Friday, July 21, 2017

Favorite Books 2017: First Half.

Doing a favorite-books-of-the-year round up at the end of the year always stresses me out, although I have done it several times here in the past. A year is such a long time. And my reading memory is bad. It's hard to recall all the exact reasons why I loved a book in January eleven months later. My general recollections with books or movies or other cultural things end up having to do more with emotion than detail as time passes by: Oh, I remember loving that. I liked that! But then when a student, for example, wants to excitedly talk about plot points or characters in a book they have also read, my mind blanks and I just have to nod enthusiastically or agree in vague, generic terms.

So I hoped to do more frequent round ups this year, every few months or so, both to reduce the anxiety and make more accurate and readable lists. But shockingly, that didn't happen! A six month round up still kind of stresses me out, to be honest, but it's better than twelve!

In general, I need to get better at writing about books on here. I need to get better at talking about books everywhere. It may seem strange, as I am a librarian and am very passionate about being one, but I feel like I'm still learning how to talk about books. The example above might be proof of that, but it's not all about having an old person memory.

Reading still feels like a very private thing to me, something that gets to the deep down quiet place inside of myself, a place that has remained the same since I was small. I've been writing more in a paper journal this year, and in that journal I've started thinking about parts of my identity that have traveled the bridge from the small girl in Pennsylvania to the grown woman in Oregon. So many things haven't traveled across that bridge (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) but there are a few important things that have. The need to be alone every now and then. The need to explore. And reading.

Maybe because of how personal my reading life feels, there's also a weird level of insecurity when it comes to being really vocal about books. Even though it's literally my job. I should say that I LOVE doing book talks at work. They are so fun, and kids get so excited. It is the best! My job is the best. But at the same time, these thoughts always wander in. What if I recommend books to people and they hate them, and subsequently judge me and my ability to recommend books? Or sometimes, telling everyone in the world about a story takes away from the personal connection I had with those characters, that time and place. Which is selfish, of course.

This is all a neurotic explanation to say that I'm going to be better about talking about books, because I want to be better at my job. I want to better influence this world that means so much to me. So I'll tweet and Instagram more about what I'm reading. And maybe in 2018, I'll write more frequently in here about books than every six months. But for now, here are my Top Ten fave reads of January through June of this year! I know, I know, it took a long time to get here, but here we go! This list is middle grade heavy because middle school was where I did the most book talks this spring.

10. Roller Girl, Victoria Jamieson
Realistic Graphic Novel; Middle Grade
Dial Books/Penguin 2015

This graphic novel was so great! Based on the summer camp that the world-famous PDX roller derby team, the Rose City Rollers, puts on for girls each year, it was super fun seeing all the Portland-y stuff incorporated into this book. But what this story really captured so well is universal: how hard it is when you start growing apart from the people who used to be your best friends. Astrid wants to be a roller girl. Her best friend Nicole...doesn't. Throughout the book, Astrid is so stubborn and dramatic about so much stuff, but it felt really real to me. You are stubborn and dramatic when you're a kid, especially when you're starting to discover who you are. I loved the art in addition to the writing--fun, colorful, accessible to readers of all levels.

Plus, this book won a Newbery Honor, which is really unique and wonderful for a graphic novel. Yay for graphic novels!

9. The Gauntlet, Karuna Riazi
Fantasy/Adventure; Middle Grade
Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster 2017

This book was pure fun. It's half Jumanji, half Rick Riordan mythological adventure. Farah and two of her friends get sucked into a twisted game called, ominously and awesomely, The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand. Farah's brother was whirled into the game first, but Farah and her friends need to complete a series of difficult tasks within the game before she can find him and they can all escape back to the real world. While the concept itself is fun, what makes this book really special is that Farah is Muslim and everything in the game has Middle Eastern and South Asian themes. All the food that's described in particular made me so hungry! It is not that this book is great just because there are diverse characters in it, it's that kids don't get to read these types of stories with these types of characters in them enough. And the folks at We Need Diverse Books are changing that, and it is super exciting and rad.

8. Along for the Ride, Sarah Dessen
Realistic/Romantic Fiction; Young Adult
Speak/Viking 2009

Reading all of Sarah Dessen's back catalog became a hobby and a goal for me this year, one that I actually plan on writing a whole separate blog post about, so I'm going to save most of my thoughts for that. But I'll just say that while I think Saint Anything was my favorite of hers that I read last year, so far this year, Along for the Ride has given me the most feels.

7. Full Cicada Moon, Marilyn Hilton
Historical Fiction; Middle Grade
Dial 2015

The contents of this book are just as beautiful as its cover. This is a novel in verse, which I am just a sucker for. An absolute sucker. I don't think I've ever read a novel in verse that I didn't like. But! I was especially moved by this one. It's set in 1969, and Mimi and her parents have just moved from Berkeley to a small town in Vermont for her dad's job. Mimi, who is half black and half Japanese, suddenly stands out starkly from her white classmates, and most of this story deals tenderly and deftly with her finding her place in a foreign land. As you can imagine, it's by turns enraging and heartbreaking. At the same time that her racial identity is confusing to people, she's also a girl who wants to be an astronaut, which confuses people's gender expectations, as well. Mimi is the best, and so is this book.

6. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West
Non-Fiction, Essays; Adult
Hachette 2016

Aaand this is where we awkwardly jump from mostly-middle-grade fiction to non-fiction for badass ladies! Because I contain multitudes, and I'm a school librarian, but I'm also a body positive opinionated grown ass feminist, and it's good for me to read books like this every now and then to remind myself that I get to be more than who I am at work. Not that I'm NOT a body positive opinionated grown ass feminist at work, but, you know what I mean. I can't always be as loud of a woman as I am in my head. 

Like all essay collections, there were ones in here that I loved more than others, but overall I appreciate Lindy West for everything: her honesty, her humor, her ability to stand up to awful human beings online but still be vulnerable and human. The first essay in here had me legit laughing out loud, but after that, a lot of them take on more personal, serious tones, but I am here for all of it, the witty pop culture stuff and the gut-punching personal stuff. I don't always necessarily agree 100% with Lindy--which is good--but the world is better with her in it.

5. All American Boys, Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
Realistic Fiction; Young Adult
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster 2015

All American Boys tells the story of police brutality and its fallout, from the point of view of the black kid who was brutalized and the white kid who witnessed it, and who also has a personal connection with the officer. I love Jason Reynolds and anything he does, so I loved the Rashad chapters, but I also loved Quinn's chapters. They were both really complex characters in tough situations, both with complicated relationships to the police, trying to figure out the right thing to do in a world that, honestly, doesn't give them that much guidance. This might be a small spoiler, but in the end, I think maybe it all wrapped up a bit too idealistically. But honestly, ideal conclusions aren't always bad for kids to see. Kids need hope. This was one of the first teen books to deal with police brutality, and to deal with it well, and it was a game changer.

4. The Marvels, Brian Selznick
Historical/Realistic Fiction; Middle Grade
Scholastic 2015

God, the painstaking detail that goes into Brian Selznick's books. They are magic and I have absolutely no idea how he does it. I don't think I could accomplish ONE of these masterpieces in a lifetime, and he has done THREE! And will likely do MORE! Anyway, if you've never read one of his feats of genius, they are half written word, half gorgeous pencil drawings, and they are enchanting. The Marvels is split into two: the first half, an epic visual journey through the seafaring, theater loving family of the Marvels; the second half, a novel about a boy running away from his boarding school to London, where he finds and tries to get to know his mysterious uncle. This book talks about Shakespeare, HIV, family, and loneliness, and every time I think about it it breaks my heart a little more.

3. The Screaming Staircase, Jonathan Stroud
Fantasy/Horror; Middle Grade
Doubleday 2013

This is one of those gems that I only read because a student recommended it to me, and then it ended up being awesome! This is a much scarier book than I would normally ever read (and YES, it's a children's book, WHAT OF IT). But after reading it, I understood why kids like scary books so much. Because man, was it FUN. Basically, it's about fighting ghosts in London, but it's written so well and charmingly. The suspense is spot on and wraps you in so you don't want to put it down. Kids' books are the best!

2. The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner 
Realistic Fiction; Young Adult
Crown/Random House 2016

The Morris Award winner this year, The Serpent King is...not fun. But it is stunning. There's not a lot of action in this book, as opposed to The Screaming Staircase, but the characters are so good. I love books where not a lot happens but the characters are so good. The main character, Dill, is a poor kid in the South whose father, a delusional preacher who believed his power to control poisonous snakes was proof of the power of God, is currently in jail for possessing child pornography. The story shifts between Dill and his two best friends, Lydia and Travis. All three are incredibly different but somehow fit together in a place that isn't too kind to any of them. 

I liked this book for a few reasons: even though Dill's father is obviously an example of religion gone bad, Dill still struggles with what Christianity and faith means to him. One of my students whose Christianity is really important to her loved this book. And I love that both she and I could love this book. I also liked this for its honest portrayal of what it's like to be poor, especially in a small town. How hard it is, how it makes you feel stuck, no matter how much more privileged people tell you you just have to dream big and everything will be better. These characters were all real and brave in their own ways, and getting to be part of their friendship through reading this book felt really special.

1. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
Realistic Fiction; Young Adult
Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins 2017

THUG has been THE It book of the 2017 youth literature world. And having finally read it, it deserves every single accolade it's been given. I have to be honest and say that I started reading this book--which begins right off the bat with a fatal police shooting--soon after it was released in March. And by the time I got to the chapter where Starr, the main character who witnessed the shooting, and her mother left the police station, I had to put the book down. I was so infuriated by everything that had happened already in the first 50 pages and I knew everything that was going to happen next. And with everything happening in the world these days, I just couldn't handle it. Which is ultra white privilege-y of me, to just shut my eyes to things that are hard. Which I recognize. But a few months later, I did pick it back up, and once I did, I couldn't put it down for the next 400 pages. Not only is this an important story, but it is such a well written, engaging one. It is so wonderful.

I hate that I even have to say this, but everyone should read this book because it takes the headlines and humanizes them. I hate it because I wish human beings inherently saw other other human beings as human in the first place. But alas, I know how many students at the high school where I work tried to write research papers for their English classes this year about how Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group. So I know that we don't. And I hate that my first thought was how parents and some students will be upset about this being in my library because of how much cursing there is. But man, I hope protective parents can get past the words to the story. Because I was absolutely floored by it.

Runner-up good reads from the first half of 2017 that I ran out of space for: Marian by Ella Lyons (historical queer YA fiction); Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch (non-fiction; education policy); and The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (luscious middle grade fantasy, current Newbery winner). See you in December for more.

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