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Book Club Spotlight – When Stars are Scattered

Cover for When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. Two young Somali boys walk together, shoeless, through a encampment. They are smiling hopefully up at the night sky.

Happy Black History Month from Book Club Spotlight! The theme for 2024 is “African Americans and the Arts,” which honors the incredible contributions of African Americans to culture, music, art, and literature. And what better combination of art and literature is there than graphic novels? So, to wrap up our mini-series, we will follow young Somali refugees displaced by civil war. Where the Stars are Scattered, by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, is based on the childhood of Mohamed, who grew up in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. The list of honors for this book is massive, including being a National Book Award Finalist, the School Library Journal Best Book of 2020, and a 2021-22 Golden Sower Chapter Book Nominee.

Omar and his brother Hassan have been in the Dadaab refugee camp for seven years! Without their parents, the boys live on their own, watched over by an aging foster mother, Fatuma. Having the responsibility of caring for himself and his nonverbal brother, everyday Omar must clean the floorless tent they sleep on, hide any valuables from thieves, and wait. Wait for water, wait for food, wait for his mother to find them, wait for the war to end, and wait to leave the refugee camp. When Omar gets a chance to attend school, he is far behind other children his age, and soon, the pressure of school and chores begins to make him angry and resentful. As he grows and becomes continually frustrated with his situation, he sees how everyone else is stuck just like him—especially the girls, who, like Omar, are burdened with too many responsibilities. With encouragement from his friends and community, Omar grows more confident in his abilities and in Hassan and starts dreaming about a future outside the camp. And one day, Omar’s and Hassan’s names are called for an interview with the UN for a chance to finally leave Dadaab, an exciting and terrifying possibility. 

“It was nice talking like this. Pretending we were normal kids, with normal futures to look forward too”

– Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed

Written for middle grades and up, all will be deeply moved by reading this graphic novel. With wars waging worldwide, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and powerless, and listening to stories of those going through these tough times matters. When Stars are Scattered is an excellent representation of the day-to-day life in refugee camps. Maybe your Book Club Group wants to learn more about what life is like for refugees, or your students have questions about what is happening to displaced children like them. Since moving to America, Mohamed has dedicated his life to serving his community back in Dadaab and improving the living conditions of refugees, especially young girls through his nonprofit foundation, Refugee Strong.

“Please take away from the reading of this book an understanding that you should never give up hope. In the camp, we were given courage by our faith to always be patient and to never lose hope. Things may seem impossible, but if you keep working hard and believe in yourself, you can overcome anything in your path. I hope my story will inspire you to always persevere.” 

Omar Mohamed

If you’re interested in requesting When Stars are Scattered for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

To see more of our Black Voices book club titles, visit here.

Jamieson, Victoria & Mohamed, Omar. When Stars are Scattered. Penguin Random House. 2020

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Book Club Spotlight – Survivors of the Holocaust

Cover for Survivors of the Holocaust

In observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, today’s Book Club Spotlight, Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children, is a graphic novel that commemorates the Jewish children who were displaced by World War Two. This book will be read in conjunction with next month’s spotlight, When Stars are Scattered, which follows two Somali brothers as they are growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp. While these children all survived, it’s important to remember those who are still being displaced or, worse, by war and apartheid. Survivors of the Holocaust is adapted from a six-part animated interview series, Children of the Holocaust, which won the VLA Graphic Novel Diversity Award for Youth Honor. It was edited by Kath Shackleton and illustrated by Zane Whittingham. 

The graphic novel begins with a foreword by Lilian Black, who was the Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association. She introduces us to the six storytellers, Heinz, Trude, Ruth, Martin, Suzanne, and Arek, who were all children at the beginning of World War II and were impacted by the Holocaust and its systemic persecution of Jewish people. Split into individual sections, we begin by meeting each child shortly before war breaks out during Hitler’s rise to power. Some are forced to flee with their families, siblings, or all alone. Others are stuck in Germany and manage to survive their time in concentration camps. Their stories are told through evocative and mildly disturbing illustrations that work to bring the sense of terror that Hilter’s reign imposed on their young lives. Sections following the main stories include short paragraphs about each of the children as they grew up outside of the war, a timeline of events, a helpful glossary of terms, and further online resources.

