Best Books of 2017

There were so many wonderful books published in 2017, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that I especially loved. Here they are:

Memoir

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe – by Kapka Kassabova

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In this book, the author returns to Bulgaria (where she was born and spent her childhood) after a long absence. Her goal is to better understand the human and cultural impacts of the Iron Curtain border that intersected this area of the world, and this goal leads her into an exploration of the concept of borders themselves and how they impact the current immigration crisis in Europe. She crosses the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece many times over the course of her journey — a powerful experience for her after growing up near a border that seemed truly uncrossable. Her interviews with the people she meets in these borderlands unlock astonishing stories, as well as a variety of perspectives on the impact of recent history in the Balkans.

Short Stories

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories – by Penelope Lively

Purple swamp hen

This was my first venture into the work of Penelope Lively, and I’m eager to read more. I found each of these stories to be sharp, engaging, and witty. At first glance, the stories seem to be about the mundane — a broken down van, an elderly lady doing her weekly shopping, an uncomfortable lunch meeting. But each story delves into the recesses of the human soul, and reveals something extraordinary and unexpected by its close.

Fantasy

Stone Sky – by N.K. Jemisin

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When the first two books of a trilogy have been as widely lauded and won as much critical acclaim as The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate have, I always worry that the author won’t be able to stick the landing with the final book. I shouldn’t have worried in this case. The ending is masterful. This trilogy creates one single (several thousand page long) story arc, and this final book brought the story to a thundering, earth-shattering close. This is not light and fun fantasy — it delves into difficult themes such as abuse, trauma, power inequality, and rebellion. The world-building is captivating, the storytelling is masterful, and the ideas and struggles are deep and powerful.

Science Fiction

Binti: Home – by Nnedi Okorafor

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This book (the second installment in the trilogy) is refreshingly different from classic science fiction. The author is Nigerian-American, and her works generally focus on African-based science fiction and fantasy. This book explores a kaleidoscope of different elements: a tribal girl struggling with the pull between her ambitions and the traditional expectations of her community, the tensions of a burgeoning friendship between this girl and a squid-like being who is the traditional enemy of her people, telepathy and unexplained mental powers, tribal magic and alien beings. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the third volume of this unique and beautiful trilogy.

Non-Fiction

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult – by Bruce Handy

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This book will appeal to adults with a literary bent who still enjoy reading kids’ books — in other words, right up my alley. It’s a delightful romp through American children’s classics as varied as Goodnight Moon Charlotte’s Web, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8. The book isn’t intended for a scholarly audience, but it does explore children’s books as literature — digging into the lives of the authors, the thematic and structural elements (why do anthropomorphic animals feature so strongly in children’s lit?), and what children’s books from different eras say about the changing way we see our kids.

Young Adult

The Hate U Give – by Angie Thomas

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The main character in this book is 16-year-old Starr, a girl who regularly moves between two worlds — the world of the underprivileged black neighborhood where she lives and that of the mostly white suburban school she attends. The uneasy peace she’s carved out for herself between the two worlds begins to splinter when she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend at the hands of a white police officer. The story is raw and powerful, but it’s also told with nuance and compassion. This isn’t a political tirade disguised as fiction — it’s a deeply felt story exploring many facets of a terrible situation.

Middle Grades Fiction

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus – by Dusti Bowling

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This is the story of Aven, a delightfully spunky girl who was born without arms (but likes telling people that she lost them wrestling an alligator), as she moves to a new town in order for her parents to take over the management of a run-down wild west amusement park. It’s a fun book, full of adventure, humor, and pluck, and I found it refreshing to read a book about a character with physical differences that didn’t treat those differences as the most important aspect of the story or of her as a person.

Graphic Novel

The Best We Could Do – by Thi Bui

best we could do

This powerfully rendered graphic memoir follows a Vietnamese-American woman’s exploration of her family’s past. She delves into her parents’ backgrounds, their lives in Vietnam, and their eventual journey to America as refugees. The theme of motherhood weaves throughout the book, as the author (a new mother herself) seeks to understand her own mother’s past through the lens of motherhood. For a more in-depth look at this book, check out this post.

