From the Shelf
Children's Books: What on Earth?
Shelf Awareness pays tribute to everyone's favorite planet with these Earth Day picture books about trees, warthogs and "other wonders yet to find."
Trees (Candlewick, $14.99, ages 2-5) comes from Lemniscates, a Barcelona author/ illustrator/designer collective. Mixed-media illustrations and a few words on each beautiful two-page spread capture the "marvelous beings" that are trees. Trees is more than a pretty book, though--in simple language, it provides real, if poetically minimal, information: "Trees clean the air we breathe... and give us their seeds with every piece of fruit." Simply lovely.
Whimsical and quirkily informative, The Big Book of Beasts (Thames & Hudson, $19.95, ages 4-up) by Yuval Zommer (The Big Book of Bugs) introduces readers to baboons, binturongs, honey badgers and more than a dozen other mammals that qualify as beasts: "deadly, cunning and most importantly, wild!" Charming illustrations of each beast in various poses and habitats, questions and answers ("Just how lazy is a sloth?"), search-and-find challenges and special sections on Ice Age beasts and saving endangered species make this "Big Book" a big winner.
Everywhere, Wonder (Imprint/ Macmillan, $17.99, ages 3-6) takes readers on a wild adventure from a little boy's bookshelf into the wide world. Dreamy pictures show the boy drifting right through the panes of his bedroom window--as if it were water--into wondrous settings: rocketing toward Earth from the moon, gazing into the tree canopy in the jungles of Brazil and, in Sheboygan, enjoying an ice cream cone with "a tractor mechanic named Shirley." Author Matthew Swanson and illustrator Robbi Behr (Babies Ruin Everything) show readers how a lively imagination and a good book can carry you anywhere in this world--and beyond. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
In this Issue...
Laugh, cry and get hungry with essays by the late, great writer and food connoisseur Jim Harrison.
by Ruth Behar
This emotionally true and unexpectedly funny chapter book about a Jewish Cuban-American fifth grader who spends a year in a body cast has wide appeal.
by M.J. Carter
Historical details in The Devil's Feast add authenticity to an intriguing Victorian mystery.
Review by Subjects:
Fiction and Job Performance
Fast Company offered "five ways reading fiction makes you better at your job."
Mental Floss noted "10 everyday phrases that come from printing."
Pop Quiz: "How good are you with synonyms?" asked Buzzfeed.
"Love The Hobbit? You can now buy your very own Hobbit home" in Montana, Travel+Leisure noted.
Tariq Ali shared his "top 10 books about the Russian Revolution" with the Guardian.
House & Garden's Emily Senior offered tips on "how to make your bookshelves beautiful" in Vogue.
Vaddey Ratner: The Meaning of Home
|photo: Kristina Sherk|
Vaddey Ratner is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Her critically acclaimed bestselling debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, has been translated into 17 languages. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. Her new novel, Music of the Ghosts, returns to Cambodia, and will be published by Touchstone on April 11, 2017.
In the Shadow of the Banyan was largely autobiographical. How was the writing process different for Music of the Ghosts?
With Banyan, the fear was delving into something so deeply personal, so traumatic. I didn't know whether I could stop the process, once I dove in. I didn't know what else I would find.
With Music of the Ghosts, I knew I wanted to write about forgiveness and atonement, but I didn't know whether the characters I'd brought forth were capable of this. I felt more at the mercy of the characters. I had to access them on all levels--emotional and psychological, political and intellectual--and within these pages, I had to make their journey complete, without the chronology of real-life histories to rely on.
Banyan was scary because it was autobiographical; Music was scary because it wasn't.
The horror of the Khmer Rouge is hard to comprehend. How do people in such dire situations hold onto their humanity?
If, in your deepest, darkest hour, you can for one moment imagine the humanity of the enemy, if you can open your soul to see that the person who inflicts suffering on you has possibly himself suffered greatly so that he's driven by his own pain to hurt and harm, if you can see in him a human being like yourself, then you can imagine something larger than that moment's cruelty. This, I think, opens up the possibility for transformation, in yourself as well as in your enemy.
