Monthly Archives: September 2022

Thank You for Listening, by Julia Whelan

Sewanee Chester used to be an actress, but now she narrates books. She has had an accident that would make it difficult for her to get the starring, bombshell roles she used to rock: she lost an eye and has a scar down one side of her face. When she’s sitting in the bar at the audiobook convention and Nick charms her into a wild night with him, she is totally ready. He has no idea of her real name, and she knows she’ll never see him again.

Back in her real life in L.A., Sewanee is dealing with her failing, irascible grandmother and her father, who refuses to care for her. Sewanee’s grandmother is an old Hollywood starlet, and her pet name for her granddaughter is Doll Face. When Sewanee is offered a very lucrative contract to narrate a recently deceased author’s romance novel, she almost turns it down, since she has pledged never to do romance again. However, the compensation is so great that she would be able to get her grandmother the memory care she really needs, so she agrees. The male lead for the audiobook is Brock McKnight, an incredibly popular narrator with a vast and rabid fanbase. Thus begins a very confusing time for Sewanee.

The great fun of this novel, of course, is all the meta content. Julia Whelan is an audiobook narrator who has written a novel about an audiobook narrator who is getting entangled with an audiobook narrator, and of course, the audiobook is read by the author, who is an audiobook narrator. As a matter of fact, she narrated the audiobook of Tara Westover’s Educated, which I reviewed here. It’s entertaining with a dash of introspection and emotion. Themes of trust, self-acceptance, friendship, and caregiving.

But mostly, it’s just so much fun.

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

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Burning Truth

“It’s absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

                              Oscar Wilde

                              The Importance of Being Earnest

No, it’s not the 16th century. This image is from a book burning in Tennessee this year, 2022.

Oscar Wilde would know about being challenged. It is ridiculous that we even have banned books in a supposedly open society. While everyone is free to make reading choices for themselves and for their children, they are not free to make those choices for their neighbors or their neighbors’ children. And yet, 2022 has seen more challenges to books than any year since the American Library Association has been keeping track. This year, September 18-24 is Banned Book Week. We don’t celebrate Banned Book Week. We mourn that we have to observe it still.

Many of the recent challenges have been toward books about sexuality, particularly LGBTQ+ themes. It is understandable when a parent tells a teacher that they do not feel that their children are developmentally prepared for these topics, but to insist that the books are removed from libraries, including high school and public libraries, is tantamount to insisting that these people are removed from our society. That is impossible and offensive.

Even less rational is the push to remove books about diverse racial and ethnic groups. There is no age restriction for such knowledge. Brad Meltzer’s picture book I Am Barack Obama has been challenged, along with other titles in his popular young children’s series that sometimes features black people from history. Why? Do Americans want their children to think that we never had a black president? Do they want them to be ignorant of history? It is unconscionable.

I make a deliberate effort to read banned and challenged books. I want to understand and empathize with the spectrum of human experience, and fiction allows us to live inside someone else’s head for a while. If we live another life for a time, we may be less inclined to try to erase them from existence. We are all more alike than we are different.

Here are some of the children’s and teens’ books that I’ve reviewed for EatReadSleep that have been banned or challenged over the years. You can select from any of these for yourself or your kids, or you can choose any of the 850 titles on the Texas congressman’s list that he is forcing schools to remove. Read, get uncomfortable, stretch, read more. Let’s stay free.

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang. A terrific middle grade novel that was challenged for being anti-white. This is the author’s real-life experience as an Asian immigrant.
New Kid, by Jerry Craft. In the same post, this friendly middle-grade graphic novel tells the story of the author’s and his son’s experiences as black students in mostly-white schools.
All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. This teen novel about police brutality is on the banned books list, along with Stamped, which Jason Reynolds wrote with Ibram X. Kendi.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. The author’s poetic autobiography of her childhood. I am proud to own an autographed advance reader copy.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. A gritty, realistic debut novel about urban violence. The truth is sometimes difficult, but we can’t make it disappear by silencing authors.

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. Banned for foul language and because Park is mixed-race. Because neither of those happen in real life. It is also heartbreakingly beautiful.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Two Mexican-American boys fall in love. There are no sexual descriptions in the book, and the author is gay. LGBTQ+ people are a target.

