Category Archives: book review

So magnifique

FMwraparound_v03This is not the book I was looking for.

Often I’m working on something – well, let’s be honest, working on anything – at the library, and I come across something that sparks my interest, or maybe one of my coworkers leaves a book on my desk, and all I can do is wonder, “How did I miss this before?”

But I do.  I miss all kinds of great books – some intentionally, some by forgetting to write a title down, some by just not looking in the right direction.  There is much joy for me in the library – so many reasons to be curious, to laugh, to cry, to think about something that usually doesn’t cross my path.

Anyway, this is a must-read if you like history, especially feminist history, or nonfiction graphic novels. That might make it sound a little off-putting, but this is the opposite of off-putting.  It’s inspiring, really.  Like many other books that have come out in the past few years, it highlights both well-known and not-so-well-known women who did incredible things with their lives.

Femme Magnifique: 50 Magnificent Women Who Changed the World – a comic book anthology edited by Shelly Bond

And for more great books about women’s history, including some for kids, see these previous posts:

Trailblazers, thinkers, smart girls

What to read while planning your personal resistance

Girl power –  now with comics!

Girl power – rebels and visionaries

When 63 pages = powerful

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Gender is a shell game

powerWell, that was kind of disturbing.  Maybe also kind of funny at times, but mostly disturbing.

And the pièce de résistance?

An author/mentor telling the actual “author” that maybe he should try to publish it under a woman’s name.

Margaret Atwood has said of The Handmaid’s Tale that she didn’t include anything in her story that hadn’t already been done by human beings to other human beings, and once you start thinking, the same is true here, although the results are wildly different.

It’s another look at power and pain– what we have the capacity to do to each other, how anything can be justified by those who want to maintain control, and the unsettling influence of charismatic figures.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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Pies for equal rights

pies from nowhereBaked goods and resistance?  Well, yes.  If you’re Georgia Gilmore and you’re trying to find a way to help out, yes, you just might bake some pies.  And then bake more pies.  And then make some other food.  And then organize others to help out.

Over time, things that seem small at first contribute to big, big change.

Pies from Nowhere:  How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dee Romito and Laura Freeman

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Blinding me with science

Doesn’t everyone love science, at least once they’re past having to dissect things and classify things and pass some unnecessarily difficult final chemistry exam?  I do.  I love reading kids’ books about all kinds of science and scientists.  I’ve been known to dip into adult books, too, about birds and trees and labs and even geology.  Who knew this could all be this amazing?

There is something beautiful about the rhythm and patterns of the earth and those who live on it, and these three are perfect illustrations of how wonderful it all is – especially because their art grabs you and drags you in, whether it’s the Big Bang, a jaunt through the solar system, or some super-detailed plants and insects.

Ah, nature.  Ah, science.


Tiny Little Rocket by Richard Collingridge

Once Upon a Star by James Carter and Mar Hernández

A Web by Isabelle Simler

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And now just one more alternative history

The+Incredible+True+Story+of+the+Making+of+the+Eve+of+Destruction+picI’m not sure what’s lighting the escapist fire in me these days, but it’s not all bad.  Books that have been on my to-be-read list for a while are bubbling up to fill the empty spaces, and while I maybe could read a bit less of the doom and gloom, there is one potential mushroom cloud I’m not sorry I stuck around for.

Laura Ratliff is living in Griffin Flat, Arkansas in 1984.  The Cold War is on. People still talk about thermonuclear destruction.  There is lots of eighties music and stupid crap in high school.  This is a scene I recognize, having grown up in the middle of the country in the eighties, down the road from a major military installation known to be on the to-be-nuked list of the Soviets, a place where we were told than if the war began, we should all drive north – as if driving anywhere at that point would make a difference – in the same direction as the nearest ICBM base.  Oh, the gut-busting fun of the Cold War!

And it’s exactly this kind of snarky humor that carries Laura through what may or may not be the Eve of Destruction, a film that may or may not show the world what will really happen in a war of atom bombs and retaliation.  Also the footnotes are a kind of awesome that even the older folks like me will love.

The Incredible True Story of the Making of the Eve of Destruction by Amy Brashear

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amazing iowaI have a certain fondness for books that tell sometimes-forgotten stories of women who overcame or did something incredible or just didn’t give up in the face of a society that wanted them to be something else other than what they were.

