{bookishness} banned books week 2015

For many of us, our reading habits do not change during Banned Books Week (ala.org). Our libraries are the oft maligned stacks of inappropriate, if not all-out-dangerous, reading material. Nonetheless, this week is a good time to be intentional and connected and educated at a community level.

I hope you’ve a book or three to celebrate, an author or five to encourage, and a local library or ten to support.

Here are 2014’s Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged books:

The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) receives reports from libraries, schools, and the media on attempts to ban books in communities across the country. We compile lists of challenged books in order to inform the public about censorship efforts that affect libraries and schools. The top ten most frequently challenged books of 2014 include:

1)      The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”

2)      Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”

3)      And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

Reasons: Anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “promotes the homosexual agenda”

4)      The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “contains controversial issues”

5)      It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris

Reasons: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. Additional reasons: “alleges it child pornography”

6)      Saga, by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Reasons: Anti-Family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Additional reasons:

7)      The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited to age group, violence

8)      The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “date rape and masturbation”

9)      A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard

Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group

10)  Drama, by Raina Telgemeier

Reasons: sexually explicit

I’m actually going to use this time to catch up on Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey; a series that has inspired many non- and reluctant-readers to begin and continue their more literate adventures; a series that has yet to fail to horrify a number of our populace.

And do I need an excuse to revisit the genius that is Saga by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples?! and seriously?! “Anti-family”….?!

As for Drama by Raina Telgemeier: Read “sexually explicit” as having gay characters in a book read by grade-schoolers (and I’m not the only one to translate the accusation, CBLDF article on Drama).  Which brings me to another link aside from the American Library Association’s, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) as a great resource. This year’s Banned Books Week is taking an emphasis on the censorship of comics/graphic novels, not only due to content, but the form and culture itself.

{picture book} Max the…adorably funny


Max the Brave by Ed Vere

Puffin Books, 2014 (UK). Sourcebooks, 2015 (US)

This is Max.

Max the Brave, Max the Fearless, Max the Mouse-catcher…But, in order to be a Mouse-catcher, Max needs to know what a mouse is, so off he goes to find out.

With that cover and jacket copy, Mo Willem and Oliver Jeffers fans are already intrigued: go with your gut: find yourself a copy of this picture book.

I was charmed almost immediately, but Max the Brave still caught me by surprise. Vere is the master of the long joke and finessed an unexpected twist along the way. The close is a satisfying one that had me laughing, even later, just thinking about it.

I dig the color palette. The appeal of Vere’s decisions with Max at so many levels cannot go without saying. He makes this book an easy recommendation beyond sheer entertainment. For instance, I’m geeked about the vocabulary. The verbs used are glorious. And they make sense in that these are things mice do. Unsurprisingly, Max is focused on the nature of mice…and cats, of course…and monsters.

While I wouldn’t limit Max the Brave to the present Autumnal/Halloween season, it is a good read to indulge in with your self and maybe another younger reader/listener.

Recommendations: For fans of the aforementioned Mo Willems and Oliver Jeffers; also Jon Klassen, Mac Barnett, Alex Latimer, Molly Idle. Emerging readers. Word lovers. Those who appreciate beautiful comedic timing.

{images belong to Ed Vere}

rip10500A Reader’s Imbibing Peril (RIP) X read….


{picture book} wonder-full

Just in time for a baby shower gift, one of my favorites (I have a print on my wall) came out with a new book: not that I wouldn’t have gifted the recently released board book version of Dream Animals (my review).

The Wonderful Things You Will Be by Emily Winfield Martin 

Random House, 2015.

Emily Windfield Martin’s latest opens with:

When I look at you

And you look at me,

I wonder what wonderful

Things you will be.

before the narrator begins to speculate what this new child will be. Later in the book, the reader will wonder aloud as to what the child will do:

This is the first time

There has ever been a you,*

So I wonder what wonderful things

You will do.

There are some things that will go without wondering. There are some things the narrator knows about the child, can anticipate.

