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Staff Picks: Books

Don't Ban Heather and her Family!

Heather has two arms, two legs, two pets and two mommies. There is a lot of love in her home, but when Heather goes to school, she worries maybe she’s the only child without a daddy. The teacher helps all the students learn that each family has their own special combination of people and that “the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.”

Leslea Newman self-published Heather has two Mommies in 1989. It’s been re-published many times since. This most recent version, published in 2015, is the best in my opinion. The pictures make all the difference! Laura Cornell’s watercolor illustrations add color and many comic touches to the story.

For example, when Mama Kate, the doctor, and Heather listen to each other’s heartbeats with stethoscopes, the two pets participate. Kitty Gingersnap is comfortably plopped on Mama Kate’s medical bag, and Midnight, the dog, leans in with her ear flopped over Mama Kate’s knee. The band-aids on Mama’s knee--stuck to the outside of her blue jeans--and at various spots on the sofa, as well as the purple lily attached to Heather’s hair are all chuckle-worthy. Gingersnap and Midnight appear some special place in every home scene, helping out -- mixing cookie batter and ‘cleaning’ the floor-- or just hanging out. (Look for them on the bed at storytime.) The school scenes are just as precious. This is a picture book, after all, and the pictures draw the reader in.

Heather has two Mommies was one of the most challenged books in the 1990’s, because it doesn’t represent some people’s beliefs about what a family should look like. The book endured over time, regardless of efforts to ban it. All kids benefit from seeing themselves and their family lives represented in story and pictures. Children can learn to embrace diversity by reading about all kinds of families and other children.

Hispanic Heritage Month

I am a huge fan of the award winning author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month I submit these two excellent picks by this author.

The Princess and the Warrior is a re-telling of one of Mexico’s most cherished legends. It is the story of unlikely love between a princess and a lowly warrior. The king issues a challenge to the brave warrior: defeat their enemy Jaguar Claw. Will they end up together? Find out.

My other pick is Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras. This is the history of the Day of the Dead Calaveras. Calaveras are those skeletons dressed as ladies called Catrinas, and other characters that you see around the time of the Day of the Dead. The library will be hosting programs for the Day of the Dead at many locations. Check our LINK.

If you’re interested in a jump start on the history of the artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) who made the skeleton images an indelible part of these celebrations, you’ll enjoy this book.

Where Am I Now?

You may remember Mara Wilson as Robin William’s youngest daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire or as Nikki Petrova on Melrose Place, but she’s most widely known for her wonderful performance as Matilda in the 1996 movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel. She left Hollywood when she was a teenager to pursue her true love—storytelling—and study at NYU. Her first book, a memoir called Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, is a smart, funny take on her experiences going from an odd child to a well-adjusted adult. I imagine a grownup Matilda would love to read this.

The Upside Down Boy - El niño de cabeza

In The Upside Down Boy - El niño de cabeza, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera tells the story, in verse, of a pivotal time in his childhood when his mother and father moved their family to the city so that he could attend school. He tells the story of how his third grade teacher, Mrs. Sampson, invited him to the front of the class to sing a song. He sang “Three Blind Mice” and Mrs. Sampson told him “You have a very beautiful voice”.  The book is dedicated to Mrs. Lucille Sampson, Herrera’s third grade teacher, who, at age 95, was present at the Library of Congress when Herrera was inaugurated as the United States Poet Laureate in 2015. You can hear Herrera tell this story in front of an audience at the Kansas City Public Library on New Letters On the Air.

Juan Felipe Herrera’s Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes is a Pura Belpré author honor book.


Leslie Jamison’s book of essays, The Empathy Exams, begins with her experience working as a medical actor. What is a medical actor? I had the same question. It is an actor that is given a profile of someone with a particular ailment and symptoms and personality. Then they will have a mock appointment with a medical student so the student can practice diagnosing the illness. However, they aren’t just practicing the clinical part, but the social skills part; the ability to empathize with their patient and create a relationship where the patient would be willing to talk freely about their illness.

Can you practice empathy? Can you practice empathy when you know the person is just acting?

These are some of the questions she explores in the first essay. After that, the most difficult ultramarathon race, a prison in West Virginia, mines in Bolivia, and a tour of South Central Los Angeles are just a few of the places she will take you on her nuanced and moving dissection of empathy.

B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy)

While working in the chapter books collection of the Children’s Room, B.U.G (Big Ugly Guy), a middle grade chapter book by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, caught my attention. Sammy Greenburg gets bullied (a lot) because he stands up for other kids. When a new 6th grader, John “Skink” Skinner, comes to Sammy's aid, they are fast friends - in part because both are musicians and they both love words. Sammy plays clarinet and Skink plays guitar. Sammy introduces his friend to klezmer music and they aspire to start a band with their friend Julia on violin. The plot thickens when Sammy decides to make a golem, the mythical, hulking, protecting colossus of Jewish folklore, out of his father’s pottery clay. And, of course, that’s how they get a drummer for their nascent klez/punk band. It’s pretty cool to find a middle-grade novel with references to The Klezmatics and even a brief explication of some klez scale patterns. There are inevitable problems when building your own golem to vanquish school yard bullies. You’ll have to read the book to find out how it ends.