“It is not easy for them to tell their stories. They agreed to because they want people to know what can happen when people are subjected to discrimination and persecution for being seen as “different”. Their dearest wish is that no one should suffer as they did and that people who never again stand by when injustice is taking place.”

Survivors of the holocaust – Foreword: Lilian Black

Appropriate for ages ten and above, Survivors of the Holocaust presents a solid reference point for young readers who are just learning about the Holocaust. As written by The Jewish Book Council: “These accounts rep­re­sent a good cross-sec­tion of expe­ri­ence, since plu­ral­i­ty of expe­ri­ence is vital in pre­sent­ing the Holo­caust to young read­ers. The illus­tra­tions make the iden­ti­ties of the vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors clear and the maps used as back­grounds pro­vide geo­graph­ic ground­ing for bor­der cross­ings. Ren­der­ings of pho­tographs and pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments add anoth­er lay­er of under­stand­ing”. However, there are minor inconsistencies that often occur through retellings. From classrooms to adult reading groups, Survivors of the Holocaust presents a multifaceted approach to our continuing Holocaust education and commitment to victims of displacement.

As with many of our Book Club Kits, discussion questions and an Educator’s Guide are available to help teachers and Book Club Group leaders through discussion resources and additional information. 

Other Resources: 

If you’re interested in requesting Survivors of the Holocaust  for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Shackleton, Kath. Survivors of the Holocaust. Sourcebooks Explore. 2019.

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Book Club Spotlight – Transcendent Kingdom

cover for Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.  a Black woman faces away from the viewer, her hands and posture in a praying pose. the cover is cut in half slant-ways between black and a pale pink

Reading all the books I feature in the spotlight puts me in a perpetual time crunch of my own making. However, that was not a problem as I read today’s Book Club Spotlight in one day because it was so incredible. Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s sophomore novel following the success of her debut, Homegoing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gyasi has won the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the American Book Award for Homegoing, and she was featured not only on the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 list but also the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, Gyasi proves in her novels that the immigrant story is not a monolith, and in Transcendent Kingdom, she tackles the great costs of depression and addiction.

Gifty, a neuroscience doctoral student, is studying the reward-seeking behavior in mice, especially as it relates to depression and addiction. Once the mice are hooked on Ensure, she looks for the lengths addicted mice will go to reach their reward and how to dissuade that neurological impulse. While she tries to keep it a secret from her peers, Gifty has a deep connection with addiction and depression. Her older brother, Nana, lost to opiate addiction. And her mother, torn apart by grief, is sleeping in her daughter’s bed. Gifty’s parents moved to the United States from Ghana when Nana was young, only for her father to leave them for the homeland when she was very young. Left to fend for themselves all alone, the family never quite recovered. And Gifty, fueled by ambition focused on nothing but proving herself over and over again. If she was the best, if she did the hardest thing, she’d have a place to rest. Reconciling with the past as a means to her future, Gifty spends her energy trying to understand the problem that tore her family apart while keeping what’s left of it together. 

I want everything and I want to want less.”

Yaa Gyasi

Focusing on Gifty’s relationship with her family as it transforms and her time in her “motherland” of Ghana, Transcendent Kingdom, is not plot-driven but purpose-driven. To know the story is to understand Gifty and all the little disjointed areas of her life that came together to make her whole. There is no magical solution to her problems, only a continued forward motion. An integral part of Transcendent Kingdom is the struggle between the spiritual and the scientific mind- knowing deep in ourselves that if we can figure out the mechanics of why something happens or why this person is who they are, we can fully understand them and be at peace. Recovering from her anxious evangelical upbringing, Gifty ran to science and only science. But as her questions get more complex and philosophical, she finds herself tentatively reaching out to something more. 

January is Mental Health Awareness Month: 

  • If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
  • To learn how to get support for mental health, drug, and alcohol issues, visit FindSupport.gov.
  • To locate treatment facilities or providers, visit FindTreatment.gov or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).

If you’re interested in requesting Transcendent Kingdom  for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Gyasi, Yaa. Transcendent Kingdom. Vintage Books. 2020.

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Book Club Spotlight – A Salty Piece of Land

Cover for A Salty Piece of Land by Jimmy Buffett. A white and red striped light house stands on an empty beach surrounded by crystal blue water

This December 25th, we celebrated the birth of the late great legend, Mr. Jimmy Buffett. The Margaritaville singer-songwriter known for his island lifestyle and escapism passed away this last year on September 1st. So, to celebrate a true icon, we are spotlighting one of his many fiction books: A Salty Piece of Land. Which picks up from Buffett’s short story “Take Another Road” featured in the Tales From Margaritaville collection. A Salty Piece of Land even has its own single to accompany your island-time reading relaxation. 