I know you’ll be kind…

and clever…

The sentiments are more than wonderful and I had a customer (an aunt buying for a niece) admit to becoming verklempt before hugging it to her chest and walking toward the registers with it. Natalya is still in a stage of deep-sighing when I hand her sentimental things like this to read. Fortunately, there is humor; also, she has a fondness for Martin’s art as well.

I love love love the words and pictures on the spread where a boy sitting at a sewing machine holds up tiny pants for a squirrel. Natalya recommends the one below, the one with the band (which Martin admits is a favorite).

The Wonderful Things You Will Be has a page that reads:

When nights are black and

When days are gray—

You’ll be brave and be bright

So no shadows can stay.

The image is a girl in a red coat, hood back, contemplating the red balloon stuck in the branches of a tree at the edge of a wood.

I think the endpapers are pretty sweet, too.

I mentioned the male tailor, but Martin always features a diverse population unusual to most picture books. I adore the details and I love the charmingly peculiar she includes in her books, though it makes sense if you consider successfully writing for an audience with such charming peculiarities within their own imaginations. Martin is well-suited to picture book creating.

The Wonderful Things You Will Be is a lovely, serious yet playful addition to the family library. You can’t start too young with this one, nor can you out-grow it.


of note: Martin fans will recognize and smile at the appearance of the Kitten Bandit among others. also, fans, check out RandomHouse’s cool little option to send e-cards!

If I’d done some real planning, I would have hunted down a red/white striped footie-pjs to pair with the book.

*a line reminiscent of Nancy Tillman books of the same genre. I’m pleased to have word-choice and image aesthetic options in these books.

{All images are Emily Winfield Martin’s; do check out her work at ‘the black apple’. You can see great spreads of the book here.}


{bookishness} RIP X

rip10500Image used with permission, property of Abigail Larson.

It is the tenth anniversary of the always anticipated Reader’s Imbibing Peril (RIP)!!

“Ten years ago, when reading challenges were all the rage, I started my very first one.  I did not see a lot of events centered around the gothic and classic horror that I loved to imbibe in when Summer turns to Autumn, and so R.I.P. was born.  Though this kind of literature isn’t my first love, this event is the one I cherish the most of all that I have hosted on Stainless Steel Droppings.  It was my first, and I look most forward to it every year.”–Carl V. (The Estella Society announcement post)

It also happens to be a year where Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings is handing Andi & Heather at the reins to The Estella Society, and instead of host, will act as participant; “I had some commitments that I knew were going to make hosting a challenge.”

I am hoping to actually participate this year as well.

The event runs: September 1st to October 31st.

The reads span these descriptions: Mystery. Suspense. Thriller. Dark Fantasy. Gothic. Horror. Supernatural.

The rules are simple:

1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

There are multiple Perils… see The Estella’s Revenge event page for Perils and images. A Group-Read is being hosted, so check that out as well.

I’m not sure which Peril I will do. I do hope to read Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, and reread Holly Grant’s The League of Beastly Dreadfuls. Goodness knows I will be reading plenty of seasonal Picture Books…  I will try to update this page with a list (& links).

For good reading/viewing ideas, the Review page and looking at others’ “to-read” lists are helpful (see Event page).

{comic} a secret worth sharing

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

First Second, 2015

My copy was an Advanced Readers Copy thanks to First Second & NetGalley

Welcome to Stately Academy, a school which is just crawling with mysteries to be solved! The founder of the school left many clues and puzzles to challenge his enterprising students. Using their wits and their growing prowess with coding, Hopper and her friend Eni are going to solve the mystery of Stately Academy no matter what it takes!–publisher’s comments

In short, this book is fantastic!

The images and paneling are straightforward cartoon expositions. The reader can relax into the non-threatening artistic rendering and engage with the energy of the image and dialog. Hopper is a firework and Eni is smooth. Yang has a great sense of comedic timing and manages a pleasing plot revelation now and again. Secret Coders is smart in that it is educational and—super important—entertaining.

In his closing note to the readers, Gene Luen Yang writes:

“Coding is creative and powerful. It’s how words turn into image and action It truly is magic. Mike Holmes and I made the book you now hold in your hands because we want to share a bit of that magic with you, and maybe inspire you to become a magician—a coder—yourself.”

