The Dutch House

I can still remember my first diary. It was blue with a little lock and key, inside it contained my secret thoughts and youthful dreams. Nowadays, I journal spilling my thoughts onto paper in order to keep the cobwebs of my mind clear. Writing is therapeutic but writing something for someone else to read is an exercise of the imagination. Reading good literature stimulates my mind and inspires me to write, luring me out of the comfort zone of staying in my head.

Over the holiday we had the pleasure of spending time with our son and daughter-in-law. As is common in these rich visits, the topic of art and creativity came up. One of our conversations centered on the medium of writing where I found myself waxing eloquent on what I think makes for a good book.

Characterization is pivotal. In The Dutch House by Anne Patchett, Danny recounts the story of his life from his early memories to the present. The story seamlessly moves the reader back and forth from past to present without confusion of time, place or setting. A rare talent!

Anne Patchett’s latest novel is told in the first person and felt a bit like reading someone’s diary. It is a story of substance, interjected with Danny’s intimate thoughts as he grows up and as a grown man. The book is also a survey on the complexity of family and the myriad of issues that can arise and how one deals with hurt, mistrust, health, and abandonment.

A mystique surrounds The Dutch House, a stately home whose previous owner’s portrait still hangs on the wall. It’s after World War II and the house lies abandoned and in decline. Danny’s father Cyril Conroy makes his first major real estate investment by buying the house, moving his wife and young daughter, Maeve, out of poverty and into a new life of comfort and ease, or so he hopes.

Maeve is about 10 years older than Danny, their inseparable relationship solidified by their mother’s absence and their father’s neglect. Maeve is brave, smart, and confident. She fills Danny in on life before he was born and the things he was too young to remember after his mother left. The brother/sister bond is strengthened when their father marries a younger woman, Andrea, who has strategically won her way into The Dutch House and their father’s affections.

As a boy, Danny learns unforgettable lessons while spending Saturdays with his dad as he collects rent and makes repairs for his various tenants. The practice of meeting people of lesser means and the business of being a landlord plants a seed deep in Danny’s soul.

Their stepmother is a hard and demanding woman, ungrateful for the loyal housekeepers. Andrea clearly runs the show. Once Maeve has gone off to college, she inserts herself further into the family by moving Maeve’s room up to the attic. This allows her eldest daughter Norma to have Maeve’s room with its coveted window seat. When Cyril suddenly dies from a heart attack it’s not long before Andrea dismisses both Danny and Maeve, taking over the house and inheritance.

After college Maeve returns to their home town despite her potential to make more of her life in the big city. She is a devoted employee helping to revolutionize her employer’s frozen vegetable business. Danny lives in New York where he pursues a medical degree, maximizing the only inheritance money Andrea concedes to him. His real interest lies elsewhere, but his unwavering devotion to his sister compels him to push through school. Throughout the novel there is a cyclical scene of brother and sister parked down the driveway a distance from the Dutch House. They are irresistibly drawn to the house and sit smoking cigarettes recalling their past and imagining what’s transpired since their departure.

I don’t want to give too much away; there is a reason the book has a long waiting list. The novel begins and ends at the Dutch House. Patchett unveils a story so unexpected and unpredictable, masterfully opening metaphorically closed doors and exploring family dynamics amid poverty, wealth, inheritance, and more. It is a book worth reading!

Processed Cheese by Stephen Wright

Wow! Stephen Wright has a way with words!

People’s names: Graveyard, MisterMenu, Ambience, SideEffects, Carousel, Roulette, LemonChiffon, CarnyDoll, CyberLawn, CartWheel, and FancyPants

Places: House of Sweet Delay (perfume store), GutterBalm (makeup store), AlleyOops (clothing store), TooGoodForYou (the up-town shopping district), BurnishMe Island (vacation spot)

These are just a few examples of the unusual names of people and places in Wright’s new book Processed Cheese. They made it really fun to read.

Basically, the story starts with the character Graveyard walking home and a bag of money falling from the sky. He and his wife Ambience go on a spending spree (I mean really, wouldn’t you?) and eventually MisterMenu traces the bag of money his wife threw from his high-rise window to Graveyard and tries to get it back…

It was entertaining to see the lengths that MisterMenu went to try and get it back, and the extremes that Graveyard goes to avoid him.

Does he get the money back or not? You will have to read this astonishing book to find out!

