Books and Cookies

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green is an Intermediate Nutmeg nominee written in lyric narrative form. This is a beautiful story in both its message and its writing.  

Macy is deaf, relying on sign language to communicate with family and friends.  This alone can be challenging.  She is dealing with her mom’s upcoming marriage to a man with younger, twin girls which will entail moving from her beloved home and losing their family duo.  It’s been just Macy and her mom her whole life.  Added to this is a major argument with her best friend over an upcoming family tree project.  

Macy is enlisted to help an elderly neighbor pack her bookshelves for her upcoming move to an assisted living facility.  In the process of helping her neighbor, the rainbow goddess Lily, Macy learns quite a bit.  The pair share snips of their lives through notes to each other. Books, cookies and people’s stories have the answers and uplifting messages needed to get through many of life’s struggles. 

She eventually overcomes her frustration with the new family dynamic, heals her friendship and realizes her worth.

Intelligence

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is the epitome of a suspense novel. It may not be ideal reading for conspiracy theorists at this time, as it involves a biological warfare scheme that Scott Murdoch (code name Pilgrim among other aliases) must unravel. 

Scott’s career in a secret investigative agency is revealed through various flashbacks, but the plot deals with events occurring after his early retirement.  First is the horrific murder of an unidentifiable body in NYC and second (mainly) is the threat from a solitary terrorist dubbed the Saracen whose mission is to unleash certain death to U.S. citizens. 

Scott’s intelligence and support from those he trusts (computer whiz Battleboi and officer Ben Bradley to name a couple) help him along through this page turner. Scott’s foremost mission it to find the elusive Saracen and figure out his plan (thereby saving millions).

Along the way, we discover the Saracen’s background and the events leading him to his sinister plot of destruction. Everything comes together in a masterful way.

This book kept me reading past my bedtime on more than one night. 

Fashion Principles

Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone is an advanced reader copy I obtained through this year’s virtual SLJ Day of Dialog.  It was a pleasant surprise to find this book and three other titles in my mail this past week.

Set in Connecticut, this story will appeal to middle school girls everywhere!  As a former middle and high school teacher, I could definitely connect to the issues at stake in this book (and am happy to say that I was not one of the fashion police!). Fisher Middle School’s principal has an obsession with maintaining a strict dress code, using a special monitor dubbed “Fingertip” who specifically keeps an eye out for shorts’ lengths, visible shoulders and cleavage.  

Events get heated when the entire eighth grade camping trip is canceled when Olivia is caught breaking the dress code.  Molly witnesses the exchange and decides that enough is enough.  She starts a podcast in order to share Olivia’s side of the story.  Her podcast starts the #dresscoded movement.  Other middle and high school girls want to share their stories too.  Molly and her friends add to the movement by putting up posters, signing a petition and going to the school board.  When nothing seems to make a difference, they set up their own camp-in at the school.  With persistence and strong arguments for equality, they are finally heard.  

Short chapters are a combination of podcast interviews, letters, lists and storytelling.  The dress code issue is surrounded by other important middle school topics: crushes, changing friendships, family struggles, vaping/addiction, and bullying.  Molly learns who her real friends are, and figures out how to navigate stressful family events. There is great depth in this story, making it a must read for teen girls and a conversation starter for everyone.

Keeping the Peace

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks is a fast-flying read about Kaidu, a young teenager who is beginning training to be a fierce Dao. The group of boys are trained to fight in order to keep their people in control of the city.  Kaidu feels anything but fierce after his first day of training. The only positive is that his father lives in the city too.

Kaidu doesn’t conform to expectations, and he begins venturing into the city on his own.  He meets a skral girl called Rat whose parents were killed by the current ruler’s regime. They become friends as she teaches him how to run across the building tops in exchange for food. 

Rat overhears a plan to kill the ruler and his son, and she is almost killed in her effort to alert someone at the palace. Luckily Kaidu’s lessons serve him well in helping to reveal the plan in time. And to save his friend.  It seems that peace will stay in the city… for now. 

This is a graphic novel with a message of compromise and being open to others; it will appeal to readers who enjoy a quick read with action. It is also a 2021 Intermediate Nutmeg nominee.

Drawn Together

New Kid by Jerry Craft is a well-deserved 2021 Intermediate AND Middle School Nutmeg nominee.

Jordan Banks is transferring to the elite Riverdale Academy Day School to start seventh grade, when all he would really like is to pursue his dream of attending art school.  This graphic novel portrays the first year at RAD, while his personal commentary on various events are drawn/noted along the way.  Humor is a constant throughout the book with many relatable, laugh out loud moments, and a straightforward approach to serious topics.

First are the discriminatory remarks made by fellow student Andy to each character of a different cultural descent.  There are microaggressions from faculty as well; for example, the teacher who calls every black student by the wrong name, and the book fair arranged by stereotyped categories.  There is also the stigma attached to students who use financial aid to attend.  So many important conversations can stem from the behaviors and events in this book.