When we meet up with cowboy Tully Mars and his trusty steed, Mr. Twain, as they are on the run from a vindictive poodle ranch owner. The pair hightail it out of the mainland and end up on a shrimp boat headed for the Caribbean. Driftless, and surrounded by the cool, pink sands of Cayo Loco, Tully meets old sea captain Cleopatra Highbourne, who has quite the proposal for him: Fix up the abandoned lighthouse and escape everything he is running from. 

“Life is unpredictable, but there is a lot out there to do and see if you just tune in to the radio.”

Jimmy Buffet 

Interspersed with beautiful Caribbean vistas and colorful characters, A Salty Piece of Land is as chill as Buffett’s music. The characters Tully encounters are as varied and strange as their names but are just as heartfelt and dear. Sprinkled with Buffett’s knowledge of the sea, navigation, and lighthouses, A Salty Piece of Land is escapist literature at its finest. Adult Book Clubs and Parrotheads will enjoy the familiar vibes of Buffett’s prose and that never-ending chase for freedom, eternal youth, and sunshine. 

Fins up!

If you’re interested in requesting A Salty Piece of Land  for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 8 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Buffet, Jimmy. A Salty Piece of Land. Back Bay Books. 2005.

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Book Club Spotlight – Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Mount Everest against a clear blue sky

It’s hard to feel fully in the holiday spirit when it’s supposed to be 52 degrees and raining on Christmas Day- so to get us in the “Let it Snow” mood, let’s visit a place where the weather is genuinely “frightful”. Standing at the China-Nepal border, at a ridiculous height of 29,031 feet 8 ½ inches, Mount Everest reaches airplane cruising height and skims into the stratosphere. Most of the year, monsoon winds and far below-freezing temperatures blast the peak, and with only about 33% of the oxygen level you’d find at sea level, it sounds like a reasonable place to visit! And one such visitor, journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer (author of Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven), ended up smack dab in one of the definitive tales from Mount Everest. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster is Krakauer’s first-hand account of the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster that would claim 8 lives before the night was through, the highest death count in a single day (at the time)

Lauded and controversial, Into Thin Air follows Krakauer as he joins the ill-fated 1996 Everest Expedition on behalf of Outside Magazine. As a journalist, his mission was to report from basecamp on the growing commercialization and traffic on Mount Everest, its toll on the Sherpa people and the environment, and the mountain’s unimaginable death rate. But as a mountaineer, the thrall of the peak was too strong, and he convinced his editor to let him make a push for the top. Joining an expedition team led by veteran climber Rob Hall, Krakauer notes due to the technical ease of the climb and the tireless (and thankless) work from the Sherpa guides, the over-commercialized ascent at times felt more like “paying someone to climb for me.” After summiting, Krakauer is waylaid on his descent, stuck in a traffic jam of climbers as they make their way to the top, far past the regarded safe time slot. As his descent continues, tragedy strikes. Small mistakes add up, while the egotism and greed of the expedition leaders and climbers lead to horrifying ends as a blizzard encapsulates Everest, trapping the enthusiasts and Sherpas in the Death Zone. Remember, reaching the summit is only half the journey.

“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

Jon Krakauer 

Despite its great expense (anywhere from $30k – $60k) and the very real possibility of death- the mesmerizing top of the world worms its way into the minds of everyone from skilled climbers to middle managers who want a taste of beating the nearly impossible odds. Into Thin Air is breathtaking in that it even exists; very few people from Krakauer’s team survived, and he is lucky to be one of them. I find Mount Everest to be endlessly fascinating, and what is it about the human condition that drives people to climb it not for the sake of discovery or exploration- but for personal gain? Appropriate for Book Club Groups, Adults and Young Adults alike who don’t mind peril, Into Thin Air, and the enormity of Mount Everest can provide endless discussions into ethics and morality. What happens to a marvel of Earth and human achievement when it too falls to overconsumption and exploitation?