Teera's return to Cambodia throws her emotions into turmoil. Was it the same for you when you returned to Cambodia?
The emotional turmoil that Teera experiences on returning to Cambodia certainly echoes my own. Like Teera, when I fled as a child I had the sense that the most essential part of me was buried with the dead--that I had died with my family. When I returned as an adult, it was a kind of rebirth. I was able to find some relatives, and because so many had been lost, the ties we were able to rebuild were that much stronger.
Teera's profound love for what she calls home resonates with my own. When you flee as a refugee, you're essentially seeking the refuge of humanity, which has been attacked and diminished in the home you've left behind. You're seeking not just any place, but a place that upholds a sense of home and community, even if different from your own. Once you've known the meaning of home--the sanctuary and protection it provides--you have the urge to create a home wherever you end up. Teera's enduring love for Cambodia gives birth to the love she feels for America.
Music plays an important role in this story. What does music mean to you?
In Cambodian culture, music plays a role in every aspect of daily life--births and deaths, unions and separations, illness and healing. There is music offered to the gods, to spirits of the forests, to ancestors, to guests. When one sets off for a journey, there is music to send the traveler on the way. Music is blessing, music is nutrient, music is medicine. When words fail, music is our other voice.
How did you research the parts of the story that did not come from your first-hand experience?
I had examined the historical context as a student at Cornell University, where I was trained to take a very probing gaze, even when looking at something so personal. Few readers are familiar with the history and politics of the Khmer Rouge, including the connections to America's own exercise of power. So much I'd wanted to say about that history I couldn't say in Banyan, because the story was told from a child's point of view. The challenge in Music was to tie the intimate, personal trauma with the historical tragedy--to make both equally powerful.
In what ways do you honor the "ghosts" in your life?
I honor the ghosts by giving credence to the living. As a writer, I try to tell stories that emphasize how precious life is, how unjust and untimely death can be, how unnecessary and wrong war is. There is enough suffering already without the expedient of weapons. Often the destruction brought on by violent conflicts is so thorough that you're left with only the memories of your loved ones. So as a survivor, you try to keep alive the hopes and dreams of those who died. You live as if also for them.
Personally, honoring the sacrifices of those who enabled me to survive requires me to imagine suffering much deeper than my own. Every time I return to Cambodia, I'm confronted with that suffering directly. I meet musicians, many of them maimed or blind, who have the energy to smile or to greet me, to offer music to a world that has trained itself to turn its gaze away. To live each day of my life aware not only of the suffering but the hope tied to it, I feel, is the only way to earn my right to share this world.
In your author's note, you mention one of the book's central concepts, that perpetrators and victims live side-by-side in today's Cambodia. Do you think the divide between them can ever truly be healed?
For me, healing doesn't mean taking something broken and making it whole again, which is not possible. Nor is it the same as forgetting. If anything, healing requires an active process of remembering, examining the wounds. I believe the divides can be healed, but as with any wound, there remains a scar, and I hope that scar serves as a reminder not to inflict further suffering.
Was it difficult to pace the novel since you were juggling different points in time? How did you decide where to reveal secrets and when to keep them waiting?
Yes, every time I thought about the trajectory of the novel, and how my characters would develop, my heart fluttered. I would ask myself again and again how was I going to carry it off? Astonishment, anger and despair, sympathy, acceptance, forgiveness. How would I convey all this? How was I going to achieve all of it at once?
I remember the whole time I was writing, I kept missing the mark in predicting when each layer of secrets would come. Both the Old Musician and Teera became so real that each would direct me, "No, not yet, this is not the right time." So the moment, the crucial revelation, came when both characters were ready. It wasn't something I could have plotted out far in advance. When it happened, I felt privileged to have been allowed to witness it, to have been included in the intimacy of their sharing.