Vietnamese-American Stories: The Best We Could Do and The Refugees

Two of the best books I’ve read this year were by Vietnamese-American authors. It wasn’t particularly intentional on my part, but I love it when I find unexpected connections in books that I read. The books are The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui and The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. In one sense they’re very different from one another – the first is a memoir in graphic novel format, and the second is a collection of short stories. Yet the two books complemented each other in interesting ways.

best we could doThe Best We Could Do is a graphic memoir, in the tradition of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland. The author herself arrived in the US as a toddler (after her family fled Vietnam), so the book centers more on her parents’ stories. In fact, the very process of her seeking to uncover her parents’ stories is woven into the narrative itself. We see the long, difficult conversations she had with her father, and the way her mother opened up more easily to the author’s Caucasian husband about her past than she could with her own daughter. We see her father’s childhood unfold, and then her mother’s. These two stories providing an interesting counterpoint to each other – the mother grew up in the social elite, attending French schools, and vowing never to give up her freedom and dreams by marrying or having children. The author’s father, on the other hand, grew up in poverty, abandoned by his father – a man who later tries to recruit him to the Communist cause. Seeing the history of Vietnam as a backdrop to these two very different childhoods provided an interesting glimpse into the varied experience of the Vietnamese people.

Another element of this book that stood out to me is how the author tells the story through the lens of motherhood. Pregnancy and birth is a sort of frame to the narrative. The book opens with a vivid scene of the author giving birth to her firstborn child, and we watch as she’s inundated with the questions and fears that often accompany motherhood. Her new understanding of both the significance and the difficulty of having a child leads her to investigate her own mother’s past with a particular focus on the experience of motherhood. As the story unfolds, she follows each of her mother’s pregnancies, set against a background of a changing country, often full of turmoil and unrest. The pregnancies are varied: there are stories of infant loss and stillbirth, stories of “replacement pregnancies” following the loss of children, stories of fleeing the country with an infant in arms and of giving birth in a refugee camp. There’s a poignancy to a woman realizing for the first time the intensity, meaning, and self-doubt of being a mother, and then seeking to interpret and understand her own mother’s past in light of this.

refugeesThe Refugees served as both a complement and a counterpoint to The Best We Could Do. It’s a slim collection of short stories, much more understated and reserved than the graphic memoir. All of the stories relate in some way to the Vietnamese-American experience, yet there was an incredible amount of variety among the stories. The fact that the characters’ lives had a connection to Vietnam wasn’t presented as a dramatic or flashy thing – there was no sense of exoticism or melodramatic pity in these stories. Instead, we see a nuanced and often understated look into a few moments in these characters lives. It shattered the illusion of a single, monolithic “Vietnamese-American experience.”

Not all of the stories were about literal refugees. To me, the title seemed to refer more to the unmoored feeling of being between cultures – not fully belonging to one or the other. This unmoored feeling presented itself in very different ways depending on the personality and experiences of the character. The characters themselves are well drawn and they come to life on the page. We see the adult daughter who lives with her ghost-believing mother who finds herself haunted by the memory of the brother who died saving her life as they escaped from Vietnam. Or the Vietnamese girl who idolizes her half-sister living in America, until the sister comes to visit and reveals the complicated truth of her life in the States. There’s the retired USAF pilot who fought in the Vietnam War, now visiting his daughter who has chosen the life of a language teacher in Vietnam, as they hash out their conflicting views about the country his daughter now calls home. And we see the elderly librarian who questions her husband’s past when he begins to call her by another woman’s name as his Alzheimer’s worsens. Each character inhabits his or her own space, and reveals another facet of the story that connects Vietnam and America.

