A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Dex is a tea monk. They travel from village to village, listening to people’s woes and offering them just the right cup of tea. Dex’s heartfelt goal, though, is to hear crickets chirp. Since the Great Agreement, when robots and humans separated after the robots gained consciousness in the Factory Age and perceived that they were being oppressed, humans had not ventured into the wilderness, and crickets are nearly extinct. Dex listens to recordings of crickets’ songs on their pocket computer, but it is not the same. One day, Dex cancels their appointments and turns the tea wagon toward uncharted territory, headed for the Hermitage, the last place crickets had been heard.

Mosscap stepped out of the woods, all seven feet of it, into the little campsite. Dex was taking an outdoor shower at the time, so this first contact between a robot and a human was even more disconcerting than it could have been. Mosscap has been sent to see how the humans are doing after all these years, and it is delighted to accompany Dex to the Hermitage, even though it has absolutely not been invited, especially because it asks endless questions.

This charming little story is unexpectedly deep. While Dex is searching for the meaning of life, the robot is questioning all of their habits and decisions, which forces Dex to think about things they have always taken for granted. The world-building is unique, taking place on an earth-like moon called Panga with a pantheon of gods being worshipped by various harmonious groups. Although it is somewhat post-apocalyptic, it is not bleak. Rather, humans have returned to a simpler life with low-tech, hands-on jobs enhanced with tiny technology, such as solar panels, personal water filtration tanks, and pocket computers that last for years. The culture is an almost utopian idea of what we could be if we abandoned the insane desperation of our consumerist addiction.

The pronoun for nonbinary, restless Dex is “they,” while the pronoun for nonhuman, cheerful Mosscap is “it.” The singular use of a plural pronoun still trips up this former grammar teacher, and I do wish that we could come up with a completely different alternative that won’t send me searching back through the paragraph to find the other people.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is unlike anything you’ve read before. The tone is quietly joyful and sweet, and I knew that I had to read it as soon as I heard about tea monks. At 160 pages, it just begins to whet the appetite, so I am pleased to see that Becky Chambers has a sequel coming out in July called A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I am already on the holds list.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. @tordotcom

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Tracy Flick Can’t Win, by Tom Perrotta

Principal Jack Weede is finally going to retire from Green Meadow High School, and he assures Tracy, his loyal vice-principal, that she is a shoo-in for the spot. Tracy begins schmoozing all the right people, even though it goes against her introverted nature. She begins with the school board president, who throws out the idea of a GMHS Hall of Fame, to which Tracy, eager to seem positive, says, um, sure. The whole town is eager to fete the former football hero, while Tracy had thought that there were so many more important achievements to celebrate. When she lets out the slightest hint of her thoughts on the award, the whole promotion process begins to unravel.

Nothing comes easily to Tracy Flick. As Perrotta says at one point, everyone respects Tracy, but no one really likes her. In his 1998 novel, Election, she had been raped by a GMHS teacher at the age of fifteen and has been living under a cloud of suspicion ever since. Surely it had to be her fault. Now, decades later, she is a well-educated, middle-aged woman who has been carrying the load for the aging principal while raising her daughter mostly on her own. She is due.

I listened to an audiobook of this title, and the protagonist has a very familiar voice for this Elementary fan: Lucy Liu. Most of the other chapters are read by various male voices, and each of Perrotta’s characters is well-rounded and believable. The author views his people and the world they inhabit with a jaundiced eye, sometimes sympathetic, but often with a bite of sarcasm. Tracy herself is a very flawed character, and yet the reader still roots for her, cheering when she battles forward, then cringing when she trips again. The fact that Tracy still works in the same place where her most traumatic days took place is both troubling and revealing.

The author takes on the patriarchy and the #MeToo Movement so convincingly that I looked him up to make sure that Tom wasn’t short for Thomasina or something. (It’s not.) Beyond the skillfully entwined themes, though, Tracy Flick Can’t Win is a great read, just the kind of engaging novel to pack in your beach bag.

Disclaimer: I listened to an “advance listening copy” audiobook of this novel, provided by @Libro.fm and Simon and Schuster Audio. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Dead Sea Squirrels, by Mike Nawrocki

Michael and Justin didn’t set out to disobey Dr. Gomez. Justin was well aware that he was fortunate when Michael’s archeologist dad had invited him along on this middle-Eastern dig during summer vacation, so he was diligent and punctual at all times. When Michael wandered into a cave beside the Dead Sea, though, didn’t he have to pull him out? Later that night, he slept on while Michael slipped out of their tent.

