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Author Archives: Mackenzie Marrow
With Thanksgiving finally here, I was pulled toward a recent donation in our collection that I found to be a fantastic and thought-provoking read for closing out Native American Heritage Month. Curated by Arlene Hirschfelder and Beverly R. Singer, Rising Voices: Writings of Young Native Americans is a collection of essays, poems, and stories from the late 1880s to the early 1990s. Hirschfelder speaks of the young authors featured in the collection: “their words bear vivid, often eloquent witness to the realities of their lives over the past hundred years. They have much to tell us”.
Separated into the categories of Identity, Family, Homelands, Ritual and Ceremony, Education, and Harsh Realities. Each section includes writings that exemplify a part of the youth’s life. From gorgeous descriptions of mesas to warm and comforting home lives, there is also the truth of the hardships and poverty Native Americans were forced into, and many still live in today. The young writers’ strong sense of awareness and personal values ring throughout the collection, especially as we move into modern times.
Rising Voices is a beautiful and unique collection that spans multiple viewpoints and lives of young Native Americans throughout the last century. Readers are treated to breathtaking poetry and heart-wrenching essays that stick with you long after. This collection includes work from elementary schoolers to graduating seniors, making this the perfect selection for any aged Book Club Group. There is a wealth of continued reading and discussions to be had, especially on the different backgrounds and viewpoints of each author. Some have a deep sense of self and justice, while others bask in the love from their families. My favorite reading, If I Were a Pony, is a collaborative poem by Navajo children where the speaker wishes they were a pinto pony so they could run away to live a carefree life out on the mesa. It is a good exercise to delve into what the author’s were feeling, and what purpose does each excerpt serve in this wider narrative created by Hirschfelder and Singer.
For a further example of discussion topics, one particular section that stood out to me was Education—pieces included covered topics from US Indian Boarding Schools that worked to assimilate Native American youth from their culture to more modern school efforts to reintroduce students to what has been lost.
Carlisle Indian School, whose mission was to “Kill the Indian, save the Man,” often published propagandist essays and stories from their students as a way to fundraise and maintain a good social image. One essay titled Opportunity, written by Alvis M. Morrin in 1914, extols the virtue of the off-reservation school. He speaks on famous Native Americans, such as former Vice President Charles Curtis, and shows his reverence towards the perceived landscape of progress while still maintaining his heritage:
“Our lot is easier than theirs [our forefathers], for race prejudice has been overcome, and a beneficent Government is giving the Indian youth the opportunities which once belonged only to the white man. Open doors to any vocation are waiting for the Indian to enter.”
In stark contrast, a more modern excerpt included from 1996 when Holy Rosary High School in South Dakota introduced a new course called Modern Indian Psychology in an effort to teach their young Lakota students the importance of their history and the cultural values of their people. In Something Really Different, students reported feeling a sense of belonging and pride they had never had before, highlighting the importance that young Native Americans continue to learn about their history.
“Before this course, we didn’t even know that Indians were important or that it was important for us to know Indian history and values.” – Patrick Kills Crow and Mary Crazy Thunder
“Now I am glad I am an Indian. Before I was ashamed of it.” – Francis Clifford
How are these student’s voices being used? And are they being promoted for their benefit or someone else’s? And what purpose do they serve in the anthology?
If you’re interested in requesting Rising Voices for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 7 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
To see more of our Native American Voices book club titles, visit the link here.
Hirschfelder, Arlene & Singer, Beverly. Rising Voices. HarperPerennial. 1996.
Today’s Book Club Spotlight is a title from prolific Ojibwe (Chippewa)/ German-American author Louise Erdrich! And I can’t think of a better author to start off Native American Heritage Month with. A Pulitzer Prize Winner, Erdrich was one of the first women admitted to Dartmouth College, later becoming the writer in residence for their Native American Studies Program. Today’s title, Tales of Burning Love, is the 5th in her series Love Medicine, following a community in and around a fictional Ojibwe reservation.
We are introduced to Jack Mauser on the day he met, married, and lost his first wife. Now, years later, his four other ex-wives gather together after tragedy and find themselves retracing the steps of their predecessor. Dot, the last wife; Candice, the young mother; Marlis, the dentist; and Eleanor, the only one who still loves him. All four women, unable to cut themselves entirely from Mauser, were taken in at one point or another by his earnest but selfish ways. Stuck in Jack’s car during a blizzard, they recall their relationships with the man as wild and passionate as the storm outside.
Tales of Burning Love is about more than just blind, passionate love. It follows the trauma of loss, ruinous devotion, and religious ecstasy. The stories the wives tell intermingle and blow with the raging storm outside. While Jack Mauser may be at the center of each story, his involvement, and true nature shape and lead the women far beyond his reach. Their hopes and aspirations start or end at his feet. For Adult Book Club Groups looking for stories to curl up with as the weather gets colder, Erdrich’s prose and darkly humorous storytelling are enough to keep you burning through any storm.
This is Erdrich’s second time featured in the Spotlight, the other being her children’s book The Birchbark House, following the day-to-day life of young Omakayas in 1847.