These two books stand beautifully in conjunction with each other. On the one hand, they have quite different ways of approaching the subject – The Best We Could Do with its striking visuals and deeply personal autobiographical story, and The Refugees with its thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of a multiplicity of different experiences among Vietnamese-Americans. Yet they both delve deep into the same subject matter – the lives of people who have become Americans due in large part to the Vietnam War. The war is an ever present thread weaving throughout both books, but it’s not often the main focus of the narrative in either book. Instead, these books focus on the personal journeys of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American individuals – their joys and their struggles, and the way Vietnamese and American culture rub up against each other in their lives. Both books are beautifully written, and the experience of reading them side by side deepened my understanding and connection to these stories and experiences.

Hillbilly Elegy – by J.D. Vance

It’s very unusual for someone from JD Vance’s background – a poor Appalachian kid from a broken home riddled with domestic abuse and violence – to end up with a law degree from Yale. Yet this memoir is the story of how Vance achieved this goal. The story is both personal and powerful, but as someone who grew up in West Virginia, I found that it often painted a complex culture with too broad a brush.hillbilly elegy

As a memoir, I thought this was a moving story. There’s something beautiful and important that comes from someone sharing their story and experiences in a long-form narrative. But this book tried to be something more than a memoir – in among the moving anecdotes from his past, the author included segments of sociological commentary and generalized explanation of the culture he grew up in. These sections weakened the story. The writing in them was weaker, and I wondered if an editor requested that the author add them in after the fact. In addition, the author seemed too close to his own traumatic experiences to have a clear and objective grasp of the culture as a whole. He commented a number of times throughout the book that he felt somewhat like he was betraying his culture by going to Yale and entering into the privileged world that came with it. This struggle with the transition between the two worlds and the tension that he (obviously) still feels about his past seem to interfere his attempt at making objective sociological commentary. He tells his story with heart and conviction, and it’s a story that we need to hear. But the attempt to expand his story into generalities about the culture detracted from the story as a whole.

I wish this book had come out at a different time. It’s quite a good memoir – a man telling the story of his growing up years, in a difficult home. But this book came out just before the U.S. election of 2016, at a time when a huge group of people were trying to figure out the culture of Appalachia and the American south, and trying to find out “who the Trump voter really is.” A lot of people latched on to this book as “the answer” to what Appalachian culture is all about. This is problematic. The story is moving and important, but it’s one person’s story. We can’t extrapolate out and say that we finally understand an entire culture based on one personal account.

Another problematic aspect to this book is the fact that there’s no in-depth discussion of how to define success. The author gives a very specific example of his own success – “getting out,” going to Yale, having a financially lucrative career. But he glosses over another success story in the book: his sister’s. While they both grew up in the same broken and very dysfunctional home, his sister married a solid, kind man, and seems to have formed a happy and stable life, even while she stayed in a working class rural environment. Sometimes success means “escaping.” But sometimes it doesn’t. To me, breaking the cycle of abuse and instability is the biggest success in both of their stories.

This book struck a very personal chord for me, because I grew up in West Virginia. I wasn’t born there (a fact which makes a difference to those who were), but I lived there from age five through my high school graduation. It was my home. A lot of the things the author describes in his memoir were things that I observed around me while I was growing up – the fierce tribal pride and family loyalty, the widespread poverty and difficulty in adjusting to and finding jobs in a new global economy, the tension and contrast between those who work tooth and nail to make it on their own and those who depend on the welfare system. But while many aspects of this story were very familiar to me, I resisted the inference that the author’s personal story was representative of the culture as a whole. There are plenty of families in rural Appalachia that aren’t riddled with domestic abuse. There are plenty of stable, happy families who love each other and love the place they live. There are plenty of people living in Appalachia who love it there and want to continue living there – not everyone views it as a place to escape from. There are problems in Appalachia, to be sure, and the collapse of the coal mining industry has certainly worsened them, but I found it to be a wonderful place to grow up.

 

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Off the Beaten Path

Off the Beaten Path: Excursions into the lesser known works of classical authors

By Margaret McMillan

The pathway into the oeuvre of a famous author begins differently for every reader. Our unique experiences or timing shape what we take and what we leave. The first work that we read by an author is really a first handshake. Like any initial impression, certain features of an author’s work may stand out, only to be confirmed by future encounters. Other features startle at first, only to gradually fade away. Is the handshake firm? Supple? Do they look you in the eye when they speak?