The characters are written well, and I think students will connect to them.  Jordan is a nice person who takes time to get to know everyone, even oddball Alexandra who always wears a sock puppet on her hand.  Jordan has a way of finding classmates who are most genuine.  In doing so, he ends up having a decent year, making true friends and learning to speak up for himself and his friends.

I read this story in a day, and enjoyed every moment of it.

Riding North

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins kept popping up in my recommended books list, and I finally decided to dig in!  I’m happy that I did as this is a book I won’t soon forget.

Lydia owns a book store and becomes close friends with her customer Javier, before discovering that he is head of a fierce cartel responsible for multiple murders in their area.  After Lydia’s reporter husband writes a feature article about Javier, everything goes horrifically wrong. 

Lydia and her son Luca are the only survivors when their entire family is gunned down during a party. Now they are desperately trying to outrun the cartel and certain death.  We join them throughout their journey as they jump La Bestia, riding trains to take them from their starting point in Acapulco to their destination: the U.S.  They meet two sisters during their travels, Soledad and Rebeca,  who are also escaping terrible violence.  They join forces through the many obstacles before them.  

Their journey is full of indescribable sadness, danger and horror, but there is also friendship and unexpected kindness.  Every decision is potentially life or death and every person’s strength and determination keeps them moving toward a new start.  This is an amazing read for both plot and its writing!

 

A Different Path

This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel is an eye-opening (realistic fiction) look into the world of a transgender child. Claude is the fifth boy in his family, and he realizes before kindergarten that he is much more comfortable in girls’ clothing. 

His parents, Doctor Rosie and writer Penn, come to embrace his inclination. Once they agree to let him wear girl accessories, they run into static at the school and with “friends.” After Rosie has an ER patient, killed for being transgender, she decides the family needs a fresh start somewhere more open.

They move and allow Claude the chance to be Poppy. In doing so, they decide it’s not necessary to let everyone know that Poppy is originally Claude.  All is well until the secret comes out. Poppy withdraws and his mother decides to bring him to Thailand with her while she works in clinic there.   This is an eye-opening experience for both of them; the change of lifestyle provides some clarity as to their next steps.

Throughout the book,  we also get to know the rest of the family’s struggles and eccentricities.  There are nuances to the story that I appreciated, such as Penn’s ongoing storytelling to mimic reality.  Parenting as a team is an important component as well.

Prior to reading this book, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around a child of such a young age going through these feelings and incidents. I left the story feeling more open-minded and so sympathetic to Claude/Poppy’s character and to the parents. Choosing a complicated path littered with disdain/ignorance as the only way to feel authentic and happy is an incredible journey for anyone, let alone a child.  This story attacks this choice in a thought-provoking way.

Pick One

The Wives by Tarryn Fisher hooked me from the start with all of its many problematic possibilities. The narrator, Thursday, excitedly awaits her husband’s arrival. This is her only night of the week with him, so she strives to make it special.  He spends the other nights of the week with two other women. The first is his ex-wife Regina, a highly successful lawyer, and the other his third pregnant, wife Hannah. 

Thursday is fine with this arrangement, or so she thought. She starts becoming obsessed with knowing and meeting both other women. During her investigation, she starts to fear her husband and worries that he may be harming his newest wife.  Thursday may not be seeing everything clearly though.

While the beginning of the story hooked me, events started to jump all over.  It felt chaotic.  This may have been the desired effect, but it didn’t work for me.  Overall, a decent read, but with the potential to be so much more. 

Getting “Nutmeg”y – Part 1

Recently, I plowed through almost all of the 2021 Elementary Nutmeg nominees that I could I get my hands on from the public library.  Rather than do a separate entry for each book, I will include a brief summary and review of each one here in the order that I read them.

Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransome is a direct, thought-provoking biography of the Williams sisters.  There are many books about Venus and Serena Williams, and this one is just right for younger readers.  The girls epitomize strength and perseverance as they practice and fight through obstacles to achieve their tennis dreams.  This is a great story to inspire younger students whether they enjoy tennis or not.

Carter Reads the Newspaper by Deborah Hopkinson shares Carter Woodson’s life and role in activism.  I enjoyed that the power of story and reading is a highlight through this book.  Carter grew up listening to his parents’ tales of slavery, and he understood the importance of their stories.  He used his ability to read in order to share knowledge with those around him.  He became the founder of February as Black History Month.  This book is both informative and inspiring with lots of teachable features such as lists of  Black leaders, quotations and sources, timelines, Internet Resources/Bibliography and more.

The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter is architect Zaha Hadid’s story (obvious from title).  Nature inspired her unique designs, but being an Iraqi woman provided with different ideas made it difficult to break into the world of architecture.  This is another story that showcases the need to be determined and to keep trying at your passions no matter what.  Hadid’s beautiful buildings are depicted with drawings at the end of the book.  I was pleased to learn about someone I have never heard of before, and would love to see some of her buildings in person one day.

Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang is dedicated to noodle lovers!  Ando saw the terrible poverty and hunger in Japan following WWII.  He wanted to do something to help people and started experimenting with making an inexpensive noodle option that anyone could buy and easily make by adding hot water.  After years of trying, he finally got it right… and that’s how Ramen started!  This is another inspiring story of hard work and never giving up.