Merle and Pearl Squirrel were on holiday at the Dead Sea, where Merle was fascinated with his own buoyancy, when the noonday sun became oppressively hot. They slipped into a nearby cave, just to cool off for a bit. Their little respite lasted several thousand years.

I had to laugh when I saw the name of this series, but it all made sense when I saw that the author was the co-creator of Veggie Tales. The first title is Squirreled Away, an early elementary chapter book that delivers a wee bit of education with a dollop of humor in a very boy-centric adventure story. Spoiler alert: Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel make it through customs, and the whole story ends on a creepy cliffhanger.

Christian parents hoping to slip some Bible history in with a spoonful of cinnamon sugar will enjoy this fun series by Tyndale House.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Dark Queens, by Shelley Puhak

Fredegund was born a slave, but her shrewd mind and political ruthlessness made her indispensable to Chilperic, the king of Neustria. Once he had disposed of his first and second wives, he married Fredegund for life. She was extremely capable of producing sons, but not so blessed with keeping them alive.

Brunhild was an educated Visigothic princess from Spain who traveled to Francia to become the wife of King Sigibert of Austrasia. As a royal daughter, she knew how kingdoms were run, and immediately began to make allies among the dukes and bishops. She also provided the son and heir, as well as a couple of daughters. As a matter of fact, life was pretty pleasant until Fredegund had her sister, Galswintha, assassinated so that she could become queen of Neustria in her place.

This was the heyday of the Merovingian Dynasty in what is modern-day France, spilling over into most of western Europe. King Clovis conquered the land from the Romans, and his son Clothar divided the kingdom among his four sons: Charibert, Sigibert, Chilperic, and Guntram. He also had an illegitimate son named Gundovald. The more familiar practice of having the eldest inherit everything may seem unfair, but dividing up property in this way kept royal brothers at one another’s throats their whole lives. Women inherited nothing, and inconvenient females were killed off or packed off to a convent. Queens were no exception.

Author Shelley Puhak delves deeply into original sources to unearth the influence that these two queens had over a large portion of Europe in the latter decades of the sixth century. Both of the women were trusted advisors to their husbands, but when they outlived the kings, they continued as regents for their very young sons for many years. They waged war, forged alliances, and wielded power brilliantly and often ruthlessly. Fredegund rode out with the troops and was feared as an expert assassin. She has been called the inspiration behind the Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister. Brunhild built roads and abbeys, wrote copious letters, and enlarged her kingdom. She was friends with both Bishop Gregory of Tours and Pope Gregory. Both men respected her, although Gregory of Tours, in particular, generally despised women. Brunhild is the inspiration for Brunhilda of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the Valkyrie of mythology draw from the legends of these two fearless rulers.

Puhak became aware that the record of the women of this era had been deliberately erased, since the men who wrote the history deplored the idea of women having power. Although she had written essays and poetry in the past, she dug into the surviving manuscripts and the scholarly research to assemble this revealing portrait of the Merovingian era. Sprinkled with paintings and artifacts throughout, the narrative is followed by an almost 20-page bibliography, fifty pages of notes, and an index. In the front, Puhak placed a map of the western world in the sixth century, as well as a much-needed Dramatis Personae. I consulted this list frequently, since there was more than one Clothar and two Gregorys, not to mention a Charibert, Chilperic, and a Childebert. This Childebert thought it would be fun to name his children Theudebert, Theuderic, and Theudelia.

This volume of history is eye-opening not only for the lives that are brought to our attention, but also for exposing the systematic cover-up that kept this knowledge from us for centuries. Let us hope that continued scholarship will bring us even more fascinating stories of influential women from our past.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Answers in the Pages, by David Levithan

Donovan read a couple of chapters in the new book Mr. Howe had assigned, then left it in the kitchen while he went to watch tv. Before he realized what had happened, his mom came home from work and read some of it. She told him that she felt that it was inappropriate, took it away from him, and started calling up the other mothers in Mr. Howe’s language arts class. Donovan was filled with confusion. What in the world could be wrong with The Adventurers? He knew that his mom read the ending pages of a book before she started it. If only he could see those ending pages now!