Unlike a personal introduction, first impressions of authors depend much upon the individuality of the reader. We aren’t confronted face-to-face, but rather we follow along behind – picking up the bread-trail of a writer’s life. We also get to choose what work we read, and this choice in turn often defines how we think about an author’s legacy. What is it that Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference?” Although we can continue deeper into an author’s thicket of works, when we read that first novel, or poem, or play, we have taken a certain path from which there is no going back. Fortunately, there are twists and turns that allow us, if we’re diligent readers, to revise our preconceptions. Yet, that first work, that first handshake, remains as a powerful impression nevertheless.

It’s a great misfortune that most pathways to classical authors begin in the driest of settings; the high school classroom. Reading a heavily annotated edition of a classic work under the duress of assessment is like trying on prom gowns in an ill lit dressing-room stall. As an English teacher, I realize the challenges of cultivating a good first impression, and try my best to choose works with the realization that this might be my student’s first encounter with an author. I cross my fingers that it won’t be their last. Paving the way for a good first impression is a tall order. Do you choose works that are emotionally accessible or formulaically recognizable? Or do you prioritize the daring or progressive work of an author’s oeuvre? Do you take a risk on the wacky or eclectic, with the hope that students will want more? What exactly makes a work important?

But I find myself rambling away from my intended path for this essay – what happens when we dive deeper into the works of one author? Fortunately for avid readers, first impressions often don’t deter us from returning for more. Part of the joy of reading emerges within the protracted encounter with a single author. When we read multiple works by the same author, we begin to form a relationship that allows us to explore what is really singular and spectacular about their work. Reading the span of an author’s lifetime allows us to understand writing as a process that requires diligence and practice. What a shock to discover a masterpiece that post-dates the accepted zenith of a writer’s career! How humanizing and comforting to stumble upon an earlier novel that’s underwhelming. Discovering the lesser-known works of an author allows us the opportunity to revise and deepen first impressions. I find this particularly true for classical authors whose popular reputation rests upon one well-read book (there’s that prom dress again). I wanted to take the opportunity to share some gems that I discovered by classical authors that are off the beaten path. You probably won’t find them on a high school syllabus, or on your shelf at the local box bookstore. Some of these texts are a footnote in an author’s legacy. Each one offered a new insight for me on an otherwise widely-known author. But, who am to say? For me, these were the paths not taken. For you, they might have been your entry-point.

piazza-talesHerman MelvilleThe Piazza Tales. I’ll begin with Melville because I had the misfortune of a very bad first impression. My experience with Melville began as an undergraduate, reading his bizarre, critical flop, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. As a late teen, the labyrinthine plot, with its Freudian undertones, defeated me. I didn’t return to Melville until graduate school, when a nagging feeling that as a scholar of American studies I probably should give Moby Dick a chance finally prompted me to pick up a copy at an airport kiosk. From there, our relationship was rekindled.

If anyone has the misfortune of being labeled a one-hit wonder, poor Herman Melville certainly would take the literary prize. His masterpiece, Moby Dick, tends to eclipse the rest of his contemporary legacy like a super moon. Ironically, at the time that he published his heavily philosophical story about the white whale, Melville actually experienced a decline in popularity from a readership more interested in his earlier – decidedly lighter – adventure novels and travelogues. This all changed after the 1920s, when literary scholars began to salvage Melville’s legacy, and along with it, the wreck of the Pequod. Now you can pick up a copy anywhere (as proof, see my anecdote above).