Where I End and You Begin

I find it unsettling that serial killers -both male and female- have been sexualized in the last couple of years. Ted Bundy has become somewhat of a rock star thanks to a documentary on Netflix and a movie based on his life starring Zac Efron. There’s even a young woman somewhere in the world who got a tattoo of Bundy’s bite imprint from one of the bodies of his victims.

With that said, I do have to admit I find true crime beyond fascinating, but mostly I’m fascinated by what makes killers the way they are. I know some people think my fascination is weird and they refer to me as ‘one of those creepy girls.’  Yes. Yes, I am one of those creepy girls. It’s the creepy girls of the world that make everything burn a little brighter.

Stephen King used to keep a notebook full of newspaper clippings about murders when he was young. He said he kept the clippings because it was a way for him to recognize the nightmare people who donned a normal every day face while out in public. I, too, like to be aware of monsters that roam around with false human grace. But if you throw me a character from novels or a television series like Dexter who is a serial killer but only kills evil people, well, that’s something I can easily be obsessed about.

Joe Goldberg from Caroline Kepnes’s book You, throws off major Dexter vibes. Joe runs a bookstore in the East Village in New York. He’s obsessed with books, with literature, and with seeing people for who they really are. Characters fill his thoughts. You know what else he’s obsessed with? Guinevere Beck. From the moment she walks into the bookstore he’s got it bad for her. Like writing their names together on a notebook bad.

Beck, as she’s known to everyone, is a teaching assistant and aspiring writer. She’s working on her thesis, although it seems she never really spends time writing but heads out into the night to pursue a career in drinking and partying all night. Beck is everything Joe wants: beautiful, smart mouthed, and fiercely intelligent. Joe begins an odyssey of learning everything he can about Beck.

Instead of getting to know her through the normal channels, he stalks her social media and spies on her any chance he can get. Is this terrifyingly creepy? Yes. Can you kind of let that slide because Joe seems like one of the good guys? Surprisingly, yes.  That is until things begin to take a sinister turn and the reader begins to learn more about Joe’s past and his level of obsession with Beck. Will nothing stop Joe from being with Beck? Will anyone in the way of gaining Beck’s affection survive?

If you like books where you feel a little guilty about cheering on a main character who’s a lovable sociopath, You is your cup of tea.  Look, we’ve all had a crush that makes the rest of the world fall away and we can’t imagine a time when our crush isn’t a part of our life. But there’s a difference between a crush and an all-consuming obsession. It’s what you do in the middle-ground that makes all the difference.

And if you like You, there’s a sequel called Hidden Bodies that follows Joe after he leaves New York and settles in LA. You can move across the country, but obsessive love, like college debt, will follow you.

Read to Your Children (About Race!)

It’s never too early to begin reading to your baby! This is why we love our board book collection. And why we offer storytimes for children as young as three months. It’s also never too early to start talking to them and reading to them about race and racism in America. Just as reading to children will help them succeed later in life, so will early exposure to stories that explore diversity, inclusion, prejudice, and our shared history. And there are urgent reasons to begin early. Racial preference and prejudice sink their teeth into us almost from birth. While researching a different topic, I stumbled upon some alarming statistics. Studies have found that infants as young as three-months have exhibited preference for faces of their own race, while children may begin to embrace and accept racism around three years in age. If this feels as dire to you as it does to me, there is good news too! We have part of the antidote to this insidious threat right here in the library. Each year, more and more books are published that talk about these issues in nuanced and accessible ways, while even more are coming out that feature people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds living their lives. I’d like to share a few of my favorites. 

Intersection-Allies-CoverIntersection Allies: We Make Room for All by Chelsea Johnson, LaToya Council, Carolyn Choi, and Ashley Seil Smith is a relatively new picture book that has quickly become a favorite to share with families and friends. From the carefully thought out ‘Letter to Grown-Ups’ at the beginning to the final pages’ rallying cry, this book is both masterfully poignant and thought-provoking. Written in rhyming text, the book celebrates young people of different races, religions, abilities, and experiences while also demonstrating how we can all cherish, value, and protect one another. In less expert hands, a book like this might feel clunky or over-stuffed, but the evident care and passion that went into its creation allow the message to shine without compromising the reading experience. 