Excerpt from the article: Everest a Year Later: False Summit (May, 1997)

Krakauer: I don’t know why this tragedy has grabbed people with such force and won’t let go. Part of it’s the Everest mystique and part of it’s the absurdity and even perversity of people spending this kind of money chasing this kind of goal, throwing prudence and common sense to the wind. But in the final analysis I really don’t get it. I’m a victim and a beneficiary of it all at the same time. Everest has turned my life upside down. Nothing will ever be the same. Why did I end up climbing the mountain on that particular day, with those particular people? Why did I survive while others died? Why has this story become a source of fascination to so many people who ordinarily would have no interest in mountain climbing whatsoever?

I guess maybe we should think of Everest not as a mountain, but as the geologic embodiment of myth. And when you try to climb a chunk of myth – as I discovered to my lasting regret- you shouldn’t be too surprised when you wind up with a lot more than you bargained for. 

Further Readings: 

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston Dewalt

  • Another account of The 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster a critical response to Into Thin Air

To Watch:

Everest- IMAX Film (1998) (Free on Vimeo)

  • IMAX movie, filmed during the events of the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster. Narrated by Liam Neeson. 

Dark Side of Everest (Free with ads or a lower quality is available on YouTube)

  • Follows the fated South African expedition that survived the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster, and their push on the summit shortly after

Death Zone (Free with ads)

  • “The dramatic self-documented story of 20 elite Nepali climbers who venture into the ‘Death Zone’ of Mount Everest to restore their sacred mountain and the contaminated water source of 1.3 billion people.” Narrated by Patrick Stewart

If you’re interested in requesting Into Thin Air for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 17 copies and 1 Large Print available. (A librarian must request items)

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. Anchor. 1997.

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Book Club Spotlight – Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Cover for Tell the Wolves I'm Home. An ornate teapot against a green background.

This year’s theme for the 35th Annual World AIDS Day was Remember and Commit, which “pays tribute to those we have lost to HIV/AIDS and emphasizes our collective responsibility to act to end the HIV epidemic.”

Today’s Book Club Spotlight, focuses on Remembering, by taking us to what could be considered the epicenter of the early AIDS crisis- 1987 New York City. Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home was named “One of the Best Books of the Year” by The Wall Street Journal, and also has the distinction of winning the Alex Award in 2013. The Alex Award is presented by the Young Adult Library Services Association to adult novels that have a special appeal to young adults. Spotlight alumnus I’m Glad My Mom Died has also received this award.

Just north of New York City, June Elbus, a romantic at heart, often disappears into the woods after school to pretend she is living in the Middle Ages, wearing medieval boots specially bought by her beloved uncle and famous artist Finn Weiss. June knows Finn is gay; everyone does. But after his death from AIDS, she learns he also had a partner, Toby—the man who is blamed for Finn’s death. In the months that follow, June is torn between jealousy, love and fear, as she forges an unlikely (and secret) friendship with Toby. Reconciling how much of her uncle she really knew until the lines between Toby and Finn begin to blur until she can’t see where one ends and the other begins. All the whileJune’s older sister, Greta, slowly loses herself amid attempts to reconcile their strained relationship. But the secrets between the two sisters are overwhelming and become too much for them to overcome on their own. Not until they start to talk through Finn’s final painting. 

“Because maybe I don’t want to leave the planet invisible. Maybe I need at least one person to remember something about me.”

Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home revels in the language of art, which often goes hand in hand with the Queer experience, and especially the HIV/AIDS Crisis. From Finn and June’s bonding over Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, to Greta starring in the school’s production of South Pacific. The novel uses art and and illness to focus on the absurdity and fear surrounding prejudices and danger they can put people in. Taking place only a few years after the first case of HIV/AIDS was reported, not much is known about the disease, and public panic and demonization of suffering gay men was at an all-time high. Brunt spends a large portion of her book delving into this fear and the vice it had on the public conscience. June’s family loves Finn, but fear turns them to avoiding him, even as they can see him deteriorating before their eyes. Especially for readers who have memories from or connections to the initial HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a great novel for adult Book Club Groups (or mature teens) to discuss prejudices and how they hold up to a modern lens. 

 And for a fitting multimedia experience, I recommend:  

Art

Music:

If you’re interested in requesting Tell the Wolves I’m Home for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies and 1 Large Print available. (A librarian must request items)

Brunt, Carol Rifka. Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Dial Press. 2012.