For a man whom some scholars designate the first American novelist, it’s no surprise that his lengthiest masterpiece is also his most read. But Melville was a much more versatile writer than Barnes & Noble gives him credit for – he tried his hand at travelogues, short stories, and poetry, including an 18,000 line epic poem in iambic tetrameter. For a taste of Melville that displays his talents in a different light, take a look at his short story collection, The Piazza Tales. The story of Bartleby, the Scrivener puts Melville’s unique humor on display, while Benito Cereno sends chills down your spine and proves that although Ishmael can talk your ear off, Melville doesn’t necessarily require page length to impress.

dred.jpgHarriet Beecher Stowe. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Stowe clearly suffers from a similar tragedy as her contemporary, Melville. Characterized by her most famous (or infamous?) work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe has been pigeonholed into an important but over-simplified role in relationship to American slavery. Despite Stowe’s pro-emancipation sympathies, her sentimentalized portrayal of race in Uncle Tom’s Cabin has since received castigation by numerous scholars, including the African American novelist James Baldwin. However, to view Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Stowe’s one thesis on race is to do a tremendous disservice to her legacy as the most prominent abolitionist of her time.

The tucked up edges of Uncle Tom’s Cabin unravel under the pressure of the political and social complexities explored in Dred. Naïve racial characterization is abandoned for a more sophisticated understanding of African American identity. And at the center of the novel, the problematically submissive figure of Uncle Tom has been replaced by the powerful, prophetic voice of an escaped revolutionary.

captainsRudyard Kipling. Captains Courageous. A book by this title, written by a British Victorian, immediately summons comparisons to Treasure Island. But, Captains Courageous was not written by Robert Louis Stevenson but a more unlikely novelist. Best known for his short stories about India, Rudyard Kipling remains most beloved as the author of The Jungle Book. Luckily for his English-speaking cousins on the far-side of the sea, Kipling also wrote a children’s classic about Americans that resembles the coming-of-age novels of Mark Twain.

As the son of an American millionaire, Harvey Cheyne Jr’s posh lifestyle is interrupted by a storm that washes him overboard during a transatlantic voyage. He is subsequently rescued by a fishing vessel but when he fails to convince the captain of his status, he must spend the rest of the summer catching cod and learning the meaning of real work. The tale’s moral conclusion comes across as authentic rather than heavy-handed, and Kipling’s use of dialect to capture the fishermen’s unique speech patterns adds color to his portrayal of maritime life.

cape cod.jpgHenry David Thoreau. Cape Cod. Usually readers first encounter Thoreau in one of two places; on the banks of Walden Pond or in jail. But, as Thoreau himself admits in his numerous essays, he enjoyed a good long walk, and he sometimes would travel great distances by other means in order to take one. Cape Cod describes several such walking excursions to what Thoreau describes as the “bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.”

For even aficionados of Thoreau, Cape Cod might still be off the beaten path, simply because this work was published posthumously and has received limited critical attention until recently. During his lifetime, Thoreau lectured on a wide variety of topics, including this trip. According to newspaper accounts, his description of Cape Cod kept his audience in stitches. Despite Thoreau’s admiration of the Romantic poets, Cape Cod might be considered a satire of picturesque nature writing. Thoreau’s sardonic observations about the harshness of coastal life provide a more complex picture of the hostility of nature than Walden. Despite the irony, Cape Cod contains some of Thoreau’s most poetic descriptions – in particular, his account of a lighthouse. Reading Cape Cod further clarifies Thoreau’s perception of the natural world, and man’s place in it.

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Margaret McMillan just finished an MA in American Literature, where she spent some quality time with our good pal Ishmael. Now, she’s enjoying staying home with her toddler and reading lots of Llama Llama Red Pajama

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing (2).jpgThere are some powerful books out there about slavery and civil rights in America, and there are some incredible works of African post-colonial literature, but this book provided something new –- a juxtaposition between the two.

The story begins with two sisters in West Africa, one of whom is sold into slavery while the other stays on the Gold Coast. But the book is not primarily about these two women -– it’s even more about their descendants. In a series of chapters that read a bit like short stories, we hear the stories of these two women’s descendants, generation by generation, switching back and forth between the two sides of the family. The many threads of stories create a tapestry of history, spanning two continents and nearly three centuries.