We Are the Ants, by David Shaun Hutchinson. A wild debut by a really nice author, who is also gay. Mind-bending sci-fi.
Answers in the Pages, by David Levithan. This is not a banned book, but a middle grade novel about banned books, by a gay author and editor who has many other banned books to his name.

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Starting with the Little Ones

Continuing the Best of EatReadSleep’s Tenth Anniversary!

I read everything, but children’s books are also my profession. I loved reading to my son when he was little, and now I have grandchildren to turn into bibliophiles. During the ten years that I’ve been writing EatReadSleep, I have been the children’s selector for a large library system. Here are some of my favorites from that time.

Board Books

I have only written one post about these sturdy little volumes, and it was meant to be funny. Seriously, though, Sandra Boynton, Michael Dahl, and others have poured their prodigious talents into books that will be slobbered and chewed on, and parents everywhere appreciate it.

Academic Board Books are a thriving industry. Lots of titles here. Also lots of snark.

Picture Books

Picture books! Those little artistic gems. How I love them. The best picture books convey oceans of meaning in just a few well-chosen words, along with gorgeous or hilarious illustrations. Here are some of my favorites over the years. Many of the reviews are grouped in the original posts. Click the links for full reviews!

Series:

How Do Dinosaurs…? Jane Yolen is one the most prolific living writers, and this continuing series never fails to teach lessons in the cleverest ways.
Pete the Cat is one groovy dude. James Litwin started the series, which was continued by James Dean. This is one of the most popular series going these days.
Olivia makes an appearance in the same post. She is one precocious little pig.
Duck and Goose are a charming pair, one more adventurous than the other. Tad Hills is also the author of the excellent Rocket Learns to Read and others.
Jean Reagan writes the How to Babysit a…. series, instructing children to allow grandparents naps and other helpful advice. Comedy that hits close to home.
Bonny Becker started the Bear series with A Visitor for Bear. Sweet, charming, and amusing. Large volumes just right for bedtimes.
What dog lover doesn’t sympathize with Carter Goodrich’s Mister Bud? Adorable.
Some children’s books, like Muppets movies, are at least partly written for grownups, even though they definitely work for the kids, too. I Am Otter is one of those.

Single Titles:

Oh, this poor, little penguin. Flight School will have you sympathetically laughing along.
The Tortoise & the Hare is a wordless wonder, just one of the Caldecott winner’s stunning creations.
There Might Be Lobsters is a summery title that will help timid children to overcome their fears.
Hum and Swish is another breezy, oceanside title. This one encourages children to stay true to their own vision.
Great Joy is not your usual Santa-and-his-reindeer Christmas books for kids. Enduring and gorgeous. Tissues not included.
I mean, seriously. Look at those ears and tell me you’re not in love. In a Jar is for every child whose friend has moved away.
Sweety is a confident little misfit. For every child who marches to the beat of her own drummer. Sweetness and naked mole rats. (That’s a species, not a state of undress.)
This Is My Home, This Is My School. A fond look back by a happily homeschooled author, for his younger fellow home educators and their friends in conventional school settings.
Everything about Madeline Finn and the Library Dog will make you say, “Awww.” There are other books that follow, but I love this one.
Watercress is a recent multi-award winner, a quietly beautiful book that packs an emotional wallop.
Clovis Keeps His Cool, but just barely. That huge bull with the petite feet! Hilarious with a message.
Achingly poignant, Boats for Papa is for little ones experiencing the loss of a parent, whether through divorce, abandonment, incarceration, or death.
The Steads can do no wrong. A Sick Day for Amos McGee was the first Caldecott winner for this married couple and features an old zookeeper and his loving animals.
Saint George and the Dragon was old when my son was young. A medieval myth retold and spectacularly illustrated by one of my favorite book artists.

There will be many more children’s books to come, so stay tuned!

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Wine Girl, by Victoria James

Don’t let the Mona Lisa cover fool you; her life is far from slow and serene.

When a girl becomes the country’s youngest sommelier, one would expect that she grew up in a vineyard, working with grape crops and vintages throughout her childhood. Not so Victoria James. She and her three little siblings were virtually abandoned while their alcoholic father stayed on long business trips and their princess (no, seriously) mother suffered from such severe mental illness that she never left her bedroom for weeks on end. One time, when Victoria was eight years old, her slightly older brother divided up one sleeve of saltines to last the four children for a week.