This is whole alphabet and more of Iowans who did amazing things while also being women.  It’s a beautiful book to look at, and it’s got so many interesting stories and lives that you want to find out more about these people who did incredible things.  It also acknowledges the problematic legacies of some, a much-appreciated addition, since people in the past were just as imperfect as we are.

So grab a cup of your favorite beverage and settle in for an enlightening afternoon.

Amazing Iowa Women by Katy Swalwell, published by RAYGUN

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Potato kings and other fancy titles

no small potatoesJunius Groves is one of those people who should be showing up in history more — a not-so-average average person who works really hard and sends good (and also potatoes) into the world.  For all of his hard work, he becomes known as the Potato King, first of Wyandotte County, then of Kansas, and in 1902, of the world.  The world!

I have a certain fondness for such titles –being a Potato King is an honor, but you have to admit that it’s a little like being a Pork Queen in Iowa.  It makes you think for a minute.  However, being the daughter of a former Wheat Man of the Year, also in the great state of Kansas, I’m all for Potato Kings.

No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and his Kingdom in Kansas by Tonya Bolden and Don Tate

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Octopus, not in the garden but on the rooftop

roof octopusIt was a cold and snowy day, and I was looking through the new picture books at another branch.  Roof Octopus?  Hmmm.

It’s a catchy title, but not in the usual way, which made me take a look.  And you should, too.  It’s a sweet story, but it’s really the illustrations that sing and dance their way across the pages.  I don’t really understand WHY the ending happened, but maybe that’s just the way of the world these days.  Who knows?  Who cares?

Roof Octopus by Lucy Branan and Rogério Coelho

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Menacing, odd, kind of charming – not all in that order

inklingPredictability can be comforting in a middle grade novel, but that is really never what Kenneth Oppel goes for, as far as I can tell.  The Nest is one of the creepier books I’ve ever read, although I must note that I do not usually do creepy, so there is probably much creepier stuff out there, but I’m not likely to read them.

Inkling is a whole different, quirky ball game.  A glob of ink escapes from a sketchbook and has adventures.  Lots of them.  For some books, that might be enough, but here you also get some ethical issues to talk about with kids – is using Inkling cheating?  does Inkling get to choose its own destiny or does someone get to own it?  does needing help justify any means?

There’s a lot to talk about and think about if you’re so inclined.  But if you’re not, there’s a wacky story, with moments of light and creepy to balance everything out, and it’s different, way different, from a lot of what’s out there.  Adventure with an ink spot?  Give it a try!

Inkling by Kenneth Oppel and Sydney Smith

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A happy break on a new day in a new year

art mattersYour imagination can change the world, Neil Gaiman says.

Because of the conversations I have every day a public library, I know this is true.  Sure, the world is full of distractions and screens (some of which have stories on them) and ugliness.

But take a moment and remember how powerful words can be – that time you almost couldn’t put a book down and get to class or work, the writer whose characters made you feel so strongly that you wept or laughed out loud or raged at your roommate about something, the quiet moments you spent with a child talking about characters’ problems or some great illustrations.  And if you are a creator of stories yourself, it’s a reminder that what you do is special and much needed in this world.

Also, Neil Gaiman loves libraries.  So we love him.  Happy New Year!

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

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A little late to the party but still ready to dance

dactyl hill squadSometimes books just have to wait for the right moment to enter my room of the much-loved.  This one came across my desk a few times this fall and kept showing up in things I read online.  When I was looking for a holiday gift for a dear friend’s kids, though, it popped into my brain, my cart, and to the top of the TBR pile, because if you’re giving a book to a kid, it helps to be able to really sell it to his mom, so that maybe she’ll read it with him.  I know she’d love it, too, so you know, it’s kind of a sneaky way of getting her to read, too.  Maybe not so sneaky for me, but you get the picture.

And there’s a good reason for all the attention it’s getting.  It’s fun – confusing at first if you’re not used to alternative history – but fun.  Dinosaurs are the public transportation?  It’s 1863, the Civil War is on, and the kids at Colored Orphan Asylum are about dive in and change the course of at least a few bad white dudes’ histories?

