes a little over the heads of the target audience, (about age three to four, in my opinion) that’s fine because the color mix-up will strike them as funny. There’s plenty of opportunity for interaction when this book is read aloud, because readers will know that the crayon is blue much sooner than the other crayons come to that conclusion.

A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins

A Fine DessertIn this book, the same dessert is made by four families living in four different American time periods. The idea is sweet (pun not intended) and the artwork is picturesque. For me, the most interesting thing about this book is the contrast in cooking utensils over the different time periods. A Fine Dessert has generated quite a bit of controversy due to its depiction of slavery. The eighteenth-century portion shows a slave mother and daughter cooking for the master’s family, and the slaves are smiling and happy. When I first saw this book, it didn’t strike me as being politically incorrect because it seems clear that it’s the relationship between the mother and daughter that makes them smile. In retrospect, I can understand the concern, and I considered not calling this one of my favorite picture books of 2015. But I feel that the author’s note at the end rectifies the problem by acknowledging the reality of slavery and gives a bit of a disclaimer saying that this book doesn’t intend to “explore the topic of slavery fully”. For its artwork and the concept, I decided to include the book on this list. I would recommend it for a slightly older audience than most picture books, specifically kindergarten through second grade, although older children and even adults could appreciate it as well.

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

If You Plant a SeedMoving back into the realm of animal stories—although they’re less anthropomorphized because they don’t talk—we have this book about gardening, not planting seeds of selfishness, and instead planting seeds of kindness. This book makes the list entirely because of the gorgeous oil painting artwork. The sky is vivid blue, the vegetables are colorful and so realistic that they genuinely look edible, (that tomato actually makes my mouth water) and the birds are the best part of all. If You Plant a Seed is a book that will appeal to a wide variety of ages; the text is brief and simple enough for even babies and toddlers, and the artwork is good enough to merit the appreciation of adults. In my opinion, this would make a good Caldecott winner, since the Caldecott award is specifically for artwork. In fact, at the school where I got my MLIS last year, this won the mock Caldecott award.

More Picture Books

Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett

Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert

Waiting by Kevin Henkes

The Snow Beast by Chris Judge

Grasshopper & the Ants by Jerry Pinkney

Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats by Alicia Potter

Where’s Walrus? And Penguin? By Stephen Savage

Lenny & Lucy by Philip C. Stead

Little Puppy Lost by Holly Webb

Early Readers

Pig is Big on Books by Douglas Florian

This is a great book for beginning readers who have just barely reached the stage where they’re ready to read full sentences. With its short sentences, controlled vocabulary, and large font, Pig is Big on Books is manageable for a preschooler or kindergartener to read, but it still tells a complete story. Pig loves to read, but one day, he can’t find any books, so he makes his own. The artwork is colorful enough to appeal to younger children, too. It’s a combination of watercolor, pencil, and collage, although in my opinion, the overall effect is similar to a child’s crayon artwork. That fits with the concept that Pig himself created the book. Incidentally, that’s another thing I like about it; not often do you find meta-narrative in an early reader.

That’s (Not) Mine by Anna Kang

The characters from last year’s Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner You Are (Not) Small are back, and this time, they’re arguing over a chair. Their tactics include adding a spinning chair to the deal, tickling one another with a feather, and yelling, before they finally apologize and abandon the chair to go play, and someone else gets the coveted seat. All of this is done with short sentences and mostly monosyllable words, making it age-appropriate for a kindergartener and perhaps some even younger readers.

Crow Made a Friend by Margaret Peot

Crow Made a FriendI’m not kidding when I say that this is one of the best romance stories I’ve ever read. First, Crow makes a friend out of sticks and autumn leaves, but they blow away. Then, crow builds a friend out of winter snow, but it melts. Then, Crow meets another crow and they build a nest together and have three baby crows and it’s adorable. The artwork is beautiful, too, although it’s not realistic because the crows are brightly multicolored instead of black, which might bother some children who are particularly literal. In terms of the reading level, I would primarily recommend this book for kindergarteners, but the storyline and artwork will appeal to a wide range of ages.

I Really Like Slop! By Mo Willems

Of the two new Elephant and Piggie books from this year, I like this one better. In fact, it’s one of my top two favorite books in the whole series. Pig really likes slop, but Elephant thinks it’s disgusting. Out of friendship for Piggie, Elephant tries some. He doesn’t like it, but he says he is glad he tried it. The best thing about this book, aside from the dialogue format that makes it so much more approachable for young readers than most books of this length, is Piggie and Elephant’s faces when they eat the slop. Any child who has ever had to try a food that they don’t like at all will relate to Elephant’s conundrum and will find it hilarious. Like the rest of the series, this book is great either as a read-aloud to preschoolers or for slightly older readers to read themselves.

­Chapter Books

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett

The Terrible TwoI had originally intended to put this under the Children’s Novels heading, but it’s not very difficult and it has a lot of pictures, so it’s a pretty quick and easy read considering that it’s over two hundred pages. Also, it has less literary merit than laugh-out-loud merit. Miles isn’t happy about moving to Yawnee Valley, an “idyllic” but boring town characterized by its cows. In fact, he’s dreading starting his new school. After years of being an established prankster at his old school, he now has to start all over. And what makes it even worse is that his new school already has a prankster, and that prankster is very, very good.  I would recommend The Terrible Two for kids in third or fourth grade who love humorous books, as well as advanced second grade readers or older reluctant readers.

The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party by Shannon Hale

This is the second book in a new series that is perfect for the demographic group that loves princess stories, especially if those princesses are more adventurous than the stereotypical princess. Princess Magnolia essentially has a secret identity as a monster-fighting ninja, although the terms “secret identity” and “ninja” are never used. In this book, it’s her birthday, but her party is repeatedly interrupted as she must find excuses to change into her black clothes and go defeat a monster. Princess Magnolia’s story is hilarious, full of colorful pictures, and simple enough for most first-graders to easily read on their own.

Danger in the Darkest Hour by Mary Pope Osborne

Danger in the Darkest HourThis book from the highly popular Magic Tree House series is a super edition, and as such, is significantly longer and a bit more advanced than most of the series. In my opinion, it also has an especially good plot. Jack and Annie’s friend Kathleen is on a secret time-traveling mission and hasn’t returned. Now, Jack and Annie must go to Normandy, France in June 1944 to find and rescue her. Guided only by Kathleen’s cryptic message, they travel through WWII Normandy on an adventure even more exciting and historically informative than their others. Although the bulk of the series is written at about a second-grade reading level, I would consider this more of a third-grade book, and it certainly has appeal for older readers as well.

Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve

It’s hard to find good science fiction for younger readers, but Cakes in Space fills that niche. Picture a version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with a ten-year-old female protagonist, written at about a third-grade reading level, with lots of pictures, and you should have a pretty good idea of at least the tone of this book. Astra’s family is moving to a new planet, and since the voyage will take 199 years, they will spend it in sleeping pods. Astra wants the ship’s Nom-O-Tron machine to make her a bedtime snack, but it isn’t ready on time. When she wakes up early, she discovers that the Nom-O-Tron did eventually produce a cake, and that the ship is now being taken over by cake-based life forms.

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems

The Story of Diva and FleaDiva is a very small white dog living as a pampered pet in a fancy apartment building in Paris. Flea is an alley cat who wanders the streets of Paris. The two become friends, and the result is something halfway between the plot of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse and the 1970 animated Disney movie The Aristocats. As Mo Willem’s fans have come to expect, this story is playful and humorous, but both the word choice and Tony DiTerlizzi’s artwork have a sophistication that shows a great respect for the intelligence of the reader. (In terms of reading level, I would recommend The Story of Diva and Flea primarily to second and third graders.)

Novels in Verse

Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton

Full Cicada MoonAt the beginning of 1969, twelve-year-old Mimi Oliver moves from California to Vermont. In her new home, she faces prejudice because she is half black and half Japanese, but that is only part of the story told in this book. It also includes anecdotes about good times with her new friends, her successes and challenges in school, her fascination with the Apollo 11 mission, her dreams of becoming an astronaut, and her struggle to take Shop class instead of Home Economics. Critics have compared this book to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming from last year, and I agree with that assessment. Although Mimi and the target audience are in middle school, older elementary-school-aged readers could certainly handle this book; the verse format makes it a relatively easy read even though it is long and has a good deal of emotional depth.

Believearexic by J.J. Johnson

I admit it, I’m a bit biased about this one because I relate to it so much. Believearexic is an autobiographical story about treatment for an eating disorder, and although my own eating disordered tendencies were never nearly as severe and my treatment was nowhere near as intense, Jennifer’s experiences were very familiar to me, and, I thought, very well-articulated. The book is very emotional; parts of it are even somewhat triggering for people with eating disordered tendencies, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, I would just warn sensitive readers to be prepared for the fact that it deals very honestly and openly with difficult topics. I loved the way the format subtly shifted. The book started out in verse with short lines and an abstract, vague tone. Then it morphed into prose-like language even though the format still looked like verse. About halfway through, it fully turned into prose. I wondered if that was done to reflect the changes in Jennifer’s state of mind, but regardless of the reasoning behind it, it was interesting. Jennifer is fifteen years old in this book, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to readers much younger than that. In fact, I kept on forgetting that this story was geared towards teens rather than readers my age. I’m going to say that I suggest it for ages fourteen and up, including adults.

Children’s Novels

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

To be honest, I didn’t expect to like this book much, since I’m not a big fan of the talking-animal genre, and the imaginary-friend trope feels to me like it’s been slightly overdone lately. But Crenshaw really is a good book, and the talking/imaginary animal/friend isn’t even a particularly major part of the plot. It has more to do with the hardships of poverty, the fear of homelessness, and the comforts of friendship and family. It’s very sentimental, but not in a cheesy way. Crenshaw is not a particularly challenging book, so children as young as third grade could handle it, but it also will hold some appeal for readers as old as middle school.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing about JellyfishIf I had to make a Newbery prediction, this is one of the two books I’d be torn between. (Scroll down just a little to read about the other, which is Echo) After Suzy’s ex-best-friend Franny dies unexpectedly, Suzy stops talking and then becomes obsessed with jellyfish. She believes that Franny actually died of a jellyfish sting. This train of thought eventually leads her to run away from home in an effort to visit an expert on jellyfish on the other side of the world. Although this book is sad and emotional, it also is something that a nerdy science-lover like Suzy will find fascinating for its fun facts. Suzy is in seventh grade, and I would recommend this book for readers in fourth through eighth grade, but especially the middle of that range.

