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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.

Banned Books Week: Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl and an Adolescent Thief

By Farrell Howe

When I was eight years old, I stumbled across a book in my elementary school library that sparked a decades-long obsession for a certain period of world history and sewed the seeds for the activist I would become as an adult -- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl.

The books in my elementary school library were sorted by grade level. Students were only allowed to check out books from their grade range. A few times per week, my class would visit the school library for an hour of quiet reading. During one of these visits, as I walked up and down the aisles, an off-white book with a black and white photo of a young girl caught my eye. I remember studying her face, her large eyes, and wondering what she was thinking about at the moment that school photo was taken. Intrigued, I plopped down on a whistle chair in a private corner and started to read.

Within minutes I was sucked into the world of this 13-year-old girl and quickly lost track of time. When my teacher informed the class it was time to check out, I panicked. I knew I would not be able to check out the book, as I was not old enough. I was desperate to finish it, so I made the drastic choice to slip the diary into my backpack. I remember sweating, being terrified as I walked out of the library, waiting for a firm hand to grab my shoulder and an angry voice to call me out as a thief. I thought about how much trouble I would be in. Despite the fear, I wasn’t swayed. I HAD to finish the book.

Anne’s life was drastically different from mine, but in many ways, I related to her. I too found escape through writing. I too found relief in creating other worlds I felt safe in. I identified with her feelings of isolation and desperation for a different life -- a different, kinder world. By the time I neared the end of the diary and realized she died alone at Bergen-Belsen, I was heartbroken. I felt like I had lost a friend, a confidant.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 8 years old, I had experienced the age-old, controversial practice of book banning. Someone else deemed the material was inappropriate for someone my age. Someone else determined I was not mature enough to handle the content of the book, and demanded my school prevent students of my age access to it. This someone had no idea the impact this book would have on my life. While I absolutely do not condone stealing, I do not regret my decision.

Since Anne’s father Otto Frank published the first edition of the diary in 1947, Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl remains one of the most challenged books in history. The original published diary, and the subsequent releases of the rest of Anne’s writings have been under constant fire by opponents, mostly Holocaust deniers, who have questioned their authenticity.

Because of the persistent accusations against the diary in the 1960’s and 70’s, Otto Frank led the charge for a number of investigations. The most extensive was executed in the early 1980’s by the Netherlands Forensic Institute at the request of the National Institute for War Documentation. The result was a 250-page report that irrefutably proved the authenticity of Anne’s collection of work.

It is ironic that ever since her death at age 16 in 1945, Anne Frank is still being persecuted. As recently as 2013, a mother of a seventh-grade girl in the Northville school district in Michigan claimed the definitive version of Frank’s diary, which includes passages left out of the original 1947 edition, is too graphic for young students. The mother felt Anne’s description of her developing body was “pornographic.” Fortunately, the school district rejected the challenge.

Anne Frank’s diary is considered one of the most influential, historical documentations of The Holocaust, which is exactly what Ann hoped to accomplish when she rewrote her diary with the intention of publishing it when the war was over. Anne wanted to “go on living, even after her death” and she has. Hatred and ignorance extinguished her life, but despite continued oppression, her voice is louder than ever.

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.

Boy Meets Boy Meets Bans?!?

One of the proudest moments in my career happened when we invited author David Levithan to Kalamazoo. The program was not only going to feature the future Margaret A. Edwards Award winning author, but KPL was also going to give out books to teens featuring LGBTQ characters. The excitement for Levithan's visit soon turned sour when we learned that some people in the community were not happy with the program. The primary objection was that the main character in Levithan's novel Bot Meets Boy, expressed that he knew he was gay in kindergarten. Paul's ability to self-identify at an early age was not something you read about too often in books for teens in 2003. In fact when first published, Boy Meets Boy sparked a revolution in LGBTQ literature for teens. Here was a book that at its core is love story featuring two teens, dealing with teen problems, who happen to be gay. Levithan does address one character's battle with his super conservative parents and how people react to the school's transgendered quarterback/Homecoming Queen, but in the end Boy Meets Boy is about love

As the day of David's visit got closer, we learned of a protest outside of the library. The local news stations started to call asking for interviews. The staff planned for every possible response from the public that day. When it was time for Levithan's talk to begin, I was proud to see a full house (with people even in the hall) of excited advocates and lovers of literature. Outside I found less than ten protesting. Love won and prevented fear from keeping the message of Boy Meets Boy away from those who need it the most. Celebrate Banned Books Week by reading anything by David Levithan, one of the most challenged and banned authors in the past 13 years. 

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.