Borrowing Bunnies: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits by Cynthia Lord is a sweet (those cute photos!!!) and informative book.  Lord recounts fostering two special bunnies that change from scared to friendly with a special surprise!  There are a couple sad moments in the story, but Lord writes them well (which I think will help young readers).  A nice touch at the end reviews important questions to consider before getting a bunny as a pet!

Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes is based on Jessica and Patrick’s rescue dog, aptly named Rescue!  The book shares Jessica and Rescue’s points of view before meeting each other.  Rescue is the perfect match to help Jessica (an amputee).  This is a touching story, and what makes it more interesting to me is that the authors are survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Seashells: More Than a Home by Melissa Stewart is a beautifully illustrated and well-written book about shells (again, obvious).  I liked how each new shell is described as a simple simile before getting into more detail.  The author and illustrator notes are interesting to share with students to show the length of time and thought involved in a book’s research process.  This book will appeal to any beach-goer, especially during summer months when they can try to find some of the shells!

After the Fall by Dan Santat is a cute story told by Humpty Dumpty.  Falling gave him a fear of heights which keeps him from enjoying some of his favorite things.  He tries other ways to find some fun, but ultimately realizes that he needs to face his fears.  Readers find out that he is meant to be up high after all!  This is a cute one with a nice lesson for kids about never giving up, and facing fears… notice the Nutmeg common theme here??

Ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoro is a tear-jerker!  This story is based on the polar bears at NYC’s Central Park Zoo, Lou and Ida.  They are buddies and spend their day enjoying their routines including the sights and sounds around them.  When Ida passes away, Lou experiences terrible sadness and loneliness before realizing that she is always with him.  This could be a good conversation starter with young readers.

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan Higgins made me laugh out loud.  This is a funny story about a little T-rex’s first day of school.  She has a tough time adjusting since she keeps trying to eat the kids in her class until luckily “someone” teaches her a lesson.  Kids will enjoy this one and it would be a great first day of school read aloud.

Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen by Debbie Michiko Florence is a short chapter book about Jasmine’s family tradition of celebrating Mochi-tsuki the Japanese New Year.  She is only eight years old, so tradition dictates that she can’t be part of the family’s mochi making.  Luckily for her, the story is about traditions, but also about breaking them.  I was interested in learning about culture during this story, but otherwise it wasn’t a favorite for me.

The Infamous Ratsos by Kara Lareau is a humorous short chapter book in which Louie (5th grade) and brother Ralphie (3rd grade) desperately try to be tough to impress their dad Big Lou.  Every time they try to do something bad, it turns around and looks like a good deed.  Eventually this helps them have an important conversation with their dad.  Maybe being tough/bad isn’t a great goal.  This would be a fun book to read with kids.

Last but not least for now (there are still two nominees that were checked out) is Wedgie & Gizmo by Suzanne Selfors.  This story switches between two pets’ points of view.  Gizmo is Elliot’s guinea pig.  Elliot and his dad moved to become a blended family with dad’s new girlfriend, her two kids and their family dog, Wedgie.  Gizmo is determined to take over the world and Wedgie is your typical dog.  The author does a great job creating these voices, especially Wedgie’s.  Elliot and Gizmo struggle being in their new home, but eventually they realize that it’s not so bad after all.  Kids will enjoy this one!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Safe Place

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. took some time for me to finish. This isn’t my typical read, but I selected it after seeing the title listed on a friend’s post of current reads. I stuck with the book, even though I got bogged down a bit with my reading. 

This book delves into the lives of the extremely wealthy Clark family with special attention to daughter Huguette Clark.  It starts with a “tour” of her three mansions, all sitting empty,  as she lived her final years in a NY hospital room.  The homes are described in great detail.  

 Readers are then taken back in time to discover how Huguette’s father accumulated his wealth (and her life leading up to hospitalization).  Their wealth is unlike anything I can even imagine, gained by shrewd risk taking in the upcoming industries of Clark’s time, copper and railroad to name a couple. Huguette grows up with great affluence, living in France, Butte (I think?) and New York.  She eventually owns mansions in California, Connecticut and three huge apartments in a prime New York building spot overlooking Central Park.  

Huguette has a unique personality, collecting and pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into dolls, doll houses, art and music. Not to mention the millions she gives to charity and to those people in her inner circle. Her primary nurse was gifted millions of dollars while taking care of Huguette in her final ten-twenty years or so of life (I forget the exact number). Huguette lived a long (over 100 years) and mostly secluded life with extended family erupting after her death  to fight for an inheritance. 

A standout moment for me is toward the very end of the book. The author recounts a memory of Huguette reciting a French poem about a cricket and butterfly. A cricket enviously watches as a beautiful butterfly flits about. Children chase after the butterfly until eventually catching it and tearing it apart in their desperate need to have it. The cricket decides it is happier in its safe, hidden world. I think this is the perfect lens to appreciate Huguette and her choices.  

People who enjoy true family histories and reading about the lifestyles of the extremely wealthy will enjoy this book.