The sweep of history seemed at times like its own character, moving forward and affecting everyone in its path. Previous books I’d read about the history of slavery had only focused on one or the other side of the Atlantic. But this juxtaposition of the history of West Africa with the history of enslaved West Africans in the United States provided new and fascinating perspective. This book juxtaposes the conflict between the Asante, the Fante, and the British in West Africa (and its effect on the slave trade) with the ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Act on free black families in the American north. It juxtaposes the changing relationships between people groups in Africa as the white missionaries moved in with the way black identity as an African-American contrasts with black identity as a Ghanaian. It juxtaposes the growth of independence movements in West Africa with the heroin epidemic in Harlem. This book interacts with the sweep of history on both sides of the Atlantic in a complex and compelling way, and in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the depth of character development for the scope of historical overview.

The characterization in this book is exquisite. We only have the space of a short story to get to know each character, and the chronology switches back and forth between the two sides of the family, so the narrative could have easily ended up jumbled and confusing. For me, it was the characterization that prevented this and held the book together. Each character seemed so real and alive. There was true depth and roundness to the characters as well. With such brief snapshots into each moment in history, and such an ambitious scope to the book, it would have been easy for the book to compress each character’s life into the-black-experience-during-such-and-such-a-time-period. But this wasn’t the case at all. Certainly, the black experience over the course of history was a main theme, but characters also interacted with family conflict, work challenges, friendships, marriages, the conflict between desire and duty, mental health difficulties, societal challenges, and many other aspects of life. Their lives came across as vivid and multi-faceted.

I’m always particularly curious about the portrayal of characters with scars and physical disabilities in books, and so I found the chapter about a man with a large burn on his face to be particularly intriguing. The interaction with his scarring carried on into his daughter’s story, and the following description of her response to his scars was very moving to me:

“Whenever her father or grandmother asked her about pain, Marjorie would say she had never known it. As a young child, someone had told her that the scars her father wore on his face and grandmother on her hands and feet were born of great pain. And because Marjorie had no scars that resembled those, she could never bring herself to complain of pain. Once, when she was just a little girl, she had watched a ringworm on her knee grow and grow and grow. She’d hidden it from her parents for nearly two weeks, until the worm overtook the curve where thigh met calf, making it difficult for her to bend. When she’d finally shown her parents, her mother had vomited, and her father had snatched her in his arms and rushed her to the emergency room. The orderly who came to call them back had been startled, not by the worm, but by her father’s scar. She’d asked if he was the one who needed help.” 

As you can see from this section, the writing in this book is vivid and compelling. I was struck with how a lifetime of emotions about the character’s own response to her father’s scars and the responses of strangers can be wrapped up and tangled into a single powerful scene. Throughout the book, the author uses striking anecdotes like this one to express a chaotic variety of emotions. The immediacy and compactness of the writing carries throughout the book.

All in all, I found this to be a vivid and intriguing book. While there were times when it the content was graphic and difficult, the characters were so beautifully drawn that it kept me engaged and invested in finding out what would happen. The interaction between the history of West Africa and the history of enslaved Africans in the US was a fascinating juxtaposition that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The writing was arresting and vivid, and I look forward to seeing what Yaa Gyasi writes next.

Newbery Award Winners 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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Even before the announcement about this year’s Newbery winners, I’d already fallen in love with this amazing book. I highlighted it in my posts on the  10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 and the Best Books of 2016. It’s a delightful fantasy book, both funny and compelling, about a cranky and forgetful witch, a young girl who drinks moonlight, a village being forced to sacrifice its children, and a madwoman in a prison cell who can make paper cranes fly.

Wolf Hollow – by Lauren Wolk

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This poignant (though sometimes brutal and harrowing) book centers on a young girl in rural Pennsylvania, the cruel and conniving bully who moves to town, and a reclusive WWI veteran. It’s a story of both cruelty and compassion, and of the bravery it takes to stand up for someone who can’t stand up for himself.

The Inquisitor’s Tale – by Adam Gidwitz

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This quirky and thought-provoking tale is set in medieval Europe. It includes an interesting cast of characters: a young girl whose character is loosely based on Joan of Arc, an impossibly strong former oblate with Saracen heritage, and a Jewish boy who recently escaped an ethnically motivated attack on his village. Religion is a main theme of this book, yet the tone remains respectful and subtle in its interaction with many religions. In among the fun antics and exciting story line, a number of thought-provoking questions are raised, and I think it would be a fascinating book to read aloud and discuss.