Well.  Ok.  Why not?  The characters are charming, the setting is intriguing, and anyone who’s visited New York City will have some fun imagining raptors and dinos and chimney-sweeping kids racing through Brooklyn and Manhattan, and maybe tweaking history in their favor, too.

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

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What is lost when you are found

foundThis is not a revolutionary book – a dog is found, a dog is loved, a dog’s new owner realizes the dog already has a home.  But it’s a common enough theme in the lives of young kids – you lose your stuffed animal at a rest area, you find a train in the airport – that it’s a nice opportunity to talk about how these things happen.  And even if you’re not happy with the outcome right away, sometimes things work out.

It’s also wordless, so for new readers of all ages, it’s a nice way to explore telling a story in your own words.

Found. by Jeff Newman and Larry Day

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A Handmaid’s Tale for kids?

the-prophet-calls-9781499807554_lgThis is not a happy book, although there are happy moments.  And this is not an easy book to read, although I finished it quickly.

When your god (in the voice of your prophet) says you have to stop doing something that gives you joy, cut loved ones out of your life,  stop going out into the world, marry someone you can’t stand, move thousands of miles so that your own parent can’t see you, and never, never, never question anything – how would you react as a 13 year old girl?

Submission is supposed to be freeing, to show your love of God and your understanding of your role in the world, but “prophets” and cults are out there, too, and how can you escape if you are in one?

Some convenient things happen – they could in the real world – but this one’s still worth a look for thinking about what we see happening in the world and how and when we decide to speak up.

The Prophet Calls by Melanie Sumrow

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How not to negotiate with a thieving crow…

harold loves his woolly hatCrows, it turns out, are not trusty individuals when it comes to woolly hats.  They take worms, berries, and shiny things and have no intention of giving you what you’re asking for in return.  A woolly hat.  That’s all you want.  It makes you special, for goodness sake.  Why don’t crows get that?

Shouting doesn’t work either, sadly.  But you can put on your imaginary woolly thinking hat and scale the tree, planning to finally get that hat back.  The woolly one.  The one that makes you special.

Not so fast, little bear.  There is more.

Delightful.  Fun.  Even a little zippy.

Harold Loves His Woolly Hat by Vern Kousky

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When are we wearing the costume?

Recently, I’ve been recommending Emma’s comic, The Mental Load: a feminist comic to all kinds of women.  It does a fantastic job of documenting and thinking over the roles women live now – at work, at home, in the world.

What’s sweet about Max and the Superheroes is that his mom is really a superhero – Mega Power – but that as a kid, what Max really loves is the mom costume.

It doesn’t take much of a giant, superhero leap to go from one to the other, and to wonder where we’re our real selves – at work, at home, in the world?  Or do we just accept that we’re all kinds of people and roles each and every day?

Fun for kids (picture book), much to think about for the grown folks (comic).

The Mental Load:  a feminist comic by Emma

Max and the Superheroes by Rocio Bonilla and Oriol Malet

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Bingo and grandmas and love is love

bingo-loveOnce in a while, I’ve got something on my list at work that doesn’t even make it to me before someone else snags it–with the hold slip for me already in it– and reads it.  Co-workers, you know who you are. (But not you, CK.  At least I don’t think so.)  This is that book.  And once you read it, you will see why.

First off, there’s an intriguing cover and many wonderful illustrations.  Then there’s the story, which sucks you in, bingo-related as it is, and before you know it, you’re so emotional, you’ve almost cried three times.  Or so I hear from one of my co-workers.

It is great, and it’s not any kind of usual, but all wonderful just the same.  And love is love is love.  Really.  Steal it from a co-worker if you can.

Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

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Crabby, grief-filled, dysfunctional and such a hoot

dear rachel maddowI hope Rachel Maddow appreciates how skillfully Adrienne Kisner has swept her up and into a book about a teen who is struggling, because this one is fun, really, even with characters struggling with grief, the after-effects of substance abuse, domestic violence, and the general jerkiness the world throws at us all the time.

I am almost always a fan of a good epistolary novel  — one written in letters – and I’m especially amused by the tweaking Brynn’s teacher does to her drafts of her emails to Rachel.  Mr. Grimm is a wonderful character on his own, and he comes to life in Brynn’s comments about him and his edits of her work in a way that makes you remember, if you’re lucky, the high school teacher you had/have who actually cares about you as much as cranking out statistics for a messed-up school system.

