Diversity in Verse Novels – Part II

I love reading verse novels. There’s something so alluring about them. If you’re not familiar with the genre, it’s a form in which the entire story is told in a series of non-rhyming poems, usually from the perspective of the main character (or switching back and forth between several characters). I find it to be a unique and beautiful way to get inside the thoughts of a character.

It’s a wonderful genre for diverse stories. The format of narrative poems allows for such intimate access to each character’s point of view. I find that even if the character is very different from me, I can understand his or her perspective more easily when I engage with poems like these.

I’ve already written one post about diversity in verse novels (you can find Part I here), but I just had to share a few more of my favorites.

Brown Girl Dreaming – by Jacqueline Woodson

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This memoir, written as a series of narrative poems, tells the story of the author’s childhood during the 1960s and 70s. I was particularly struck by her comparisons of the culture of her home in New York with the culture of her mother’s family in South Carolina. Deftly written and inspiring.

The Crossover – by Kwame Alexander

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The language in this novel packs a punch. Each poem is full of movement and motion, sizzling across the page. The story is about basketball, but it’s also about brotherhood, about navigating adolescence, about working through family tension. It’s an engaging story, and a joy to read.

Audacity – by Melanie Crowder

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This powerfully written story was inspired by true events in the life of Clara Lemlich. It deals with immigration, antisemitism, women’s rights, labor rights, and protest, all in a very readable and accessible way. A Jewish immigrant from Russia in the early 20th century, Clara refuses to accept the terrible working conditions prevalent in her new community in New York. Her story is inspiring and expertly told.

Red Butterfly – by A.L. Sonnichsen

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Kara has never met her birth mother. She was abandoned as an infant but taken in and cared for by an American woman living in China. She’s knows that something is unusual — even wrong — about her life, but she can’t quite figure out what’s going on. Why is she kept out of sight in their tiny apartment in Tianjin? Why can’t she and her American mother join Daddy in the U.S.? An intriguing and compelling story about adoption, family, and being undocumented.

Serafina’s Promise – by Ann E. Burg

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Serafina dreams of becoming a doctor someday. But her dream would require her to attend school, and money for a uniform and supplies is non-existent. Besides, Serafina’s mother needs her at home, to prepare for the arrival of the new baby — the whole family is hoping against hope that this time the baby will live past infancy. Set in Haiti, against the backdrop of the 2010 earthquake, this book is filled with hope and determination.

Best Books of 2016

There were so many wonderful books published in 2016, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that particularly stuck out to me. Here they are:

Fiction

War and Turpentine – by Stefan Hertmans

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This book took me completely off guard. It’s a fictionalized account of the author’s grandfather: his life as an artist, the trauma of WWI in Belgium, and the shattering of an old way of life. Perhaps because it’s fiction that borders on memoir, the characters seemed so real, so vivid, so fragile. I’m looking forward to re-reading it again and again over the years.

Memoir

Lab Girl – by Hope Jahren

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I’m fascinated by memoirs by people who are passionate about things I know very little about. That was definitely the case with Lab Girl. Hope Jahren is a scientist studying trees and plant life, but her memoir covers so much more than science. It’s the story of a woman trying desperately to prove herself in a field full of men. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship with her oddball lab partner Bill. It’s the story of a fight against mental illness and a tenuous questioning of the workings of the mind. Hope tells her story against the backdrop of short essays about the trees she studies, and it ties together to create a thing of beauty.

History

A House Full of Daughters – by Juliet Nicolson

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Not many people can trace the women in their family back seven generations the way that Juliet Nicolson can. But she has fascinating stories to tell of the women in her family all the way back to the 1830s. In the midst of telling her own family story through the eyes of its women, she traces the historical context of these women’s lives as well as exploring the angst-ridden relationships of mother and daughter that travel throughout the years. I found it to be beautifully written, and intriguing in its scope and focus.

Poetry

The Rain in Portugal – by Billy Collins

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I’ve loved Billy Collins’ poetry for years — he treats poetry so lightly and includes such winning humor, yet his poems have moments of true depth and poignancy as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. He covers topics as various as jazz music, a lonely summer from his childhood, and the ghosts of siblings he never had.

Science

The Gene – by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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This fascinating and highly readable book offers the history of genetics in a way that blends history, science, sociology, and personal narrative in a compelling way. Mukherjee draws us in with his own family story of genetically transmitted mental illness, and then takes us on a fascinating history of how the gene was discovered and explored. He starts with Pythagoras and Aristotle and takes us through the mapping of the human genome. In an age of so much change and discovery in the field of genetics, I found this book to be particularly intriguing.