I came to realize that I didn't need to know everything. Yielding to my characters actually makes for better plot development. There are elements of the past that become necessary because of where the characters are at in the present, the questions they're asking, the journey they want to take. You don't want to constantly prepare your reader for the drama you envision. You want only to propel the story forward. The material you impart has to be the thing that is most important in that moment.
You are two beautiful books into your career as a novelist. Can we expect a third?
Novel writing for me is a reflection of my own growth. I'm grappling with questions that take a long time for me to come to grips with, so I can't predict how the ideas will mature, much less when. I certainly hope there's a third, and more after!
The questions I'm confronting now circle around the theme of freedom. Empires rise and fall. Along with them, borders and boundaries and walls. These are not natural phenomena--they're things that people create, and that people undo. In a world of such shifting boundaries, what binds us, what confines us, and what makes us free? --Jaclyn Fulwood
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
by Lisa See
Lisa See (China Dolls) pays homage to the enduring bond between mother and daughter while also illuminating the fascinating world of small tea farms in China during the economic reforms of the 1980s and '90s.
Born of the Akha people in the Yunnan province hills of southern China, Li-Yan knows her future by the age of 10. Like her a-ma, she will become the midwife and healer of Spring Well Village and marry a boy from a neighboring tea farm. A hidden grove of ancient tea trees and medicinal plants makes up her dowry, passed through the generations by the women of her family.
When Teacher Zhang suggests that Li-Yan has the intelligence to become the first person from her community to go to college, she sees a way out of her narrow existence. Then Mr. Huang, a Hong Kong businessman, arrives in Spring Well looking for the source of fermented Pu'er tea, an up-and-coming Hong Kong trend said to have health benefits. Between translating her family's words to Mr. Huang and sneaking away to meet San-Pa, the boy she loves, Li-Yan misses her opportunity to test into college. Worse, after San-Pa leaves to earn money for their marriage, Li-Yan realizes she's pregnant. When he does not return, tradition dictates she must kill her fatherless daughter at birth, but Li-Yan rebels and leaves newborn Yan-Yeh at the Menghai Social Welfare Institute, but never stops grieving for her lost child. Meanwhile, Yan-Yeh is adopted by an American family and struggles to understand why her birth mother abandoned her.
Meticulously researched, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores the link between tea production and an ethnic minority's survival and customs. An intimate portrait, this family drama will dazzle book clubs eager to watch a woman rise above her circumstances against an uncommon and captivating backdrop. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: A young woman of China's Akha people rises through the tea industry but never forgets her infant daughter, whose life she saved by giving her away.
If Not for You
by Debbie Macomber
Beth Prudhomme, a 20-something Chicago native, decides to break free of her controlling, judgmental mother. She sets off for Portland, Ore., where she lands a job teaching high school music and reconnects with her mother's estranged sister, Aunt Sunshine, an avant-garde, successful artist. Beth seems on her way to liberation until a dear friend sets her up with Jim, a scruffy, beer-drinking, tattooed auto mechanic with a big heart. En route home after a disastrous first meeting, Beth is involved in a devastating car crash; Jim witnesses it and instinctively rallies to help at the scene.
The accident unites the pair, with Jim checking on Beth at the hospital during her recovery and rehabilitation. The two soon learn they share a love of music--Jim brings his guitar to the rehab center, and he and Beth, who plays keyboard, begin to serenade the patients, workers and each other, ultimately sparking a friendship that leads to romance. Complications ensue, including the arrival of Beth's mother and her disapproval of Jim. Beyond Beth's many challenges, she soon discovers that others also carry heavy burdens. Believing she can ease the pain of those she cares about, she meddles, but despite her good intentions, she's often more of a detriment than a help.
Macomber (Starry Night) explores familial and romantic entanglements--along with forgiveness and reconciliation--in this heart-tugging story about how the pain of love often gives way to joy. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: A horrifying car accident unites an unlikely couple who face serious obstacles to their opposites-attract romance.
by Sarah Dunn
The Waldmans' hot tub parties were the most scandalous thing to ever happen in Beekman, N.Y., an idyllic Hudson River town, as Lucy has learned via "the communal mommy-memory of the town, passed down from woman to woman on park benches." So when she and her husband, Owen, decide, on a slightly drunken whim, that their relationship needs some variety, they decree that the first rule is their experiment must remain a secret. They also decide their marriage will be open for only six months, they can't sext in the house, there will be no snooping into each other's affairs--and no falling in love.