81OxQJ1yf-LWhen I first saw Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham, the title made me nervous. The phrase “not my idea” felt too close to an excuse for me, so I was relieved when I read the book and discovered that it does not promote this message. This book begins with a young person watching a news story that involves violence then explores the privilege whiteness can afford and the ways that white people can leverage this privilege to fight for a more just future. The messaging is simple and direct, and Higginbotham deftly threads the needle by encouraging readers to critically examine the world around them while also encouraging self-care and forgiveness. She explains:

Racism is still happening. It keeps changing and keeps being the same. And yet…just being here, alive in this moment, you have a chance to care about this, to connect. But connecting means opening. And opening sometimes feels…like breaking.

I love that Higginbotham goes so far to acknowledge the fear and pain that can surface when confronting racism, while also portraying this mission as both urgent and redemptive. 

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Many other books confront and counter prejudice by telling stories that feature characters who are black, indigenous or people of color. Even when these stories focus on things that might be unique to a group of people, they also highlight our shared humanity and help expand the world that is accessible to young readers. Many of these stories focus on family. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson follows a young boy and his nana on a bus ride across town. It would be easy to pair this book with Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña’s My Papi Has a Motorcycle which also follows a young person on a ride across town. This time lovingly recounting a young girl’s late afternoon cruise on the back of her father’s motorcycle. 

Food, family, history and identity all come together in Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez Neal while A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui finds a father and son fishing in the early morning, while also connecting this ritual to the father’s own childhood in Vietnam. Nicola I. Campbell and Julie Flett’s beautiful A Day with Yayah is a gentle story of an Interior Salish family foraging in a meadow while an elder passes down knowledge to her grandchildren that fans of Blueberries for Sal are sure to love. And Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together spends a day with a boy and his grandfather who do not speak the same language as they discover a different way to communicate through a shared passion. 

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Other books discuss hair care and head-wear for different people around the US and the world. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, and My Hair is a Garden by Cozbi A. Cabrera take different approaches while celebrating the love, attention, and community connection that can go into hair care. The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad and Hatem Aly and Mommy’s Khimar by Jamiliah Thompkins-Bigelow and Ebony Glenn explore different but affirming experiences connected with the headcoverings worn by some Muslim women.

The Boy & the Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera beautifully tells the story of a young South Asian boy who loves his mother’s Bindi and wishes he could wear one as well. And Sharee Miller’s Don’t Touch My Hair follows a young girl who loves her hair but does not love all the people around her who touch it without even asking. This book feels like it should be required reading delivering powerful messages about personal boundaries, being othered, and finding one’s voice, while somehow still feeling playful, whimsical, and silly. 

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We can certainly all relate to the fear of a young boy on a pools high dive, like that experienced by Jabari in Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps. And the joy that art can bring to a community, like Mira discovers when she meets a muralist in F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell, and Rafael López’s gorgeous story Maybe Something Beautiful

I love Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael López’s The Day You Begin. This story of new students from different cultures beginning school together is incredibly accessible. On some level we can all understand the experience of being the new person, not quite fitting in, and absorbing negative attention because of our differences. But it is also a powerful story of inclusion, reminding us that our differences make us stronger and that a healthy society welcomes all kinds of people. Mustafa by Mary-Louise Gay also focuses on uncertainty and new friendships, telling the story of a young refugee exploring his new home and making a friend.

And finally, Breanna J. McDaniel and Shane W. Evans’ Hand Up! is wonderful. In an author’s note, McDaniel explains that she worried that her own niece, a black girl, would only connect negative emotions with the phrase ‘hands up.’ So, she created a beautiful, simple book that celebrates the many things we can do with our hands in the air, from playing peek-a-boo, to dancing, to protesting injustice. 

The publishing industry has come a long way, but all of us who work adjacent to children’s literature still have a tremendous amount of work to do. As the infographic below created by Sarah Park Dahlen and David Huyck demonstrates, we still desperately need more books that center young people from diverse backgrounds. Children and caregivers in our communities need more books that reflect their own heritage, culture, race, and experiences. This is why movements like We Need Diverse Books are so important and powerful. 

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Needless to say, the books I mentioned above are not a complete survey by any stretch of the imagination and I am surely missing incredible books exploring and celebrating many different backgrounds. If you have a favorite that is not featured above or is not in our library, please leave a comment and let us know! 