Yang and Holmes provide puzzles and the space to solve them without their feeling out of place in the narrative. The code-work builds in complication, leaving the last as an aspect of the cliffhanger. I’m looking forward to volume 2 for the sake of not only the mystery laid out in the story, but I want to know if my solution is correct.


recommendation: for lovers of sports and/or math, mysteries and humor. an easy sell for STEM, so gift this one to the classroom and school library, friends.


{book} not in the least beastly or dreadful

Months later (deep, regret-filled sigh) a post on one of my favorite new books.

“A marvelously funny mystery that feels refreshingly original while yet channeling the best of Dahl’s characters and Grimm in storytelling.”-my staff rec at work.

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls by Holly Grant

Random House, 2015.

Hardcover, 294.

Wondering what could possibly follow the genius who is Kazuo Ishiguro and his novel The Buried Giant, I was slumped into Picture Books and puppy-like Juvenile Fantasies. I was contemplating the cure-all (Calvino) when I shelved The League of Beastly Dreadfuls.

“Warning This book is chock-full of DREADFUL things (Calamity! Evil plans! Attack poodles!) and is NOT suitable for Nice Little Boys and Girls. Take my advice…practice your posture instead. –Miss Drusilla Jellymonk, Etiquette Expert.” –Back Copy

“Anastasia is a completely average almost-eleven-year-old. That is, UNTIL her parents die in a tragic vacuum-cleaner accident. UNTIL she’s rescued by two long-lost great-aunties. And UNTIL she’s taken to their delightful and, er, “authentic” Victorian home, St. Agony’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

But something strange is going on at the asylum. Anastasia soon begins to suspect that her aunties are not who they say they are. So when she meets Ollie and Quentin, two mysterious brothers, the three join together to plot their great escape!”–inside Jacket Copy.

Have you noticed how difficult it is for an author to pull off the Dahl-esque; especially American authors? Holly Grant is marvelously Dahl-esque in The League of Beastly Dreadfuls. But that isn’t the only reason to pick up your own copy. Grimm came to mind, for instance. But for all the fond reminiscence of favorite childhood storytellers, Grant demonstrates an originality all her own. That expansive imagination proves rather daring (e.g. the mice are genius, as is the tragic flatulence). The pacing both in action and humor is perfect, and the narrator not too clever for its own good. You must read this one aloud.

You know those scenes where the protagonist overhears the villain murmuring about their impending demise and they fail to confront said villain about it? There is a glorious moment (on page 67) where Anastasia asks an Auntie about a strong inference muttered under the breath. Anastasia is rightly terrified by this point–and so was I, thus my pleasant surprise when Anastasia quite forcefully inquires after just what did Prim mean. The author does not imperil her protagonist comfortably and the escape attempt will have all sorts of horrible inconveniences. “Saint Agony’s Asylum for the Deranged, Despotic, Demented, & Otherwise Undesirable (that is to say, criminally insane)” is not some quaint Victorian fixer-upper. And Anastasia is not in the least casual in her observation that “every day at St Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather” (59). The contemplation of the photographs of past children was chilling. And despite those delicately sipped cups of tea, the ‘weirdly dentured’ old ladies are blood-thirsty.

so good.

I’m not sure which is more deliciously wrought, the adrenaline or the ridiculous humor; maybe it is the characters (who manage to generate both). The old ladies are entertaining, in their own horrid way. The Manly Baron aka Mouse Destroyer makes me sigh, and not because of his manly presence. It’s that he is silliness incarnate. I found him and that whole plot twist charming. And the boys, with their Ballad of the Lovelorn Beluga are amusing, to say nothing of awesomely gifted.  But Anastasia is the star: clumsy and resourceful and capable of keeping her wits about her.

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is easily one of my favorite books this year, and I’ve enjoyed some fabulous reads. I found myself laughing aloud and reading huge swathes of it to the daughter. I’m sure I read the “looney gardner” scene (in chapter 4) multiple times to multiple friends; and I may have referenced the line “Podiatrists are, in general, the most dashing of all doctors” (281) a time or three, even though too few have yet to read the novel. Friends were updated at regular intervals and subjected to the mysteries of the novel: plenty of which remain unsolved. Like who is Anastasia and why have her captors taken such a keen interest in her? It quickly becomes apparent that it isn’t just because Anastasia is orphaned by a tragic vacuum incident.