If you’re interested in requesting Tales of Burning Love for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
Erdrich, Louise. Tales of Burning Love. HarperPerennial. 1996.
With Halloween a week away, I love to enjoy the spookier books in our collection. But what’s great about Halloween is that there are so many ways for readers to enjoy the season without getting too scared. So, for the scaredy cats this Halloween Season, we’ll be looking at Dead as a Door Knocker by author Diane Kelly. Kelly is a prolific, cozy mystery writer, having (accidentally) worked with white-collar criminals in her former work as a tax advisor and decided to author the criminals herself rather than working with them. She has been awarded the Golden Heart Award from the Romance Writers of America and a Reviewers’ Choice Award.
In the first installment in the House-Flipper Mystery series, we meet 20-something Whitney Whitaker, a property manager living in her parents’ (renovated) pool house with big dreams and a small cat named Sawdust. When a property goes up for sale by the cheapskate Rick Dunaway, Whitney snatches up the deal, thinking it was too good to be true. But she gets more than she bargained for when Rick’s body shows up in her flower bed a few days later! With the help of her best friend Collette, cousin Buck, and Nashville’s newest homicide detective, Collin Flynn, Whitney sets out to catch the killer with her life and the house’s market value on the line.
With brief mentions of blood, peril, and, of course, a body, Dead as a Door Knocker is driven by its characters and their relationships, not a murderous fiend. As we tick through the list of potential suspects, there are plenty of stops along the way into the world of house-flipping, rentals, and kitty shenanigans. Cozy mysteries like Dead as a Door Knocker let the more squeamish in your book club groups enjoy the fun of solving a good mystery without all the blood and gore getting in the way.
If you’re interested in requesting Dead as a Door Knocker for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
Kelly, Diane. Dead as a Door Knocker. St. Martin’s Press. 2019
In 1960, ten-year-old Julia Alvarez left her home in the Dominican Republic for the United States, and by 2013, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama and had an honorary doctorate from Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. So, to end Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re Spotlighting Alvarez’s debut book, which has been widely studied and lauded as a hallmark in Latino Literature. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is an episodic novel that encapsulates the Dominican immigrant identity in the United States and their struggles of assimilation, heritage, and identity.
When Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía were children, their family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. But that was 30 years ago, and now the sisters who are “too American” for their parents find themselves lost in an identity they never had the chance to form. As the narrative progresses (or regresses), short vignettes of each sister encapsulating their lives move backward in time toward their beginnings in the Dominican Republic. They struggle to cope with the distinct differences in women’s liberation and expectations between their two homes. In the United States, they are expected by their peers to be free-spirited, educated, and beautiful. At the same time, their visits back home are shadowed by the traditional values of Catholicism, a patriarchal society, and their own set of beauty standards. Torn between being acceptable in each culture but still their own people, each member of the family faces immense pressure and collapse. Their mother dreams of becoming an inventor, and their father struggles with sudden poverty; Sandra becomes weighed down by the impossibilities of beauty and stress, while Yolanda, a struggling writer, is caught between her cultures of liberation, joy, and failure. Even 30 years after immigrating, each of the four sisters tries their best to live up to unreachable standards and criticism but never quite feels whole, as if some part of themselves was left back in the Dominican Republic, where they were pushed too soon from their nest.
Told using a reverse timeline, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents keeps the reader in a sense of hesitation and disarray as we are pulled further back into the sisters’ own discordant existence between cultures. Their story is complex and reflects the natural uncertainties and confusion of being out of one’s space and into a new and unknown environment. Perfect for reading groups of mature Young Adult readers and above, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents opens itself up to deep and possibly intense discussions of the self. The stories explore the Female experience as much as it explores the Immigrant one, as a perfect study of Intersectionality (a type of analysis coined by feminist scholar and American Civil Rights leader Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw). Exploring how every aspect of our identities is shaped by the other, or as Alvarez puts it in her Authors Note: “There is nothing shameful in being a complex human being.”
Last week (October 1-7) was Banned Books Week– and Julia Alvarez is no stranger to censorship. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has had its fair share of challenges and bans- even being banned from the whole of Johnston County, NC, including classrooms and school libraries. During that time, Alvarez spoke with the National Coalition Against Censorship about her experience.
Here is a small excerpt:
NCAC: How does removing a book from a school district affect students’ educational experience?
Julia Alvarez: The sad thing about the controversy, over and above the fact that students have missed out on the reading experience of that book, is what this models for them about an experience that is difficult or upsetting. I grew up in a dictatorship, where you couldn’t talk about difficult situations – there was this culture of silence. We would run into a problem and have no one to talk to. What’s modeled there by banning the book is what I find most upsetting: that it is appropriate behavior in a free country when someone is expressing something we don’t want to hear, to silence them.
NCAC: Why do you think it is important to teach literature that some might deem controversial or difficult?
Julia Alvarez: Schools provide safe spaces to talk about controversial issues, and literature presents characters portraying human experience in all its richness and contradictoriness. Reading is a way to take in the difficult situations and understand them. The whole point of reading a book in class is to have discussion about what these situations are like. You have writing, discussion, and classroom exercises on it, and kids come out of it having digested the experience with ways to feel and talk about it. How wonderful!
Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books. 1991
Hispanic Heritage Month is from September 15th to October 15th, and to celebrate, we are Spotlighting The Lightning Dreamer, written by Margarita Engle, the first Latino awarded the Newbery Honor and the Poetry Foundation’s sixth Young People’s Poet Laureate.A Golden Sower nominee, The Lightning Dreamer also has the unique distinction of being awarded the Pura Belpré honor, an award presented to a Latino/Latina writer who “best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” Inspired by Engle’s Cuban heritage, this title is a historical fiction novel written in verse, following one of the country’s most prominent female writers, feminists, and abolitionists- Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known here, as Tula.
Slavery was a way of life in nineteenth-century Cuba, and for young Tula, she believes that her future in an arranged marriage would be a similar kind of endless servitude. Cuban women were expected to be quiet and listen to the men rather than think for themselves—something Tula did a lot. And when she begins to read the banned works of abolitionist poet José María Heredia, her ideas grow restless and revolutionary. Breaking from expectations, Tula starts to write plays for the local orphanage, and her open views on abolition inspire her family’s cook to flee from the looming threat of enslavement. But her bold actions are belittled and mocked by her mother and others, and Tula is sent away from home after refusing an arranged marriage. At her grandfather’s estate, she falls in love with a former slave named Sab, who is desperately in love with another girl who will not have him because of his dark skin. His story moves Tula deeply, and as we follow her throughout the years, she becomes more confident and outspoken with her abolitionist and feminist poetry, even though the very act could put her in jail- or worse.
Written for readers in middle grades and up, The Lightning Dreamer serves as an introduction to Avellaneda (Tula) and other great abolitionist Latino poets such as José María Heredia and Jose Marti (a particular inspiration to Engle) and includes short bios and excerpts from Avellaneda and Heredia to tie the reader into the real-life story. While Engle’s depiction of Avellaneda meeting Sab is wholly fictional, the story is not. Avellaneda’s first and most controversial novel, Sab, about an enslaved Cuban boy in love with his master’s daughter, explores the humanity and ethics of Sab against the amoral white characters, a stance unheard of at the time. The novel was banned from her home country of Cuba because of the interracial love story, its critique of marriage, and its criticism of societal norms. While published a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the two share similar backgrounds and critical receptions when read today. Like many of Engle’s novels, The Lightning Dreamer centers around young people who choose hope in hopeless situations, which many may experience today. And Avellaneda put herself at considerable risk to publish Sab and bring hope to her home.
If you’re interested in requesting The Lightning Dreamer for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 8 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
Engle, Margarita. The Lightning Dreamer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2013
Today, we are looking at another memoir of a woman who is grieving the loss of her mother. But unlike our last Spotlight, I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy, Michelle Zauner’s relationship with her mother was tender and precocious despite their differences. Her memoir, Crying in H Mart, having spent 55 weeks on the New York Times’s bestseller list, is Zauner’s story of returning to her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, to be by her mother’s side as she succumbs to cancer. Her loss inspired Zauner’s debut studio album, Psychopomp. The album was highly praised, and since then, Zauner has reached commercial success, being named one of Time Magazine’s most influential innovators in 2022.
Michelle was always told that 25 would be an important year for her. After all, it is when her mother, Chongmi, met and married Michelle’s father, an American living in Korea for work. For Michelle, 25 was the year cancer slowly took her mother’s life. As a first-generation Korean-American, Michelle did not have the easiest time growing up. Between facing racism from her peers and pressure from her mother to be the perfect daughter, Michelle poured her heart into creative passions like music and writing. When Chongmi was diagnosed with cancer, Michelle was in a creative and financial rut. Her band at the time wasn’t reaching much success, and her day jobs consisted of whatever part-time gigs she could manage. So when the diagnosis came, she dropped everything to attend to her ailing mother, hoping to repair the bond between them and repay her for the unending love and care she didn’t cherish when she was younger. Throughout the memoir, Zauner attempts to nourish her and her mother’s relationship while nourishing their bodies through learning to cook Korean food.
Crying in H Mart explores the bonds between food, culture, and family. While a strict parent, Zauner’s mother expressed her love in subtle ways, such as preparing traditional meals. Having found comfort and safety in these meals, Zauner learns to cook them for her mother as a quiet way to repay her for the life she was given. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, her mother was Zauner’s only connection to her Korean side, so she finds herself inexplicably lost when she realizes there is no one left to help keep this half of herself alive. She contemplates how children of immigrants often feel a need to become Americanized to fit in, which leads to polarization or loss of the cultural heritage that their parents represent.
It’s not often that a book comes with a built-in soundtrack, and I highly recommend listening to Psychopomp for a whole reading experience. The album, named after entities that are said to shepherd souls to the afterlife, revolves around Zauner’s mother and her final days, featuring Chongmi on the album cover and her voice in the title song comforting Michelle. This multimedia experience is an excellent way for Book Club Groups to delve into the different ways we grieve, our interpersonal relationships, and how creativity and beauty can blossom from pain.
If you’re interested in requesting Crying in H Mart for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
Zauner, Michelle. Crying in H Mart. Vintage Books. 2021.