The Best Books of 2019

With the year rapidly drawing to a close, it is time to reflect on the past year. Here at the library, of course, that means talking about all the great books we have read. Our full list of recommendations (including fiction, non-fiction, young adult and children’s books) has already been released, but some of us can’t help but want to tell you more. Here are a few select reviews from our best of list written by our dedicated and always reading staff.

Alan:

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

From one of the best mystery writers of our time, the modern Agatha Christie, comes a suspense-filled epistolary tale of a nanny hired at a posh, remote estate in the Scottish Highlands. Idyllic until things take a turn for the darker. In a series of letters to an attorney, the facts of the case are revealed as our narrator unravels, and we wonder how reliable she is…

Chaz:

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

The solution to information overload is to be mindful with how and why you interact and engage with technology. Does it serve your essential and personal goals?  Can you achieve the same result without using the technology? Cal Newport explores a philosophy of digital minimalism that fits this time of life.

I Will Teach You to be Rich by Ramit Sethi

How much time do you spend learning about money? 10 hours? 1 hour? None? Actively avoid thinking about it? The title may seem off-putting, as if it were some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, but on the contrary, Ramit teaches the long game of growing wealth over time. This requires taking an honest look at your finances and spending habits, and making a clear budget for money to have fun with (guilt free!). Where is the motivation in saving money for 40 years if you can’t enjoy some of it in the meantime?  Ramit provides a simple framework for understanding where you’re at with money, both mentally and financially. He shows how you should focus your resources to maximize debt reduction and wealth creation.  Through the book, you grow your self-understanding and are able to make a plan that will lead you confidently into the future.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal

There are many dozens of definitions for distraction, but Nir Eyal has got to have one of the most useful ones. He says that a distraction is anything that keeps you from fulfilling your word. This book is a manual for empowerment- teaching the importance of honoring your word and with this, growing respect for yourself. Did I say that I can peruse Instagram, or did I already commit to working in the garden Saturday morning? Nir provides a simple method for self-empowerment with many examples and situations to draw from.

Building a Storybrand by Donald Miller

Is Dave Ramsey the best personal finance expert in the world? Probably not, so why is he the most successful? It’s because he has the clearest message: financial peace. Donald Miller explores the 7 elements that make up a story and how businesses can clarify their message and invite customers into the story. The business is the guide – the customer is the hero. What is the story?

Eileen:

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

Arthur believes in romance and signs from the universe. When his heart skips a beat at the sight of Ben at the post office and then a magical flash mob proposal breaks out, he believes. Ben, however, does not believe in signs. The box of items he’s mailing back to his ex is clear evidence that the universe has nothing for him. But what if there’s more to the universe than both of them see?

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Fifteen year old Will knows the rules: no crying, no snitching, and it’s up to him to avenge his brother’s murder. With a gun shoved in his waistband, he takes the elevator from the seventh floor to fulfill his role. But the elevator door opens on the sixth floor, and in walks a dead man.

Stand on the Sky by Erin Bow

Aisulu’s dream of eagle hunting goes against the Kazakh tradition that restricts training to men. When her parents take her ill brother to a distant hospital, she’s left with a strange aunt and uncle- and an orphaned eagle to rescue.

Linda (click on the links to Linda’s review for each title):

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

Lisa:

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of those books that you cruise through in a couple reads because it is just that hard to put down. Imagine if Cinderella was set in rural Jazz Age Mexico, only instead of a benevolent fairy godmother, it is the deposed Mayan god of death who changes our young heroine’s life. Instead of being carried away in a beautiful enchanted pumpkin carriage, she is bound to the former lord of the underworld when a sliver of his bone embeds in her hand and her blood reanimates his corpse. Far from being a maiden needing to be rescued, our heroine, Casiopea Tun must not only save herself, but save the entire world from falling into a new age of darkness on Earth should she fail to defeat the schemes of the reigning god of death, Vucub-Kame. I hope you enjoy this amazing mix of Maya folklore, Mexican culture, drama, and historical fiction, as much as I did.

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman is an incredible work of historical research and non-fiction writing. Hartman is able to strike a satisfying balance between heavily-footnoted academic, and very personal and engaging narrative writing styles. The personal stories and photographs used illustrate in a very relatable way, what life was like for Black women in Philadelphia and New York City at the turn of the century. Each chapter is a revelation that challenges what we commonly believe about Victorian life, and the way that women were allowed to move about their worlds. Hartman uses expert research and storytelling skills to give voices to women who were only brief news stories, or even nameless photographs in the historical record. These histories are often overlooked but should never be undervalued in terms of what they can tell us about the history of women’s rights, the struggles Black women faced during the Great Migration, and the wide variety of ways that Black urban women were making lives for themselves during a very turbulent time. I found myself having to re-read pages to make sure I didn’t miss a single detail

Margo:

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

I loved this story. My 83-year-old mom loved this story! It made me laugh and it made me cry.

