Category Archives: Book Reviews

Rediscipling the White Church, by David W. Swanson

“…One of the significant challenges of discipling white Christians away from segregation is that we do not consciously identify ourselves as a racial group. We don’t consciously think of ourselves as white.” (p. 159)

Rediscipling the White ChurchAfter the death of George Floyd, there was a very short time in which we began, as a nation, to unite around the tragedy of racial injustice. Within days, however, protests turned into riots, which took over broadcast and social media and split the national conversation into political parties so that we could slide back into our camps and not have to go through that uncomfortable, squirmy examination of our consciences.

Before that slide, though, I ordered a whole pile of anti-racist reads, just to make sure that I got really uncomfortable and stayed there. The one I picked up first is pointed at the white church, since I pitch my tent in the community of those who call Jesus Lord.

David W. Swanson is a white pastor in the Bronzeville section of Chicago who regularly speaks on issues of race, particularly addressing the white church. Because churches, particularly Protestant churches, are usually segregated to at least some degree, it is difficult for us to empathize with believers of color, since we never see them. Swanson points out three ways of thinking that are largely invisible to us but are influencing all of our conversations about race within the church.

First of all, white Christians are very proud of the American ideal of rugged individualism. We are quite sure that if each person worked harder and took personal responsibility, they would be fine. It worked for us, it will work for everyone. Often, we refuse to acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow— although they are in the past and perhaps none of our personal ancestors were involved in them— have caused lasting damage to our society and our national psyche so that it is far more difficult for people of color to advance in the world.

Secondly, white evangelism and preaching appeal to the intellect. While we are rational creatures, we are also physical beings with emotions. Salvation is not an assent to a logical proposition, but a life that has been radically changed by the grace of God. As a result, we take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Discipleship engages the whole person.

Finally, white Christians tend to be anti-structural. That is, they are so afraid to shift blame away from the individual that any mention of “social justice” smacks of politics, and so they turn away. Eschewing the beautiful example of Christian abolitionists of the past, we forget that the Bible tells us that God requires us “to act justly and to love mercy.” (Micah 6:8)

Building upon this foundation, Swanson explores several ways that the church can reorient its discipleship toward solidarity in the kingdom of God using the Lord’s Supper, preaching, children’s ministry, liturgy, evangelism, and the many other ways in which we relate to one another. He also asks church leaders to examine their bookshelves to see whether there is diversity in the voices they are hearing. Perhaps no one will be able to use all of these suggestions, but they may be a springboard to the imagination for churches that desire to move into a true picture of the kingdom of God.

Although Pastor Swanson has years of experience living out his own ideals, his thesis will offend some readers, which is one good reason to hear him out. In this polarized time, all of us, Christians and non-Christians, seem to have drawn into two camps on nearly every question. In this instance, some churches have become all about social justice, as if that is the purpose for the existence of the church itself. Other churches are so opposed to that view that they refuse to confront the issue of racism at all and never approach the issue humbly, examining their own hearts. In my reading of scripture, though, it seems that the church exists, first and foremost, to worship God. After that, Jesus tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations,” teaching people to follow Jesus. Flowing from our love for God, we repent of our sins, and as we are Christians who happen to be Americans, it is completely Biblical to lament for our nation’s sins. This is not false guilt, and it does not involve kneeling before anyone but God, but it is acknowledging that the sin of racism is real. We must consider how we, as priests of God (1 Peter 2:9) can further the kingdom and “do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

There are two points that Swanson and others make that hit home with me and encourage me to continue reading and meditating on this issue. One is that white people may have suffered in their lives, and we all do, but we have never suffered because of the color of our skin. Millions of people have to go through the same trials that we endure in addition to overcoming our society’s hurdles caused by racial oppression.

Secondly, white people, often unconsciously, consider our lifestyles, our preferences, our speech, and our modes of worship to be the neutral standard by which everyone else is measured. Even in a multicultural church, the church leadership is most often white. Swanson talks about an exercise that he and his wife went through to adopt trans-racially in which the participants examine how many people of color are authority figures in our lives: your boss, your pastor, your doctor, and so on. The stratification of power in our world may seem invisible to us, but what are we silently communicating to our children?

