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Staff Picks: Books

Caddie Woodlawn

This historical pioneer fiction novel for children takes place in Western Wisconsin during the 1860s. It is a story about eleven year old Caddie (Caroline Augusta) Woodlawn who lives with her parents John and Harriet and six siblings. Caddlie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink, is based on the true story of her grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse. You can visit a park and see exactly where Caddie once lived:
The Woodlawn’s moved from Boston seven years earlier, but Mr. Woodlawn was born and raised in England. Caddie is a tomboy and she hangs out with Tom, who is two years older and Warren, who is two years younger, all three are red-headed like their father. They are three jolly comrades in search of adventure in frosty weather or sunshine. She has an elder sister Clara and younger sister Hettie who prefer to stay at home and help mother with quilting or sewing or jelly making. Minnie and Baby Joe complete the family. Another child, little Mary, had died after they came from Boston, and daddy tried an experiment whereby he wanted little Caddie to run wild with the boys. “Don’t keep her in the house learning to be a lady. I would rather see her learn to plow than make samplers, if she can get her health by doing so. I believe it is worth trying.” (p.15). Uncle Edmund from St. Louis arrived on the Little Steamer which came up the Monomonie River once a week as far as Dunnville. Its arrival was a great event, for all the letters from the East and all the news from the great world, most of the visitors and strangers and supplies, came up the river on the Little Steamer. The Little Steamer travels down the Monomonie River to the Chippewa, down the Chippewa to the Mississippi, down the Mississipi to St. Louis.
In 1935 this adventurous book was awarded the John Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
There are many events and characters who bring the story alive. Some of the people in the story are: Mr. Tanner, the Circuit Rider; Uncle Edmund from St. Louis, Cousin Annabelle from Boston; Indian John and his dog; Miss Parker the teacher at the one room schoolhouse, and of course, the school children, and the Woodhouse family dog, Nero the sheepdog.

Reading Without Walls and Surfer of the Century

Gene Luen Yang, National Ambassador for Young People's Literature for 2015-2016, issued a challenge to readers called Reading Without Walls. Yang writes on his blog:

"I want every kid - every reader, really - to explore the world through books. Books have played a vital role in getting me outside of my comfort zone. I believe they can do the same for you. As National Ambassador, I issue you a challenge! I challenge you to read without walls in one of three ways:
1. Read a book about a character who doesn't look like you or live like you.
2. Read a book about a topic you don't know much about.
3. Read a book in a format that you don't normally read for fun. This might be a chapter book, a graphic novel, a book in verse, a picture book, or a hybrid book.
If you really want to go for the gold star, read a book that fits all three criteria! When you finish, take a photo of you and the book (or just the book if you're shy) and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #ReadingWithoutWalls. You'll inspire others to do the same!"

This challenge inspired me to finally read a book I'd checked out, but hadn't opened yet. I initially picked up the picture book Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku because I thought the cover illustration looked nice and I didn't know much about surfing. I'd never heard Duke Kahanamoku's name before and knew nothing about his story. Kahanamoku lived a truly incredible and inspiring life. He won six Olympic medals for swimming, introduced the Hawaiian sport of surfing to people throughout the world, acted in over ten films during the 1920s and 1930s, and served as Honolulu's sheriff for 26 years.

In 1960, Kahanamoku was appointed Hawaii's official Ambassador of Aloha. He said, "In Hawaii we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with Aloha, which means with love. Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawaii renowned as the world's center of understanding and fellowship. Try meeting or leaving people with Aloha. You'll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it and this is my creed. Aloha to you."

Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu in 1890, before the United States' illegal annexation of Hawaii. He passed away in 1968, nearly a decade after Hawaii became the fiftieth state. This book and his story showed me how little I know about the history of Hawaii, and now I can't wait to learn more.

I'm looking forward to checking out:
Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku
Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii
Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii
Unfamiliar Fishes

An Early Favorite for 2016

It’s not even mid-year but it is likely The Last Painting of Sara de Vos will be one of my top ten fiction books of the year.

Three continents, three centuries, three lives are linked by a rare 17th century painting. Add in art forgery, death, deception, and love from the Dutch countryside in the 1600s to an art collector in New York City in the 1950s to an art scholar in Sydney, Australia in 2000 for an enthralling novel.

Although there are no illustrations, I can see in my mind the painting in question, “At the End of the Wood,” from the vivid description.

I’m recommending this book to all my reading friends. Look for it on my “Best of 2016” list in the late fall.


The Engineering Book

When I read the title of this 2015 book I almost went on to something else. That was until I read the subtitle: From the Catapult to the Curiosity Rover, 250 Milestones in the History of Engineering. This book represents an intersection of history and science and would be suitable for anyone with an interest in either or both. Beginning in earliest times and continuing through thousands of years into the future, author Marshall Brain (an appropriate last name, in my opinion), gives one page of narrative and one photograph for each of the 250 milestones. He uses a strict chronological approach so it's easy to see the progression of technological advances over time. Many of these inventions and landmarks were produced earlier than I would have thought. For example, plastic is listed under 1856, air conditioning in 1902, cell phones and RFID tags in 1983, and 3D printers in 1984. An interesting one for our area is the entry for 1835, which is about the combine harvester as invented by Hiram Moore, a resident of southern Kalamazoo County. An 1846 Kalamazoo Gazette article discusses this in further detail. The photographs are excellent choices, like the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ad for frozen pizza as the entry for 1957. I think this is yet another splendid KPL acquisition that will inspire me to get my own copy.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and unwittingly I happen to be reading two books perfect for the occasion.