At first, the arrangement seems perfect--bringing new liveliness to both Owen and Lucy, and making the mundanity of their suburban life with their son, Wyatt (who has autism), seem more exciting. But can such a pact ever work in the long run? Or will the rules (and their hearts) get broken?
Sarah Dunn (The Big Love; Secrets to Happiness) has perfectly captured middle-aged marriage, with its mix of the boring quotidian and moments of deep happiness. The new relationships that Lucy and Owen embark on shed light on their own marriage and those of their neighbors. Readers will be laughing helplessly as circumstances grow ever more fraught, but will also muse about what makes a truly happy marriage possible. Fans of Kristan Higgins and Meg Wolitzer are sure to love The Arrangement. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
Discover: A couple decides to try an open marriage for six months, with hilarious and devastating consequences.
The Devil and Webster
by Jean Hanff Korelitz
In The Devil and Webster, Jean Hanff Korelitz (You Should Have Known) chronicles a year in the life of a small college destabilized by a long-running student protest.
Naomi Roth's handling of a residence hall demonstration that involved a transgender student elevated her to the presidency of Webster College. Her tenure has been largely peaceful and productive ever since, but as a former dissenting student herself, Naomi respects activism among Webster's undergraduates. When she learns that a group of students has occupied the quad to protest the denial of tenure to a popular professor, she's initially unfazed.
But as Naomi discovers that Webster's students are more inclined to air their grievances on social media than in dialogue with the college president, she grows frustrated. While the college administration defends the confidentiality of tenure decisions, the protesters read sinister motives into the lack of transparency. The conflict begins to overshadow everything else at Webster, prompting critical reconsideration of the college's centuries of history and of the performance of its first female president.
The Devil and Webster can be read as a suspense novel seasoned with social commentary or as a plot-driven academic satire. Korelitz excels in both directions. Her writing has an almost old-fashioned formality that fits the college setting, but her story is very much of the moment. Webster College is a small world where hot-button issues--representation, discrimination and free speech, among others--loom large. The political climate at the time of this novel's publication lends it a striking immediacy. --Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness
Discover: A prestigious small college is undermined and redefined by a year of student unrest.
The Book of Polly
by Kathy Hepinstall
The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall (Blue Asylum) is a family drama that strikes a perfect balance between sorrow and rib-tickling hilarity, thanks to an unforgettable mother-daughter pair.
Willow Havens worries about her mother, Polly, almost as fiercely as she loves the margarita-swilling, chain-smoking, varmint-shooting steel magnolia. A surprise baby in Polly's late 50s, Willow was born shortly after her father died and long after her siblings, Shel and Lisa, left the nest. At 10, Willow is the only girl in her Texas school with a senior citizen for a mom, and also the only one with a mother willing to walk into said school carrying a borrowed falcon to get her daughter out of trouble for telling tall tales. School smoking prevention campaigns leave Willow terrified that Polly will get lung "Bear" (the word her mother uses to replace cancer), and the girl obsesses over her mother's past in Louisiana. Unfortunately, Willow's attempts to hide Polly's smokes fail even more spectacularly than her snooping, which leaves her with nothing but an old prison address and the name Garland. When the Bear does come for Polly, Willow is determined to save her mother and put the past to rest once and for all.
Filled with sass and vigor, Hepinstall's coming-of-age story is loosely based on life with her own mother. With a memorable supporting cast of quirky souls, including Shel's old high school buddy who worships Polly; demonic Montessori-schooled neighbor children; and a squirrel named Elmer, The Book of Polly is tailor made for mothers and daughters to enjoy together. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: Polly is a strong, eccentric 68-year-old Southern woman, and her 10-year-old daughter, Willow, is determined to save her from herself.