Gideon loved turtles. He had 84 of them, but only Samson was a real, live turtle. The others were wood, stone, stuffed, or blown glass. When his teacher assigned Harriet the Spy to the class and had everyone partner with another student for a project, Gideon was secretly pleased to be paired with the new boy, Roberto of the dimpled smile. Roberto enjoyed writing in their project notebook and thought Gideon’s game of finding all the words he could within longer words was cool. He even thought turtles were cool.

In between chapters about Donovan or Gideon, the author, David Levithan, has inserted chapters of the fictitious challenged book, The Adventurers, which is an over-the-top, 1950s-style story in which Oliver, Rick, and Melody have fantastical capers involving escapes from cages hanging over boiling geysers, outsmarting bears, and motorcycle rescues wearing handcuffs. In the audiobook, these pages are read by an older man with a melodramatic voice whom you expect to say “lads” or “chums” any second.

Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Gideon’s story happened in the past, while Donovan’s story is building up to the climax at the school board meeting. Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Howe, is a gay man with a husband, and it is difficult to find any glaring problems with the book he assigned. Donovan suspects that his mother is concerned with the violence, but his classmates point out that the last page hints at an attraction between Rick and Oliver. On the other hand, Gideon and Roberto’s story does blossom into a very young romance, which is completely accepted by Roberto’s parents. Levithan, a gay man who is a prize-winning author, brings these three storylines together unexpectedly at the end of the book.

David Levithan

In this era of book banning that sets parents against teachers and librarians, with school boards often capitulating to the loudest voices in order to secure reelection, the ones who get lost are often the children. Levithan explores the experiences and emotions of two vulnerable pawns in the censorship game: the child whose mother is leading the charge and the child who identifies with the character in the book being challenged.

Levithan has written this middle grade novel for fourth to sixth graders, and parents can also read it to consider how they would have approached the situation differently, if at all. Levithan’s books, particularly his teen novels, have been among the most challenged books for years, so he has had time to consider the process and its effects on kids. If the reader gets only one conclusion from Answers in the Pages, it would be that it is so important to talk to—and listen to— your own children before speaking in public.

Appealing and thought-provoking, this is one of the first children’s books on this topic. I look forward to reading A.S. King’s book on censorship coming out in September.

Disclaimer: I listened to an audiobook copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Bravely, by Maggie Stiefvater

Merida is a teenaged princess, contentedly living in the ramshackle castle DunBroch with her blustery father, passive mother, annoying triplet brothers, and dramatic adopted sister. In the kitchen late one Christmas Eve, she hears a knock at the door and opens it in time to see Feradach, the god of ruin, taking off his gloves. She chases him, barefoot in the snow, to the holy well, where they are joined by Cailleach, the ancient goddess of creation and growth. Desperate to save her family, she makes a deal with them, agreeing that if her entire family is not changed in a year’s time, Feradach will place his lethal hand on her home. Everyone will die and everything she knows will be destroyed.

Propelled by this rash bargain and the threats of a bullying warlord, Merida sets off to visit three countries in a year, accompanied by various members of her family. If she is looking for change, she certainly finds it, although not in the ways she expected, and often in ways she strongly resists. Merida discovers that we are often unaware of other people’s interior lives—even those we love most— and that it is when we try to change others into our image of them that Feradach’s ruin begins to approach.

Maggie Stiefvater

This is a rollicking adventure tale that flows right from the Disney movie, Brave. Disney approached the celebrated teen writer, Maggie Stiefvater, asking her to write a novel that would show Merida’s life ten or so years after the end of the movie. Once she confirmed that she would have the freedom to go in any direction, she picked up her pen— or, laptop. Disney fans will not be disappointed. Stiefvater is one of my favorite YA writers, and I have reviewed her brilliant Raven Cycle books here and here, and her South American-flavored All the Crooked Saints here.

I listened to an audiobook of this title, read by the inimitable Fiona Hardingham, whom I have lauded before as the reader of My Plain Jane and others in that series. I didn’t even realize at the time that she also narrated Once Upon a Wardrobe, the story of C.S. Lewis’s childhood. She pronounces the Gaelic names perfectly, which is helpful, since I could never have figured out Cailleach otherwise. She narrates in a British accent, then slides seamlessly into a Scottish brogue for the many different character’s voices.