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Anyone who loved Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein will enjoy Book Scavenger, too, and will probably notice similarities between the two. Twelve-year-old Emily has just moved to San Francisco when she finds herself working on solving a mystery that she thinks is a puzzle set up by Garrison Griswold, creator of an internet-based scavenger hunt. But what she doesn’t realize is that Griswold has been attacked, and that this mystery is more important than a scavenger hunt. Perfect for middle schoolers who love mysteries, especially but not only those who read widely enough to be familiar with some of the literary references in the book. (Edgar Allen Poe is pretty significant to the plot.)

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold

This one is ineligible for ALA awards, not only because it’s not an American book, but because it was originally published last year. But it’s eligible for my list because I say so and because it’s very good. Its main asset is the humor. Amanda, who (spoiler!) dies pretty early on in the book, has some pretty entertaining one-liners. But for such a silly book, it has a pretty scary antagonist, (Mr. Bunting, who eats imaginaries) not to mention that Amanda’s death is sad and very surprising. After the first few chapters, the humor sort of takes a backseat to the action, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the action is good, too. The illustrations add a lot to the story, even though most books at this reading level don’t have pictures. (It’s best suited for fourth- and fifth-graders) I know I said earlier that the whole deal with imaginary friends has been overdone lately, but this is a book where it was done very well.

All The Answers by Kate Messner

All the AnswersI think that my favorite genre is what could be called low fantasy. That is, it has magic or supernatural elements, but it’s set in the real world and has some plot points that are consistent with realistic fiction. If we’re going by that definition, All The Answers is very low fantasy, and as such, I love it. It’s essentially realistic fiction, but with one magical element: Ava’s pencil. When she gets stuck on a math quiz, Ava writes “What is the formula to find the circumference of a circle?” in the margin of her test, and the pencil answers her question via a voice in her head. After that discovery, Ava and her friend Sophie use the magic pencil to answer trivial questions just for fun and to figure out how to do favors for other people. But Ava can’t resist using the pencil to set some of her worries at rest, and she ends up finding out a horrible secret she can’t do anything to fix. Recommended for fourth through eighth graders.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

This historical fiction (and sort of fantasy) book follows the story of a harmonica as it is owned by three different characters in the general time frame of World War II. (There is also a brief introductory section with a fourth character, and a brief concluding section that ties the characters together.) First, there’s Friedrich, whose sister horrifies the family by embracing the ideals of the Nazi party. Then, the harmonica finds its way to America, into the hands of an orphan named Mike. Later, it belongs to Ivy, a girl in California whose family is caring for the property of a Japanese family who have been put in an internment camp. This is not a quick or an easy read; I would suggest it for middle schoolers, but I definitely would expect them to take a while with it. It has a lot of merit as a work of historical fiction, and it would especially appeal to readers who have an aptitude for music themselves, as that is a thread that links all of the main characters.

The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden by Emma Trevayne

The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas MarsdenOf all the books on my list, this is perhaps the one that has received the least attention. Maybe that’s because it’s written for a fairly niched audience. It’s supernatural and dark, yet it has fairies. The plot is fairly complex and the language is old-fashioned, yet it’s geared towards kids in the fourth-to-sixth-grade age range. It’s set in a very specific historical setting, yet it’s more fantasy than historical fiction. On the night before his twelfth birthday, gravedigger Thomas Marsden finds his own body. As is later explained to him, the body he found was actually a fairy named Thistle. Fairy mothers have the power to split a newborn child into two beings—one completely non-magical and one extra-magical—and this is what happened in Thomas and Thistle’s case. Fairies also have the power to communicate with the dead, which is why a famous medium has captured a group of fairies. Thistle was supposed to be able to rescue them, but he failed and died trying, so now, they want Thomas’s help.

Other Middle Grade Novels

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

George by Alex Gino

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Graphic Novels

The Lunch Witch by Deb Lucke

Grunhilda comes from a long line of successful witches, but her career isn’t going so well. Neither selling potions nor giving tours as a fake witch work out, so she becomes a school lunch lady. A student named Madison needs help boosting her intelligence and demands help from Grunhilda, but Grunhilda accidentally turns her into a toad. This graphic novel for elementary-school-aged readers is dark, disgusting, and very, very clever.

Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola

Baba Yaga's AssistantNot to be repetitive, but this one also involves a witch. Baba Yaga is a character from Russian folklore, and this graphic novel begins with a girl named Masha finding an advertisement asking for an assistant for Baba Yaga. Masha misses her deceased mother and grandmother and dislikes her soon-to-be stepmother and stepsister, so she’s all too glad to apply for the position. The story is emotional and slightly creepy, and Emily Carroll’s artwork is perfect, especially because the style changes depending upon the context. Baba Yaga’s Assistant could be considered a YA book, but it’s also entirely appropriate for and could be appealing to children as young as fourth or fifth grade.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Based on a webcomic by the same author, this graphic novel is a cross between a superhero story and fantasy. The title character is a shapeshifter with such a complex personality that it’s impossible to pin her down as either a good guy or a bad guy, or even to tell whether she’s impulsive or working towards some goal. She is a self-proclaimed assistant to Lord Ballister Blackheart, who is working to undermine Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, who aren’t really the good guys that everyone thinks they are. Recommended for readers ages twelve and up who like adventures with dragons, big battles, and ambiguity about which side is the good side.

YA Novels

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle

The Accident SeasonCara’s family is inexplicably accident-prone during the month of October every year. They take every precaution that they can, but everyone has a feeling that this will be a bad year. The book starts with Cara noticing that Elsie, an acquaintance who she doesn’t know very well, is in every single one of her pictures. From that very first moment, this book is mysterious, suspenseful and intriguing. For teens that especially like Halloween, it’s an appropriately creepy read for late October. I may have been slightly biased by the setting, because it takes place in Ireland, which is cool.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Lex is struggling to move on after her brother Tyler committed suicide. Some chapters take the form of journal entries that Lex writes at the suggestion of her therapist, Dave. Early in the book, Lex thinks she sees her brother a couple times, but this is not a ghost story, it’s a story about recovery from grief. I’m including it as one of my favorites not so much for the basic plot points as because it’s very well-written and Lex is a highly likable character. Between the length, the discussion of suicide, and the emotional depth, I would say that this book is best suited for readers age fifteen or older.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

Finding AudreyMinor spoiler: We never do find out what the traumatic event was that triggered Audrey’s extreme anxiety. We just know that she was in the hospital at some point after something bad happened at school. When she develops a crush on her brother’s friend Linus, it helps pull her out of her shell and overcome her anxiety. Unlike most books about mental illness, this one is light-hearted and humorous, particularly in the depiction of the relationship between Audrey’s gamer brother Frank and their mother, who hates gaming with a passion. I thought that the blend of humor, romance, and honest depiction of mental illness makes this book very unique. It’s a little on the long side for younger readers, but I think that middle-schoolers as well as high-schoolers could enjoy it.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

The farming town of Bone Gap is an unusual place that seemed to me to lie somewhere between the realm of realistic fiction and fantasy. The chapters told from the point of view of Finn, a teenager who lives with his older brother, are almost realistic, but the chapters told from the point of view of Roza, Finn’s brother’s mysterious girlfriend, are otherworldly. Roza was kidnapped and Finn is determined to find her, but he doesn’t know how. Bone Gap first attracted my attention when the National Book Award longlists came out, and it definitely deserves its place on that list, both for the unusual and compelling writing style, and for the twists and turns that keep the plot suspenseful.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger DeepI was pretty excited when this book won the National Book Award for the youth category. It’s about schizoaffective disorder, a mental disease that is characterized by episodes of depression, mania, and psychosis. Caden Bosch’s narrative switches back and forth between his real life and a dreamlike story in which he’s on the crew of a ship on an expedition to the Marianas Trench, and as the book progresses the reader gradually makes the connections between Caden’s experiences on the ship and his experiences in the mental hospital where his parents have brought him. Shusterman’s source is his own son, and the book even includes artwork drawn by Brendan Shusterman when he was experiencing psychosis. The book is very interesting and very well-written, but this is yet another case in which my fondness for it is somewhat biased by my own experiences. As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression, I always like reading things that give an accurate and sympathetic view of mental illness.

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Ballet, mystery, murder, and hints of time travel and the supernatural… This novel has it all, especially when you take into consideration how unique the prison setting is. Readers are left wondering who is guilty and who is innocent until fairly late in the book. It’s dark and disturbing, but too fascinating to put down for long. I’ve read reviews that call it haunting, and I really can’t think of a better adjective to describe this book. Like a couple others that I’ve included on this list, it’s not really ideal for most readers younger than high school, although I wouldn’t dissuade an intelligent and interested twelve- or thirteen-year-old from giving it a try.

Nonfiction

The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

This autobiographical story was originally written for adults, and as such, was a New York Times bestseller, but there is also a “young reader’s edition” written at about a fourth-to-sixth-grade reading level. It takes place in a small, poor farming community in Malawi, Africa, where Kamkwamba grew up experiencing poverty and famine. But his dedication and innovation, as well as inspiration from a library book, led him to build a windmill that brought electricity into his home. Kamkwamba was eventually able to return to school and now has a college degree and is a public speaker. Not only is his story inspirational, but it is fascinating to read about how someone who was a child so recently (he’s only four years older than me!) grew up in an environment so different from what we experience in America.

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

Most DangerousThis one is really a crossover between YA and adult. I could see some readers as young as twelve or thirteen enjoying it, but only if they had an interest in the Vietnam war or mid-twentieth-century American history. It’s not a quick read, but it is interesting, more so than I had expected. Daniel Ellsberg’s mark on history is that he leaked secret documents regarding America’s activities in Vietnam, demonstrating to the general population that many decisions were made for different reasons than what the government publicly said. This book, as the subtitle implies, is a cross between a biography of Ellsberg and an account of the Vietnam war as a whole.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder

Picture book biographies aren’t always good, but when they are, they’re very good. This one is very good. It’s fairly sparse on text and could appeal to readers as young as kindergarten, (I would recommend it to older readers as well, but it wouldn’t be much of a reading challenge) but it’s informative and will fascinate readers who like ballet and might not be familiar with the history behind the art form. Anna Pavlova, who was a famous Russian ballerina in the early decades of the twentieth century, was dancing at a time when the ballet world was significantly different than it is now, and her story is interesting and inspirational.

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker

The subtitle itself gives a pretty descriptive summary of this book. It’s another picture book biography, (if you can count a book about a bear rather than a human as a biography) but it has a little more text, making it suited for a slightly older audience. I’ll just say elementary-school-aged as a whole, although few readers older than second grade would find it challenging. The artwork is beautiful and the story is sweet, but the main appeal of this book for me is that it gives the complete story behind a fun fact that we’ve all heard without knowing all the details.

Grownup Books I’ve Read

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Because I am a children’s librarian, I primarily read books for children. I guess I also read a fair amount of books for teens, but I really don’t read many grown-up books. However, I do read some, so I’ve decided to give the internet my personal opinion of every grown-up book I’ve read in 2015 so far. So here they are, in order of when I read them.

virtual unrealityVirtual Unreality by Charles Seife, 2014.

