Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

My Name is Sally Little Song

Sally May Harrison is a slave. Pa learns that Master is planning to sell her and her brother, Abraham, so Pa plans for the whole family to run away from the plantation. They encounter many terrors and tragedy en route. Ultimately, Sally’s family finds and lives with a tribe of Seminole people.

I was moved by the poetry at the beginning of each chapter of My Name is Sally Little Song, by Brenda Woods. Sally makes up songs, like her Mama taught her to do. With very few words, her songs capture the essence of what she and her family experience.

Pa tells the family they are leaving “day after t’morrow afore sunrise,” and to keep it a secret…”send no one a farewell look with your eyes.” The following chapter starts with:

“Gotta look down
Into the dirt all day
Or my brown eyes
Is sure to give us away”

Sally’s family travels at night, in hopes of escaping notice. When they get to swampland, her poem both describes the feeling in the swamp and foreshadows danger:

Grass wet
Beneath my feet
Owls say
Night bugs fly
Snakes wriggle
Gators chomp

Woods is the author of a 2003 Coretta Scott King Honor book, The Red Rose Box.


My Name is Sally Little Song

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, is the 2012 Newbery Medal winner for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. Gantos has written many excellent children’s books including the naughty cat “Rotten Ralph” series and the troubled kid “Joey Pigza” series. Dead End in Norvelt is a semi-autobiographical story that mixes fact and fiction, the main character is named Jack Gantos... It is the summer of 1962. Jackie is twelve years old and is grounded for the summer for firing a shot from his father’s WWII Japanese sniper rifle AND for mowing down his mother’s corn patch intended to feed the needy inhabitants of her beloved town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Why did he mow down the corn? His dad, a navy veteran, told him to mow it, said he needed the land to build a bomb shelter from the Commies and a runway for his J-3 airplane, hoping to eventually fly away his family to a new life in Florida.

newbery-medal-best-childrens-books-160.jpgJackie’s mother is devoted and loyal to the concept of neighbor-helping-neighbor. She’s forever grateful to the memory of and indebted to the social programs of Eleanor Roosevelt for whom the town is named, (“Nor” from Eleanor and “velt” from Roosevelt). Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in getting indoor plumbing and electricity in their New Deal homestead project built in 1934. When Jackie’s mother gives him permission to help their neighbor Miss Volker, he jumps at the chance to throw down his shovel and pick up a pencil to write obituaries with Volker. She’s old, arthritic-handed, and is the town nurse and medical examiner. Jackie writes the obits as the excited Volker dictates, never missing a beat about the importance and thoroughness of including everything, ie, the family part and, the important ideas to keep alive, and the importance of history. Volker gets worked up, pacing back and forth, swinging her arms like a windmill. Jackie types, then delivers the obits to Mr. Greene, Editor of the Norvelt News. Volker also writes: “This Day in History” for the newspaper. Volker is adamant with Jack about learning the importance of History… and don’t you forget it!

Sometimes the underage Jackie drives Volker around in her Valiant to visit the dead old ladies who are officially declared dead by Volker, the medical examiner. Why are so many of the original female inhabitants of Norvelt dying? Is it really just old age? What if Norvelt doesn’t get new inhabitants, what will become of the beloved town of Norvelt? Read this book for the surprise ending of this Newbery Award Winner!


Dead End in Norvelt

What’s on your nightstand?

Popular magazines often fill space with little blurbs about what books are on prominent peoples’ nightstands, giving us a glimpse into their world as human beings with curiosities and interests outside of their own celebrity. While I do not presume that my own book choices would attract similar attention, my nightstand currently holds quite a variety that might be of interest to someone:

Hassman, Tupelo Girlchild (fiction) - Rory Dawn Hendrix, growing up in a trailer park in Reno, Nevada, is determind to defy the odds of her environment and family history.

Keaton, Diane Then Again (memoir) - Keaton’s own stories alternate with excerpts from journals kept by her mother, Dorothy Keaton Hall. Poignant account of an interesting life.

Green, John The Fault in Our Stars (young adult fiction) - Combine this popular young adult author with a love story about teenagers with cancer, and you get a fast-moving and powerful narrative that goes beyond the surface.

Cain, Susan Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking (nonfiction) - I have not read this one yet, but am looking forward to it, especially after seeing Cain’s TED presentation.

So many books, so little time...


Karen S


Toast, the movie is based on Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, a memoir penned by Nigel Slater, a famous British food writer, journalist and broadcaster. This film originally appeared in limited distribution in 2011 with little fanfare or notice. It basically came and went, but not before eliciting positive reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times among others. It’s short stint in theatres resulted in its being released to DVD very quickly; a benefit to all fine movie fans.

It’s a bittersweet, sometimes comic story of Nigel’s childhood. He is portrayed as a young child by Oscar Kennedy and later as a teen by Freddie Highmore. Nigel is somewhat of a square-peg-in-a-round-hole-world sort of youth who is seriously obsessed with food and cooking. Unfortunately for him, his family happens to be acutely cuisine challenged. Mum may be saintly and loving, but her piece de resistance dish is a finely grilled piece of white bread toast. Standard evening fare at the Slater household consists of canned offerings that are prepared by boiling the unopened tins in water to heat up the contents. Nigel finds these culinary practices to be quite appalling and constantly begs, cajoles and eggs his mother on to show him how to cook properly, i.e. from scratch. While his mother tries to accommodate his wishes, she ultimately cannot, succumbing to a serious asthma condition. After her death, his rather intolerable and grouchy businessman father, played by Ken Stott, hires Mrs. Potter as the family’s cleaning lady and cook. Soon dad’s passions are inflamed and Nigel is aghast as he openly woos the housekeeper.