The lovely problem the reader will come to realize is that the author’s imagination could originate any sort of possibility for our increasingly mysterious Anastasia. The reader also comes to the conclusion that they won’t mind terribly much when the author artfully puts off a few questions there at the end. The reader is going to want to read book two (The Dastardly Deed).

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is the kind of smart and entertaining everyone needs off the shelf and in their hands and reading to their favorite human (or mouse).


recommendations: if you love Grimm, Dahl, Ellen Potter’s Kneebone Boy, and/or Adrienne Kress’ Ironic Gentlemen. if you like peril, laughter, and clever narrators. To be read aloud to any and all grade-schoolers (whether they suffer from tragic flatulence or umbrating-related nudity*).

*yeah, you have to read the book.




{book} Jellyfish & Grief & Marvelous Writing

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Little, Brown & Co., 2015

Advanced Reader’s Copy thanks to Publisher & NetGalley in exchange for a fair/honest review.

After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory–even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy’s achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe…and the potential for love and hope right next door. –Publisher’s Comments

I need you to know that I do not get excited about reading what I call issue-driven books. One, they tend to be Contemporary Fic of the 1st person variety, where I preference Fantasy in the 3rd. Two, so many feels! Three, you really risk the message-y-ness. When artfully done, it compels empathy, rather than outright demands it. If you can relate to any of the three anxieties, you will do more than fine with The Thing About Jellyfish. Make it one of your bi-annual issue-driven reads.

My skepticism for the early praise that would rank The Thing About Jellyfish with the absolute must-read issue-driven novels: Wonder (RJ Palacio) and Out of My Mind (Sharon Draper) faded with the first ‘chapter’ of the book “Ghost Heart.” As I read, my thoughts moved to Kate DiCamillo’s work; which is just as challenging for a debut children’s writer to confront. Because of Winn Dixie was on my mind even before Benjamin’s protagonist referenced it. These are names whose company sells a book, but I want to impart some sense of the experience of the reading. The thing is: I’m not sure I can relay just what kind of elegance or lovely progression you can expect of Ali Benjamin in The Thing About Jellyfish.

You’ve read the Jacket Copy I provided at the start. The thing is is that Suzy and Franny are no longer best friends during the fatal occurrence. And one of the most compelling arcs in the novel is the revelation as to how the best of friendships disintegrated into such wrenching, guilt-ridden grief.

Where Suzy has decided to no longer speak within the world around her, she speaks to Franny in alternating sections of the novel. Suzy recounts their history, expresses a lack of understanding, and tries to explain why and how they came to be where they would ultimately conclude. The italicized sections inform every part of the novel and, most importantly, the main character. It is so well done, so increasingly painful. And damn if it isn’t familiar: the attempts to reconcile the changes between the one you fell in love with and the person they now want to be. The risks and results to the relationship feels like betrayal; and just who is the traitor? what if no one is? what if things just happen.  As Suzy’s elder brother and his boyfriend often say: Middle School does suck; it is hard; friendship is hard.

It’s the prose writing that reminds me of DiCamillo, and the subjects of grief, brokenness and of separation, which DiCamillo is so adept at conveying. It is also in the way DiCamillo describes children who are different without being medically conditioned. Suzy is a Science Nerd; she is a constant-talker; she has frizzy out-of-control hair; she is curious; and because the story hangs on it: she requires explanations. [yeah, she doesn’t sound that “different” does she?]

Suzy’s mother’s explanation for Franny’s death, despite Franny being an excellent swimmer, is left wanting and Suzy’s imagination focuses upon the Jellyfish.

The things we learn about Jellyfish and the way Benjamin incorporates it into the story is the most marvelous thing. How Suzy’s relationship to Jellyfish shifts situation (e.g. enemy, simile, etc.) is subtle and terribly important. Relationships are dynamic; they require love, and seek understanding. Suzy and that scientific and poetic mind is seeking and learning. She is stubborn, but she is also hurting. She is real enough and accessible enough to be flawed and forgiven for it.