One of the ways in which digital technology and the internet have changed the world is that false information is easy to disseminate and hard to correct. Seife explores this fact and discusses related details regarding informational reliability and the nature of internet-age journalism. He illustrates his points with anecdotes that are often humorous, but the overall takeaway from the book is serious: you can’t trust very much of what you hear or read. I wouldn’t rate this book at the top of the fun-reading scale, but it’s definitely an informative read.

Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes It Good by N.T. Wright, 2015.

I actually did write an entire blog post on this one, and here’s the link. As you can see if you care to follow that link, I had quite a lot to say about this book, but I’m not going to reiterate it all here. I don’t agree with everything that Wright says, but I do feel that it’s better than a lot of the similar books out there, and I definitely recommend it for people who like to read a variety of popular Christian books just to see what’s being said.

time warpedTime Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond, 2013.

This book caught my eye because it’s about two things that interest me: the nature of time and the way the human mind works. Hammond cites psychological and neurological research to discuss phenomenon such as the way time speeds up as we get older and the way time seems to pass more quickly when we’re having fun. This book will not answer all of your questions definitively, since science hasn’t found definitive answers for a lot of them, but it will give you a lot more information than what you probably already know about how your mind works with time.

The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us by Jeffery Kluger, 2012.

I didn’t feel that this book quite lived up to its title, since it didn’t talk about what sibling relationships say about us as much as just pointing out trends in the way family relationships work. But with that being said, it was definitely interesting, and it contains a lot of biological, psychological, and sociological information that’s worth knowing if you’re interested in the subject matter. One complaint that I have about this book is that it seems to make the assumption that, in every family, each child moves out to go to college at the age of eighteen. Despite the variety of family situations that it discusses (one-child households, large families, twins, divorce, remarriage, stepsiblings, half siblings, single-parent households, families where the older children play a large role in raising the younger children…) it didn’t even acknowledge the possibility of someone over the age of eighteen living with their parents and younger siblings. Since that’s very common in this generation, it seemed like a pretty major oversight to me.

Consider the forkConsider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson, 2013.

By zooming in on the evolution of specific utensils or machines, this book gives an incredibly broad view of how culinary practices have changed over time. Each chapter discusses one type of kitchen item, such as the knife, or the fire/oven, and traces that one thing through various time periods and cultures. I loved this book and would strongly recommend it for anyone who enjoys cooking. It definitely is more about cooking than about history, but it has that cross-genre element that makes it interesting in a completely unique way.

Gone Girl by Gilian Flynn, 2014.

As you have probably noticed, most of the adult books that I do read are non-fiction. I tend to not particularly enjoy fiction for adults, with the exception of the great classics. I’ve heard so much about this particular book and its movie, though, that I decided to read it and see what I thought. I’m actually not done with it yet. I have very mixed thoughts on it. I definitely do feel that it’s well written and suspenseful; there have been a couple times that I meant to read one chapter and ended up reading three or four. But I’m not sure it’s exactly my kind of book. I’m so accustomed to reading literature for people younger than me that it’s a little weird to read about the troubled marriage of characters a decade older than me. And all of the characters are so unlikable. I don’t regret buying and reading this book, but it’s not the kind of thing that I’d go back and read again and again, or that I’d be excited to recommend to someone, or that I would particularly want to discuss in any other context than this kind of list.

Books About OCD

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Multiple ChoiceToday, you blog readers get some personal information about me and a list of books for the price of one blog post. (That is, free.) You see, today’s topic is children’s and teens’ books about OCD, a thing which I happen to have. As the particularly clever ones among you may have guessed, this is not a mere coincidence. My OCD is in fact the reason that it occurred to me to write such a blog post. Interestingly enough, it was a fictional book that first alerted me to my OCD tendencies. I was probably about fourteen or fifteen and I had checked out a book called Multiple Choice from the library. I don’t remember what drew my attention to it. That was before I entered my Scrabble phase, so the Scrabble tiles on the cover didn’t have much to do with it. But for whatever reason, I checked out that book, and I identified with the main character so closely that it came as a shock to me when I looked at the Library of Congress Subject Headings on the title page and saw “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” and “Mental Disorders”. (Yes, I went through a phase where I always checked the Library of Congress Subject headings in books I read. I guess I was always meant to be a librarian.)

This post has been a long time in the writing, because it took me a while to find and read a bunch of fictional books on OCD. Despite the frequent manner in which the phrase “OCD” is thrown around, there isn’t a whole lot of literature on the actual disorder. My original intention had been to evaluate each book on its accuracy, but what I did find was all quite descriptive and accurate. Each of the authors either had OCD themselves or had done thorough research on the topic. So my discussion of these books will mainly consist of plot summary. I’m also rating them on a five-point scale.

Ten Turtles on Tuesday by Ellen Flanagan Burns, 2014.

This book teaches its readers what OCD is by relating the experiences of a girl named Sarah. Sarah counts obsessively, and when she tells her parents, they take her to a therapist. By the end of the book, Sarah has learned how to ignore her compulsions without becoming anxious. On the one hand, Sarah’s story is very informative in the way it describes her symptoms and treatment. On the other hand, it doesn’t make a very interesting story. There’s really no plot aside from Sarah’s OCD. Also, the book looks like an easy reader in terms of its format and illustrations, but is written at a second-or-third-grade level and is much longer than an easy reader. As a general rule, independent readers don’t like books that look like little-kid books. So this is not a book I would recommend, even though I think it’s nice that there’s a book out there that describes OCD in a way that young children can understand.

Reading level: About 2nd grade

My rating:  Two points

Total Constant Order by Crissa-Jean Chappell, 2007.

It’s early in freshman year of high school when Fin is diagnosed first with depression and then with OCD. Her mother doesn’t want Fin on medication, so Fin takes the medicine in secret. But she is so bothered by the side effects that she quits, not realizing that the withdrawal effects of psychiatric medications are even worse than the side effects. Meanwhile, Fin turns to a new coping strategy: graffiti. This book is more about the relationships Fin has with her mother and her friend Thayer than about Fin’s depression and OCD, and it wasn’t exactly my kind of book, but I’m going to give it a middling rating anyway, because it was pretty well written, if not especially memorable. One thing that I liked about it is the stream-of-consciousness narrative in the opening chapters. Fin’s out-of-control thought process shows the reader a very clear picture of how she experiences OCD symptoms.

Reading level: 7th grade and up

My rating: Three points

OCD Love StoryOCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu, 2013.

The first time seventeen-year-old Bea meets Beck, he’s having a panic attack during a power failure. The second time she meets him is when she’s diagnosed with OCD and starts attending group therapy sessions, and he’s in the group. Bea’s obsessions take the form of being excessively careful while driving, saving disturbing news stories,  and listening in on a couple’s therapy session before her session. She thinks she’s a little less OCD than Beck, who is compulsive about exercise, cleanliness, and the number eight. And she perceives herself as being much more functional than Jenny, who pulls her hair out, or Rudy, who picks at his face and makes hostile remarks in group. But as the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear just how much Bea is affected by her disorder. She isn’t just a little obsessive; she’s a stalker. This book is one of the best ones on the list, both because it’s well-written and because Bea’s thought process does such a good job of depicting OCD. I really related to Bea even though my own experiences with OCD have been extremely different than hers.

Reading level: High school

My rating: Four points

Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser, 1998.

As a description of what OCD is like, this book is great. As a novel, this book is mediocre. It doesn’t have a plot beyond the narrator Tara’s description of what OCD feels like and how it impacted her preteen and early teen years. Most of the characters are stereotypes, and in fact, Tara’s friend Keesha is such a stereotypical token black friend that it’s borderline racist. One perk about this particular book, though, is that it includes some pretty specific information about what exactly OCD is. I feel that I actually learned something about how the brain works. Although I do take issue with the way the characters describe OCD as a problem in chemistry rather than a psychological disorder. Psychological disorders are abnormalities in brain chemistry and neurological processes.

Reading level: 7th grade and up

My rating: Two and a half points

Mr. WorryMr. Worry by Holly L. Niner, 2004.

I hadn’t really expected that there would be a picture book about OCD, but there is, and this is it. Kevin worries a lot and has a very specific bedtime routine. Just as in Ten Turtles on Tuesday, the plot consists entirely of Kevin beginning therapy for OCD and ends with him overcoming the symptoms. It’s not the most fascinating book out there, and it’s a little text-heavy for a picture book, but I actually quite liked the illustrations, and I felt that it was pretty thorough about describing what OCD feels like. In fact, there were two aspects of Kevin’s situation that really resonated with me that I haven’t seen in other places. When Kevin is told to do something, he feels compelled to double-check with adults to make sure he’s doing it right. When I was a kid, I sometimes would ask permission multiple times just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I usually would laugh it off, saying that I forgot if I had already asked. It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about that. The book also shows Kevin being afraid that his mother is an alien, which is an oddly specific fear that I also had as a child, although for me, it was part of a longer and complex narrative. Again, it had never occurred to me that such a thought was an OCD thing. The point of all this is just that I thought that this book was quite informative, despite its relative lack of plot.

Reading level: K-2nd grade

My rating: Three and a half points

Multiple Choice by Janet Tashjian, 1999.

This book is pretty dated, and it’s old enough that it’s a bit hard to track down, but I thought it belonged on this list since it’s the aforementioned book that introduced me to OCD and made me wonder if I was OCD. Fourteen-year-old Monica Devon worries and obsesses about everything, but she thinks she’s found an escape when she invents a game that entails making decisions based upon randomly drawing Scrabble tiles. But sometimes, the Scrabble tiles lead her to unkind or unwise choices, and Monica’s mental problems compel her to act on those choices anyway. Based on what I wrote about it above, I think it’s pretty obvious that I found it to be well-written and memorable, and that I think it’s an extremely accurate depiction of what OCD is like. However, after reading all of these other books, I now feel that Multiple Choice is just a little emotionally flat.

Reading level: 6th grade and up

My rating: Four points

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten, 2015.

Almost-fifteen-year-old Adam Ross is in love with Robyn Plummer, the new girl in his OCD support group. This book tells the story of their developing romance, Adam’s experiences with his OCD symptoms, and the family drama and trauma that fills Adam’s sophomore year of high school. I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s well-written with a memorable and likable cast of well-developed and believable characters. It’s also very engaging and very emotional, especially near the end. As a YA romance, it’s an exceptionally good book. On the other hand, I could tell before I got to the Q-and-A with the author at the back of the book that she herself doesn’t have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’m not discounting the extensive research that she did, or the knowledge that she picked up from knowing OCD people. But the way she describes Adam’s thought process doesn’t always ring true. Another thing that bothers me about this book is that the main characters show an extreme lack of empathy for people whose symptoms vary slightly from theirs. For example, Adam can’t comprehend eating disordered compulsions, and is very annoyed by a group-mate’s hypochondriac obsessions. But I’m willing to concede that it might be the character’s perceptions rather than the book itself that poses a problem for me. So, all in all, I would definitely call this a good book, but not one of the more informative ones on this list.