Mystery & Thriller
The Devil's Feast
by M.J. Carter
Jeremiah Blake and Captain William Avery most recently investigated the gruesome murders of several Victorian London prostitutes in M.J. Carter's The Infidel Stain. As The Devil's Feast begins, Avery is forced to initiate an investigation on his own, because the recalcitrant Blake has gotten himself incarcerated in debtor's prison.
Avery is initially thrilled to be invited to dinner at the exclusive Reform Club, where the renowned Alexis Soyer, French celebrity chef and toast of British high society, reigns. But when a gentleman expires in agony midway through the elaborate meal, Avery realizes he may be in over his head. Soyer (who's based on the historical figure Alexis Soyer) and the Reform Club owners confide in him that Ibrahim Pasha, heir to the Egyptian throne, will be dining at the Reform Club in mere days, so if a murderer is on the loose, they need him caught quickly.
The chef's quirky brilliance captivates Avery, perhaps a bit too much. He is struggling to get to the bottom of the mysterious death and to look past his own admiration of Soyer, when he's informed that Blake has engineered his escape from prison. At first relieved to have aid from Blake, Avery soon discovers that his troubles have gotten worse.
Beautifully researched and historically mesmerizing, The Devil's Feast will keep history buffs and gourmands equally fascinated. An excellent entry in a great series, it is perfect as a standalone, or as the stepping-stone to reading more of M.J. Carter's novels. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
Discover: Historical details in The Devil's Feast add authenticity to an intriguing Victorian mystery.
Food & Wine
A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand
by Jim Harrison
"Owning an expensive car or home and buying cheap groceries is utterly stupid," Jim Harrison wrote for Playboy in 2011. A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand celebrates the acclaimed author of 39 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry--including Legends of the Fall, The Big Seven and Brown Dog. With an introduction by Harrison's longtime friend, chef Mario Batali, the posthumous collection includes 48 sage and succulent essays, some previously published and some unearthed after his death, that span from 1981 to 2015.
Simply to call Harrison salty is to ignore the myriad flavors of Harrison's searing wit and capacious heart. He was a consummate poet with an appetite to match, and his food writing is among his best and most fun. In the titular essay, Harrison delightfully details a 37-course meal he enjoyed in France. A man interested in both morality and morels, his humor permeates even the holy; in "Snake-Eating," he wrote, "Everyone knows that if Adam and Eve had eaten the snake rather than the apple, the world would be a better place." Elsewhere: "Good food is so much more important than the mediocre writing that pervades the Earth."
In this collection, Harrison's wisdom shines throughout. "Whenever life begins to crush me," he declared, "I know I can rely on Bandol, garlic, and Mozart." We can add Harrison's writing to this list of life's pleasures. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer
Discover: Laugh, cry and get hungry with essays by the late, great writer and food connoisseur Jim Harrison.
Biography & Memoir
Cheech Is Not My Real Name: ...but Don't Call Me Chong
by Cheech Marin
Born in the hippie, sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll '70s, Cheech & Chong was the original stoner comedy and film act that paved the way for Harold & Kumar, Dazed and Confused, even The Big Lebowski. Richard "Cheech" Marin was a South Central L.A. kid who hooked up with the Canadian musician Tommy Chong in Vancouver while on the lam for burning his draft card. Cheech Is Not My Real Name: ...but Don't Call Me Chong is Marin's rambling autobiography that chronicles how this Boy Scout, altar boy, self-described "little wiseass who got straight As" became a voice of the counterculture, a mainstream TV and movie star, and a premier collector of contemporary Chicano art.