Quoting from a New York Times Book Review author Mary Beth Keane states “No one ever plans to become estranged.” This profound truth sets the stage for a thought-provoking novel delving into how one deals with injustice, pain, and deception especially when it happens in your own family.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope meet each other on the job in the NYPD. The young rookie cops work at a precinct in the Bronx. Francis meets and falls in love with Lena. Wanting to raise a family, the couple moves out of the city and into the suburbs. Several years later the Stanhope family move in next store, but there is a breach of some sort. Brian’s wife Anne is standoffish. The relationship that buds, however, is between Gleeson’s youngest daughter Kate and Stanhope’s only child Peter. Kate and Peter become best friends.

Set in the 1970’s when mental illness and addiction were subjects rarely discussed, Keane paints a portrait of two very different families with Irish Catholic roots whose lives become entwined. Layered with complex characters, a story of love, sorrow, tragedy, and ultimately, forgiveness unfolds.

Transcending time and generation, the story is timely and relevant. In an age where offenses are taken, and misunderstandings fueled by bitterness lead to many broken relationships, Ask Again, Ask offers hope.

Mindy:

Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg

In many ways, this is a familiar story about a woman struggling to balance her photography career and creative ambition as a single mother. However, the storytelling is completely original, as it unfolds in the form of a photography exhibit catalog curated by the woman’s daughter. The imagery is so vivid that you almost feel like you’re seeing the photographs instead of words on a page.

Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

Flight Portfolio is the fictionalized story of Varian Fry, a real historical figure who covertly rescued countless Jewish artists and their works from the Nazis. I’m not usually a big reader of historical fiction, but I’m a big fan of this author and her richly imagined characters and exquisite writing.

Susan:

The Book Charmer by Karen Hawkins

I adored this book! It starts strong and remains strong to the very end. This is magical realism in a small southern town in the vein of Sarah Addison Allen but with a charm all its own. Sarah Dove is the seventh daughter of the Dove family, an old family in town whose daughters all have magic. Sarah’s magic is that books talk to her, telling her which person in town needs to read them. As the town librarian, she makes sure each book gets to the right person. Such a lovely idea! Sadly, her beloved small town of Dove Pond is failing. The population is dwindling, they have no jobs for the young people, and most of the downtown storefronts are vacant. People are worried. Luckily, the town lore is that whenever the Dove family has seven daughters something good happens for the town. As a seventh daughter, Sarah has always thought she would save the town, but she has no idea how to do that. Then Grace Wheeler, broke and with crushing family responsibilities, comes to town and Sarah realizes that it is her job to befriend Grace and help Grace save the town. This is a lovely novel of friendship, family, belonging and finding home.

Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh

The serial killer isn’t on trial. He’s on the jury. That’s the premise for this totally original legal thriller by Irish author Steve Cavanagh. What’s the best way to get away with murder? Have someone else convicted of the crime. What’s the best way to have someone else convicted of the crime? Make sure you (the killer) are on the jury! I’m a big fan of this author, and this is his best legal thriller yet.

Theresa:

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

They say one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but an interesting title always attracts me. The title of Anissa Gray’s debut novel grabbed my attention and her writing held it. The book begins with the stunning arrest of Althea and Proctor, a well-respected couple in their community. As her sisters struggle with their disbelief at the arrest of their eldest sister, and with caring for their nieces, what happened and how is revealed through the separate stories of those involved. This is primarily a character driven novel, with a dash of mystery on the side.

 

Spare Parts

Where was this book when I was a teenager? Oh yeah. It wasn’t written yet and I was already more than obsessed with the works of Stephen King. If ever I needed a manifesto (and not in a creepy way: there’s no dog-eared Catcher in the Rye nestled in any of my coat pockets) it would be Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl. Shuffling and stubbing my toes into my 40s, I still need a guide to help me see who I am and who I’m becoming. It’s a process I still haven’t acquired a taste for, like lima beans or small talk. But Johanna Morrigan is my new hero.