Reading level: 7th grade and up

My rating: Three and a half points

OCD, The Dude, and Me by Lauren Roedy Vaughn, 2013.

Danielle is a high-school senior at a special school for students who struggle academically despite having normal IQs. In Danielle’s case, the issue is OCD, ADHD, and (spoiler alert) trauma from witnessing the violent death of a friend when they were in eighth grade. The story of Danielle’s senior year is told through a collection of her English assignments, letters to and from various people, and journal entries. I didn’t exactly love this book and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for that. Because Danielle has ADHD as well as OCD, her experiences and symptoms are very different from what I’ve experienced, and I don’t think I know quite enough about what it’s like to have ADHD to try to gauge its accuracy.

Reading level: High school

My rating: Three points

Don't TouchDon’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson, 2014.

Cadence Finn—known to family and friends as Caddie—is going through a lot of changes. Her parents have recently separated, and she is switching to a performing arts high school. There, she reunites with Mandy, her ex-best friend and fellow actress, and joins Mandy’s social group. She even gets cast as Ophelia in Hamlet. Anyone would feel a little stressed, but Caddie is completely overwhelmed by anxiety. Her fear of touching people becomes so intense that she must wear gloves at all times, and if anybody does get through her barriers and touch her, she has to “wash it off.” It isn’t until more than halfway through the book that her problems are specifically described as OCD, but it’s pretty clear all along. There are so many things I love about this book. For one thing, Caddie has things going on in her life besides her OCD: school, acting, friendship drama, a crush on her costar, family drama… It’s so much more realistic than books in which the characters’ mental and emotional problems are the entire plot. Also, this book takes place in Birmingham, Alabama, which is where I went to college, so, for me, it was a nostalgic reading experience. It’s a great book from a literary standpoint, too, because the characters are distinct and well fleshed-out, there’s notable character development, it has the emotional depth that’s characteristic of good YA fiction, and the pace and writing style are just right to make Don’t Touch a pageturner. But, for the sake of this blog post, the main thing I want to point out is that Caddie’s thought process really resonates with me, and probably with any other readers with OCD. Even though I’ve never had the particular obsessions and compulsions that Caddie does, I am happy to give it my stamp of accuracy. (Metaphorically speaking, because I don’t actually have a stamp of accuracy. That would be so cool if I did.)

Reading level: High school

My rating: Five points

There’s This Book I’m Reading, Episode 8

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The dangerous thing about working in a library is that you no longer feel a need to control the urge to collect books. Since you constantly have the opportunity to help yourself to as many books as you want, for free and for a short period of time, you forget about the expense and the clutter that result from buying books frequently. I’m used to coming and going with an armload of books. I think that’s a good thing in and of itself, but then late one evening, I found myself in a bookstore. I spent too much money that day, because books are cool and I wanted to take them all home with me. Every single one of them, but a few dozen in particular. Instead, I only got six.

Simply Good NewsOne of the books that caught my eye was Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good by N.T. Wright, a biblical scholar in the Church of England. I used to read a lot of books by biblical scholars written for a popular audience, which is probably why I gravitated towards that particular title on that particular evening. Usually, I don’t actually enjoy such books. For one thing, they generally aren’t theologically solid. In college, I was taught that every Christian denomination besides Roman Catholicism could be lumped into two categories: evangelical or liberal/mainline. That’s an extreme oversimplification, but it does seem to be true of Christian books written for the popular audience. In particular, there are a lot of books that are more concerned with debunking Christianity than affirming it, but still claim to be Christian books. Those are the worst, not only because they are full of half-truths that deliberately undermine people’s faith, but because they tend to be full of absurd straw-man arguments, they often take the approach that the author’s credentials make him more reliable than the Bible itself, and they are written for the purpose of sensationalism rather than truth. Many theological writers for the popular audience will grasp at any excuse to say that the canonical gospels are unreliable, but will then ignore their own logical principles in order to promote non-canonical writings of uncertain origin or authenticity. Those books will claim that they are taking a historical approach to Christianity and viewing all ancient documents without allowing their beliefs to bias them, but that’s just rhetoric. What they are actually doing is trying to come up with new and sensational ideas to write about in order to attract lots of readers and build up their names as theologians so that they can sell even more of the next sensational book they might write. Of what I’ve read, Bart Ehrman is the worst. If I was important enough to have a nemesis, my nemesis would be Bart Ehrman, because he’s especially bad about a lot of those things.

So, for all those reasons, I went into Simply Good News without much confidence that it would be a book of any theological value. I just finished it immediately before giving this blog post a final re-write, and my overall evaluation is that it’s incredibly suspenseful. It has kept me on the edge of my seat (if I’m even sitting down instead of pacing around the room while reading) and I have had a hard time putting in down. For a novel, that would be the sign of success, but for a nonfiction book told in non-narrative prose, suspense doesn’t really seem to be the point.

The reason I find it so suspenseful is that I can never be quite sure where Wright is going. For the first 23 pages, he equivocates on the meaning of the phrase “good news” (and points out that the word “gospel” literally means “good news”, which he introduces as if it’s a little-known fact) without being specific about what the “good news” of Christianity is. I hoped that he would rightly identify the good news as salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but I was more than a little afraid that he was writing this book for the purpose of proposing a new idea of what Christianity is all about. Fortunately, Wright did eventually get around to pointing to the cross and the empty tomb. To my delight, he introduced the “good news” by quoting the Bible: “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible; he was buried; he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Bible…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6, although I’ve cut out part of the quotation.) At that point in the book, Wright seemed to be deliberately avoiding addressing the reality of sin, which meant that the gospel is really watered down despite the fact that that’s what he’s specifically trying not to do. But at least he isn’t redefining Christianity itself, which is something that happens all too often.

So, throughout the first three chapters, I was pretty pleased with Simply Good News. I wouldn’t say that I agreed with every word of it, but it was refreshing to read a book of this type that is not dismissive of the Bible, and is not a self-help/inspirational book disguised as religious literature. In fact, much of what Wright has to say in the early chapters of this book is to lament the fact that popular Christianity in our culture so often takes that route, treating Jesus as a wise man who gave good advice rather than as our savior. That’s very true. To use the over-simplified distinction that I was taught in college, evangelicals tend to see Jesus as a moral leader whose example must be followed, and liberals tend to see Jesus as an advocate for equality and social justice. Neither of those concepts are devoid of truth, but they’re not what Jesus’ mission was about, and they’re not what the “good news”  really is.

About eight pages into chapter four was where the suspense started to pick up again. By then, I had basically come to the conclusion that Simply Good News was indeed a good book that sets forth to put the Christ back into Christianity, not just in the sense that it talks about Jesus, but that it recognizes Jesus as the Christ who came to save the world from sin and death, rather than just a cool guy who came to tell us all how to be cool, too. Even the beginning of chapter four, in which Wright asserts that the Bible can be trusted, and in which he dismisses Ehrman’s pretense at scholarly superiority without mentioning Ehrman by name, is really great. But then Wright starts describing three “problems that prevent those in our time from grasping the idea of good news”. The very first of these “problems” is an over-emphasis on the redemption. To quote from page 65, “The church has latched onto a way of speaking about the gospel that goes like this: you are a sinner, deserving death; Jesus died in your place; therefore believe in him, and you’ll go to heaven after all. This can be shortened even further to something like, Jesus took my punishment. This assumes, first, that I deserved it, and second, that because Jesus took my punishment I therefore go free. There are many churches in which preaching the gospel means little more than repeating, explaining, and illustrating this statement.”

To which I can only say, “Yeah, you got a problem with that?” Because I belong to a church body that puts the emphasis on the cross and the salvation that comes from it. And that’s a good thing, because what can be more important and more precious than salvation? Of course, no pithy statement about Jesus includes every truth that can be found in the Bible, but pointing to the Law and Gospel message of sin and salvation is the closest you can get to fitting the whole of Christianity into a nutshell.

But, as it turns out, Wright’s objection to this description of the good news is basically that he has heard it in contexts where there are other theological problems happening. In particular, he associates it with the idea that dying and going to heaven is the end, and not understanding that the new creation is more good and more permanent than whatever it is that happens to us between death and the end of this world. (Granted, that is something that is rarely discussed, and may come as a new piece of information to many people who read Wright’s book.)

Wright spends most of the rest of the chapter discussing two other problems that are extremely prevalent and not talked about enough. One is what Wright calls the “split-level world”, that is, the idea that God lives upstairs and the world is down here and that there’s a boundary between the spiritual and the “real”. This perspective is characteristic of Deism, a not-really-Christian belief that God created the world but hasn’t been really involved in it for a while. But a lot of individual Christians take a similar approach in any number of ways. The whole “spiritual not religious” thing is one of those ways, as is the idea that religion is not something that we should discuss in polite conversation outside of specifically religious contexts. According to the heading of the section, Wright essentially sees this problem as a conflict between the philosophies of rationalism and romanticism.

The other problem Wright discusses in this chapter is best summed up in delightful phrase “chronological snobbery” which he uses on page 85. Since the Enlightenment, Western civilization has been obsessed with the idea of progress, and that concept has been fully engrained into the minds of pretty much everyone born in the last couple centuries. We look at history as if things are progressively getting better. Certainly, in many specific areas, that is true. Medicine, technology, scientific knowledge in general, living conditions in most places… but not truth or morality. But yet we use the statement “It’s the twenty-first century!” as an argument for changes in moral or social perceptions, and we take it for granted that “progressive” means “good”. We all know from the events of our personal lives, as well as major news events, that change can be either good or bad, but any changes in societal values are perceived to be a good thing. That isn’t always false, but it isn’t always true, either, and I personally think it’s especially dangerous in the postmodern era, since postmodern thought is, by definition, so anti-universal-truth, and therefore anti-Christian. I could say more about both of these topics, but since I’m writing about Wright’s book, for now I’ll just say that, for those twelve pages, Wright totally gets it right and that I would whole-heartedly recommend that section if it was practical to recommend small sections of books rather than whole books.