How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball writes the kind of novels that, while amazing and among my favorites, are often difficult to recommend to a lot of people. Not because they are of sub-par literary quality in any way, but because they are often experimental, hypnotic and seem intent on confounding the reader. Recommending a few of his titles to friends and family has made it clear that Ball really isn’t everyone’s “cup of tea”. But that may  change with his latest effort How to Set a Fire and Why. The book is a fair bit more accessible than his previous titles, but it is the narrative voice that Ball uses to give life to the books narrator Lucia that makes it a read that I feel more people would and should enjoy. Lucia is a high school aged, sharp-tongued straight talker very much in the tradition of Holden Caulfield. But Lucia is also a wannabe arsonist and potentially a real danger to society, yet her sense of humor and intelligence makes her immediately likable. Plus she spells out and follows a strict ethical code of her own design. Her circumstances are beyond tragic, but the boldness of Lucia’s wit and the power of her individuality ultimately assure you that despite the sad truth of her life, Lucia will survive. You may not go on to read more of Jesse Ball’s work, and that’s ok, but once you get to know Lucia you won't soon forget her and you won't put this book down.

Known and Strange Things

My favorite writers are those whose writings tend to defy rigid categories. I’m interested in voices whose passionate minds are rich with curiosity and whose texts feel less like someone rooted to certainties and more like an interrogation of social reality as a shifting terrain of beliefs butting up against power dynamics, history and politics. Over the past few years I’ve been drawn to books of essays and memoirs whose authors are fascinated by a wide range of subjects and themes. Teju Cole is my kind of writer and the kind thinker that our times require in order to make sense (or at the very least question) of complex issues. And in this book of 50 essays, he pulls it off with a beautiful prose that is inviting and accessible. His newest book Known and Strange Things: Essays is a wildly perceptive book that packs a punch even though it resists feeling ‘ideological’ or like someone shouting truths at you. From his interest in photography to James Baldwin’s experiences in Switzerland, to his love of literature to his various travels around the world, Cole’s erudite voice is that of someone whose sparkling mind finds immense joy in the world’s fertile landscape of ideas and culture.

Unveiling The Cloud Forest Dwelling Olinguito

Olinguito, from A to Z! by Lulu Delacre is an award winning alphabet book written in both Spanish and English. It takes the reader on a journey accompanying an intrepid zoologist searching out the elusive olinguito. An olinguito is a mammal recently discovered to be a separate species. Related to the raccoon, olinguitos live exclusively in the cloud forests of Ecuador.

This beautifully illustrated volume features the many plants and animals who call the cloud forest their home. It also includes the author's notes about the real discovery of the olinguito, as well as additional information about the cloud forest, how the illustrations came to be, on being an explorer, and a glossary of the various cloud forest plants and animals(with their Spanish pronunciations).As an added bonus, there is a built-in puzzle/game that will have younger readers going back to play more than once.

Very creative and truly Magnifico!

Henna House

A few of my fellow KPL librarians decided to try a Reading Challenge this year just for the fun of it.  There are a ton of challenges out there but this is the one we’ve been using.   It’s been a great experience since it’s given us a chance to discover good books we otherwise would have avoided.  I was nervous about “The First Book You See in a Bookstore” challenge but the book I first laid eyes on has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.  Nomi Eve’s Henna House may have been on that bookstore’s bargain cart, but it was a hidden gem.  

The book follows the life of young Adela as she grows up in 1920s Yemen.  Her family is Jewish and her father’s health is failing.  If she is orphaned, she risks being taken by the Confiscator who will place her with a Muslim family, forcing her to give up her religion and her family ties.  Her parents desperately try to arrange a marriage for her, which would save her from the Confiscator’s grip, but misfortune keeps following poor Adela.  Despite her situation looking hopeless, she finds solace and acceptance in her aunt’s house where she learns the tradition of henna and develops a close friendship with her cousin, Hani.

Reading this book was a delight since it was easy to get swept away in Adela’s storytelling.  It’s as if she is taking her life story and turning it into a beautiful henna that weaves in all her joys and sorrow.  You also learn a lot about the traditions and history of the Yemenite Jewish population pre-World War II; it’s eye opening to see how their lives were affected even before the war began.  I’m grateful that my 2016 Reading Challenge allowed me to stumble across a great book that I otherwise may not have noticed.  This is why I’m challenging you- the next time you stop into KPL and pick up your copy of Henna House, also check out the first book you see in the library.  You may be surprised at what you find!