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Staff Picks: Books

National Book Award Winners

The winners of this year's National Book Awards were announced in a ceremony in New York last night.

Fiction:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Non-Fiction:
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen

Poetry:
Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart

Young People's Literature:
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

You can check out all the winners at KPL.


Animal Ark

Animal Ark is a beautiful work of photography and poetry. In this National Geographic Kids book, Photo Ark creator Joel Sartore celebrates “our wild world in poetry and pictures” by joining the playful and powerful words of Newbery Medal award winner Kwame Alexander with bright and colorful animal photographs. This new non-fiction picture book is currently available at all KPL locations.


Animal Cuteness Overload

Animal Ark: Celebrating Our Wild World In Poetry and Pictures by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore , with captivating poetry by Newbery Award winning author Kwame Alexander, observes the natural beauty, diversity and fragility of the animal world.

This mesmerizing and amazing book features more than forty unique full-color animal photographs accompanied by lively haikus, each set against a solid black or white page. The message here is simple: it's steadfast focus is on the conservation of the "natural" in the planet we all live on.

Although officially a children's book, this brilliant collaboration between photos and text will certainly please anyone interested in nature and the animals that inhabit it.


300 Arguments

Slimmer than a bloated, philosophical treatise and far weightier than pap self-help drivel, Sarah Manguso’s formally clever 300 Arguments offers readers a powerful collection of epigram-sized nuggets bursting with personal wisdom, truth and naked self-analysis about what it means to desire, regret, love and investigate one’s inner life. It is a magnificent little book that bobs and weaves with sly, aphoristic intelligence, periodically sneaking up on the reader with taut punches to the gut. Here's a review from NPR.


Novels in Verse

Before poetry month comes to a close, I want to highlight some novels written in verse. Through a series of short poems, an author can tell an amazingly rich story, despite the limited scope for details and dialog. 

Most recently, I read A Girl Named Mister, by Nikki Grimes, who is coming to KPL on May 9. The book combines sections in the voice of the title character with poems in the voice of the Virgin Mary, which are in a book Mister is reading during a challenging time. 

One of my favorites is Sharon Creech's Love That Dog, which is written as the diary of a boy who is learning to love poetry. The title poem pays homage to a poem by Walter Dean Myers, and others throughout the book are modeled after other famous poems. Speaking of dogs, God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant and Marla Frazee imagines what it would be like if God had a life like an ordinary human.

All the novels in verse I've come across are written for children and young adults, but there is much in them to be appreciated for any reader. They seem particularly well suited to addressing difficult topics such as grief and the darker chapters of history, such as Jacqueline Woodson's memoir of growing up during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, Brown Girl Dreaming. Dana Walrath's Like Water on Stone takes place during the Armenian genocide. 

Other authors who frequently write in verse include Kwame Alexander and Margarita Engle. Novels in verse are not a replacement for regular fiction, but like graphic novels, you can read through them quickly for the basic story, or better yet, you can linger to enjoy the nuances of language.


Leaves of Grass

I suppose that one of the primary elements of a “classic” work is that it feels unsullied by the bearing of time, that it defies the swings of fashion, that it transcends the circumstances of its historical origin, and resists and survives the ideological checks often imposed upon its vision by contemporary optics. These works, while not encased in perfection or untouchable to fair and leveling criticisms, feel lively and relatable even as they grow distant from their author’s original conception. One of these books for me is Walt Whitman’s epoch poem Leaves of Grass.

Years after I first wandered through its sprawling breadth, I can still pick it up today and it will have something profound to say about me and about us. Whitman’s scope was both grand and granular, personal and universal, going where no American writer had previously gone and where few have tread since. His project was to mine the American project with both questions and answers, to boast of its unique exceptionalism and to expose its deeply woven flaws with beauty, intelligence and reverence. As a modern work, birthed over a half of the 19th century, it still holds up as a broad, crowded work of lyric genius that you can pick your way through, hopping around to ignore certain sections while zeroing in on others.


Nikki Giovanni is still the bomb!

She’s been around a long time. She’s done her time and speaks her mind. I heard her speak last spring and now whenever I read her works I hear her voice while reading it. I can picture her talking about Amos ‘n’ Andy and why the show was popular as well as important to Black families. In her book Chasing Utopia I can hear her reaffirming my feelings about how fantastic Nina Simone was. Ms. Giovanni talks about meeting Nina Simone in a bookstore in Harlem and that even though she was famous she (Ms. Giovanni) invited her to a party. Her mother told her Nina Simone is not coming to your party and Nina Simone came.  

The best thing about poetry is that you can do a hit and run. You can touch on a topic and move on to hit on another one and Nikki Giovanni does that well. In her poem Werewolf Avoidance, she suggests “that our poems should be strong in our emotions and our words that might make us difficult to live with”. She’s not talking "namby-pamby poetry" when she talks about Sarah Palin in her poem, The Lone Ranger Rides the Lonesome Trail Again. Sometimes she's spicy, sometimes she's sweet. Nikki Giovanni does it well. 


Wet Cement: a mix of concrete poems

Concrete Poetry is poetry where the visual elements and typeface match the topic of the poem. In his latest poetry collection, Wet Cement, Bob Raczka shares the cleverest concrete poems (also called shape poems). Young poetry fans and their caregivers will be delighted by the topics, humor, wordplay, and imagery. It’s a perfect poetry collection for sharing with new readers and is oft requested at our house. It will make you laugh and think and hopefully inspire you to write some concrete poems of your own. My favorite line describes the Big Dipper constellation as a “vessel of stars, my brim overflowing with night.” For a more thorough review and information about writing and learning with concrete poems, visit School Library Journal.


Nat Turner and Slave Resistance

Filmmaker Nate Parker made history at this year's Sundance Film Festival when he sold his film, The Birth of a Nation, to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid at the festival. The film went on to win the festival's U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film follows the life of Nat Turner, and the slave revolt he led in Virginia in 1831. When asked in an interview why he chose to use the same title for his film as the 1915 silent film often credited as a catalyst for the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Parker responded, "I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."

When news of this film at Sundance first emerged many months ago, some friends and I were discussing our eager anticipation of the film, which opens in theaters today. Those conversations led me to think more about slave revolts and how these episodes in American history are often minimized, or completely ignored. In fact, well into the mid-20th century some white scholars of American history still claimed that Africans passively accepted enslavement. We know this isn't the case, but it's not a topic covered very thoroughly by most history courses before university-level. Wanting to learn more, I began reading more works on slave resistance.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne
Historian Gerald Horne argues the Revolutionary War was a tactic used by the founding fathers to prevent the abolition of slavery in the colonies, challenging the traditional narrative of our country's founding. Highly recommended.

American Uprising: the Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen
This book details the 1811 revolt in what is present-day Louisiana. Hundreds of slaves from several different sugar cane plantations marched together in an attempt to overtake New Orleans. It is thought the Haitian Revolution, ending in 1804, partly inspired this uprising, which was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the execution of 95 slaves.

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
This award-winning graphic novel details Turner's life, beginning with his mother's enslavement and ending with his execution for his role in the revolt.

Ardency: a Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This is a poetic retelling of the Amistad revolt by poet and scholar Kevin Young, who was long-listed for this year's National Book Award for poetry and was named director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this past August.


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.