In other words, although we may not consciously hurt other people, it is important to understand the other person’s perspective and to see if there is some way that we can change to bring about a more equitable society. As David pleaded with the Lord in Psalm 139:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
Test me, and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

Scripture tells us over and over to examine our hearts. “As the eagle stirs up its nest” (Deut. 32:11), our churches should encourage us to get uncomfortable, to grow up, to act justly, and to raise up the next generation to love others who may not look like them.

We can start here.

Disclaimer: I purchased a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or any group.

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A Good Neighborhood, by Therese Anne Fowler

Good NeighborhoodValerie Anston-Holt is working in her beloved garden when she sees a new white family move into the subdivision behind her Raleigh home. It’s the recently gentrified neighborhood for people with new money who want to masquerade as people with old money. Brad Whitman is just the type: built his HVAC company from the ground up, and now he’s a media darling. He married his desperately grateful receptionist and became a stepfather to her little Juniper. Since then, they’ve had a child of their own, and Brad’s carefully curated image is complete.

Xavier is raking leaves for his mom when he sees Juniper sunbathing by the pool. Although the quiet musician is hesitant around girls, the two strike up a friendship that is well on its way to becoming something more. When Valerie sues Brad for cutting the roots of her ancient oak tree while installing his pool, she is unaware of her son’s delicate relationship, and when Brad finds out that Juniper is seeing a young black man, he reacts like a man whose property is threatened—and Brad is all about his property.

Although author Therese Anne Fowler receives national acclaim, she lives here in the Raleigh area, which is abuzz with speculation about the neighborhood that inspired her scandalous novel. No, we reason, those are McMansions, that one’s too settled, the other one’s filled with spec houses. It keeps us busy. In the meantime, while our streets are filled with protestors shouting about racism in our governmental systems, Fowler has written about the quiet bigotry, along with all the other slimy evil, that resides quietly in our hearts. Here is where the battle is pitched, in the shadows, where people who seem so nice are revealed to be self-seeking creatures armored with socially acceptable veneers.

Absorbing, infuriating, and compelling.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader 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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Here in the Real World, by Sara Pennypacker

Ware wants to be born again. This time, he wants to be a child that his parents could love, a normal child.

Ware’s mom had been president of her class, and his dad had been a sports star. They despaired of their introverted and dreamy eleven-year-old. Ware imagined being a knight, so that he could be brave and admired. He even kept a long list of the duties and goals of knighthood.

At the beginning of the summer, his parents decided to work double shifts so that they could buy the house they had been renting. Ware had to stay with his beloved grandmother, Big Deal, but when she broke her hips, he had to go to the Rec Center, a place he loathed. There was enforced Meaningful Social Interaction at the Rec Center, along with healthful exercise and constant supervision. When Ware looked over the fence one day and found Jolene planting papaya trees in the parking lot of the abandoned church next door, he slipped away and landed in Paradise—equipped with a smashed and rubble-filled baptistry where he could dive under the water and rise up a new boy.

Sara Pennypacker, author of the sparkling Clementine series and many others, fills this middle-grade novel with tender humor and such serious themes as religion, environmentalism, childhood poverty, and parental neglect. Ware and Jolene are tentative toward one another, both hesitating to trust because of their own secretive home lives. Completely unbeknownst to their caregivers, their days are invaded by the earnest young activist with a Very Important Father and healed by the hardworking, kind bartender. It is his uncle, though, who sees himself in Ware and sets him on the path to develop the gift that is already within him.

Readers will cheer for quiet Ware as he blossoms like Jolene’s gardens. Sweet and serious, this is a hopeful story for 9- to 12-year-olds. Highly recommended.

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

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Favorite New Picture Books

We always have new picture books pouring into the libraries. Here are two of my favorites.