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Book Club Spotlight – Rising Voices

Cover of Rising Voices: Writing of Young Native Americans. A triangle pattern adorns the cover, bringing to mind a quilt

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.

The Bighorn River flows
through the reservation.
As it goes, it meets the 
Little Bighorn. They are like 
a big brother and a little
brother together.

The sound of it makes
the reservation special.
It seems as if it protects
the reservation with happiness 
And care. The reservation 
knows it has a close friend
and that’s the river.

The river wants to flow
to all the four winds but
knows it can just flow one way 
with the same wind. 

The Bighorn River – Len Plenty, 1988

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.

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Book Club Spotlight – Tales of Burning Love

Cover of Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich. A woman dressed in red lays seductively on a bed, her hand resting against her cheek. Her face is obscured by a blue rabbit mask

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. 

“Love is brutalizing, a raw force, frail as blossoms, tough as a catgut wire.”

Louise Erdrich

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.

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Book Club Spotlight – Dead as a Door Knocker

Cover of Dead as a Door Knocker by Diane Kelly. An ajar door opens into a house under construction, with a sandy-colored cat sitting on a work bench next to a hammer. An ornate teal skull served as the house's door knocker.

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.

“Are you going to buy the murder house?”

Diane Kelly

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

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Book Club Spotlight – How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

cover for How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. 
Four different colored hummingbirds fly around a flower in a glass vase

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. 

 They will be haunted by what they do and don’t remember. 

Julia Alvarez 

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! 

If you’re interested in requesting How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books. 1991

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Book Club Spotlight – The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Cover for The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle. A hand raised with a black bird perched on the middle finger. Palm trees and hills line the background

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.

“I’m tired of being told
that my feelings are too wild.”

margarita engle

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

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Book Club Spotlight – The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut 

Cover for The Ordinary Spaceman by Clayton C. Anderson.
Anderson, a white man in a training space suit solemnly salutes the camera.

Four years after what would be his final voyage into space, retired astronaut Clayton Anderson of Ashland, Nebraska, released his tell-all memoir of his 30 years at NASA, comprising 167 days living in space, working on the International Space Station and performing nearly 40 hours of spacewalks. Now, when I say this is a “tell-all” memoir, I don’t mean it in a way to dramatize or bring to mind a TMZ article. I mean it literally. Because today, our Book Club Spotlight The Ordinary Spaceman, is genuinely one of the most unflinchingly honest, funny, and candid stories about what it takes to be a NASA astronaut. Anderson’s insistence on being “an ordinary guy” might feel strange when reading a book by someone who has been to space, but it’s also his wholehearted truth. 

Clayton and his mother have different ideas about when he decided to be an astronaut. He argues it started with watching the Apollo 8 mission at the age of nine, and his mom, however insists the dream was always apart of him. A proud and true Nebraskan, Clayton made his way to Texas, working at NASA as an engineer, and eventually leading the development effort for the ISS’s Caution and Warning System, all the while continuing to pursue his dream of spaceflight. Clayton applied to the astronaut program 15 times before finally being selected, and that was only the beginning. From recalling his first time breaking the sound barrier, freezing during survival training in the Russian wilderness, needing stiches while working in an undersea lab, and tragically witnessing the Columbia disaster alongside the crew’s families, Anderson is incredibly open and humble about his experiences during his time in and out of space, even when he finds himself in the wrong. Through stories of incredible isolation and excitement, frustration, and an ever-evolving sense of respect for others,, Anderson doesn’t hide his emotions in his writing, and takes us through his personal growth as a man, an astronaut, and in his faith. All while mixed in with a healthy dose of humor and sincerity that brings the reader close and holds tight until the very end.

“Performing a spacewalk outside the space station is not much different from going outside in a Nebraska winter. The space environment is just as brutal as those I encountered as a kid … okay, maybe a little bit worse.” 

Clayton Anderson

Though a new addition to our Book Club Collection, The Ordinary Spaceman was awarded the Nebraska Book Award in 2016 for Creative Non-fiction, and after having lived in Texas 30 years, his home state is still very much a part of his identity, and it is clear how proud he to represent Nebraska as its first astronaut. From shaping his personality to his love of all things huskers, any Nebraska reader will feel at home reading his words and shaking their head at his (sometimes) crass humor, wondering if they have what it takes to go to space. 