It’s 1990 and 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan lives in a small town in England with her exasperating family. Her family is on government benefits because of her father’s ‘back pain.’ None of the children can tell anyone they’re on benefits because questions would be asked, such as “Didn’t I see your father bent over a car in the driveway the other day? I thought he was physically unfit to wield a wrench?” Johanna’s father thinks he’s going to make millions as a rock star (what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless) and her mother is in postpartum decline from giving birth to twins. Johanna slips up one day while talking to an elderly neighbor and mentions the benefits. She realizes she’s put her family in financial peril. She waits every day by the mailbox to intercept any official letters saying the family’s benefits have been cut off.

Johanna always had a knack for writing and decides to write a poem for a contest. She wins and along with a tidy sum of money, she gets to read her poem on live TV.  She bombs so badly, humiliates herself so roundly, that she decides to become someone else. She creates an alter ego and gives herself the name Dolly Wilde. Wilde after Oscar Wilde, the decadent and naughty writer who once said: if you find yourself in the gutter, roll over and look at the stars. Johanna stumbles onto a job writing for a music magazine which involves going to clubs as well as interviewing up and coming and already established bands. For a kid who’s always immersed herself in words and music, this is a dream job. Her first essay is about a popular singer named John Kite and it reads like a mushy fangirl letter. The two have a connection that will span several years.

Two years pass and a now 16-year-old Johanna/Dolly Wilde is an old hand at interviewing bands. She dresses as a goth and often wears a top hat cocked at an angle. She’s aware that she is a chubby small-town girl, but it doesn’t stop her. She begins to smoke like a chimney, get drunk, and go on liberating sexual adventures where she convinces herself she uses her sexual partners just as much as they use her. There is no falling in love. Life is just one experience after another. She’s also financially supporting her family now and drops out of school to devote all her time to writing.

She indeed becomes someone else entirely. She uses her writing gift to eviscerate bands, making many enemies. A man in a band that got a less than favorable review from her dumps a drink on her head, saying he wanted to pour his urine over her head instead. Dolly laughs it off, telling herself that’s what happens when you’re a truthful writer. Things begin to change when one of her sexual escapades involves another writer at the magazine. She starts to think of him as her boyfriend, only to overhear him describe her as a ‘piece of strange’ meaning she’s from the wrong side of the tracks and he’s slumming it. It’s like a light bulb goes off in her head (or completely shatters, sending glass shards through her brain) and she realizes Dolly Wilde isn’t who she is. While Dolly served her purpose, she now knows that she is Johanna Morrigan:

But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improvise upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked. Until-slowly, slowly-you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day. You’ll find the tiny, right piece of grit you can pearl around, until nature kicks in, and your shell will just quietly fill with magic, even while you’re busy doing other things.

As Johanna makes these life changing realizations, she pulls another humiliating stunt by getting drunk with John Kite and professing her overwhelming love for him. She doesn’t remember much from that night except for spilling her guts to him and him going off to sleep in the bathtub:

Since I met you, I feel like I can see the operating system of the world-and its unrequited love. That is why everyone’s doing everything. Every book, opera house, moon shot, and manifesto is here because someone, somewhere, lit up silent when someone else came into the room, and then quietly burned when they didn’t notice them.

Now older, Johanna sees that her parents did their best with what they had. Her father with his outrageous schemes and blind faith in himself, her ghost of a mother just beginning to surface from her depression with the help of an antidepressant cocktail, Johanna sees them as two people doing their best:

They made you how they want you. They made you how they need you. They built you with all they know, and love-and so they can’t see what you’re not: all the gaps you feel leave you vulnerable. All the new possibilities only imagined by your generation, and nonexistent to theirs.

And finally, I wish I had heard (known) this going into my late teens:

And you will be quite on your own when you do all this. There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.

Not just a coming of age tale, How to Build a Girl is an anthem sending a call to all humans to pick through the flotsam and jetsam of who they are, dig for the seeming detritus and know it for what it is: they key to becoming who you are and who you need to be.

Thanks for reading. I gotta go write a book. I’m going to title it How to Put Back Together a Middle-Aged Woman.

Favorite Authors Jackpot!

