Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Every time I stumble across a book like Kathleen O'Dell's The Aviary, I'm amazed that more readers - of all ages - don't read middle grade. The Aviary is very Gothic in setting and tone and simultaneously bursting with colorful characters, a unique combination. There are secrets and magic, plus a good dose of realism and a lesson or two as well. It actually reminded me a bit of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
The main character, Clara, is a delightful character: headstrong, adventurous, and incurably curious. I would have enjoyed The Aviary based solely on the premise and setting, but Clara made me love it. Her curiosity was engaging and infectious, ensuring that the reader was never plagued by a dull moment or stale passage, simply because Clara herself was always plotting her next move and going off on some adventure.
Since The Aviary is in many respects a mystery, there are many great elements I feel I can't really comment on in much depth. I can, however, say that every detail in The Aviary comes together quite elegantly and I was left completely satisfied by the ending. I spent much of the novel hypothesizing about how everything fit together... I liked that the mystery wasn't ridiculously easy to solve, but all the pieces of the puzzle were there, waiting to be put together by the reader and the intrepid Clara.
The Aviary is one of wonderful titles that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. It is, plain and simple, a wonderfully written and imagined novel and didn't feel at all confined to one specific reading level. It could easily be a read for the whole family and will appeal to those who usually read young adult or adult titles.
Crows have glossy black feathers with glints of dark blue and purple. Their life span usually ranges from 9 to12 years. Like humans, they can pretty much adapt to a variety of habitats, eating just about anything that their bodies can digest. Crows are highly social and enjoy traveling in groups. They can mimic various sounds and have a highly specialized and evolved language of communication. A flock of crows is called a “murder.” Although worldwide there are 45 different crow species, the ones most commonly seen in Michigan is the American or common crow.
Crows can be noisy, nosy, and downright annoying at times. Because of their raucous tendencies, some people don’t like them very much, and most farmers tend to lump them into the pest category of animals since they are inclined to dine on their crops. On the other hand, crows have also been proven to be beneficial in farm settings since they consume many insect pests that can ruin a harvest.
I’ve always been intrigued and fascinated by these highly intelligent, comical, and mischievous birds. When my husband and I walk around KVCC’s Texas Township campus, we usually see and hear numerous crows. They tend to hang out in small mobs, idling on and around lamp posts or sauntering along the parking lots and fields; forever on the lookout for a scavenging opportunity. They don’t have to look far since college students throw away lots of fast food offerings such as fries or buns, making the entire site an ever changing smorgasbord. The garbage bins seem especially suited for quick crow take-out buffet dining, and we’ve been amused many times by crow dumpster divers in search of their next snack.
As the Crow Flies is a new children’s picture book that was published in December, 2012. It was written by Sheila Keenan and illustrated handsomely by Kevin Duggan, an experienced nature painter. It beautifully captures and celebrates crows and their world in rhyming verse:
“All day long you’re on the go.
You don’t have time to watch a crow.
But we’re here ...and here... and there.
We poke our beaks in everywhere.”
Just a few weeks ago, I also happened to watch a very well made PBS program, originally filmed in 2010, entitled A Murder of Crows, a part of their “Nature” series. It was enlightening, entertaining and made me especially aware of these birds’ high level of intelligence, as evidenced by the fact that they can manufacture and use tools to solve problems.
And since I was on this crow kick anyway, I also read the “J” non-fiction book, Crows: Strange and Wonderful by Laurence Pringle with illustrations by Bob Marshall, who are both popularly known wildlife advocates.
So the next time you are out and about, listen for the familiar “Caw, caw,, watch for streaks of black wing, and you might be fortunate enough to see crows in an entirely different, more appreciative way.
Crows and humans; we are so different, yet so alike!
As the Crow Flies
At the beginning of The Chamber in the Sky, the fourth and
final book in the Norembugan quartet, Brian and Gregory are lucky to be alive.