Following a rather speedy, and a somewhat surreptitious courtship (Mrs. Potter happens to be inconveniently married to Mr. Potter at the time), a wedding takes place. In the aftermath, the visibly more exuberant and cheerful father chooses to move the frail, newly minted family unit to a quiet countryside locale. Nigel despises the chain smoking Mrs. Potter, (played brilliantly by the versatile Helena Bonham Carter), despite the fact that she turns out very good meals, which everyone knows is a sure way to a man’s heart. And that’s where the problem lies as both Nigel and Mrs. Potter compete for Nigel’s dad’s affections by bettering each other in the cooking department. Mrs. Potter has a slight edge, but because of this she also tends to overfeed her new hubby, and this ultimately leads to his untimely demise. Nigel finally leaves this less than idyllic country setting and finds work as a chef’s assistant at London’s posh Savoy Hotel. He also stubbornly pledges to never see or speak to Mrs. Potter again; a promise he supposedly keeps.

With Dusty Springfield’s husky voice and music as a backdrop to the action, this movie is quite a little gem. It was directed by S.J. Clarkson and is highly recommended for gourmands, as well as connoisseurs of coming of age stories and all British movie buffs.

Note: The Kalamazoo Public Library only carries Nigel Slater’s memoir in book form as of the time of this writing. The movie DVD will be made part of the collection shortly.


Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger

Books about Books, What to Read Next, and other tools

We are what we read. But how do we decide what to read? Normally we don't have a systematic program for our reading life. Perhaps a friend told us, or the "customers also bought this..." on, or our last book mentioned it, or we heard it on NPR or Oprah. These are all great, but there's many other ways. Try the Now Read This through our website. Or, if you want a Read-a-Like based on an author you like, try our Books and Authors database (or try Good Reads or LibraryThing).

But, if you want to get super serious, we have tons of books that are about books (i.e. bibliographies, "treasuries," "anthologies," "companions").

Based on Age:

1001 children's books you must read before you grow up, 100 best books for children, The Book of virtues for young people : a treasury of great moral stories, Black Books Galore! Guide to great African American children's books about girls, 500 Great Books for Teens, Disabilities and disorders in literature for youth : a selective annotated bibliography for K-12, The Ultimate Teen Book Guide

"I just want the classics!" (usually this means great literature, not necessary from the Classical period):

Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Magill's survey of world literature, Literature Lovers Companion: the essential reference to the world’s greatest writers—past and present, popular and classical, Assessing the Classics: great reads for adults, teens, and English language learners, The modern library : the two hundred best novels in English since 1950, Harvard Classics series (has the actual writings)

By Genre:

Short Story Writers, The Essential Mystery Lists, Harold Bloom writes several books, e.g. on British Women Fiction Writers, Asian American Women Writers, Major Black American Writers, Classic Science Fiction Writers, and more.

To find the major books in an academic field, like philosophy or physics or astronomy, look for an introductory book. They usually have primary sources and "further reading" sections.

Racial or Cultural Identity:

African Writers, Sacred fire : the QBR 100 essential Black booksConcise encyclopedia of Latin American literature, Native American literatures : an encyclopedia of works, characters, authors, and themes

Movements and Places:

Literary movements for students : presenting analysis, context, and criticism on commonly studied literary movements, Promised Land: 13 books that shaped AmericaThe Oxford companion to American literature (we also have these for Austrialian, French, Canadian, and more); Michigan in the Novel (really cool book list of novels set in MI or about MI)

Have fun reading, and slow down to think!


1001 Books for Every Mood

Why does Plato Banish Poets from the City?

There's no way of understating the influence Plato's The Republic had on the history of Western thought. Whitehead said that all philosophy after Plato was nothing but a footnote to what Plato already said (he wrote several dialogues).

Plato was one of the first to start off the great "utopian" tradition of writing about a perfect world, a perfect society, the harmonious family, the best City, a sublime life-after-death, a tranquil existence within oneself--all imaginations that could be real, if only we tried it this way. Everyone has thought of their own version. Think of Jesus' "kingdom of God" and St. Augustine's "city of God" and Thomas More's "utopia" (called "utopia" as a satire because in latin it means "no place") and Martin Luther King's "beloved" community" and B.F. Skinner's in  Walden TwoI met a guy at the library that was actually part of a real utopian commune in the U.S. (Emerson almost joined "Brook Farm"). Check out this book for a history of Utopias. 

Plato imagines that the perfect city is a mirror of the perfect person. People fundamentally have three parts to their Soul: the rational part, the "spiritive" part (as in a warrior has spirit), and the "appetite" part (or desires). A City has the same parts, and they rank in the same order. Philosopher-Kings rule the city as model's of rational thinking, warriors protect it as model's of spirit and courage and braveness of heart, and the "commoners" make and trade all the stuff as model's of drive and desire and want. Thus we have a city as an extension of the perfectly organized self.

Plato and the gang, very regretfully, decide not to let poets into his city. Read it to find out why!


The Republic
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