Participating in The Global Reading Challenge, I learned of The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye, which tells the story of Aref, a 3rd grader who will soon be moving from Oman to Ann Arbor, Michigan so his parents can attend graduate school. Each morning, I read a little bit of it to my 10 year old daughter and we learn about Oman as Aref and his grandfather travel around the country, collecting memories and attempting to comfort and sooth Aref’s fears about moving to Michigan.

In addition, I’m listening to The Three Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway. This book tells the story of poverty stricken Japanese-American children living in Maui and Soichi Sakamoto who has the dream of turning them into Olympic champions. Through incredibly difficult circumstances and training routines, they become world class swimmers, but the world events of the late 1930s and early 1940s change their lives drastically.

Take some time this month to learn something new about Asian or Pacific Islander culture or both.

Green Island

Green Island is a sweeping story of Taiwan from 1947 to 2003 told through the lives of three generations of the Tsai family.

Dr. Tsai is a respected, wealthy doctor. When he speaks out after the February 28 Massacre, the anti-government uprising, his life and that of his family is changed forever.

The story is told from the perspective of his youngest daughter, born as the story begins. As she grows up and eventually moves to California, she is still witness to her father’s legacy and a husband who also speaks his mind. The family scars have lingered.

This is a moving, well-written story of family, betrayal, and survival. It is also a good introduction to the Chinese Nationalists who were overthrown by the Chinese Communists after World War II and Chiang Kai-Shek.

This story stayed with me long after I finished reading. To me, that is a true compelling story.


The Summer Before the War

My book group’s choice for April is The Summer Before the War, the new book from Helen Simonson, author of the popular Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Although we haven’t yet met to discuss it, I’m confident my reading friends will have enjoyed it and we’ll have a good conversation.

The story is set in a small town in England just before World War I. It begins with the arrival of a new teacher – Beatrice Nash – younger and prettier than expected. The war first touches the town when some Belgian refugees arrive, then as the town’s young men go off to war with a sense of adventure.

This novel evolves – it begins as a pleasant small town, with the English class snobbery, and becomes an account of war and its aftermath. Some of the reviewers call it a “novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal.”

The Making of Home

Author Judith Flanders is a prominent social historian based in London. In this 2015 book, The Making of Home, she tells, in the words of the subtitle, The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes. Beginning in sixteenth-century Netherlands, she traces the development of the house, expanding her discussion to include the rest of northern Europe and then America. Not only does she explore the architecture of the houses themselves, but she also details items that have contributed to human well-being inside the houses, including the invention and use of cutlery, chairs, curtains, plumbing, and windows. I love the illustrations, many of which are reproductions of paintings representative of the period under study, such as those by van Dyck and Vermeer. The footnotes, bibliography, and index are all first-rate and contribute to an excellent effort on the part of Ms. Flanders.

Barbara Johns: A girl with a mission!

 First, I would like to give tribute to the We Need Diverse Books Campaign. We Need Diverse Books was launched in April 2014. Armed with statistics the campaign developers set out to address a lack of diversity in narratives written for children. They knew that there was a correlation between the lack of diverse narratives and this country’s literacy problem. With the help of public support from educators and libraries, like KPL, We Need Diverse Books has seen great success. Changes are being made and there are more to come. 

The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement by Teri Kanefield is another great story that has been a long time coming. This is a story about one brave young lady that stood up, spoke out and led her fellow students in a protest that helped change America.

Barbara Johns’ school, Robert Moton High, was near Farmville, Virginia in 1950. She was fifteen years old when she became aware that the Virginia law that required the schools to be Separate but Equal was not assuring equal schooling for African American families. Although Moton High was a brick building, wooden temporary structures had been added to accommodate the overflow. The wooden structures were covered with tar paper. These buildings leaked when it rained and their only source of heat was a potbellied stove, which was inadequate. 

Barbara decided to do something about it. She organized a strike. She got up in front of her fellow students and gave a speech that was described as electrifying and inspiring. She influenced her classmates into thinking they could make a difference. Barbara Rose Johns was unstoppable. Her pursuit of equitable condition in her school eventually led us to Brown vs Board of Education.

If you want to learn more about the fifteen year old, courageous and determined Barbara Rose Johns, please read The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement. Learn more about how she contributed to the desegregation of schools. It's an inspiring story.

Season of the Witch

Those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and followed the news will be fascinated by Season of the Witch, the cultural history of San Francisco from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s. These were the years of the hippie movement, drag queens, activists, Janis Joplin, Patty Hearst, Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, Dianne Feinstein, AIDS, 49ers football with Joe Montana and Bill Walsh.

Certainly this sounds like a nostalgia trip and in many ways it is, but it is also a thoroughly researched, very readable story of the times in the city that became a touchstone for the country. This is the backstory in the context of several decades later.