In 2007, with the help of the newly launched iPhone and the increasing popularity of YouTube, Web 2.0 was taking off in a big way. To cash in on this cultural zeitgeist, Nickelodeon premiered what would be one of their biggest sitcom hits, iCarly. And it was through iCarly that Jennette McCurdy caught her big break and became a household name for tweens everywhere. Now, almost ten years after the original show’s ending, McCurdy released her memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, detailing the struggles of being a child actor under the shadow of her abusive mother. Based on her one-woman show of the same name, I’m Glad My Mom Died has sold nearly 2 million copies in the year it has been out, was number one on The New York Times Best Seller List for eight weeks, and is currently on its 50th week on the list. McCurdy’s memoir is not the first from this generation of former teen sitcom stars, but none have come close to reaching such success.
Everything in young Jennette McCurdy’s life revolves around her mother. Debra wanted to be an actress, so Jennette must be an actress. Debra has cancer, so Jennette must submit to daily intrusive body examinations. Debra fears gaining weight and looking old, so 11-year-old Jennette learns to have an eating disorder and undergoes cosmetic procedures. Despite having an innate talent (especially for crying on cue), Jennette doesn’t want to be an actress. But she fiercely loves her mother and doesn’t want to hurt her. Unfortunately, Debra’s controlling behavior only worsens the more famous her daughter becomes, leaving Jennette with no control over her assets or life. When she is 21, Debra dies from cancer, and without her constant presence, Jennette begins to spiral. Her eating disorder and alcoholism worsen, and her mental health hits rock bottom. Without her overbearing mother, she is on her own for the first time, and it almost destroys her. Years pass, and Jennette has to face the reality of her mother’s abuse despite still loving her.
I’m Glad My Mom Died is the perfect avenue for Older Teen and Adult Book Clubs to have great discussions. Readers who grew up watching McCurdy on TV will find the “behind the scenes” look fascinating and heartbreaking, and those who didn’t will still find immense value in her fraught relationship with her mother and how it shaped her self-perception even up until today. Apparent from its success, I’m Glad My Mom Died has had a remarkable impact on Millennial and Gen-Z readers. Nickelodeon’s Sitcom production has been full of scandal, especially regarding the predatory behaviors of their main showrunner, who is featured prominently but not mentioned by name in McCurdy’s book. As time has passed, Nickelodeon stars have begun to speak out more against “The Creator,” and the internet has become invested in the unraveling story. Those who grew up watching Nickelodeon and McCurdy and were subsequently horrified learning about everything the seemingly energetic teen went through and hearing it straight from her is a game changer. McCurdy writes with an immensely personal and intimate voice that connects her with readers she has never met but have known her for 16 years. The result of this connection and her impact was put best by a friend on Goodreads: “I wish I could take the joy she gave me and give some back to her.”
If you’re interested in requesting I’m Glad My Mom Died for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
McCurdy, Jennette. I’m Glad My Mom Died. Simon & Schuster. 2022
Today, as we continue to celebrate Disability Pride Month, we’ll discuss the exciting and beautiful middle-grade novel Song for a Whale by author and sign language interpreter Lynne Kelly. Being her sophomore novel, Song for a Whale, received the 2020 ALA Schneider Family Book Award. Established in 2004 by Dr. Katherine Schneider, the first blind student to graduate from the Kalamazoo public school system, the award recognizes children’s and teen novels that excel at disability representation. Dr. Schneider says of the books chosen for the award: “The disability experience in these wonderful children’s books is a part of a character’s full life, not the focus of the life” [ALA.org].
Iris is lonely. As the only deaf person at her school, she has difficulty communicating with anyone and spends most of her days talking to her interpreter or missing conversations altogether. Her grandparents, both deaf and speak using sign language, provide her with a refuge where she doesn’t have to worry about being understood. But since her grandfather’s passing, Iris has found it harder to communicate with her grandmother despite their shared language and wishes to be close to her again. Despite the language barriers, Iris is comfortable with her deafness but hopes for a community where she doesn’t have to worry about being left behind. That’s when she learns about Blue 55, a whale who sings at a frequency no one else can understand, giving it the nickname the “loneliest whale in the world.” And Iris is determined to let him know that he, like her, is not alone. Armed with a song at a frequency made just for him, Iris sets out to find Blue 55, even if it takes her all the way from Texas to Alaska.
For young readers and beyond, Song for a Whale exemplifies the mission of the Schneider Family Book Award. Iris is an incredible protagonist and role-model. She’s incredibly tech-savvy, spending her free time fixing antique radios and other electronics, so you don’t doubt for a second she is capable of greatness even if she can’t hear. During the journey, Iris gains the courage and ability to advocate for herself, even when the odds are against her. Author Lynne Kelly has included an Author’s Note at the end that covers everything from the whale that inspired the novel, and the deaf community that is an integral part of the story. For reading groups and classrooms, there are plenty of resources and activities to enjoy. The website Book Units Teacher has an incredible collection of downloadable activities and study guides. Kelly also has a resources page on her website Lynne Kelly Books, including visual whale calls and an Educator’s Guide.