The Thusser horde have already colonized the minds of the inhabitants of the
Vermont subdivision where it all began after The Game of Sunken Places. Brian
and Gregory, along with their blue-blooded elfin companion Gwynyfer have to
find a travelling chamber that contains the off switch to the centuries-long
game if they hope to make it back to Vermont. M.T. Anderson is a fine
storyteller and funny. What a unique blend of laugh out loud moments along with
genuinely thrilling plot twists and turns. The four-part series will probably be
most enjoyed by 10 and ups.
The Chamber in the Sky
The summer of 1962 in a small town Norvelt, PA is off to an iffy start for 11 year old Jack in Dead End in Norvelt. He accidentally fires off his father’s World War II Japanese rifle, and, Jack’s mother “grounds him for life” (or at least the summer.) The one exception to his not leaving the house is to help Miss Volker, whose arthritic hands make it impossible for her to type the newspaper obituaries. She can’t drive, either, so she gives Jack driving lessons and with Jack at the wheel, they careen around town trying to discover if a Hell’s Angel really put a curse on the town, or if the Girl Scout cookies are laced with rat poison. Eccentric and colorful characters abound in this book. It also provides a glimpse into actual historical events, an added plus. (There really was a town called Norvelt, created by Eleanor Roosevelt, and based on communal land ownership.)
A wonderfully readable book with non-stop action for older children, Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Award for 2012. It joins a long list of other great titles by popular author Jack Gantos, including the Joey Pigza chapter book series and the Rotten Ralph picture books.
Dead End in Norvelt
Drumming, by Ian Adams, is a good introduction to playing drum set. This new nonfiction title for beginning drummers shows the different kinds of equipment used to get started playing the drums along with good advice on safe drumming (ear plugs) and finding a teacher. An explanation of musical notation specific to drums, grooves and styles, inspiring highlights on influential rhythmic creators like Stewart Copeland, Cindy Blackman, and DJ Afrika Bambaataa plus great images of drummers from a wide variety of musical genres make this a great read for upper elementary, middle school, and teen readers.
Most of the time I’m waiting for one book or another to come out. Knowing forthcoming publication dates is part of this profession but I think I’d be this way regardless. Most of the time, I think the anticipation is fun and I even add reminders to my online calendar so that I don’t forget to put the book on hold.
The hardest part of reading a good series is waiting for the next book. Sometimes I’m so anxious to read it, I have to work hard to distract myself with other good books. Other times I forget about a series for awhile and then am pleasantly surprised when a new book comes out. A few times in my life, I’ve purposely waited until the whole series was available before reading because I just new it would be so good that I’d want to read it all at once. It’s hard to avoid spoilers but it’s pretty great to not have to wait for the next book. I read the Harry Potter series this way, start to finish. That was a great two weeks!
Early 2012 seemed to be a busy reading time for me with new additions to some of my favorite series for children and teens coming out. I really enjoyed Trenton Lee Stewart’s new book, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, a companion to his Mysterious Benedict Society series. This series is great for elementary aged kids but I know a fair number of adults who like it too. I think it’d be great for reading as a family or listening to on a road trip. Suspenseful and touching with lots of mystery and problem-solving. Funny, engaging characters. This latest book was easily my favorite of all four.
Now I’m moving on to Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore. It’s a companion book to “Graceling” and “Fire” and I’m hoping it’s just as wonderful. I've been waiting a long time to read more about Bitterblue, Po, and Katsa!
So what books are you marking your calendar for? Anything I should be looking out for too?
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:
Beneath my feet
Night bugs fly
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, 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.
Jackie’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
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 Amazon.com, 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)
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 books, Concise 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 America, The 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
Leo and Diane Dillon have been illustrating children’s books together for most of their married life. They are icons in the world of children’s books. Patricia McKissack is also revered in the same world. Together, these talented folks have given us Never Forgotten, the story of Musafa, who was taken captive, sent across the sea, and sold into slavery.
Richly illustrated with oil paintings that look like woodcuts, this is lyrical story reminds readers that family is more important than anything and that our ancestors are with us always.
This book won a well-deserved Coretta Scott King Honor Award this year.