Monthly Archives: August 2016

Tissues for Two

A great nonfiction picture book is a work of art. Authors have to take enormous concepts and reduce them to just a few words that can be understood by a young child. Sometimes these concepts can barely be understood by adults. Here are two such small jewels, both of which brought me to tears.

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Noah loves to visit his grandparents. He and Grandpa have a ritual every morning that involves lots of singing and walks with the dog. One day, Noah is stunned when Grandpa forgets their favorite things and doesn’t even seem to know him. Grandma steps in to explain, and Noah finds ways to create new memories with Grandpa.

As I described earlier in this blog, I met Arthur A. Levine at Book Expo America last May in Chicago at an author speed-dating luncheon. I had seen a picture and description of What a Beautiful Morning before, so as soon as he sat down, I knew that he was describing his own father and son in this Alzheimer’s story with delicate, autumn-hued watercolor illustrations by Katie Kath. My eyes filled with tears and I could not speak to him at all, because his tale so closely mirrored my father and my son about twenty years before. Not a medical explanation, but a journey of the heart that will speak directly to far too many families, perhaps yours.

Seven and a Half Tons of SteelWhen I read about Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, I was intrigued. I did not know that a steel beam pulled from the Twin Towers had been re-crafted as the bow of the battleship the USS New York, so when the book arrived at the library this week, I sat down to learn about this meaningful gift from the governor of New York to the U.S. Navy.

Author Janet Nolan begins with a short explanation of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, focusing on the sorrow of the people in our country. She then moves into the historical details of the beam being transported to a shipyard in Louisiana, where its construction was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and, finally, its sail back into the New York Harbor on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Although the first portion of the book is heart-wrenching, by the end, the author has brought the reader to a feeling of patriotic pride in the resilience of the American people.

The illustrations by Thomas Gonzalez are double-page spreads of thick, saturated color that convey the strength of the message. Although the story is truthful, Gonzalez never pictures anything that is too violent or frightening, making the book appropriate for even the youngest audiences. Very highly recommended, especially as we move into the fifteenth anniversary of our national day of sorrow.

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Disclaimer: I read library copies of both of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

Lie TreeFourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly and her family are fleeing to a remote island, and Faith has no idea why. Her stern clergyman father is a naturalist of some renown, and she suspects that he has made someone upset. Has he been outspoken about his position on the new theory of evolution? Not that Faith is sure what his position might be, if he has. All she knows is that she and her pretty, flirtatious mother, her affable Uncle Miles, and her little brother, Howard, have been whisked away to the island of Vane, where her father will be joining a local archeology dig.

Plain, brilliant Faith is a disappointment to her mother, so she is usually banished to the nursery to take care of Howard, while she would rather be studying natural science with her father. The servants in the house they’ve rented are gossiping over a newspaper story about Faith’s father, but young ladies are not allowed to read newspapers, so she can’t figure out why the islanders whisper about them, or why her family seems so nervous. Faith has learned that hiding her intelligence allows her to listen quietly and to gather information without being noticed. When a terrible calamity happens, Faith may be the only one who can solve a mystery and save her family from ruin.

Hardinge’s multi-starred historical fiction novel has well-developed secondary characters, including the coroner’s strange teenage son and several adults who are much more dangerous than they seem. The magical tree at the heart of the story feeds on lies, and Faith begins to realize that the wild growth of the lie tree reveals the darkness that grows in her own soul. The increasing struggle between the mother, who is transparently using her beauty and almost scandalous flirtation to get her own way with men, and the scholarly daughter, who is suffocating from the narrow confines of women’s roles in the nineteenth century, is brought to a poignant resolution in a scene near the end of the novel.

This slowly-unfolding mystery has heart-stopping suspense and a strong streak of feminism, and it shines a bright light on the darkness in our souls that may cause us to pursue our own desires, no matter what the cost to ourselves and others. Recommended for young teens.

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

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

Heartbreaking WorkThis candid memoir tells the story of Eggers’ life after his parents died of cancer when Dave, the third of four children, was college-age, but somehow became the caretaker for his eight-year-old brother, Toph. All of the siblings moved from Illinois to the San Francisco area immediately after their parents’ deaths, and although Beth was supposed to be the live-in surrogate parent, she continued to pursue her education and career, while Dave and Toph set up a sort of “bachelor pad” where they both attempt to grow up together.

Eggers’ style is very accessible and conversational for the most part, but at times he becomes an unreliable narrator and puts his own thoughts and anxieties into other character’s mouths, working through problems and issues by arguing with himself. Toph often appears to be wiser than his much-older brother, and Dave struggles to reconcile his parental persona, assumed at school functions, with his desire to be a twenty-something young man who wants to date and find a relationship with a young woman without feeling so desperately guilty. His deep and protective love of Toph shines through with heartbreaking vulnerability.

Along with his personal story, this sometimes fictionalized autobiography is also a chronicle of Generation X in California, at a time when the dot.com bubble was beginning, Bill Clinton was president, and all the cool people were there. Eggers and his friends were trying to start a magazine in the same abandoned building as the group starting Wired magazine, and at one point Dave auditioned for a role in a brand-new phenomenon called “reality TV.” His turbulent narration shows a young man who works relentlessly to be part of the intellectual, effortlessly hip crowd while simultaneously exposing them as shallow, privileged poseurs, and all the time, in the back of his mind, he is tortured by the thought that he is neglecting Toph, who will surely die at the hands of an incompetent or even sadistic babysitter.

Both a portrait of an artist and of an era, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is on most of the “100 Books Everyone Should Read” lists, probably those compiled by Gen X folks. For all of his swagger, Eggers will truly break your heart, and although his favorite word starts with an “f,” his prose is filled with a raw beauty that causes the reader to empathize with this young man trying to play the hand that life has dealt him with integrity, all the while desperately aware of his own weaknesses and flaws.

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

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Miracle Man, by John Hendrix

Miracle ManThis captivating picture book biography of Jesus tells a simplified version of his life for children up to perhaps third grade, beginning with the start of Jesus’ public ministry and ending with his resurrection. Hendrix has a colorful, cartoonish, almost psychedelic style of illustration, and one outstanding feature of this slender volume is his bold use of fonts and text placement. Words sometimes circle around the picture, or are made of stone or wooden planks to complement the story being told on that page.

Another element that sets this biography apart is that it is warmly written by a believer. In the informative author’s note at the back, Hendrix says, “The first reason I wanted to write and illustrate this story is that I am a follower of Jesus. At a very young age, I fell in love with the Miracle Man.” Although only a judicious few events from Jesus’ life are covered, the text is very moving, and the chosen stories will introduce children to the outline of the Miracle Man’s life and his teachings. Some parental explanations will be needed— preferably while the children are nestled on a lap— such as that not all of the disciples were actually fishermen, and what it means when Jesus is shown walking out of the tomb.

Very highly recommended. Do not miss it.

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

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