There is some salty language in this one, but for parents who don’t care, older teens, and even adults, it’s a nice break from reality with some secrets, some friends, and a rebel with a cause or two.  Worth a look!

Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

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Some of these things DO go together.

All of these things do just belong.  Funny how Sesame Street lyrics pop into your head in the odd moment, isn’t it?  There are connections everywhere.

These three books might not seem to have anything stringing them together, but I’m here to tell you today that they do.

First, Kate DiCamillo, author of Louisiana’s Way Home.  I suggest her books to all kinds of readers–even adults who are looking for something different–because she does such a beautiful job of giving life to characters and relationships and whole communities.  At a recent event, she talked about how books don’t become all that they are until they have readers, that what an author writes only becomes something meaningful in the hands of a reader – the right reader, any reader.   (Apologies to KD for mis-paraphrasing any of her words, of course.)  So much of what she said that day was inspiring to young writers, old writers, lovers of reading.

Shortly afterwards, I read Becoming by Michelle Obama.  No one needs me to say how great it is, because obviously, everyone already knows it.  One of the things I have always liked about her, from the first time I heard her speak during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses oh-so-many years ago, is that she seems like a regular person, someone who would fit right in on my rather quirky block.  She’s got her opinions, sure, but she isn’t just yammering on; she’s trying to do something to make the world a better place.

Then I read Louise Penny’s latest, Kingdom of the Blind.    I have been looking forward to this for months.  I am such a fan of this series that when I read a blog which called it a “cozy” series, I was offended for her, since I’m not thinking many “cozy” series have an ongoing thread which involves opioids, violence, and corruption.  Then, of course, I was annoyed, because I feel like “cozy” is code for lightweight, like “chick lit” and “romance,” — mostly books written by women by the way –and if people like a type of book, why does anyone have to throw down judgment on them?  (I say this, knowing that I am guilty of judging books myself.)

One of the ongoing themes in Penny’s books is community, the way the neighbors in Three Pines support each other even when they don’t agree, the way they become a family, even to you as a reader.  Maybe that’s the “cozy” they were going for.  I don’t know.  It still bugs me.

And then I woke up this morning thinking about tornadoes – long story – but it led me thinking about all three of these authors and how they are putting something out into the world which speaks to hope, not hopey—changey hope, but something deep and universal within us.  We are imperfect.  We make mistakes.  And when we wake up, sometimes all we can do is hope that the new day will be better.  Amen.


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Chalk, detectives, but no murder in sight

case of the missing chalk drawingsThe chalks draw lovely flowers, go to lunch, and ALL the flowers are gone.  Every time they create something new and walk away, some nefarious thief steals their work, wiping them clean.  Who can it be?

Sergeant Blue will investigate, but it will turn out there’s no crime – just a misunderstanding about others’ intentions.  Might be to fun to pair this one with Eraser by Anna Kang.  Who knew there’d be two new picture books out with eraser leads, after all?

The Case of the Missing Chalk Drawings by Richard Byrne

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Adventures with best friends, even the annoying ones

Duck is a bit high-maintenance for a best friend.  Bear reluctantly goes along with Duck’s plans, after much enthusiasm (bugging) from Duck, and then still finds a way to make himself the center of attention when Bear calls a stop because he’s cold and wet and miserable.  “PLEASE TAKE CARE OF ME” is what Bear sees on Duck’s roof after he’s booted Duck out of his house.  Then Duck tumbles from the roof.  Sigh.

When you write it all down, Duck sounds sort of unpleasant, although it’s all mostly funny in the way that you snipe at people you love and then laugh about it.  Bear might really want to find a new neighbor, but you can also see how their friendship boosts both of them up.

And then there are Pine and Boof, off on a new adventure.  They are opposites, too.  Pine cares about the details and thinks about centrifuge training.  Boof mainly seem focused on the snacks.  Together, though, they will try to explore the universe to return a space egg (not really) to its mother.  Fun & silly in a different way.

Pine & Boof:  Blast Off by Ross Burach

All Right Already! – a snowy story by Jory John and Benji Davies


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