His unlikely path took its first turn when his family moved from the gangbanger streets to the San Fernando Valley suburbs. Nurtured by weed, the Beatles, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, his natural stage savvy and love of applause, Marin built a remarkable showbiz career. After the enormous success of their debut movie, Up in Smoke, he and Chong had a good run of albums and movies until the dope thing ran out of gas. Their split was difficult, but Marin found his own groove voice-acting in Disney animated films like The Lion King and Cars; as the strip club barker Chet Pussy in the cult zombie movie From Dusk Till Dawn; and as Kevin Costner's drinking buddy Romeo Posar in Tin Cup. Best known for what Rolling Stone once called "a lot of pee-pee, ca-ca and doo-doo jokes," he justifiably shows that his long career was really built on "comedy that is edgy, controversial, and more than a little antiestablishment." Yes, that--and some timeless dope jokes. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Richard "Cheech" Marin candidly traces his winding path from the streets of L.A. and dope comedy to mainstream films and museum-quality art collecting.
The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional
by Agustín Fuentes
In The Creative Spark, primatologist and biological anthropologist Agustín Fuentes challenges previous and current models of evolution. Where Charles Darwin argued for survival of the fittest, Fuentes argues that evolution promotes the survival of the most creative. By synthesizing research from numerous scientific disciplines, including psychology, genetics, biology and even philosophy, he presents a new, compelling model of human development. The jump from our early ancestors' stone tools to modern technology is huge, but in bridging this gap, Fuentes takes readers through a re-creation of our potential evolution and ponders what key moment could illustrate the beginnings of human inspiration. While the details are informed by science and extensive research, Fuentes presents his theories in a captivating narrative that feels like an intriguing mystery.
Though all primates develop creative solutions to address complex social problems, no other group of animals is as ingenious. Creativity and innovation are constantly driving the success of human life, and have been for thousands of years. This includes how early Homo made and used tools--acts that require coordination and skill--to more modern inventions of science, religion and art. Fuentes demonstrates that even the most ordinary of occurrences, such as how people agree to basic rules like standing in line at the grocery store, are a marvel. No other creature queues for food. Behind it is a long evolutionary history that he unravels with delight. To look up from The Creative Spark after finishing the last page is to see the world in new, complex ways. Fuentes's work adds depth to our reality and fosters a deep respect and appreciation for the many forms creativity takes. --Justus Joseph, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash.
Discover: The Creative Spark makes the case that what truly defines and separates humans from any other living creature on Earth is our capacity for creative collaboration.
Essays & Criticism
Literature Class, Berkeley 1980
by Julio Cortázar
Literature Class is a transcription of a lecture course given by the brilliant Argentine writer Julio Cortázar (Final Exam) at the University of California at Berkeley when he was 65 years old. Cortázar (1914-1984) was from Buenos Aires, devoted to books since childhood and possessed a strong lifelong bent toward fantasy and experimental fiction. "The fantastic for me... was one aspect of reality, which under certain circumstances could manifest itself... it wasn't some kind of outrage within an established reality." He describes how he gradually evolved from the unworldly aesthetic literary purism of his youth toward a strong sense of political and historical context, and how he approaches a balance between literary merit and sociopolitical content. He discusses his own books and his approach to writing, the writers he admires, story structure, time, fate, musicality and humor, playfulness, eroticism and the problems of translation.
This book is a fairly exact record of an intellectually serious course. Cortázar reads stories to his students, takes their questions and informs them of his office hours. He is frequently funny and charming, with an open casual demeanor, but his discourses also require careful attention and consideration. This is not a popular writing guidebook by any means. But for those who would jump at the opportunity to audit a course with one of the greatest Latin American writers of the 20th century: here is your chance. --Sara Catterall
Discover: This is a nearly verbatim transcription of a lecture course taught by the brilliant 20th-century Argentine novelist and short story writer Julio Cortázar.
Children's & Young Adult
Lucky Broken Girl
by Ruth Behar
When Ruthie Mizrahi moves from Cuba to Queens, N.Y., and starts fifth grade, she has two goals: get out of "the dumb class," and get a pair of go-go boots like Nancy Sinatra's. But after a car accident leaves her in a body cast, her new goal is just to be a normal kid again. Ruthie's Jewish Cuban family, financially strapped and still adjusting to life in a new country, is strained by her injury. But the support of family, friends and neighbors buoys Ruthie and the Mizrahis through their challenges. "I've been through a metamorphosis," Ruthie tells a friend at the end of her recovery; for although this is a story of physical confinement, it is also a story of a young mind expanding and finding unexpected freedom.
