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Staff Picks: Books

The Cowboy Way

Cole has missed almost four weeks of school. This news shocks his mother and leads her to a hasty road trip out of Detroit to take Cole to his father. Cole has never met his father, nor has he ever met a horse and cowboys. From the book jacket - “Inspired by the real-life inner-city horsemen of Philadelphia and Brooklyn, Ghetto Cowboy is a timeless urban western about learning to stand up for what’s right – the Cowboy Way.”

G. Neri writes with an honest style that will grip readers from the start. I read this aloud with my 7th grader and we both felt just as compelled to follow Cole’s journey to the end of the book. The ties that bind family together are universal, and believing in something or someone helps us all grow. 

Take a look at this and all of Greg Neri’s work. Then meet the author on Thursday, October 1 at 5:00 pm at the Powell Branch Library.

Hope Was Here

Joan Bauer writes a fast-paced realistic story about Hope Yancey, she is 16 years old and travels the country with her Aunt Addie who adopted her when she was just a baby. Hope has already attended six different schools and has lived in five different states. Why all the moving? Addie is a cook and all the diners where she’s worked go belly-up. Hope is an excellent waitress, a good waitress has to be ready for anything. Sweeping through the counter, getting orders. Adrenaline pumping. If you want a thrill there’s nothing like in-the-weeds waitressing. You never know what’s coming next. You could wait on a mainiac or a guy passing out twenties.
The story begins with Hope and Addie traveling to Mulvaney, Wisconsin, to begin their new jobs at the Welcome Stairways Restaurant. G. T. Stoops, the owner, has leukemia and he needs help, fast! Addie answers his ad for a cook and professional manager to run his diner.
Hope’s biological mother is Deena, her Aunt Addie’s sister, who didn’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of a baby. Hope’s never met her real father, but she keeps thinking he’ll show up someday, she even keeps scrapbooks of her adventures in anticipation of showing them to her dad… will she ever have a father?
G. T. Stoops is a great guy, so much so that he joins a mayoral race against the corrupt mayor. Hope is a busy teen. She and the staff of the Welcome Stairways get involved in the campaign. There is excitement when the diner fills with customers day by day eager for delicious meals.
The name of the Welcome Stairways diner name is explained on the menu: From early times, the Quakers had welcome stairways built in front of their homes in Massachusetts. These double stairways descended to the street from the front door and were symbols of Quaker faith and hospitality—constant reminders that all guests were to be welcomed from whichever way they came, and,My mother always said that the stairways symbolized how we must greet whatever changes and difficulties life may bring with firm faith in God... Welcome, friend, from whichever way you’ve come. May God richly bless your journey.
Hope Was Here is a refreshing story of loss and triumph.

I'll Give You the Sun

I read so many great books that it's hard to have a favorites list. But if I ever made a list, I've no doubt this book by Jandy Nelson would be on my list for all time. I'll Give You the Sun is an achingly honest book about family, love, betrayal, reconciliation, loss, and imagination. It's the kind of book that I wish I had read when I was a teen. I honestly picked up because I liked the cover. Little did I know that I would weep and laugh as I read it and come to love it so much, that I've recommended it to everyone I know who reads teen literature and many who don't. Early this year, it was the Printz Award winner for excellence in young adult literature. I can't recommend it enough. Great storytelling. Compelling characters.

A Smart Girl’s Guide to Knowing What to Say

A Smart Girls Guide to Knowing What to Say by Patti Kelley Criswell offers VERY good suggestions for making small talk, introducing yourself, and dealing with a host of difficult situations. This is a great book, geared toward upper-elementary kids and teens, but actually good for all ages – even adults.

The book covers how to talk to adults, how to ask for something you want, friendship troubles, saying no, apologizing, dealing with bullies, clever comebacks, etc. etc. etc. It shows most of the conversations in speech bubbles, a great format for today’s kids. It is so good, I am going to buy it so I’ll have it as a reference for my kids and me. I recommend it for boys, too, even though it says smart GIRL’S… the situations and advice in the book applies to both girls and boys.

2015 Thumbs Up! Award Teen Vote

Every year, the Michigan Library Association's Thumbs Up! Award work group spends months reading dozens of books published for teens. I'm proud to have been asked to be part of the group this year, and I got to read a ton of great books. After reading all these books, we had to choose our favorites (not an easy task) for this year's Top Ten list! The 2015 list has just been published, and now it's your turn to decide your favorites! Some of these books are ones I've written about this year, including Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle (one of my favorite books from last year) and Gene Yang's The Shadow Hero, and many other great books. But don't take my word for it: many of these books were also award winners at this year's ALA Youth Media Awards as well! The complete Top Ten list is:


  1. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
  2. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
  3. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  4. Noggin by John Corey Whaley
  5. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
  6. She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
  7. The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
  8. I Have a Bad Feeling About This by Jeff Strand
  9. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
  10. Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


You can vote for your favorite at the MLA survey page. How many of these great books have you read?

The Boy in the Black Suit

Last year I read a first novel by Jason Reynolds called When I Was the Greatest.  Written for teens, it is a memorable story.  Now the author has written a second teen novel: The Boy in the Black Suit; this is now the first book on my Best of 2015 list!  Matt tells his story of grieving his mom’s death, finding an unexpected job, and accepting the support and love that is around him.  Author Jason Reynolds will be one of the speakers at our annual Youth Literature Seminar in November . . . don’t miss this one!