The remainder of the book contains a number of valid points and interesting discussions, but it gradually drifts into evangelical-leaning territory. In fact, near the end of the book, Wright contradicts earlier statements of his by restating the “good news” several times, using words like “glory” and “honor” rather than “Christ” or “Jesus’ death and resurrection”. Worse, he spends a lot of pages talking about us as Christians “becoming good-news people”. I think he may have meant that in a third-use-of-the-law kind of way, and I appreciate that he mentioned the idea of vocation a couple times, but still, that phrase implies legalistic ideas, as if our Christianity only “counts” if we behave correctly. Earlier in the book, I had been slightly disturbed that Wright was so determined to describe heaven as a place on Earth, (Ooh baby do you know what that’s worth?) but I had come to the conclusion that he was talking about the new creation. But now, in light of the last chapter of the book, I’m a little skeptical about whether that’s what he meant. It also occurred to me towards the end of the book that Wright never discussed the sacraments, which is a pretty glaring omission that I’m surprised didn’t bother me sooner.

All in all, my takeaway from this book was that I’m really glad I’m Lutheran. Every part of this book that I agreed with and thought was well-articulated were the parts that sounded like they could have been written by a Lutheran, and every one of my quibbles and qualms has to do with the fact that it wasn’t more in line with confessional Lutheran teachings. But what struck me most is that everything that Wright introduced as a surprising and unusual perspective that will enlighten his readers is something that Lutherans already know and preach as the gospel truth. (Minor pun intended) To Wright—and, evidently, to his readers—it actually seems like an unusual perspective to treat Christianity as good news about divine deliverance rather than as advice. But in confessional Lutheranism, Jesus’ death and resurrection is always the central message, and Jesus’ role as savior is always the point. Wright stresses that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Old Testament, which he puts forth as something that most Christians don’t understand, and that therefore detracts from the “good news.” But that’s how I’ve always been taught to see the Old Testament. In fact, the current Sunday morning Bible study where I go to church is looking at how the familiar Old Testament Bible stories point forward to the cross. (Shout out to Pastor Fisk. In case he happens to see this blog post, HI PASTOR FISK!) Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you too may hear this Bible study!  Wright seems to think that he’s saying something downright revolutionary by talking about the resurrection of the dead and the new creation, but Lutherans talk about those things sometimes. Wright is dismissive of a redemption-based description of Jesus because it sounds to him like it portrays God as being unloving, and he writes as if he is introducing an unfamiliar idea by pointing out that the very reason that God wanted to save the world was because he loved it so much. But that’s exactly what Lutherans hear in church every Sunday.

In short, I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in a little religious food for thought, but I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who is hoping to have questions answered. It’s a lot better than most of the Christian books for the popular audience, but it definitely has its shortcomings.

2015 Youth Media Awards: Results and Remarks

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So I hear that there was a really special episode of football this past weekend. Everybody on the internet has been talking about it. Apparently, Katy Perry was the guest star and there were dancing sharks involved. But more importantly, this weekend was the ALA Midwinter conference, which means that Monday morning was the announcement of the Youth Media Awards. This is the truly important stuff, I tell you.

It had been my intention to write a “Guesses and Wishes” post on Sunday and a “Results and Remarks” post for Monday, but I was lazy and it did not happen. So here is my Wednesday evening post on the topic, and anytime I say that I totally called it, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. This isn’t going to exactly be the most thrilling blog post that I’ve ever written, because it’s going to include a lot of lists of titles, but that’s okay, because it’s a very important matter of current events.

 

Schneider Family Award

Rain ReignThis one is for books that deal with disabilities. I didn’t read up on the award enough to know whether it specifically had to be the protagonist who has a disability, so I didn’t have specific guesses in mind. (I’ve read quite a number of juvenile and YA books this year in which the protagonist’s parent suffers from PTSD, and a few others in which a protagonist’s parent is physically disabled.) The two books that came to my mind right away were Ann M. Martin’s Rain Reign and Cece Bell’s El Deafo. Rain Reign did indeed win the middle grade category, which made me happy because it’s a good book and does an excellent job at giving the perspective of someone with an abnormal thought process. Neither of the other two winners—A Boy and a Jaguar for younger readers or Girls Like Us for teens—were books that I had read.

 

Stonewall Award

The Stonewall award is for LGBT books. I thought that the clear winner for this one would be Beyond Magenta, which is a nonfiction YA book in which each chapter is the narrative of a transgender teenager or young adult. It was named as an honor book, along with I’ll Give You the Sun and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, neither of which I have read. The winner, This Day in June, isn’t one that I was familiar with, either.

 

Coretta Scott King Awards

FirebirdThe Coretta Scott King Awards are named for the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., and they are African-American specific. As well as illustrator and author awards, they include a lifetime achievement award, (Deborah D. Taylor) and a new talent award (Jason Reynolds for When I was the Greatest). I was pretty pleased about When I Was the Greatest because, although it was not one of my particular favorites, it is well written and it does give a very vivid, thorough, and sympathetic portrayal of a not-very-privileged, predominantly African-American community. I’m proud to say that I accurately predicted the winners for both the illustrator and author awards: Firebird (by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers) and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson respectively. Then again, neither of those was exactly a shocker. Of the five titles that were named as honor books for one a Coretta Scott King Award, I’ve only read one of them, and for some reason I had thought that it was a 2013 book. (That was Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker)

 

YALSA Awards

YALSA stands for Young Adult Library Services Association, so all of their awards (with the exception of the Odyssey) are specifically for teen readers. To be honest, I haven’t really kept up with 2014 YA books. I would have loved to see Grandmaster or The Art of Secrets win a YALSA award, but it didn’t happen. I’m going to sort of skip over this section just because I have read hardly any of the books involved and don’t have much to say about any of them. Although I was happy to see that The Family Romanov was a finalist in the nonfiction category and that A Snicker of Magic was an honor book for the Odyssey, which goes to juvenile or YA audiobooks.

 

Pura Belpre, Mildred L. Batchelder, Robert F. Sibert, Theodor Seuss Geisel

blog I lived on butterfly hillI’m lumping these all together because they’re less major awards with narrower scopes, and because I didn’t have specific predictions about any of them. I’m also skipping over a couple awards that aren’t awarded to specific books, because they’re just less fun. The Pura Belpre is for Hispanic American books. (It’s worth noting that there are conspicuously few American children’s books with Hispanic authors or protagonists considering how many Hispanic American children there are, and that this is a problem) The illustrator award went to Viva Frida and the author Award went to I Lived on Butterfly Hill. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with either of those or any of the respective honor books. Come to think of it, I guess I only read two books that would have been eligible for this year’s Pura Belpre, and neither one of them, in my opinion, was really worthy of an award. The Mildred L. Batchelder award is for books that were originally published in another language and then translated; I’m guessing that the award was created specifically because such books are not eligible for the Newbery. This year’s winner was Mikis and the Donkey, which I have not read, nor am I familiar with either of the honor books. In retrospect, it occurs to me that My Heart is Laughing, which has gotten a lot more attention than any of those books, was eligible, but I didn’t especially love that one, to be honest.  The Robert F. Sibert award is for nonfiction. Of the five honor books, I’ve read three of them and two of them (Brown Girl Dreaming and The Family Romanov) were, in my opinion, pretty obvious choices. The winner, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is not a book that I have actually come across, but it looks really awesome. The Theodor Seuss Geisel award is for early readers. I didn’t see many 2014 early readers that I thought were especially great, so it didn’t surprise me that I didn’t even recognize the title of the winner, You are (Not) Small, or either of the honor books.

 

Randolph Caldecott Award

blog The Adventures of BeekleThese last two are the big ones. Unfortunately, I haven’t done the greatest job of keeping up with really recent picture books, so I wasn’t really equipped to make predictions about the Caldecott. I did have a few particular favorites, such as The Midnight Library and Baby Bear, but they didn’t get enough attention that I really expected them to win. This year’s Caldecott committee named six honor books, which struck me as being the biggest surprise of the whole awards announcement. Six is an awful lot of honor books. Still, I was only familiar with one of them, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, which, for the record, I think is a great book and I was happy to see it named as an honor book. I was not familiar with this year’s Caldecott winner, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, but it sounds good and I’m looking forward to tracking it down and reading it. But I would just like to point out that, if it is about an imaginary being who is searching for a real/unimaginary friend, my sisters and I came up with that idea years ago. True story.

 

John Newbery Award

blog CrossoverI had some pretty specific predictions for this. I thought that Brown Girl Dreaming was the most likely winner, but that Rain Reign and The Madman of Piney Woods also were relatively likely, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if the winner turned out to be Revolution or Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, or maybe even The Fourteenth Goldfish or Nest or The Meaning of Maggie. I also would have loved to see Greenglass House win, although I wasn’t really expecting that. But it wasn’t any of those; it was The Crossover. That was a disappointment because I hadn’t read that one, but fortunately my library’s eBook copy was available, so I was able to read the whole thing within a couple hours of the announcement. It was pretty good; I’m no longer disappointed about the results, but I’m not particularly thrilled about it, either. The honor books, El Deafo and Brown Girl Dreaming, are both books that I read quite a while ago and liked enough that I was pretty pleased to see them named as honor books.

 

So, now that we know what won all of the 2015 awards, it’s time to start obsessing over the 2016 awards. I’ve currently halfway through The War that Saved My Life, which is really good and could possibly become a Newbery contender, and The Way to Stay in Destiny is next in the stack.

Particularly Awesome Books of 2014

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I decided a couple weeks ago that a good way to kick off the new year on my blog—and a good way to end the super long blogging break that I have accidentally taken—would be to make a list of particularly awesome books that came out in 2014. (For those of you who don’t know me, I work in a library, so paying attention to awesome new books is a kind of major part of my life now, which is really cool.) I don’t actually read grown-up books very often, so I have only included children’s books and YA books. Before I actually start the list itself, I want to add a little disclaimer saying that I haven’t read every single awesome children’s book that came out this past year. There are some things that are popular and have received a lot of critical acclaim that aren’t on my list, but probably would be if I had read them. I’m going to try to make up for that a little bit by mentioning a few books that I intend to read soon and expect to really enjoy. I suppose I should also acknowledge the fact that this list is my personal opinion, not based on an objective standard or a group consensus, which is why I did not title this post “The Kaleidoscope49 Book Awards”. But those of you who are taking the time to read this paragraph can feel free to call this list “The Kaleidscope49 Book Awards” in your head, because that’s what I’m doing. Also, these descriptions should not be considered official reviews because I’m using first person all over the place. So, with all that being said, here is the list.

Picture Books

Quest by Aaron Becker

This book is an example of the fact that picture books are not only for preschoolers, which is something that my library school professors frequently mention. I would recommend this book for ages 5-12. Yes, I know that’s not what the publisher and reviewers say, but this is my blog here and I say what I want. Deal with it. Quest is a wordless picture book that shows two children going on a magical adventure. The plot is very complex and a little ambiguous; it leaves plenty of room for readers to decide for themselves what is happening. Although the artwork is more detailed, this book reminded me of the Harold and the Purple Crayon books, because some of the pictures show the main characters drawing their setting. I thought this was a lovely book both because of its artwork and because it was a non-stereotypical expression of an extremely common theme: the magical powers of imagination.