If you’re apart of an older group who is hesitant to read children’s novels, I encourage you to give them a shot! There’s always more to learn. From the essay, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You are so Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell:
“When you read children’s books, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.”
If you’re interested in requesting Song for a Whale for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
Kelly, Lynne. Song for a Whale. Yearling. 2019.
Summer is a great time of year because we get to celebrate so many wonderful communities. First, there is LGBTQ+ Pride and Juneteenth in June, and then now, in July, it’s Disability Pride Month! This month is a time to honor and celebrate the disability community, their history, and their achievements while also acknowledging their struggles on the anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today’s Book Club Spotlight, Sitting Pretty: The View From My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body by Rebekah Taussig, encompasses disability pride wholeheartedly. Dr. Taussig, who holds a doctorate in Creative Nonfiction and Disability Studies, currently works as a writer and teacher, focusing on “disability representation, identity, and community.”
Sitting Pretty is a memoir in essays focusing on Dr. Taussig’s experience as she navigates the world in her disabled body. When Taussig was four months old, cancer attacked her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. By age two, Taussig is cancer-free and going about her life as any other kid would; only after noticing how disabled people were portrayed in media and movies (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Forrest Gump, etc.) did she realize she was different. Seeing how disabilities were represented, mocked, and othered, she learned to resent her body and the special accommodations it needed. Throughout her life, Taussig has had to work immensely hard to unlearn all the negatives she was taught about her body and handle people treating her differently because of her disability, from teaching her first class to navigating how strangers want to comment on her love life. In the essay Feminist Pool Party, Taussig struggles with the ethics of making room in the conversation for disabled people. She wonders if she is a “good enough advocate” or is “too privileged” to be the one talking about it in the first place. But like with any minority group or life experience, no one person encompasses every aspect of the culture. All that matters is that the voice is there, to begin with.
Books like Sitting Pretty are essential for a multitude of reasons. They teach empathy, humanize a group that is often dehumanized or vilified (i.e., Captain Hook), and raises our awareness of stories unlike ours. And, as Taussig points out, disability can happen to anyone at any time. Car accidents, illness, and normal aging processes are all disabling events, and accessibility focusing on disabled people can only help us in the long run. Book Clubs and Groups shouldn’t shy away from stories like these. While Taussig’s knowledge and ideas come from a place of well-researched and thoughtful academia, her language and ideas are accessible to anyone and show a nuanced approach to the societal “otherness” placed on disabled people. Group discussion will benefit from being able to talk about these themes together and share their own experiences with disabilities, the disability community, or any moment of “otherness” felt from inaccessibility or social stigma.
The reason we are able to hear stories like Taussig’s is because of the amazing disability advocates that came before us. The biggest demonstration that helped spur the passing of the ADA is known as the Capital Crawl in 1990, where about 1000 people with disabilities took to the US Capital, and many, without their mobility devices, crawled up the steps as a physical demonstration of inaccessibility. The youngest activist to participate in the crawl, eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, has since continued her advocacy, and her illustrated children’s biography All the Way To The Top will be featured this summer through the National Library Service Summer Reading Program!
“So happy disability pride in every flourish and form. Here’s to knowing in our bones – we deserve to be here, too. We are a vital part of all this. The world might still act like you’re holding things up or making things too complicated. But know – you are the best part. You are the piece that changes the whole f- game.– @sitting _pretty
Taussig, Rebekah. Sitting Pretty. HarperOne. 2020.
It is only fitting that we ring in this year’s Pride Month with a book by the incredible modernist writer Virginia Woolf. Born in 1882, she held “an intense belief in the importance of arts and a skepticism regarding their society’s conventions and restraints.” Not one to repress her romantic feelings for other women, Woolf subverted the system of the time by living openly as a queer woman, with her and her husband happily pursuing a non-monogamous lifestyle. While it’s easy to see the tragic figure of Virginia Woolf, who unfortunately took her life in 1941, it’s hard not to be amazed by her persistence in pursuing mundane beauty and wholeness in both her writing career and her social life despite adversity. These sentiments and strengths have always been at the heart of Pride, and in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, we are given front-row seating to these ideals as we revolve around the daily life of London post-First World War.
It’s the middle of June, the war is over, and Mrs. Cassandra Dalloway is getting ready to host a party. As she moves about London to finish her errands, we pass through the lives of others along the way. Sometimes fleeting, sometimes intimate portraits of everyday people as they move past each other, none the wiser. One focus we find ourselves with is in the thoughts of Septimus Smith. Suffering from “shell-shock” (PTSD) after World War 1, he struggles to get through his everyday life after seeing a man he loves die on the battlefield. No longer satiated by poetry and art like before the war, he has become haunted and void of all feelings, much to his distress. As Big Ben chimes along, Mrs. Dalloway, constrained by English society and her own choices, pushes her anxieties aside as she focuses on creating a perfect party. Attempting to balance her need to participate in the world while deeply fearing it. Emotions run high as she meets old lovers—specifically, the adventurous but self-important Peter Walsh and her first love Sally Seton, and she wonders what could have been had she chosen differently. Finally, the day comes to a head when Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus must choose if being constrained by the set social order is worth the pain it causes.