The book is thoroughly researched, and that research comes through most clearly in the book’s style and tone. The quirky and unexpected aesthetic of the book is often a result of actual medieval tales woven into the story line, and I was often reminded of the unusual tone that comes through in works like The Lais of Marie de France or The Canterbury Tales. The illustrations add a great deal to this aesthetic as well, imitating the curious marginalia of medieval scholars.

Freedom Over Me – by Ashley Bryan

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In this compelling picture book, we hear initially from a white woman named Mrs. Fairchilds as she prepares to auction off her late husband’s estate, and then from each of the eleven enslaved people who are considered part of that estate. Their words come in the form of a series of narrative poems, sharing with us their sorrows, hopes, and dreams.

While the historic documentation of this slave sale (which is included in the book) gives only the name and price for each person sold, the poems imagine their true interior selves, full of memories of the past, dreams for the future, and a hope for freedom. I was particularly struck by the sections in which people shared their memories from their lives in Africa, and the meanings behind their African names. The contrast between the piece of paper that reduces these people’s lives to a monetary price and the poems that express their humanity and dignity is quite powerful and striking.

Caldecott Award Winners 2017

Each year, the Caldecott Award honors the year’s distinguished American picture books. I’m always excited to see which books are chosen, and it’s become a tradition to read the year’s books aloud with my son. He enjoys making it into his own competition, and each of us decides on our favorites from the year’s Caldecott winners.

Radiant Child – by Javaka Steptoe

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This picture book biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat focuses on the artist’s childhood: the encouragement and inspiration he gained from his mother, the expressiveness and non-conformity of his art (even as a child), the way that a childhood car accident prompted an interest in human anatomy that continued throughout his later work. The theme of art being expressive and “outside-the-lines” pervades the book, and the messages about what constitutes art could prove a helpful preparation for children getting ready to visit an art museum or exhibition.

Leave Me Alone! – by Vera Brosgol

(my favorite)

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This hilariously funny book follows an exasperated old woman who needs some peace and quiet to finish her knitting. She moves from place to place, searching for a quiet place to knit and constantly being interrupted by a series of increasingly unexpected visitors. The story explores both the need for a break from people and the way that searched-for aloneness can become lonely after a while. As an introvert and a knitter myself, I found this book to be particularly funny, and it was my personal favorite from among this year’s Caldecott winners.

Freedom in Congo Square – by Carole Boston Weatherford

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With vibrant illustrations and a strong rhyming text, this book explores daily life for enslaved people in New Orleans. Congo Square  was the only place in New Orleans where enslaved people were allowed to congregate during their time off, and it became an important place of community, music, and dance. This book shows both the horrors and drudgery of daily activities under slavery, as well as the hope and anticipation of the weekly gatherings in Congo Square. The text was very accessible for my 6-year-old, and the poetry was powerful in its subtlety.

Du Iz Tak? – by Carson Ellis

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This quirky tale about insects building a tree fort had my son laughing out loud. It’s written in a made-up language, so kids have to infer from context what the words mean. As a French teacher, this made me happy in a special teacherly place in my heart. Getting kids to let go of having to know what every single word means and just understand the gist of something in a foreign language is an important part of being able to absorb the new language. Rounded out with charming illustrations, this book was most enjoyable.

They All Saw the Cat – by Brendan Wenzel

(my son’s favorite)

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This charming book is a fascinating exploration of perspective and point of view. It shows a cat from the perspective of lots of different people and animals that it interacts with — from the child’s perspective, the cat is a loving big-eyed kitty; from the mouse’s perspective, it’s a horrifying monster. The creative illustrations truly make this book, and it’s not at all heavy-handed in its approach. My 6-year-old son loved the constantly changing perspectives on this cat, and this book was his favorite among this year’s Caldecotts.