FatKid Rules the World, by K. L. Going

Fat Kid Rules the World, by K. L. Going (Kelly)

I really liked this story. It has substance, believability and great character development.

Troy Billings is a 300 lb. high school senior who lives in New York City with his retired ex-Marine father and Dayle, his freshman jock brother. Troy’s mom died when he was nine years old. The story begins with Troy standing treacherously close to the subway tracks, contemplating whether or not to jump when he is suddenly and purposely interrupted by Curt MacCrae. Curt attends the same high school as Troy and Curt is a guitarist extraordinaire. Curt is filthy, skinny, and he’s a junkie. Curt and Troy form a friendship; Curt nicknames Troy “Big T” and he likes that moniker. Curt recruits Troy to be a drummer in his punk rock band, he knows that Troy has what it takes to pound the drums for the sounds he craves.

Troy thinks of himself as a loser; he overeats and he has no friends. Curt really helps Troy move beyond himself. Curt is sweet, unpredictable, and caring, but he’s a victim of abuse and neglect. His father is gone and his mom is married to an abusive alcoholic. Curt pops any prescription pills he can steal to self-medicate.

Troy only played drums in junior high. Curt takes Troy to a music club where they practice playing their music. Troy meets two other musicians and takes a few lessons from the drummer. Troy goes to a punk rock concert with Curt and he has a blast. By now Curt has visited Troy’s house and met Dayle and his dad who is very direct with Curt. He is glad that Troy has a friend, he buys him a drum set. Troy buys drumming books. He practices. Then he doesn’t. When he finally does play on stage for the first time, he is humiliated. Troy is disgusted with himself and he ignores Curt’s phone calls. Soon, however, Troy discovers that Curt is deathly sick and he takes him to ER where Curt is diagnosed with pneumonia and he’s in the hospital for several days. While hospitalized Curt steals prescription drugs and hides them in a planter. Some critical decisions arise: Where will Curt stay upon release from the hospital? What about his addiction? Will Troy force an ultimatum on Curt?

Fat Kid Rules the World is a Printz Honor Award winner for literary excellence for young adult literature. K. L. Going acknowledges Curt Cobain in the writing of this book which has been made into a movie.

The Shadow Hero

Gene Yang is already a superhero in the graphic novel world thanks to the award-winning American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile, Level Up, and the recently-released two-volume historical fiction Boxers and Saints. With his new book The Shadow Hero, however, Yang sets out to revisit an actual superhero. The Shadow Hero is based on real, long-forgotten Golden Age comic series The Green Turtle, whose titular hero solved crimes and fought injustice just like any other comics hero of the era. However, behind his cape and mask was a larger secret: The Green Turtle was the world's first Asian-American superhero! In this revision of the Green Turtle story, Yang sets out to give the character a real origin story and new adventures. Filled with amazing artwork by Sonny Liew, a fantastic, serious and funny story, and great characters, The Shadow Hero is a triumph of comics storytelling.

If I Ever Get Out of Here

It's 1975 and Beatles-obsessed Lewis Blake is entering 7th grade, expecting it to be mostly the same as last year—invisible to his classmates, even though he's the only Native American in a class of white kids. His life begins to improve when he meets George Haddonfield, a student from an Air Force family, who's equally enthusiastic about the Beatles. George takes a quick interest in Lewis, and invites him to his family's home on base. But Lewis doesn't want to return the invitation—his family lives in stark poverty on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, and he's afraid that if George witnesses these circumstances he'll end their friendship. Author Eric Gansworth skillfully renders how it feels to be a young person on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, with little hope of moving up. But Lewis' isn't a story of despair. If I Ever Get Out of Here follows the progression of Lewis and George's friendship, showing how the friendship expands their understanding of the world and themselves.

Fans of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will find much to appreciate in If I Ever Get Out of Here. In addition to a similar plot and setting, Gansworth imbues his novel with a comparable sense of warmth and humor. If you're looking for more stories about characters finding their place in the world, try Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña or Luna by Julie Anne Peters.   



Last time I wrote about author Andrew Smith, it was to rave about how great his book Grasshopper Jungle was. Well, I'm here to tell you that his follow-up, Winger, is just as good, if not better. Winger is set in a boarding school and follows the misadventures of fourteen year-old Ryan Dean West. Our hero Ryan is a perfectly realized teen dork, all hormones and insecurity, and like Austin, the protagonist of Grasshopper Jungle, Ryan Dean has only a few things on his mind: in this case, sex, rugby, and avoiding trouble .

I'll say right now: this book destroyed me. I've yet to read another author who so completely, utterly understands what being a teenaged boy is actually like. The raging hormones? The desire for acceptance? The confusion, the attitude, the joy? It's all there, so perfectly realized. That would be enough, but then there's the other half of the book, the part that really hits hard. Suffice to say, Mr. Smith does not pull any literary punches. Where other YA authors might have softened the blow, Winger maintains an unfortunate degree of realism in how it depicts violence and also in the reactions of the main characters to that violence. Also like Grasshopper Jungle, this is not a book for everyone unless you enjoy copious swearing, raging teen boy hormones, drinking, fighting, and cartoons. But it's a book everyone should read, if only for a perfect glimpse into the mind of this 14 year-old boy.