The Midnight LibraryThe Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

I picked this book at random for a review that I had to write for a class, but I ended up believing that this is a particularly noteworthy book. Needless to say, the review that I wrote was quite positive. The general gist was that the plot is fun, the tone is calm, and the linocut print illustrations do a perfect job of establishing the nighttime setting. (The only colors used are black, dark blue, and light orange.) I also specified that I would recommend this as a bedtime story or a library storytime book for ages 4-7.

This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris

My inner preschooler laughed hysterically at this one, and I anticipate that a lot of real preschoolers will react in the same way. Duck is trying to make a movie about Moose, but Moose is being silly. He doesn’t want to act like a normal moose; he wants to be an astronaut and fly to the moon. Along with a cast of other strangely-behaving animals, he escapes the confines of the moose lifestyle and goes on an adventure to outer space.  I suggest this one for ages 4-6.

Baby Bear by Kadir Nelson

The basic plot is a common one—Baby Bear is lost and looking for his mother, and he stops to converse with one forest animal after another. Predictably, the book ends when Baby Bear’s mother finds him. What sets this book apart is the beauty of the artwork. I can imagine this book making an excellent bedtime story for kids under the age of four-ish, but I also imagine that the grownup reading it aloud would enjoy it just as much, if not more, than the child.

Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean

Bad Bye Good ByeYes, it’s a picture book that doesn’t even use complete sentences, but no, it’s not just a simple concept book. It has a poetic rhythm, a complete plot, and illustrations that deserve more than a brief glance. One of the things I love about this book is that it can be appreciated and enjoyed by a wide age range. I’ll say babies through kids age six, but I can imagine older readers liking it, too. My mock Newbery class named this as one of our honor books, and you can read what my professor had to say about it here.

On My To-Read-ASAP List

Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers

FirebirdI feel bad for not having already read this book, partly because I am genuinely excited about its existence, and partly because I have actually held it in my hands and flipped through it. Obviously, one reason that I want to read it is because it has received a lot of positive attention, is presumably popular with kids, and is most likely a Caldecott contender. But I also have personal interest in it because of my ballet background. Besides, I like and admire the author as a dancer, so I would be very happy to be able to say that she has a lot of merit as a writer, too.

Early Readers

The Big Fib by Tim Hamilton

To be honest, I didn’t exactly love this book. I liked it, but I’m not sure I really want to classify it as “awesome”. But I’m including it on this list because all of the newish early readers that I did think were awesome turned out to be more than a year old. But The Big Fib definitely deserves some credit. It takes a skilled writer to tell a full story using a limited vocabulary, and Hamilton definitely accomplishes that. The protagonist and his dog go on an adventure of imagination, with the use of their neighbor’s boxes. When she discovers them and asks what made such a mess, the boy lies and blames the wind. But he feels bad and confesses, and in the end, makes a friend of the neighbor. The Big Fib is written at about a first-grade level, although an advanced kindergartener could manage it, and a younger child might enjoy hearing it read aloud.

Days of the Knights by Robert Neubecker (Tales of the Time Dragon Book 1)

Days of the KnightsRed the Time Dragon takes Joe and Lilly back in time to the year 1200 and gives them a dragons-eye view of the Middle Ages. This book is approximately a second-grade reading level and will probably appeal mainly to readers who already are interested in knights, dragons, or the Middle Ages, or who have a strong appreciation for time travel stories. I, personally, love time travel stories, so I thought this was an incredibly cool idea for an early reader series. But I am willing to acknowledge that it has a somewhat limited audience.

Graphic Novels

El Deafo by Cece Bell

El DeafoAnthropomorphic rabbits are used to give an autobiographical account of Bell’s experiences as a hearing-impaired child. Not only does Cece have to face the challenges that come with the disability itself, but her conspicuous hearing aid impairs her social life—or at least, so it seems to her. Over the course of the book, Cece makes and loses several friends. Aside from the fact that the characters are rabbits, this book makes it easy for readers to relate to Cece’s experiences, both the ones that are a result of her deafness and those that are common to most children. Although it deals with somewhat sad subject matter, El Deafo has a very light tone that makes it a fun quick read. The graphic novel format makes it very accessible for a wide range of reading levels; I’m going to say it’s for children in first to eighth grade, even though it normally doesn’t make sense to recommend a book for such a broad age range.

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Telgemeier’s previous book, Smile, told an autobiographical story of orthodontic woes among other childhood experiences. Sisters follows it up by telling about another aspect of the author’s life growing up: her relationship with her younger sister Amara. Although it covers events occurring over a wide time range, the majority of the book takes place on a long, stressful road trip. I would attribute this book’s popularity to its realistic portrayal of family relationships. I can see it succeeding with a wide age range of readers. I’m going to say third grade through early teens.

Chapter Books

The Vanishing Coin by Kate Egan and Mike Lane, illustrated by Eric Wright (Magic Shop Book 1)

The only thing that Mike is particularly good at is getting in trouble. His neighbor Nora, on the other hand, is smart and talented, and he has to spend every afternoon with her after school. One day, they stumble upon a store called The White Rabbit, which sells antiques and gag gifts, and, best of all, magic supplies. The store owner begins to teach Mike magic tricks after Mike solves a puzzle that baffles even Nora. And Mike finally discovers that he does have a talent for something, after all. This is a great book for second-through-fourth graders who can relate to Mike or who like magic tricks themselves. In fact, the book includes detailed instructions for each of the magic tricks that Mike perfects.

Lost in Bermooda by Mike Litwin (Welcome to Bermooda Book 1)

I got this book on interlibrary loan and read it because I was trying to decide if this is a series that my library should get. I think it’s a definite yes, but at this point, I’m going to wait until the third book comes out. If I remember correctly, that’ll be early this spring. The premise of the story is that there’s an island inhabited by anthropomorphic cows, who believe that “hu’mans” are mythical monsters. But then a human boy shows up on their island. Dakota (the boy) and Chuck (a calf) become friends.  Most of the humor is geared towards second-grade boys, although children of the female variety might also like this series. I think that my elementary-school-aged self would have made a point to keep up with the series.

Annika Riz Math WhizAnnika Riz, Math Whiz by Claudia Mills, illustrated by Rob Shepperson (Franklin School Friends Book 2)

Annika has a knack for math, but her two best friends don’t understand what a useful skill that is. Annika is delighted when her teacher suggests that she participate in a Sudoku contest at the public library. Surely, winning a prize for something number-related will prove the value of math skills! A subplot shows the three girls working together on cookies to sell at a school event, but something goes wrong with every batch, and each mistake gives Annika an opportunity to lecture her friends on the importance of mathematical accuracy. Although Annika’s one-track mind would be annoying in real life, it makes for a nice and neat chapter book  in which every passage contributes to the point. Although most children’s books feature a protagonist who is slightly older than the intended reader, this book is an exception. Annika is in third grade, and her story is best suited for readers of the same age.

On My To-Read-ASAP List

Soccer on Sunday by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca (Magic Tree House Book 52)

Soccer on SundayConsidering that I love this series and recommend it frequently, I feel like quite a hypocrite for not having read the latest few additions to the series. This one came out in late May, just in time for the World Cup, and it was so popular that neither of my library’s two copies spent much of any time on the library shelf until just recently.

Novels in Verse

Another Day as Emily by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

This book drew my attention because, unlike most novels in verse, it doesn’t deal with profound or tragic subject matter. It’s a fairly light-hearted read about a fairly typical girl going through fairly everyday problems. Suzy’s annoying little brother is receiving a hero’s treatment, one of her friends is being wrongly accused of petty theft, and another friend has gotten a part in a play for which both girls had auditioned. When Suzy becomes fascinated by Emily Dickinson, she decides to emulate Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle, but she discovers that being a recluse isn’t easy. Although Suzy herself turns twelve early in the book, I would suggest it for a younger audience, perhaps second through fourth grade.

A Time to DanceA Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

I’ll admit that part of my appreciation for this book comes from a biased standpoint. I love reading books about dancers that give a sense of how much dedication and effort goes into serious dance training. Although I’m not familiar with Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance style that Veda studies, I do know from personal experience that any type of dance requires its advanced or upper-intermediate students to dedicate their lives to it, and Venkatraman clearly shows how important dance is to Veda. But when Veda is injured in a bus accident, half of her right leg is amputated and it appears that her dreams are gone. The novel shows Veda slowly regaining her physical abilities and rediscovering her identity as a dancer. I would recommend this book for readers (particularly dancers and dance-lovers) between the ages of twelve and seventeen.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson’s autobiographical novel in verse has been one of the best-received juvenile books of the year. It has already won the National Book Award and has been mentioned in pretty much every best-of-the-year list for juvenile books. I actually do not think I’d put this in my top five or even my top ten. But it is definitely a good book that shows an inspiringly proficient mastery of language and that gives a honest and vivid portrayal of Woodson’s aspirations to be a writer, her experiences with racism, and her perception of the pop culture of the day. The tone is more nostalgic than anything else, despite the various problems and hardships that it includes. I actually think that, despite being written at an upper-elementary school level, this book holds more appeal for an adult audience than a child audience. So I’m going to classify it as being for ages ten and up, even though that’s unhelpfully vague.

Children’s Novels

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The Night GardenerIrish orphans Molly and Kip begin working for a family that is hiding some dark, mysterious secrets in this novel that features themes regarding storytelling and wishes. I think that this is a really great book for skilled readers in fourth to eighth grade who have the ability but not the interest to read grown-up classics. The style of the writing and the complexity of the plot is reminiscent of nineteenth-century literature, but the characters are children and it contains some high-action scenes that keep it child-friendly. (Although that term isn’t normally used for something as creepy as this book. It’s creepy in a likable way.) It’s a little hard to pigeonhole The Night Gardener into a particular genre. It’s technically historical fiction, since it’s set in Victorian rural England, but it’s fantastical enough that it seems inaccurate to not call it fantasy. I’ve also seen it classified as horror.

Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick (Pumpkin Falls Mystery Book 1)

I can’t remember exactly why I felt compelled to read this particular book as soon as it came in at the library, but I definitely went into it with the expectation that I was going to really enjoy it, and I did. Twelve-year old Truly Lovejoy has just moved to a small town in New Hampshire. It’s her father’s hometown, and he is taking over at his parents’ bookshop, partly because they have joined the peace corps, but mostly because he lost an arm in Afghanistan and suffers from PTSD, and everyone agrees that the change in scenery will be good for him. Truly isn’t happy about the move, but she loves her new house and she comes to love helping out in the bookshop—especially once she discovers an old letter hidden in a rare copy of Charlotte’s Web. This book is a mystery, but it’s not your typical crime-solving mystery. Truly’s mystery is one that has to do with the recent history of her community and her family. The small-town New England winter setting is well developed, as are the personalities of Truly and her family and new friends. It might be a little on the cutesy side, but sometimes, cutesiness isn’t a bad thing. I’d recommend Absolutely Truly for readers in fourth through eighth grades.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

Initially, the title and first chapter of this book seem to have little to do with the rest of it. Ellie is under the impression that her goldfish has lived an exceptionally long life until her mother admits that she has been secretly replacing the goldfish each time it dies. Then the book switches to its real point, a narrative in which Ellie’s mother brings home a boy who turns out to be her father—Ellie’s grandfather—who has discovered a scientific formula that has turned him into a teenager. But these two beginnings come together nicely as the book goes on to discuss the philosophical significance of Ellie’s grandfather’s rejuvenation. Most of the book is a light-hearted read that derives humor from the grandfather’s inability to act like a kid, but it makes some thought-provoking points about the power and danger of major scientific breakthroughs. This book requires some suspension of disbelief; not only is the basic premise unbelievable, but the characters’ reaction to the situation is unrealistic. Still, The Fourteenth Goldfish does a fun job of finding a halfway point between science fiction and realistic contemporary fiction that could appeal to fans of either genre. I’d say it’s written at a fourth grade reading level, but it could certainly hold appeal for older readers as well.

A Snicker of MagicA Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

This was one of my absolute favorite books of the year, (we’re talking top five here, maybe even top three) but I admit that it isn’t for everyone; it requires a very high cutesiness tolerance. I guess I hadn’t even realized until recently that I actually really appreciate cutesiness in middle grade novels, but I guess I do, if this list is any indication. A Snicker of Magic tells the story of Felicity Juniper Pickle, a likable but painfully shy sixth-grader whose family has just moved to her mother’s hometown of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee. Midnight Gulch, we are frequently reminded, used to be a magical place, but all that’s left now is a snicker of magic: ice cream flavors with fantastical properties, a cast of kooky residents with unusual abilities, and a legendary history that sends Felicity and her new best friend Jonah on a mission to uncover the town’s historical secrets and bring the magic back to Midnight Gulch. I’d recommend this book for readers in fourth through eighth grades, but again, only for readers with a high tolerance for cutesiness.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

This is another one that is geared towards a very specific audience, but this time, that’s not because it’s cutesy. Greenglass House is a complex mystery that takes place in a hotel at Christmastime. Milo, whose adoptive parents run the hotel, is fascinated by the mysterious guests’ backstories and the history of his own home, which seems to be connected to each of the guests’ reasons for being there at that particular time. His new acquaintance Meddy convinces him to draw up a character for a roleplaying game and to use that character to investigate the secrets of Greenglass House. Milo and Meddy become Negret and Sirin, and their adventures in Milo’s own home will fascinate a certain subset of nerdy kids. (For the record, when I call kids nerdy, I say that with a great deal of affection. Nerdy kids are cool.)I feel like this is a fairly advanced book; I wouldn’t recommend it for kids younger than eleven or twelve unless they were especially skilled readers. Although I do know of a very bright third grader who might like it. I think I’ll suggest it to her next time I see her.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

This book tells about the events occurring between the eleventh and twelfth birthday of an academically gifted but naïve protagonist. Her father suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, her mother works as a hotel maid to make ends meet, and her oldest sister Layla has taken on a lot of responsibilities and emotional burdens, but Maggie is too preoccupied by academic pursuits and sibling rivalry to notice. Even after she learns of her father’s diagnosis and does some research on the disease, Maggie is naïvely optimistic about his future. My impression is that Maggie is an unreliable narrator; her portrayal of her sisters as superficial “hot” teenagers is clearly biased and inaccurate, and her perception of her own extreme intelligence and potential is hard to take completely seriously. I found myself feeling very sorry for Layla; if this book was told from her point of view, it would be a real tearjerker. But coming from Maggie, it contains a lot of light-hearted humor, fun eighties references, and trivial everyday happenings in between the family’s woes. I think this book is best suited for readers in fourth through sixth grades, but a slightly younger reader could probably handle it.

Revolution by Deborah Wiles (Sixties Trilogy Book 2)

RevolutionTwelve-year-old Sunny lives in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she witnesses the Freedom Summer of 1964, in which “invaders” come from colleges up North to encourage the “negroes” to register to vote. Sunny herself is white and has never thought to question segregation, so she isn’t sure what to think of everything that’s going on in her community. Wiles paints a picture of racism and the civil rights movement that is made especially vivid by the inclusion of pop culture references. (For example, Sunny and her friends love the Beatles.) Some chapters come from the point of view of Raymond, a black boy who is experiencing Freedom Summer from the same town but a very different perspective. Between some of the chapters, there are primary documents including a variety of photographs and quotations, some of which deal with racial controversy, and others of which deal with unrelated news events or pop culture. Revolution is a pretty long book that includes lots of “big words” and advanced subject material, so I think this book is best suited for readers who are at least as old as the protagonist herself. (That is, twelve years old) It is worth pointing out that this is the book that won the mock Newbery in my mock Newbery class. It was on the National Book Award’s short list and is probably a major contender for the actual 2015 Newbery.

On My To-Read ASAP List

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

I have already checked this book out from the library and have read the very beginning. It showed up on some Best-of-2014 list somewhere, and the plot summary sounds interesting. Apparently, it’s based on Han’s Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and takes place in a museum. Ophelia’s defining personality trait is evidently her logical and scientific mind, which sounds like a interesting premise for a character who is the protagonist in a fantasy story.

The EscapeThe Escape by Kathryn Lasky (Horses of the Dawn Book 1)

This is another one that I should have read ages ago. It’s been out since January, and I happen to know that my seventh-grade sister (who was in sixth grade then) really liked it. I’m actually not a big fan of books told from an animal’s perspective, as this book apparently is, but I have enjoyed Lasky’s historical fiction writing, so there’s a good chance that I’ll enjoy her animal fantasy writing, too.

The Secret of the Key by Marianne Malone (Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventures Book 4)

I started this series on audiobook, since I spend a lot of time driving and it has turned out to be efficient to use that time listening to audiobooks of children’s literature that I should have already read because it’s so popular. I have listened to the first two books and just checked out the print version of the third book. I haven’t even started it yet, so I probably won’t get to book four for a little while, but I’m enjoying the series so much that I feel very confident in saying that The Secret of the Key is great, too. The series features best friends Ruthie and Jack, who discover a magical key that enables them to shrink down so that they can enter the miniature Thorne Rooms on display in the Art Institute of Chicago. For the record, those miniature rooms exist in real life, and I am sorry to say that I’ve never seen them, even though I have spent a good deal of time in Chicago.

Rain Reign by Ann Martin

Rain ReignI’ve read an excerpt and a plot summary of this book, which is about a girl named Rose who has Asperger’s and is fascinated by homophones. Her dog is named Rain, which gives rise to the book’s title. Apparently, Rain goes missing, and Rose’s search for her is the basic plot of the book. It sounds somewhat interesting but not particularly remarkable, but I’ve heard so much praise for it that I’m definitely interested in reading it for myself.

The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan (The Heroes of Olympus Book 5)

The Heroes of Olympus series is basically a subseries of the popular Percy Jackson books, which I have only just barely started even though I should have read them long ago. After all, my own teenage sister is one of the many Percy Jackson fans, and so are many of the kids I meet in my job in the library. It will likely be a while before I actually get to this book, but I’m including it on this list anyway because it’s essential that I read it sooner or later.

Young Adult Novels

GrandmasterGrandmaster by David Klass

This is another one that definitely goes on my top five favorite books of 2014, maybe even in the number one or number two slot, and it’s not just because I like chess. (In fact, although the book takes place at a chess tournament, it actually doesn’t have much to say about chess strategy itself.) Daniel Pratzer is a newby chess player at a private high school where the chess players are the cool kids. Little does he know that his father was once a teenage grandmaster—that is, until his popular chess club classmates suddenly take notice of him and demand that he and his father join them for a parent-child chess tournament. Daniel’s father reluctantly agrees, and over the course of the tournament, Daniel slowly learns about the emotional breakdown that led his father to give up chess years ago. This actually isn’t the type of book that I normally like, because I’m a bigger fan of fantasy and time travel than of realistic contemporary fiction, and Grandmaster has some scenes that could be described as being sappy. But this book works very well and I found it to be very engaging and memorable. Most reviews recommend it for ages 12-17, and I’ll concur with that even though it’s pretty broad. Daniel is a freshman, and the reading level isn’t very advanced, so it may be slightly better suited for the younger half of that age range.

The Art of Secrets by James Klise

The Art of SecretsThis one is kind of a crossover between children’s fiction and YA fiction. The characters are mostly juniors and seniors in high school, but it’s written at a level that will work just fine for readers as young as sixth or seventh grade, maybe even younger. Still, I could see a highschooler thoroughly enjoying this book. Saba Khan’s family’s apartment has been burned, evidently as a hate crime, but things seem to be turning out just fine when some of her classmates set up a charity auction. Even better, one of the items to be sold is valuable artwork that Saba’s classmates happened to find and generously contributed to benefit Saba. But then the artwork is stolen, and the investigation is only turning up conflicting leads. The story is told through a string of journal entries, letters, and the main characters’ sides of conversations with reporters or police. The conclusion of the mystery comes as a compete surprise—or at least it did to me—but the real appeal of The Art of Secrets has less to do with the mystery than with the interesting format and the complex relationships between the characters, who all seem to have preconceptions about one another. This was the other book that my mock Newbery class named as an honor book.

On My To-Read ASAP List

We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

This has been, without a doubt, one of the most popular and important YA books of the year. Maybe not quite as big of a deal as Eleanor and Park (from 2013) turned out to be, but pretty close to it. I’ve already started it, and to be honest, I’m not enjoying it as much as I had expected so far. The protagonist Cadence has suffered from what seems to be brain trauma at her wealthy family’s vacation spot. She had gone swimming at night, but she doesn’t remember the details. I guess I had been expecting this to be a sort of mystery story, in which she tries to learn what exactly happened, but so far, the point of the book seems to be how snobbish Cadence’s family is about their social standing and family background. I initially was a little turned off by the extremely short chapters, the repetitive sentence structures, and the length of the backstory expositional passages, but then I got to the point where I was reading it as if it was a novel in verse, and now the writing style is working better for me. I notice that the customer reviews on amazon allude to twists and turns and intrigue later in the book, so I may have a very different opinion of it once I get a little farther.