Science Fiction

The Paper Menagerie – by Ken Liu

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This grouping of science fiction short stories blew me away. Each story is original, unusual, and written with subtlety and grace. The sheer diversity among the stories caught my attention — some are more traditional science fiction with astronauts on ships; others are speculative fiction about how history could have been different; some are set in our own world with one thing slightly “off.” There’s a murder mystery with a cyborg detective, a tale about the last living Japanese man, a story about humanity’s shift into a robotic form. Overall, it’s a book with gripping storytelling, compelling new ideas, and beautiful prose.

Fantasy

The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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This is the story of an enmagicked girl, a snarky witch, a disgruntled swamp monster, and paper cranes that come to life. The world-building is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the story wends between humor and pathos in a compelling way.

Middle Grades Fiction

The Wild Robot – by Peter Brown

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I found myself utterly charmed by the antics of Roz, a robot who comes to consciousness one day, finding herself alone on a wilderness island. She explores the secrets of her own existence and develops relationships with the animals who inhabit the island. The juxtaposition of the mechanical and the wild creates an intriguing world, and the illustrations that appear throughout the book only add to the delight.

If you have a middle grades reader in your house, be sure to check out my post on the 10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 as well!

10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016

So much fantastic middle grades fiction came out this past year. Here are the 10 that particularly captivated me:

1. Wild Robot – by Peter Brown

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This quirky and charming story follows the adventures of Roz, a robot who wakes up alone on a wilderness island.

2. The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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This evocative fantasy tells the tale of an oppressed village, a enmagicked girl who drinks light from the moon, and a snarky witch.

3. When the Sea Turned to Silver – by Grace Lin

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An exciting tale of adventure and discovery that features a variety of Chinese folk tales and beautifully rendered illustrations.

4. Wolf Hollow – by Lauren Wolk

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At times rather brutal in its content, this book follows the compelling tale of a young girl caught up in the defense of an ostracized World War I veteran in small town Pennsylvania.

5. Anna and the Swallow Man – by Gavriel Savit

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The haunting tale of a young girl and the stranger she meets as they both try to escape from Nazi-occupied Poland.

6. Paper Wishes – by Lois Stepahban

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A moving story about a young Japanese-American girl in a World War II era internment camp.

7. Grayling’s Song – by Karen Cushman

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An engaging journey-style fantasy, with a memorable cast of characters.

8. Full of Beans – by Jennifer Holm

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A mischievous boy in Depression-era Florida tries to earn money and interacts with the “New Dealers” who come to implement changes in his town.

9. It Ain’t So Awful Falafel – by Firoozeh Dumas

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The charming story of an Iranian girl adjusting to life in the states during the 1970s. Funny and serious at the same time, it explores the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis.

10. The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price – by Jennifer Maschari

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This unusual and compelling story makes use of magical realism in its exploration of a young boy’s grief over losing his mother.

Picture Books about Sweden

There are some really lovely children’s books by Swedish authors that have been translated into English. Here are a few that we found and loved as we did our unit study on Sweden.

Pancakes for Findus – by Sven Nordqvist

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This is the first in a series of books about an eccentric old man and his cat. Their misadventures are fun and humorous, and the story is accompanied by detailed illustrations that add to the humor in the book. It’s one of those books where the humor is found in the combination of the text and the illustrations — there’s not quite enough information in either to get the full joke, but together they’re hilarious.

Children of the Forest – by Elsa Beskow

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This sweet story follows a family of little people (they’re about the size of squirrels), as they live out their daily lives in the Swedish forest. Their adventures are intriguing — they ride on bats, kill snakes, and harvest mushrooms for the winter. The illustrations are quaint and charming, and the story is sweet and memorable.

Per and the Dala Horse – by Rebecca Hickox

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This brightly illustrated retelling of a classic folk tale features three brothers making use of their inheritance, a toy horse that proves useful in unexpected ways, and adventures with trolls.

The Tomten – by Astrid Lindgren

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A gentle and charming tale of an old Tomten who watches over the farm when everyone is sleeping. This reminded me a bit of tales of the Brownies and Leprechauns, except that the Tomten is kind and doesn’t get into mischief. The illustrations are lovely, and they show the beauty of the snowy winter landscape.