Anderson at the 2008 LPS-Pfizer Science Fair. (image: Lincoln Journal Star)

To this day, Anderson is a passionate STEM advocate and NASA Ambassador, and recently in 2022 he became the President and CEO of The SAC Museum in his own hometown. For him, being an astronaut is just as much about being a role model as it is about flying in the stars. Because of him, for the majority of my life, there has always been a Nebraskan Astronaut. Looking back on it now, I wonder how many opportunities were provided to me and my peers because of Anderson’s perseverance as a role model and science educator, especially to the kids of Nebraska. I even had the opportunity to meet Anderson when he was a guest speaker at the LPS-Pfizer Science Fair in 2008. Fresh off his 5-month tour on the ISS, Anderson was a pretty big name, even for us ambivalent 5th graders. I still remember seeing his big grin as he looked over the crowd of us youngsters in our science fair t-shirts and thinking about how strange it was that astronauts were just ordinary people like us. And now I know he felt the same!

The Ordinary Spaceman is one of four books by Anderson. He has written two children’s books: Letters from Space and A is for Astronaut, and a YA book: It’s A Question of Space. 

“This journey is not just about technical achievements; it is about people. It is about our planet; it is about the future of the entire human race. What began from an era of competition, fueled by the launch of Sputnik forty years ago, has now become the ultimate challenge of cooperation and teamwork. This is what we owe our children and all future generations. I want to help “line the way”!”

– Anderson 1998

If you’re interested in requesting The Ordinary Spaceman  for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Anderson, Clayton. The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut. University of Nebraska Press. 2015

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Book Club Spotlight – Crying in H Mart

Cover for Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Two pairs of chopsticks hold intertwined noodles that drape down in the middle

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.

“The lessons she imparted, the proof of her life lived on in me and in every move and deed. I was what she left behind. If I could not be with my mother, I would be her.”

Michelle Zauner
Cover for the album Psychopomp by Japanese Breakfast. Two young Korean women in white coats look down at a camera on a windy day. The woman on the left, Chongmi, is reaching out toward the camera
“괜찮아, 괜찮아
It’s okay, sweetheart
Don’t cry, honey
I love you”
-Psychopomp

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.

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Book Club Spotlight – I’m Glad My Mom Died

Cover for I'm Glad My Mom Died. The cover features McCurdy looking up and holding a pink urn with decorative paper spilling out.

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.

“Mom didn’t get better. But I will.”

Jennette McCurdy

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

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Book Club Spotlight – Song for a Whale

Cover for Song for a Whale. A young girl stands at the end of a pier, her arms spread wide as a whale swims beneath her.

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.

“If you don’t know when you’ll get to talk to someone like you again, you don’t want your time together to end.”

Lynne Kelly

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.

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Book Club Spotlight – Sitting Pretty

Cover for Sitting Pretty by Rebekah Taussig. 
Rebekah, a white woman with a short bob haircut sits in her wheelchair posing happily

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.

“Maybe when someone’s difference scares you, that’s the precise moment to lean in, shut up, and listen.”

Rebekah Taussig

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

If you’re interested in requesting Sitting Pretty for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request form here. There are 11 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Taussig, Rebekah. Sitting Pretty. HarperOne. 2020.

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Book Club Spotlight – You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey

Cover for You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar. Amber and Lacey are featured against a yellow background on the phone with each other. Amber has a shocked look while Lacey purses her lips and amused frustration

Yesterday (June 19th) was the second time in Nebraska’s history that Juneteenth was celebrated as an official state holiday. And to honor the celebrations, today’s Book Club Spotlight features Nebraska Native and host of her own Peacock late-night talk show, Amber Ruffin! Ruffin has talked extensively about Juneteenth, its history, and misconceptions in a fantastic segment on her show called How Did We Get Here, which is absolutely worth the watch. Ruffin has had an incredible career as a comedian, writing for Seth Meyers, the Golden Globes, and of course, The Amber Ruffin show. Her book, You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey, co-authored with her sister Lacey Lamar, a worker in the health and human services field, consists of short but absurd stories recounted by Lamar of racism, from micro to macroaggressions in their hometown of Omaha.