Known for being a subversive writer, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, pioneered how literature can pull back the layers of everyday people to reveal their deep inner worlds. In her hallmark, stream-of-consciousness writing style Woolf produces a respectful depiction of a man going mad from PTSD and criticizes the lack of proper care for veterans. While having no real connection to Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus serves as a counterpoint to her daily exhaustion and disillusionment to an extreme degree. And while the titular Mrs. Dalloway does not struggle in the same way, as a woman, she has had to repress many parts of herself to fit into society and is expected to play the role expected of her to the bitter end. As a result, both characters try to balance wanting to be included in society and life while needing privacy to deal with their turbulent emotions. A novel revolving around the enormity of daily life, Mrs. Dalloway is a beautiful classic to include in any Book Club group, especially for those who enjoy diving deeply into the emotional life of characters and its slow but poetic paces.
If you’re interested in requesting Mrs. Dalloway for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt Inc, Inc. 1925.
We’re diving right into celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by spotlighting The Namesake by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri! Raised in America by Bengali immigrants, Lahiri was expected to embrace her heritage from an early age. And Lahiri’s writing draws on her experiences as a first-generation Indian-American focusing on the immigration experience and the effect of cultural displacement. Mostly known for writing collections of short stories, The Namesake was her first novel and received the New Yorker Debut of the Year award and the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Spanning a total of 35 years, we open in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where newlywed and newly American immigrant Ashima Ganguli awaits for the birth of her son. She is nervous about giving birth in a foreign country, far away from her family in Calcutta. Even though Ashima’s arranged marriage to Ashoke Ganguli is going well, she is often left to navigate the unfamiliar world and culture on her own. Like most immigrant parents, Ashima and Ashoke raise their American-born children with the hope of keeping a piece of home alive through them. The family eats Indian food, celebrates Hindu holidays with other Bengali families, and takes yearly trips home to Calcutta. But Calcutta is not their children’s home, and it’s certainly not Gogol’s. As he grows, we follow their son, named after Russian writer Gogol, as he tries to find his place in the world, ideally independent of his Indian-American label. Despising the name its foreignness, he attempts to cut all ties with it and beings to go by the writer’s first name, Nikolai, instead. In changing his name to something less noticeable, he hopes to obfuscate his Indian upbringing and heritage. But his problems are more complex and follow him through young adulthood. When his father dies suddenly, Gogol, now legally Nikolai, has to reckon his love for his family and culture with his attempts to push it away and assimilate. He must find a way to reconcile both his cultural and self-identity together, honoring both but not letting either completely take over.
This family saga follows the Ganguli family, as each member experiences their immigrant experience differently in attempts to find that perfect balancing act between childhood and independence. Lahiri emphasizes this struggle in The Namesake through the meaning and strength we have in our names. She discusses how in India, each person has two names, a “pet name” the family uses and a “good name” fit for school and formal occasions. And how these family names can be a home and culture in themselves, making Gogol’s hatred of his name a dismissal of his parents’ culture and, to a lesser extent, themselves. A thoughtful read for any adult book club, Lahiri writes a beautiful and quiet portrait of the Indian immigrant experience in a way universally understood by anyone who has felt as if they have been pulled in two separate directions by what’s expected of him and what they aspire to become.
If you’re interested in requesting The Namesake for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request Form here. There are 15 copies available (A librarian must request items)
To see more of our Asian American/ Pacific Islander Book Club Kits, visit the link here.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books. 2004.
We follow two reluctant readers: Widower Mukesh, who, upon reading an old library book left by his late wife, finds comfort and solace in the characters who help the memory of his wife live on. Energized by the experience, Mukesh decides to make an effort to connect with his shy granddaughter through her love of books—leading him to a small Wembley library. In the library, we meet Aleisha, a disillusioned but whip-smart teen working in the slowly dying library over the summer to support her sick mother. Aleisha has no particular love for libraries or books until she is handed a mysterious list of books titled “Just in case you need it.” Inexplicably drawn to reading the first on the list, To Kill a Mockingbird, Aleisha encourages Mukesh to read it as well. Soon they are both making their way down the list and are surprised to find how much they want to talk with someone about the books or maybe just to talk with someone at all. Much like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the titular “list” in The Reading List serendipitously makes its way across London, finding people who could use a break or a breakthrough. When tragedy strikes, the group’s bond and the lessons they learned from the mysterious reading list and each other become more important than ever.
New to our collection, The Reading List is the perfect book club pick because it centers around characters who inexplicably find themselves in a far-reaching book club. In the beginning, Aleisha and Mukesh are nervous about discussing the books themselves, feeling like they need to be some sort of expert or have an earth-shattering revelation to be worth sharing. Still, as time goes on, they gain confidence in sharing their ideas. While each book might not be the ideal fit, they still find something to discuss and enjoy. The idea of the modern-day book club started as an avenue to encourage open discussion, and they still play an essential role in expressing that inherent want to connect (but I may be biased). People are always looking for connection and community; reading and hearing others’ stories and struggles makes us more open, compassionate, and self-confident. Unlike other “books about books,” there is no magic library or all-powerful novel in The Reading List. Instead, there is simply the magic and importance of people. And at the end of the day, the people and their community are the most critical asset to libraries.