Non-Fiction

Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins

Eye to EyeDon’t let the picture book format fool you—this is a highly informative work on ocular anatomy that contains definitions and descriptions that even an adult might find instructive. But, even with its big words and small text, it’s extremely accessible to young readers because of the colorful and bright illustrations. For all its science words, Eye to Eye still reminded me of little-kid concept books about animals. I think that even a preschool-aged child might enjoy flipping through this book and even a teenager or adult could learn something from it, but its primary audience is kids in first to fourth grade.

A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin

I considered not including this book on my list because it is extremely dry, but it’s also extremely informative and would be extremely useful for a reader who is studying John Brown, the Civil War, or black history. For instance, unlike most children’s books that describe slavery in America, it mentions the Arab slave trade, which led to European adoption of racial slavery, which was carried over to the New World long before the era of cotton gins and the Confederate battle flag. A Volcano Beneath the Snow reads like a seventh or eighth grade textbook, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it for pleasure reading unless the reader was a big non-fiction reader and already had a strong interest in the specific subject matter.

On My To-Read-ASAP List

Family RomanovThe Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, both because it’s been so well-received and because I’m interested in the subject, so when I noticed it in a bookstore while waiting for a train the other day, I couldn’t resist buying it. It was in hardcover, so it was super expensive. But I’m really looking forward to starting it, once I finish one more of the books I’m currently reading. I’m working on six at a time, which I feel is probably enough for now.

There’s this Book I’m Reading, episode 7

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Da Vinci CodeA number of years back, I read something in the newspaper that has stuck with me ever since then. Unfortunately, I don’t remember when or exactly where I saw it, so I can’t properly cite it. I don’t even remember whether it was a review or an opinion piece or a column, but it was about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It began by quoting the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Although there’s nothing unrealistic or fantastical about the idea of a clock that doesn’t start over at twelve, it’s just jarring enough to alert the reader to the fact that the story isn’t set in the real world. George Orwell is introducing a fictional reality. It isn’t characterized by magic and mythical creatures, but they count hours slightly differently than we do, so we are aware from the outset that there is a disconnect between the book and the real world. As the book progresses and the reader gradually learns about the historical events that were made up for the book, the reader remains conscious that those facts are part of the story. The Da Vinci Code, the newspaper writer said, lacks this subtle acknowledgement that it’s not based in reality. And unfortunately, the result is that many people believe the alternative historical facts that were made up for the book. My teenage self found this point to very profound even though I hadn’t read either 1984 or The Da Vinci Code at that point. But I remembered that statement last winter when I did read 1984 and again this autumn when I did read The Da Vinci Code. And I still think that it’s a significant point.

OrwellIt seems to me that Orwell’s 1984 is actually considerably less fanciful than The Da Vinci Code. The historical facts that Orwell fabricated were, from his perspective, near future. The historical facts that Brown invented are distant past.  As I indicated in this blog post from last year, I think that Orwell’s imagined version of the 1980s was a fairly realistic possibility of the direction that the late twentieth century could have taken. When it comes to Dan Brown’s fabricated history, it doesn’t matter whether or not his facts are realistic because he wasn’t guessing about the future; he was writing about own version of historical events that have already happened.

I really enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code.  Both as a recreational reader and as someone with a degree in English, I thought it was interesting and well-written. The plot is exciting and engaging, the characters are believable and likable, and there are a number of interesting themes and motifs. An additional appealing factor is that it involves historical details from a variety of time periods, which gives it the tone of a time-travel story even though most of the novel takes place in a single night. It’s highly intellectual for a sensational bestseller, and it’s very fast-paced and eventful for a novel that is essentially about historical research. Not only is it a gripping page-turner, but it raises the kinds of intellectual questions that leave you thinking long after you finish the book. What is the relationship between a symbol and a symbolized idea? If a symbol needs to be decoded, does that make it more meaningful or less meaningful? When it comes to ancient artifacts, is it more important to preserve something or to bring public awareness to it? What is it about human nature that makes us believe that secrets are meant to be discovered and revealed, and is that an impulse that should be followed? From an academic perspective, is it more important to debunk mistaken beliefs or to allow the continuation of a historically rich religious tradition?

But this book has raised other issues that aren’t about the questions and experiences of the characters, but rather about the relationship between the author and the reader. Dan Brown’s goal was to create a fascinating story with religious themes, and in that, he succeeded. It seems to me that he also was deliberately expressing his distaste for religion in general and Christian beliefs in particular. He succeeded in that, too. In the process of writing a novel that has sensational appeal, raises the intellectual and academic questions that he wants to bring to readers’ minds, and expresses his negative views of Christian theology, he alters historical facts. This is something that fiction writers do all the time to make a point or to tell a good story. Historical fiction often tends to be wildly inaccurate because the writer is not only trying to bring history to life, but also to tell a story that is interesting and original. Since readers know that fiction is, by definition, made up by the author, it isn’t necessarily immoral for an author to alter historical facts in order to tell the story that he or she wants to tell. But does the author have a responsibility to make sure that the readers know which facts are made up? Is it immoral for the author to put fabricated details into the mouths of academically respected characters? Is it wrong for the author to write about altered versions of actual people and organizations?

booksIn general, I’d have to say that the answer to the above questions is no. An author who writes a fictional story shouldn’t have to be responsible for ensuring that readers don’t accidentally believe that the story is true. If it’s okay for Margaret Mitchell to tell us that there was a woman named Scarlett O’Hara who lived in Georgia during the Civil War, if it’s okay for people like Thomas Malory and T.H. White to tell us stories about a medieval king named Arthur, if it’s okay for the BBC to tell us that there’s a man from the planet Gallifrey who travels through space and time in a blue box, then it should be okay for Dan Brown to tell us that there was a man in first-century Judea named Jesus who was married to a woman named Mary Magdalene and that religious leaders have since then gone out of their way to keep this union a secret.

But there are a couple things that make the situation regarding The Da Vinci Code a little different. One is that Jesus wasn’t just any historical figure; he is the basis of a large religious tradition that Dan Brown is undermining and discrediting when he makes up stories about Jesus that he hopes readers will believe to some extent. I gather that Dan Brown himself is not a Christian and that he doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, so from his own perspective, it’s no more heretical and immoral to fictionalize Jesus than it is to fictionalize any other historical person. But even if we are to take this issue from Dan Brown’s point of view and leave Jesus’ divinity out of the debate, it seems to me that it’s still awfully irreverent and insulting to write a story that knowingly and deliberately contradicts other people’s faith while presenting the fabricated details in a way that attempts to persuade readers of their legitimacy. I know that Dan Brown himself has said that The Da Vinci Code is just a story, but he makes all of his characters academic experts and cites imaginary sources that sound real.

That brings me to the other problem, which is that Dan Brown tries too hard to hide his imaginative hand in his version of Jesus. Sure, any intelligent and discerning reader knows not to believe everything that he or she reads in a novel, even if it involves a real person, but people are going to have a harder time distinguishing fabricated facts from actually true background information when both kinds of details come from the mouth of characters who are described as leading experts in their fields. It’s not unreasonable for readers to subconsciously assume that, when a fictional expert states a historical fact, that the author has done research and verified the truth of that fact. When Leigh Teabing, a fictional scholar in ancient documents concerning Jesus, claims that there are 80 extracanonical gospels and implies that they are consistent with each other, it’s only natural that many readers will take it for granted that this is true, when in fact Dan Brown exaggerated the number to make his point seem sensible, and that the extracanonical gospels are not at all in unity with each other. When Robert Langdon, a fictional authority in the field of symbols, interprets almost everything as a symbol of the sacred feminine, it’s only natural that many readers will take it for granted that it’s true that a surprisingly large amount of famous artwork and literature contains hidden allusions to Mary Magdalene and/or pagan goddesses and/or a vaguely theistic concept of femininity itself. When a prose passage that is evidently Robert Langdon’s train of thought says that the word “Jehovah” is a blend of the Hebrew words for the sacred feminine and for the Hebrew male God “YHWH”, it’s only natural that many readers will think that’s true and totally forget that “Jehovah” is a Latinized spelling of “YHWH”, not a combination of another name with “YHWH”. (That one struck me as being particularly absurd. The worship of YHWH did not involve the belief in the existence of a corresponding goddess or an abstract divinely female entity, and if there was such a female divine being, her name wouldn’t have begun with the letter J or a Hebrew equivalent of it, because there was no Hebrew equivalent of the letter J.)

Fabricating JesusIt would be an interesting project to go through the book and meticulously factcheck each piece of information that is presented as a nonfictional fact. It wouldn’t surprise me if some authors have actually done so, since I know that The Da Vinci Code has sparked a phenomenal amount of discussion. I do know of one book that dedicates a fair amount of time and space to explaining where Dan Brown got his ideas. (The book is Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels by Craig A. Evans, and I would recommend it. Although it isn’t absolutely unbiased, it’s less biased than most for-the-general-public books on the topic. He isn’t deliberately making up sensational theories for the sake of making a name for himself, which is what some of the “modern scholars” who he mentions have done.) Interestingly enough, not all of Dan Brown’s made-up facts are actually original. It seems that he did do at least a little research on some of the most extreme ideas that historians have suggested about Jesus and the early church. Evans lists some of the fabricated facts that Dan Brown uses and points out the lack of credibility in those sources. In theory, as a fiction writer, Dan Brown has the prerogative to pick a few radical and bizarre theories and create a story in which they are true. But this makes his misinformation particularly insidious, because it gives him the ability to frame his imaginary facts in a scholarly context.

Admittedly, there’s a very fine line between making up facts to tell an interesting story and making up facts that fool readers, and it has more to do with the readers’ perception than the author’s intention. But I do think that Dan Brown went too far. I lost count of how many times while I was reading The Da Vinci Code that I suddenly realized that it was responsible for the spread of a blatantly untrue fact that I’ve heard people say time and time again. (For instance, it’s absolutely false that the gnostic gospels were favorable towards women and were hidden by the Roman Catholic church because the popes were sexist. The four gnostic gospels that I have read are far, far more sexist than anything in the Bible.) People don’t even need to have read The Da Vinci Code themselves to have heard and repeated these falsehoods. Then these things get passed around as fun facts or as ammunition against Christianity, and few people are going to feel the need to look them up and see if they’re accurate.

The problem here isn’t the fact that someone wrote a book that isn’t historically accurate. The problem is that our culture enjoys debunking Christianity so much that there are people who are willing to believe anything they read in a fictional book that backs up their arguments, even if they are otherwise intelligent people wouldn’t take that approach to any other topic. Although I am suspicious of Dan Brown’s motives in writing such a book, I certainly wouldn’t argue for censoring his work because of the factual liberties that he takes. But I do think that the general reader population ought to keep in mind that Dan Brown is not a theological expert or a historical expert, that his religious-themed writings are fictional, and that his version of Jesus is not the Jesus who actually existed and who is the foundation of Christianity.

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