I have a rule that’s hard and fast. If Nic Stone has a new book, I’m going to read it as soon as I can. Same goes for Elizabeth Acevedo. There aren’t many other authors I’d say this about, but both of these novelists write about important and timely issues in unique and compelling ways. They capture the voices of youths in ways that feel incredibly authentic to me while also resonating with the young people I meet. This year, I’ve been lucky enough to get thrilling new projects from both of them, which is reason enough to call 2019 a great year for books.

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First out was Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High. Her YA debut, the verse novel The Poet X, is a tour de force, one of my favorite novels, and the winner of the National Book Award among many other honors. With the Fire on High proves that Acevedo will remain a literary force for a long time. The book follows a young mother named Emoni as she navigates her senior year of high school. Emoni lives with her grandmother and is hyper-focused on providing stability for her young daughter while balancing school, work, family time, and her tenuous co-parenting relationship with her child’s father. Along with her fiercely loyal best friend, she has pushed back against the stigma of getting pregnant as a freshman but has also become extremely guarded about the people she lets into her life. Emoni has set aside her own dreams for her future, believing they were derailed by her unplanned pregnancy and focuses instead on making her daughter’s life as happy as possible, even at the expense of her own. 

Emoni is also a talented chef, who can’t help but find solace, community, and joy in the time she spends in the kitchen. All her carefully constructed walls threaten to tumble down when a new Spanish cooking immersion class at school offers her an unexpected opportunity to explore her restaurant dreams, and a new student’s persistent interest in Emoni is coupled with an undeniable connection between them. Emoni must decide how to advocate for herself, reach for the future she deserves, and let people in, even if it means risking personal disappointment and adds stress to her family life.  

If I had any concern that Acevedo’s beautiful writing, which I had only previously read as verse, would not translate to prose it was forgotten in the opening pages of With the Fire on High. Emoni is a loveable yet complicated narrator, and Acevedo deftly layers her inner dialog and conversations with the people in her life to give the reader insight into her past and current struggles and stresses, but also her resilient and caring spirit.  

Next up was Nic Stone’s latest, Jackpot. Stone’s previous novels both blew me away, but for very different reasons. Dear Martin is a story of race, police violence, and youth activism that is an impeccably written punch to the gut. Her follow-up, Odd One Out, is a queer love story that explores social pressures, identity, and friendship in nuanced and original ways. It made me realize how much I love a good rom-com, which also makes me question the assumptions that I make about people. So, yeah, I was excited for Jackpot.

81XI1rKQRILJackpot follows Rico, a young woman whose family is going through an extraordinarily difficult time. She lives in a small apartment with her overworked, underpaid mother and her younger brother. Rico is determined to make sure her brother has a more stable childhood than her own and works as many hours as she can manage at a convenience store to try and help make ends meet. It still isn’t enough – her family is constantly on the verge of eviction and live in fear that a small financial hiccup could push them over the edge. When the store she works at sells a winning lottery ticket, Rico becomes convinced that she sold the ticket to a sweet elderly woman on Christmas Eve. As time goes by, and the winning ticket remains unclaimed, Rico becomes increasingly sure that somewhere in town there is a little old lady who has forgotten to check her ticket. And as her family’s situation continues to deteriorate, Rico grows more and more desperate to find the winner, convinced that if she can change the winner’s life, they might reward her for helping. 

The only problem with Rico’s plan is that she needs help. And that help is going to have to come in the form of Zan, who seems to be different from Rico is every way. He is light skinned, she is dark skinned. He is filthy rich, she is dirt poor. He is uber-popular, she is invisible. Shockingly, Zan isn’t just game to help, he also seems very interested in Rico. Almost too interested. And while he sometimes behaves in ways that infuriate her, he is also far more intriguing than she could have ever imagined. As they move closer to uncovering the mystery of the lotto winner, Rico must try to figure out how to keep her family afloat, what she wants for herself, and what she wants from Zan.  

Stone continues to show an incredibly deft touch for exploring difficult subjects in her stories. Jackpot dives deep into America’s economic divide, the barriers it can create, and how devastating small problems can be for people living in poverty or living with housing insecurity. And yet, she also manages to make Jackpot a flirtatious romp, a light mystery, and a story of resilient young people finding their way through difficult times.  

Nic Stone and Elizabeth Acevedo are writers of immense talent telling wonderfully imaginative stories featuring people who represent and reflect the diverse experiences of young people today. I am grateful to be able to give books like theirs to young readers in our community and I can’t wait to see what they do next.