Maggie Stiefvater has crafted an exciting and meaningful tale, staying true to the original characters, which will please fans of Brave, while adding depth and understanding that is appropriate for a maturing Merida. Oh, and there might be a bit of a slow-burn romance in there, too.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library audiobook. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Rise Up! Poems of Protest, Poems of Praise, by Andrew Wilbert Fitz and Mari Fitz-Wynn

Call and response: a powerful form of protest. Andrew Wilbert Fitz was the child of a couple born into slavery, the middle of eleven children. He lived through two world wars, went to college, patented new inventions, and wrote poetry. His granddaughter, Mari Fitz-Wynn, has curated a collection of his poems and added her own, responding to his call across a century, sharing his sorrow at our human sins and reflecting his strong Christian faith with her own.

Mari has arranged this collection so that her grandfather speaks first with his poems, then Mari presents a poem of her own, sometimes on the same theme. Using various verse forms, the poems are often meditations on scriptural passages, and Mari, in particular, has structured several of her poems as liturgies that could be used in communal settings. Praise for the beauty of creation is woven throughout, from the exultation of “Creation and I” to the joyful skipping verse in “Nature’s Symphony.” There are poems of encouragement, motivating the reader to use their God-given gifts and to generate ideas that will further the Kingdom on earth. One of the most powerful selections is “Dead Soldier,” which Andrew addressed to the young men in their graves, saying, in part:

“… tell of the heartless heads of government,

the kings, the princes, and the presidents,

who sent you forth to die for an empty cause

despising God and all His sacred laws.”

Throughout this collection are poems of lament, an outpouring of sorrow rarely heard in white churches today, although the Hebrew scriptures are filled with lament, particularly in the Psalms. Throughout the millennia, believers have cried out to God in private grief, but also in communal prayer that God would acknowledge injustice and send healing and comfort. Andrew’s parents spent their early years in bondage, and later he went on to serve in World War I and live through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century. He saw that the government enforced these evil laws and that the white church rationalized the terror from the pulpit. He asks, “How long shall prejudice be mixed with prayer?” Mari, lamenting that our world still labors in sin, responds with her “Hands Up—A Litany,” asking for freedom from fear and concluding with praise.

I had the pleasure of working with Mari Fitz-Wynn at our library, as well as with her two grown children, Kiefer and Rooney, who wrote an afterword to this book. They are all kind and quiet souls, and her kids have gone on to pursue brilliant careers. After her husband passed away fifteen years ago, Mari began speaking at home education conferences and other venues and participating in creative entrepreneurial projects. In addition to this volume of poetry, which contains a foreword written by the Poet Laureate of North Carolina, Mari has published two books and many articles.

This inspiring collection may be purchased on Amazon or from Faith Journey Publishing, a company dedicated to giving a voice to mature Christian women of color.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book, given to me by the author. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. I do not receive remuneration from the purchase of this book.

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Star Child, by Ibi Zoboi

Octavia Butler’s parents were married for sixteen years before she was born, and her father died less than four years later. Born in 1947, after her father returned from fighting in World War II, she was a true Baby Boomer, and she was brought up by her mother and grandmother. Her mother was Octavia Margaret, but she named her baby girl Octavia Estelle: Star Child.

Octavia Estelle grew up in Pasadena, so she never experienced segregation, but that did not mean that her school years were happy. Since she was tall, Octavia was placed in third grade when she should have been in kindergarten, and since she was later diagnosed with dyslexia, learning to read was a struggle. She was a slow and dreamy child, the kind with an imaginary world inside her, and even as a young child, she carried around a pink notebook in which she wrote horse stories at first, and then later, science fiction. Although her mother was a very religious woman, Octavia was not, but we can see the biblical influence in many of her themes and in the very names of her books: The Parable of the Sower, The Parable of the Talents.

Ibi Zoboi, the author of this biography, is herself an accomplished writer. Her first novel, American Street, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Zoboi studied Butler’s novels in college, and later had the privilege of meeting her on a couple of occasions before Butler died in 2006. They share a June 22nd birthday. In this volume, Zoboi uses concrete poems, haikus, and other verse structures as well as prose narration to tell the story of this remarkable woman whose works she admired. She was encouraged that they both started writing at a young age, though she was in awe of the fact that Butler had had the courage to submit her stories to publishers when she was about thirteen years old. Zoboi shares photos of the two of them together, and as her schoolteachers said, Octavia is very tall!