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey is a collection of real stories told by Ruffin and Lamar, primarily focusing on Lamar’s life as a Black woman in Omaha and the unintentional (or intentional!) racism that she faces daily. While Lamar’s stories can get pretty bleak, the book’s goal is not wholly serious. The stories are wild and addicting, and it’s easy to get sucked in and finish the book in one sitting. The sisters are natural comedians who bounce off each other like they’re gossiping with you about a ridiculous thing that happened to them while getting your nails done together. And that’s part of the goal! To show the absurdity of racism when it’s filed down to the smallest moments of touching a Black woman’s hair to being stopped by the police for skipping down the street. Even the smallest moments build up over a lifetime of experience and paint a larger picture of racism that’s normalized in our culture. 

“I have never been able to understand why white people have such a low tolerance for hearing about racism. I mean, we have to live it! The least you could do is nod your head.”

Amber Ruffin

Picked as the 2021 Omaha Reads title, the goal of You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey is different for each reader. For white readers, Ruffin hopes they will walk away with a new perspective on what it’s like to be a modern Black American. And she hopes Black readers will recognize themselves and know they’re not alone. It is both parts, a book of revelation and validation. Their second book, The World Record Book of Racist Stories, is a collection much like You’ll Never Believe. It includes stories from their parents, siblings, and other family members to bring even more laughs and gasps of horror from the wildest things people say and do.

If you’re interested in requesting You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request form here. There are 7 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Ruffin, Amber; Lamar, Lacey. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey. Grand Central Publishing. 2021.

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Book Club Spotlight – Mrs. Dalloway

Cover for Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Two young women in 1920's fashion look off to the side and a man looks on.

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.

“Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence”

Virginia Woolf

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.

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Book Club Spotlight – The Namesake

Book cover for The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. A small vine with two leaves arches across the bottom left.

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. 

“Pet names are a persistent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people.”

Jhumpa Lahiri

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.

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Book Club Spotlight – The Loren Eiseley Reader

cover for The Loren Eiseley Reader. Two small kids stand in a forest of sunflowers, pointing towards a silhouette of the Lincoln Skyline

It’s finally the best week of the year- National Library Week! Hosted by the American Library Association, this year’s motto is “More to the Story.” Like we discussed in our last Spotlight, The Reading List, libraries are more than just book depots; they are places for community and social engagement. And today, we’ll look at a different aspect of “More to the Story,” in how a book can be greater than the sum of its parts and live on long past its author. Published posthumously The Loren Eiseley Reader is a collection of essays by celebrated Nebraskan anthropologist and philosopher Loren Eiseley. This collection includes a foreword by his friend and fellow author Ray Bradbury, who closes by musing on the longevity of the written word: “The essays you’ve written and the books that you’ve created are children, so your heritage will go on to the end of this century and to the centuries beyond. You have children, Loren Eiseley, and you will live forever.”

The Loren Eiseley Reader is a collection of short essays and stories taken from Eiseley’s work throughout his life, including his academic work, poetry, and other nonfiction. The essays are organized into three categories: Reflections of a Naturalist, Reflections of a Writer, and Reflections of a Wanderer. A reader can pick up wherever they want and not feel constrained to a linear experience. Even though it’s confined to the first heading, being a naturalist affects all of Eiseley’s work. He saw the Earth as a beautiful mystery and contemplated its meaning and grander scope throughout his writing. Even in the most scientific discussions, such as evacuating fossils, Eiseley takes the reader back in time with him. Not to point out how insignificant we are in the scope of history, but how incredible it is that something came before us and something will come after us.

“I had come a long way down since morning; I had projected myself across a dimension I was not fitted to traverse in the flesh.”

Loren Eiseley

In addition to showcasing Eiseley’s work, The Reader was compiled to introduce secondary students to engaging examples of well-written essays and prose. According to The Loren Eiseley Society, The Reader and its companion Teacher’s Guide can fit seamlessly into any classroom, “Eiseley’s ideas and powerful prose are a perfect fit for students of science, literature, and history, both natural and anthropological. His writing provides profound insight into the workings of the natural world and man’s relationship to that world, and his unique literary style is rich ground for students of literature.” And students might also be excited to learn about the namesake of their local library. A student reader collection might not be your standard book club pick, but there can be a lot of value in reading some naturalist nonfiction as we move into spring and summer, while the Nebraska prairie slowly comes back to life.

If you’re interested in requesting The Loren Eiseley Reader for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request Form here. There are 9 copies available (A librarian must request items)

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