Such a childhood breeds toughness, and Victoria would need it to succeed. She started her restaurant career at the local diner when she was thirteen years old, soaking up all the life lessons her boss could impart. “Find something that you can love about every customer.” She remembered that one as she moved on to the next restaurant and the next, studying every free moment. She learned to be a bartender and to hustle, to work harder and faster in each place. Once she was introduced to wine, she studied nonstop and worked to earn money for classes and certification exams.

Although James exulted in her progress as a sommelier, this is not a breezy rags-to-riches story. She suffered abuse and disrespect almost universally for years. Yes, the reader gets to hear about trips to those magical tucked-away restaurants and vineyards in rural parts of idyllic wine countries, but also some brutal episodes that reveal the dark side of the service industry. Once she arrived at the top of her field, James established Wine Empowered, a nonprofit organization to promote women and minorities in service careers, so that those who are usually stuck at the bottom of the ladder will have the skills and support to move up in the ranks.

This memoir is a natural for foodies and oenophiles, but it is also a surprising fit for the legions of readers who devoured Educated, by Tara Westover, and for all those who love a story of dreams fulfilled through hard work and persistence.

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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Favorite Young Adult Series and Titles

The next installment of The Best of EatReadSleep’s 10th Anniversary series!

For about fifteen years, I either worked with teens in a library or, later, selected teen books for the library system, and I really enjoyed this collection. Young adult literature is a thriving subculture. At conferences, these authors are rock stars, and their fans are not only teenagers, but plenty of adults, especially librarians and teachers. Young adult books are where all of the latest headlines go to live through stories, and there is some great and undervalued writing going on in this space. Some of my selections are a few years old, but definitely stand the test of time.

Beloved Series

If you’ve read EatReadSleep for any number of years, you know that I have covered some YA series every time a new volume comes out. Here are some of my favorites, although I am sure that I’m leaving out something fantastic. Click on the titles for the full reviews, and search the authors for more reviews in the series.

Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series starts with a teen-appropriate The Thief and then moves into complex and subtle intrigue with a hint of fantasy.
I will read anything by Maggie Stiefvater, but her “Raven Cycle” is a favorite fantasy series. It starts with The Raven Boys.
Another winning series is “The Lumaterre Chronicles,” by Melina Marchetta, which starts with Finnikin of the Rock, but I reviewed the second volume, Quintana of Charyn. High fantasy with some adult content. The writing is exquisite.  
My Plain Jane and others by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows are hilariously reimagined classics. These are delightful audiobooks, too, narrated by Fiona Hardingham.

Favorite Authors and Single Titles

Jason Reynolds has been the author of many of my favorite kids’ books. The first teen title I read by Jason was the stunning Long Way Down.
John Green had a lot of hits, such as Turtles All the Way Down, although his last work, The Anthropocene Reviewed, was for adults. His teens were always precocious and witty, like the kids I worked with in our library book groups.
Ruta Sepetys is another author who is consistently a winner, especially her first, Between Shades of Gray, and my favorite, The Fountains of Silence.
The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee. A young Chinese woman in reconstruction Atlanta is determined to make it as a writer.
Everything Sad Is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri. A true story about the Christian author’s family fleeing Iran, humorously told in the style of Scheherazade.
Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. A brilliant teen romance made agonizing by family secrets and the helplessness of the young and dependent.

There are some excellent LGBTQ+ writers in teen literature, and they’ve been winning awards for decades. A few of my favorites include:

Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram. Take a trip to Persia—Iran—with this vulnerable and sweet young man and his family. It won the Morris Award for debut novels.
I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson. A brother and sister work through dark secrets to live into the meaning of art. A Printz and Stonewall winner.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz. In 2013, it was the first LGBTQ romance I ever read. This beautiful and heartbreaking book won the Stonewall Award, a Printz honor, and the Pura Belpré Award.
I read the mind-bending We Are the Ants on my way to a Baker & Taylor conference in Orlando, where I met the kind author, Shaun David Hutchinson, and we wept together over the loved ones we had lost to Alzheimer’s.

In our next installment, we will venture into favorite children’s titles from the last ten years!

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