Lucia Morning in Sweden – by Ewa Rydaker

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This book holds a special place in my heart, because the mother of a friend of mine from growing up was Swedish, and she would lead us in the celebration of St. Lucia Day every year. I have fond memories of getting up early with my friends (after we’d stayed up far too late the night before) and donning a white nightgown and candle-lit crown in order to bring treats and sing to our parents or friends in their beds. This book is a lovely description of the traditions of this festival, and brought back sweet memories for me personally.

The Boy Who Ate More Than the Giant – by Ulf Löfgren

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This collection of Swedish folk tales is well told, and features humorous illustrations to go along with the stories. A few of the tales are somewhat gruesome in their details (as traditional folk tales often are), but they’re also very clever and witty.

Longer Read-Alouds:

Swedish Fairy Tales – translated by Holger Lundbergh

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This is a truly beautiful collection of Swedish fairy tales, featuring lovely full-page and full-color illustrations. There are 21 stories in all, by a variety of different authors — including Elsa Beskow and Anna Wahlenberg. The tales feature magicians and mountains, trolls and tomten. The stories are all very readable, and full of a magical richness that’s quite different from the traditional French and English fairy tales that I’m used to.

The Children of Noisy Village – by Astrid Lindgren

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This lovely chapter book follows the life of 9-year-old Lisa and her siblings and friends as they go to school, celebrate holidays, and get into mischief. It was published in the 1960s, so I’m sure it’s a bit dated, but I loved peeking into the everyday life of these Swedish children. My son loved this book as a read aloud — its descriptions of daily life were intriguing to him, and he wanted to re-enact some of their escapades afterwards.

Pippi Longstocking – by Astrid Lindgren

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No list of books about Sweden is complete without Pippi Longstocking. This delightful story about a vivacious 9-year-old with superhuman strength who lives on her own and defies all the conventions is such fun to read. My son thought it was hilarious, and while it doesn’t explicitly discuss Swedish culture very much, it’s considered such a classic of childhood in Sweden that I had to include it in our reading.

Other Resources:

Traditional Song of St. Lucia Day

Are We There Yet? (Sweden) –  3 episodes about kids visiting Sweden

10 Good Things to Know about Sweden

Fantasy Books for Grown Ups

I grew up on fantasy. My favorite childhood climbing tree was named “Narnia” and my friends and I once had a lively game of “Quidditch” on a frozen pond (it involved a blend of hockey rules and Quidditch rules, with brooms instead of hockey sticks). Fantasy novels with young protagonists are nostalgic for me, and I still pull out A Wrinkle in Time or The Book of Three when I’m having a bad day.

Sometimes, though, I’m in the mood for a good fantasy novel that was written with adults in mind. It took me a while to find “grown up” fantasy books I connected with, and it felt for a while as if all of the memorable fantasy worlds had been hijacked by 12-year-olds. Over the years, though, I’ve found more and more well-written, compelling fantasy books that interact with the world on a more adult level. Here are a few that have captured my imagination.

The Golem and the Jinni – by Helene Wecker

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This book uses the evocative backdrop of late 19th century New York—with all of its immigrant communities and people trying to create new lives for themselves—to explore questions of what it means to be human through the eyes of two magical beings. Chava is a golem, brought to life by a rabbi with an eye for the dark arts. She ends up in the Jewish section of New York, trying to blend in with the humans around her and make a way for herself. Ahmed, a Jinni, lives in the New York neighborhood of Little Syria, his spirit burning and restless. The historical fiction elements of this book blend seamlessly with the fantastical aspects, and create a truly compelling read.

The Snow Child – by Eowyn Ivey

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Set in the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s, this book follows a childless couple as they meet (and accept into their family) a magical girl made of snow. It’s a beautiful blend of deeply felt historical fiction and ethereal Russian fairy tale elements. This book resonated with me on several levels—it contains poignant moments of human joy and suffering as well as a kind of magical realism that I found to be quite captivating.

In the Night Garden – by Catherynne Valente

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This book has a strange beauty that is hard to define. In an Arabian Nights type motif, a young orphan girl tells tale after tale (and sometimes many tales within tales) to a runaway prince. The stories interweave into a complex tapestry–including tales of stars who bleed light, of towered maidens who turn into beasts, of seaworthy ships grown from live trees. There are stories with roots in many languages and traditions, and the overall effect of the blend of tales is darkly ethereal and fascinating.