Cuban-American cultural anthropologist and poet Ruth Behar, who based her first middle-grade novel, Lucky Broken Girl, on her own childhood, vividly outlines 1966 Queens with Ruthie's observations. Peppered with Spanish and Yiddish and the stories of every person she meets, her world is so tangible that readers will feel they're sitting on the stoop of the Mizrahis' apartment building. But even these details pale beside the emotional clarity of Ruthie's voice. In particular, her prayers (first to God, with Shiva and Frida Kahlo added along the way) at the end of most chapters recall the candid petitions of Judy Blume's Margaret. Equal parts heartbroken and hopeful, Ruthie is a middle grade heroine for the ages. --Stephanie Anderson, assistant director for public services, Darien Library (Conn.)
Discover: This emotionally true and unexpectedly funny chapter book about a Jewish Cuban-American fifth grader who spends a year in a body cast has wide appeal.
Speed of Life
by Carol Weston
Sofia Wolfe isn't depressed, she's sad. And who wouldn't be? Her mom died nine months ago, and by now everyone, even best friend Kiki, expects her to have bounced back. Most people at the private, all-girls school Sofia attends in New York City are kind, but others treat her as though her mom's death "might be contagious."
At 14, Sofia has other changes to cope with, too. Kiki recently turned into a "boy magnet." The girls are all getting their periods. And Sofia worries she may be the only one in her class who has never kissed a boy. She knows she can talk to her gynecologist dad, but these kinds of things were so much easier with her mom. She begins writing to Dear Kate, a popular advice columnist at Fifteen magazine. Sofia needs someone to ask all of her "superpersonal" questions, especially now that her dad is showing signs of moving on. She thinks he may even be dating. When she finds out that Dad's new girlfriend is Dear Kate herself, Sofia is mortified.
Author Carol Weston (Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You; Ava and Pip) has been the voice of "Dear Carol" at Girls' Life magazine since 1994. She draws on her many years of experience to tackle tough issues with honesty and humor. Death and grieving, self-esteem, "bras, periods, cliques, and crushes" are all addressed head-on in this engaging novel. Readers will enjoy spending a pivotal year with Sofia, as she learns to find comfort in life's changes, both big and small. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Discover: After her mom dies, 14-year-old Sofia has to cope with many changes, including finding out her dad is dating the advice columnist Sofia has been writing to.
A Letter to My Teacher
by Deborah Hopkinson , illust. by Nancy Carpenter
"Dear Teacher," a former second grader--now an adult--writes to her old teacher, "Whenever I had something to tell you, I tugged on your shirt and whispered in your ear. This time I'm writing a letter." The letter writer reminisces about her "exasperating" behavior--dripping rainwater in the classroom, distracting her classmates when she didn't want to be called on and disappearing on a field trip. All along, her remarkable teacher handles her conduct with aplomb. When our heroine shouts in excitement at the news that the class will plant a garden together in the spring ("Yay! We get to dig in the mud!"), her teacher responds: "True, but first we read about plants... We'll use math to measure our plot, and we'll write our garden plan." The sweet twist in A Letter to My Teacher comes at the conclusion: the former student reveals that she is about to start a new job--as a classroom teacher.
Having previously collaborated on Apples to Oregon, Deborah Hopkinson (Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building) and Nancy Carpenter (Dear Mr. Washington; Lucky Ducklings) join forces again in what amounts to a sweet love letter to an adored teacher. Although this book will make a touching gift to a teacher, it is also a gratifying read-aloud for early elementary children, reminding them that they are not alone in not always knowing how to express worry, fear and even love. Carpenter's pen-and-ink and digital media artwork, in black and white with washes and splashes of color, warmly captures the remembered busy classroom and the spirited little girl. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: An impulsive child is a challenge to her second grade teacher, but in a letter the girl writes to her years later, it's clear the gentle, empathic teacher made a profound impact.