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.

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