Request The Reading List for your Book Club here. There are 5 copies available (A librarian must request items)
Adams, Sara Nisha. The Reading List. William Morrow. 2022.
In my opinion, the best books are about what it means to be a human and humanity as a whole—which are usually best represented through a different species. And it’s only fitting that fantasy writer Sir Terry Pratchett would explore this age-old philosophy through rats. Well… educated rats and one amazing cat. In honor of Respect Your Cat Day, today’s spotlight, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, is a stand-alone novel in Pratchett’s expansive Discworld series and the first in the collection written for a younger audience.
Magically gifted with speech and consciousness, a clan of self-dubbed “Educated Rodents” and a con artist cat, the “Amazing Maurice,” travel from town to town with a young piper in tow. They successfully run scams where the rats “infest” a town so the boy can pretend to lead them away à la the Pied Piper. Agreeing to one last job, they arrive in the village of Bad Blintz, only to find that the town already has a massive rat infestation. But they can’t seem to find any of these rats anywhere. Realizing that something sinister is at play, the rats, the boy, and Maurice find themselves in more trouble than they ever imagined. And with more than a payday at risk, the newly self-aware rat clan and Maurice don’t know if they can turn their backs and leave the town to fall into ruin. So what’s a cat to do now that he’s got morals and ethics to deal with?
Pratchett is a widely well-regarded author, and for a good reason, with The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents awarded the Carnegie Award for Children’s Literature. It is one of those rare books written in an accessible manner for younger audiences while still treating them as intelligent and capable of understanding its philosophy. Even though it reads like one, the reader is often reminded that it is not a fairytale and there are dire consequences to be had despite the tap-dancing rodentia. Sure, the book is cute and filled with talking animal shenanigans, but it also shows a grittier side, with rat-on-rat violence, dog-on-rat violence, and laxative-on-man violence. Maurice is perfect for a group of YA readers and beyond who love discussing theories and pondering the Big Questions, such as what comes after death? What would it mean to suddenly have consciousness and a moral code? Can community and strength overcome inherent nature? And what would you do in the face of the Grim Squeaker?
Request The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents for your Book Club here. There are 14 copies available (A librarian must request items)
Pratchett, Terry. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. HarperTrophey. 2001.
March, being Women’s History Month (shoutout to women), gives me an excuse to visit a book in our collection that has influenced and consoled countless young girls and women since 1970. Selected as the 1970 New York Times “Outstanding Book of the Year,” listed in Time’s 2010 list of “All-Time 100 Novels”, and in Scholastics’ “100 Greatest Books for Kids/100 Must-Read Books”, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume has carved a legacy and guided our approach to educating young people about puberty. And pioneered middle-grade fiction at a time when books for kids “on the cusp” of puberty were nowhere to be found.
Eleven-year-old Margaret Simon’s relationship with God has nothing to do with religion. Her parents, one Christian and one Jewish, decided to raise her outside of any faith because of the pressure they received from their own religious upbringings. Even still, Margaret frequently talks to God, whoever he is, about her problems and insecurities, confiding in things she couldn’t tell anyone else. After moving to the New Jersey suburbs, Margaret is tasked with a year-long school project of her choosing. Deciding her project will be to finally find a religion that fits her (much to her parents’ discomfort), Margaret attends Jewish and Christian services, hoping to feel God there the same way as when she talks to him alone. At the same time, she and her group of friends, smartly named “The Pre-Teen Sensations,” wrestle with more down-to-earth issues, like boy problems and bras. All the while eagerly awaiting their first period, deathly afraid that something might be wrong with their bodies when it doesn’t come as soon as other girls in their class. Together, Margaret and her friends face down the scariest enemy of all: the epic highs and lows of being a pre-teen girl.
Margaret’s message is still relevant to young girls today. Despite being written over 50 years ago, young readers, alone or in a reading group, can see themselves in Margaret, even the parts they try to hide. Blume’s works encourage open and honest communication, creating a space for community and empathy, which is the foundation of any good book club. To be sincere, to experience new perspectives, and to grow together. All these years later, Judy Blume is still a household name, and for good reason. She created a space where it is easy and necessary to talk about ourselves and our feelings without shame. In school, we giggled and commiserated over her plain and frank depictions of real problems and things happening with our bodies that other adults might have shied away from talking about. But she never did. We’d pull from the advice of Blume to let us know there was nothing wrong with us, we were growing up, and that’s ok.
Amy Weiss-Meyer, a senior editor at the Atlantic, best sums up Blume’s influence and genuine care for nurturing young girls in the article We Still Need Judy Blume: “The letters started right after Margaret. The kids wrote in their best handwriting, in blue ink or pencil, on stationery adorned with cartoon characters or paper torn out of a notebook. They sent their letters care of Blume’s publisher. “Dear Judy,” most began. Girls of a certain age would share whether they’d gotten their period yet. Some kids praised her work while others dove right in, sharing their problems and asking for advice: divorce, drugs, sexuality, bullying, incest, abuse, cancer. They wanted to scream. They wanted to die. They knew Judy would understand.”