Octavia Butler is credited with the creation of the genre called Afrofuturism, a Black subgenre within science fiction. Readers can see photos of the long and focused affirmations she wrote for herself in her own handwriting on lined notebook paper. She was absolutely determined to be a success, and, despite her natural shyness and her shame at being the daughter of a domestic servant, she let nothing stand in the way of publishing her stories, improving her craft each day. She went on to publish the bestselling Kindred and many novels that won the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, and Locus Award, among others, proving that this woman who grew up under Jim Crow, the Cold War, and McCarthyism could break through the stereotypes of her time and look to the future with hope and resolution.

Star Child is a slender volume written on a middle-grade level and is perfect for so many children: those who like to read science fiction, those who are late bloomers, those who scribble in their own tattered notebooks, and every child who needs a role model for breaking the tight bonds of outdated, narrow expectations.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang

“Ka-Thunk!” Gene Luen Yang was a computer science teacher at Bishop O’Dowd Catholic High School in California who became aware that his school’s basketball team, the Dragons, was in contention for the state championship that year. Gene knew nothing about basketball. He was so skinny as a child that his nickname was Stick. He didn’t like to play sports, and he thought watching sports was boring. On the other hand, he was looking for a subject for his next graphic novel, so he found his way to the school gym to interview Coach Lou Richie.

“Step.” Gene was very careful to keep his life in balance: a quarter of his time for teaching, a quarter of his time for making comics, and half his time for his family. Over the course of the basketball season, as he dug into the life story of the coach and several players, he found that there was more to them than just guys throwing a ball around—although there was plenty of that—but that each person had a complex background and obstacles to overcome. Changes came to Gene’s life, too, forcing him to make a difficult decision that threatened to wreck his tidy schedule, but promised to make a dream come true.

“Paa! Paa! Paa!” In 2007, I was privileged to attend the Printz reception, where American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel ever to win the award for outstanding teen literature. It was a stellar group of honorees that year, and Gene Luen Yang’s acceptance speech was quintessential high school teacher: he prepared a PowerPoint. In his kind and affable manner, he taught a room full of librarians about the history of American bigotry against Asian people. It was eye-opening. In Dragon Hoops, he uses a personal story about his school to reveal the systemic racism and misogyny in the history of basketball, as well as the contemporary struggles of teens from many ethnic groups.

“Swish!” Gene Luen Yang is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and during his tenure, he encouraged everyone to read something in a format that is outside of their comfort zone. If you are not familiar with graphic novels—or if you absolutely love them— this 2020 autobiography is a great reading experience. Although it is almost 450 pages long, I read it in about 2 hours. The panels are large, the colors are pleasing, and the story flies by. Don’t miss his earlier works, such as American Born Chinese and the two-volume Boxers & Saints, reviewed here. He is also the author and/or illustrator of several series, such as “Superman,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and “Secret Coders,” among many others.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

Petra wanted to be a cuentista, a storyteller, just like her abuelita. When she boards the spacecraft with her scientist parents and her little brother, Javier, she comforts herself that at least she can spend the 380 years of their flight in stasis with all of the world’s mythology and stories being downloaded into her brain. When they arrive at their new planet, she will be the cuentista for a whole new civilization. Then, just as she is being strapped into her pod, she finds out that her parents said no to the storytelling download. She will just have the much more practical botany lessons for the whole flight. Her pod fills with gel, her body functions are stopped, and she is supposed to be asleep. But she realizes that she is still conscious, and there is no way to tell the Caretaker that she is not asleep. She can’t call out, wave her hand, or even move her eyes.

Three spaceships are leaving Earth because a great comet is on a collision course with the planet. The survivors are chosen because of their skills that will be useful for a fresh start on a new Goldilocks planet, but some were selected to live out normal lives—working, caring for the stasis pods, reproducing, and dying—just as they would have on Earth. But 380 years is a long time, and people get ideas, and the isolated culture that lands on the planet may bear little resemblance to the ones who boarded the ship long ago.

The Last Cuentista won both the Newbery Medal and the Pura Belpré Award this past January. From the title and the cover, I was expecting to dive into a traditional South American story with magical realism, but just a few pages in, we were boarding a spacecraft! Somehow, Higuera’s Latina protagonist was able to transport her Hispanic culture into a futuristic setting. The story is filled with the tension of most sci-fi tales dealing with survival in alien landscapes, but the more Orwellian terror of ruthless power structures is what propels our heroine into action.

Higuera uses both the past and the future to show that, although our history is filled with war and tragedy, human beings have also created art, music, and loving traditions that should not be abandoned. The richness of our past is the foundation for building a beautiful and meaningful future.

Highly recommended for young teen to adult.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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