Benjamin draws such a fully realized character that we are reminded, beyond the 1st person narrative, that the novel is from Suzy’s perspective. She requires patience and curiosity in order come to understand where she is coming from, in order to try (as reader’s do) to anticipate where she is going, where she will end up. You become invested in her own project, to learn what happened not only to the relationship with Franny, but to Franny (and Suzy) herself.

There are other relationships being built, being tested within the novel. Their beauty is not that they merely add charm, but they contribute to the overall coherence. For instance, there are echoes of Franny/Dylan in Suzy/Justin; which isn’t to suggest romance, but how relationships can change. In time, Suzy may be able to sympathize with Franny. Another question to confront is the one Sarah poses: that of mistaking the depths of relationship based on appearances, of which cues to read. Confrontation and communication is important.

With Suzy no longer speaking, she is keenly aware of how much language is physical, how much sound is still created. How perfect to situate this conversation in a time where we become so acutely aware of our and others’ physical presences. Add makeup and costuming (as Benjamin does).

Relationships are dynamic creatures, but then, so are we. We change. We diversify and then clump back together, maybe in different configurations. Each iteration of ourself is an impression, leaves an impression. And you can see where Suzy is especially pained in her preoccupation with Franny never becoming any older than 12. The problem for Suzy is that Franny will never inhabit another impression than the last one she’d left her with. Of course, not unlike the immortality jellyfish, Suzy gives us stories of her and Franny from before that last scene. And indeed, her recollections give us more, it reinterprets things. Most importantly, there is room to redeem it, via time and experience. The problem is the impulse that is the preservation of self, and other, and the learning to let go.

The difficult thing about the novel is that it is a journey through a time of grieving. It is hard to anticipate the conclusion. The only reassurance is that there is one. And it will be a beginning. For all the lovely cleanliness of the structure and pacing and writing, grieving is a messy, fraught, business. There will be ugly-crying and screaming and hatred, but even that is quite beautiful in Ali Benjamin’s hands. While the poetic language lends rationality to the scientific, it allows the emotional content absolute reason. Benjamin successfully ratchets up the intensity, explaining Suzy even as Suzy, in turn, has no explanation for Franny. Things just happen. The coming down from that is tenuous. The scientific lends the poet a way to frame the world, to fit words to an observation, a conclusion.

The Thing About Jellyfish is structured in 7 Parts with numberless, but titled Sections within each. Each Part begins with a quote from Mrs. Turton the 7th Grade Life Science Teacher and all around bad-ass. Each quote is an explanation for different aspects of conducting a Research Project (the final part being the “Conclusion”). Each Section essentially reads like a short story. These pieces are primarily reliant upon juxtaposition (as a Literary work might) rather than the old dependable segue. All the transitions are effortless. Even the switching between two linear time-lines is done with ease.

I ramble into thoughts, but the thing about The Thing About Jellyfish is how accessible it is. The structure buoys its subjects. The brevity of the Sections and Parts ease the weight of the content. Any educational component is rendered relevant, not just geek-worthy. Where the drama (and trauma) of Middle School is a bit daunting—especially when the author exaggerates the fracturing of childhood with puberty by adding death and divorce—the science is exciting (zombie ants?!). The writing is enchanting, if not completely effortless. And the kind of courage witnessed in so many characters in the novel is inspiring. What Middle Schooler (what human) couldn’t use some sympathy and inspiration to keep moving.

“Whatever was about to happen next in that dream […] it was better than staying still. The staying still was the worst part. The waiting and not-knowing and being afraid: That was worse than anything else that might happen” (220).

Another terrible thing that might happen is missing out on The Thing About Jellyfish.


Of note: I do love the effortless realism of Aaron and Rocco. Aaron is Suzy’s brother; Rocco is his beloved. I adore the discovery of the photograph on the mantel. I love that the parents are present, however clumsy, but earnest. I love the contemplations on the universe and the stars. I am grateful for the blip that was blood that read menstruation and how perfect its timing.

The “Author’s Note” includes more information on events, videos, figures, etc. referenced in the novel. This book would be so great to teach. Or Book Club.


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