The first film adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret will be released in April 2023, starring Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates, with Judy Blume as a producer.
If you’re interested in requesting Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request Form here. There are 13 copies available (A librarian must request items)
Blume, Judy. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Bradbury Press. 1970.
It’s our first Book Club Spotlight of Black History Month, which means this month, we’re showcasing books by incredible authors to celebrate Black Voices in literature. Today’s author, Jason Reynolds, is the recipient of awards such as the NAACP Image Award and multiple Coretta Scott King honors and was the 2020-2022 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Reynolds encourages us not to see the genre of YA as limiting, enjoying the freedom of emotion young people carry to tell good stories. Today’s spotlight, recipient of the Printz and Newbery Honors, Long Way Down, is written in free verse, through snippets of dreams and recollections, as a young boy is visited by the ghosts of his past.
After witnessing his brother’s murder, Will knows what he has to do. Follow The Rules.
1) Don’t Cry 2) Don’t Snitch 3) Get Revenge.
He doesn’t know who created The Rules and when, but he does know that it’s his duty to follow them. Because he knows, or at least he thinks he knows, who killed Shawn. Will finds his brother’s hidden gun, gets on the 8th-floor elevator and presses L. As Will goes further down the elevator, he is visited by those who are gone because of the same Rules he is now going to follow, and he is given a chance to either continue the cycle or break it apart.
For ages 12 and above, Long Way Down skillfully employs free verse to weave together an unforgettable story about the cycle of violence, especially in how it affects urban and Black communities. Reynolds prefers not to shy away from realism and challenging topics in his novels because the kids reading them have experienced or will experience the same situations in real life. Reynolds, himself, almost fell victim to the cycle when he was younger, and he uses his real-life experiences and emotions to cut to the core of why violence like this continues to happen. Much like Will’s elevator ride that only takes sixty seconds, but lasts a whole novel, reading Long Way Down, can be taken at whatever pace is comfortable to the reader’s skill level. And as violence in schools continues to be a constant fear, there will be plenty for young reading groups to discuss as the floors tick by.
If you’re interested in requesting Long Way Down for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request Form here. There are 10 copies available (Items must be requested by a librarian)
To read more by Jason Reynolds, check out his Track Series, or, The Boy in the Black Suit (One Book For Nebraska Teens 2019).
Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down. Atheneum. 2017.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a quiet atmospheric story that takes the reader through the formative years of the titular Cameron as she comes into herself as a person and as a lesbian. Written as the dissertation for her Ph.D. at UNL (co-directed by author Timothy Schaffert and the late Gerald Shapiro), emily m. danforth was inspired by sentimentalist women’s literature, stories of teens being sent to religion-based conversion therapy camps, and her own upbringing in Miles City, Montana. Published three years before the federal protection of same-sex marriage, Miseducation’s impact on normalizing queer culture and issues is phenomenal, especially in how it honestly approaches teens and their families in the discovery and acceptance of their sexuality.
Growing up in early 90s Montana, Cameron Post did her best to keep her head down, not wanting anyone to look further than her “wise-cracking orphan” façade. But, if anyone started to look too closely, they would see she was in hiding. Hiding her feelings for other girls. Detailing her loves and loves lost while fogged in religious guilt pushed on her by her ultra-religious aunt, Cameron learns how to keep her true self out of sight. Betrayed and forced out of the closet, the looming threat of being sent to conversion therapy camp becomes a reality. Cameron must endeavor against those who want to change her and find solidarity amongst the powerless teens also caught up in the mess of religious zealotry and homophobia. Cameron’s story is, of course, a “miseducation” at its core. She isn’t some unachievable, idealized-perfect person, and she shouldn’t have to be. Finding yourself is not easy; you have to be prepared to face what finds you in return.
Perfect fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is appropriate for mature teen and adult book groups. It approaches complex topics with care and empathy. Because it takes place in the 90s, some language is out of date, which opens up room for an interesting group discussion on how we have treated and talked about LGBTQ+ issues and if Cameron’s story would be different if she were a teen today. danforth has the skill to give her characters space to tell their own stories rather than focusing on teaching us a lesson or a hard-hitting moral. Like life, Miseducation revels in its slow pacing. The book is a long scenic road to get where it wants to be. Only a few chapters in, and it feels like you have known Cameron forever.
And if your reading group is interested in a movie night, the 2018 movie adaptation of Miseducation won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic category. I watched it this weekend, and it was incredible. From a review of the movie in the New York Times: “Miseducation is neither a glib sendup of a less enlightened era nor a pious reckoning with the bygone injustices of the past. It is more interested in how its characters feel than in what they might symbolize, and in how they grapple with the conflicting demands of faith and desire. It’s also about the struggle between earnest young people and the equally earnest, painfully misguided adults who are trying to save their souls”.
To see more of our LGBT+ & Queer book club titles, visit the link here.
If you’re interested in requesting this book for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request Form here. There are 10 copies available (Items must be requested by a librarian)
danforth, m. emily. The Miseducation of Cameron Post. HarperCollins. 2012.