Uprooted – by Naomi Novik

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When I started this book, it seemed like a fairly straightforward re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, but it soon turned into something far more rich and complex, in a darkly compelling way. The world, which is based partly in Eastern European folklore, opens up in unexpected ways over the course of the story, as the characters face a sinister evil that lurks in the nearby Wood.  It’s an unusual and intriguing read, and one that I will not soon forget.

5 Books for Francophiles

1. How Paris Became Paris – by Joan deJean

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An intriguing and very readable account of Paris’ transformation from a medieval collection of buildings and monuments into the first modern city of public urban spaces and planned boulevards.

2. The Greater Journey – by David McCullough

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This fascinating collection of stories features a wide variety of 19th century Americans who spent time in Paris. Some of them are famous — think James Fenimore Cooper or Oliver Wendell Holmes — and others less so. But all of them came away from their time in the Old World changed in some way. David McCullough weaves a compelling narrative, and one that helped me to understand some of the history and roots of the lasting fascination with France in America. Read more

3. Three Tales – by Gustave Flaubert

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This slim collection of three stories by Gustave Flaubert provides a very accessible introduction to classic French literature. Flaubert’s writing has a beautiful simplicity and elegance, and his portrayal of the human soul is quite poignant.

4. My Wish List – by Grégoire Delacourt

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If you’re looking to read a contemporary French novel, this book is a wonderful place to start. The main character, Jocelyne, wins the lottery but then hesitates to cash the check, wondering how it will change her life and if it would really be for the better. The cast of characters are delightfully real and quirky, and it’s psychologically rich novel.

5. Flirting with French – by William Alexander

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I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir about a man who decides to learn the French language when he’s in his 50s. It addresses a lot of the issues and theories in foreign language acquisition, but in a very accessible and often very humorous way. If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated by trying to learn a language, you’ll relate to this book.

 

 

Picture Books about Butterflies

There are so many lovely picture books that focus on butterflies, and Spring seems like the perfect season to dive into them. Because of the sheer volume of good books I found on the topic of butterflies, I decided to give them their own week’s worth of study, instead of just lumping butterflies in with our study on insects.

A Butterfly is Patient – by Dianna Hutts Aston

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Sylvia Long’s detailed and delicate illustrations make this book a true gem. The text gives a general overview of a butterfly’s life, from metamorphosis to migration. It’s a lovely book, both engaging and beautiful.

Butterfly Story – by Anca Hariton

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Rather than an overview of butterflies in general, this book focuses on the life-cycle of a single butterfly, from egg to caterpillar, then from pupa to adult. The illustrations are graceful, and each stage of the butterfly’s metamorphosis is shown in exquisite detail.

Guess What: Bright and Beautiful – by Felicia Macheske

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I love this series of books. In each one, the reader must guess the identity of a certain animal based on brief clues and close-up photographs of various parts of the animal. This book focuses on a monarch butterfly, and the photography is quite stunning.

Crickleroot’s Guide to Knowing Butterflies and Moths – by Jim Arnosky

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The narrator of this book, Crinkleroot, is a delightful old man with a pet snake who lives on his hat. He takes us on an exploration of the world of butterflies and moths. One of the things I particularly loved about this book was the emphasis on learning the patterns of different butterflies and moths, so that you could recognize them out in nature. My son loved Crinkleroot’s sense of humor — particularly when he discovers a butterfly hiding in his beard!

Becoming Butterflies – by Anne Rockwell

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This charming book follows a group of children as the observe the caterpillars in their classroom — through the stages of munching milkweed, through their disappearance into cocoons, and ending with their transformation into butterflies. It’s a sweet, accessible story and portrays the wonder of metamorphosis through the eyes of children.

Traveling Butterflies – by Susumu Shingu

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This book describes the migration of monarch butterflies from Canada to their winter home in Mexico. The text is brief but poetic, and the illustrations are lush. Each page portrays a different element of the journey — over cities, near a waterfall, by towns and villages and plains. The pages that show the great masses of butterflies all gathered together in their winter habitat are truly magical.

Waiting for Wings – by Lois Ehlert

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With bold, colorful illustrations and simple rhyming text, this book traces the life-cycle of four common butterflies — from their beginnings as eggs through their transformations into full grown butterflies.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar – by Eric Carle

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No collection of butterfly books would be complete without this classic picture book. In Eric Carle’s inimitable style, we follow this hungry caterpillar’s life from his beginning as an egg on a moonlit leaf, through many meals (some of them quite monstrously large), and finally to his transformation into a butterfly. This is one that I have practically memorized from when my son was toddler-aged, and yet he still loves it.