In a Jar

In a Jar, by Deborah Marcero

Llewellyn was a sentimental young rabbit, saving up his memories in jars: leaves, feathers, and pretty rocks. When Llewellyn made a new friend in Evelyn, his collecting became magical. He handed her a jar full of the sunset on the sea, which glowed all night on her dresser. Together, they collected laughter, skating adventures, and the wind just before snow falls in jars that came to fill Llewellyn’s house. When Evelyn had to move away, they were afraid that their treasured times had come to an end. One day, however, Evelyn found a way to continue to share their friendship— in jars.

Llewellyn and Evelyn are drawn in almost cartoon style, with square heads and ears that shoot straight up on the sides. There are no parents to be seen, but when Evelyn waves goodbye from the back of her family car, there are white tips of ears peeking up over the front seats. The illustrations reflect Llewellyn’s emotions: sometimes light and breezy, other times deep and vibrant, and, once, even gray. These are pictures that will have children poring over the details, full of new objects to discover with each repeated reading. Sensitive children and those struggling with changes will love this story and its hopeful ending.

Cowie

Cowie, by Elizabeth Rose Stanton

Cowie was a donkey who wanted to be a cow. He loved everything about them: their soft ears, their kind eyes, and the that way the grass was always greener on their side of the fence. Cows were the very picture of contentment, and Cowie was the epitome of discontent. He tried standing with the cows and acting like a cow, but he could not be a cow. His friends Duckie and Mousie tried to help out, telling Cowie to moo like a cow, but when he took a deep breath, it came out, “Ooooom.” The silliness continues as the friends try one scheme after another to get the sound to turn out right.

Our church women’s group is currently following a book study on the topic of contentment, so I shared the first half of this book with them. We have all been Cowie at one time or another! Stanton’s illustrations are large, soft, and sweet, with a generous amount of white space. Children will laugh at the animals’ attempts to help this donkey to turn into a cow, showing the dedication and loyalty of true friends. I have a slight quibble with the ending, since the animals solve the problem of the “Moo,” but not—in my mind, at least—the original problem of discontent. Children will probably not see this, but rather will be charmed and amused by the lovely animals and their bumbling adventures.

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

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The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, by Grady Hendrix

Southern Book ClubPatricia has ninety minutes before she has to lead the discussion of Cry, the Beloved Country for the Mount Pleasant women’s book club. She had worked so hard to get into the exclusive little group, and now, for her very first discussion, she hadn’t had time to read the book. She had read the first sentence several times, but something always happened, such as when her daughter had to be driven to one of her many practices or the time her son had to be rushed to the emergency room because he had stuffed 24 raisins up his nose. Despite all of her excuses, she was tossed out of the club. Walking back to her car, she heard, “Pssst!” from the darkness. Some of the other women had decided to start a club of their own, and to Patricia’s shock and dismay, they were going to read true crime novels. Within days, though, she knew that she had found her tribe.

Taking out the trash a few nights later, Patricia was startled to find her unpleasant elderly neighbor rummaging through the cans and snacking on a raccoon. When she heard Patricia, she turned and attacked her, biting off part of her earlobe. The old woman died in the hospital, and her only known relative was her great-nephew James, who had recently shown up to care for her. Patricia thought it would only be proper to bring James a casserole—it was the Southern thing to do. So, with the stitches still adorning her ear, Patricia walked down the street with a taco dish in hand. James didn’t answer the door, so she pushed it open and found James lying down, not breathing. Patricia’s nurse training kicked in, and she immediately started to administer the CPR that he so obviously needed. Except he didn’t.

I am not a reader of horror books, but after the historical fiction novel I had just finished, I was looking for something light. The cover of this book is irresistible: peaches, one with two puncture marks dribbling blood. Furthermore, it’s 1) Southern (check), 2) book club (check), 3) vampires (um…). I don’t know a lot about Grady Hendrix, but he has absolutely nailed the culture—and especially the women—of 1990 Charleston, SC. We lived there for five years in just about the same time period in which this novel is set, and the excruciating correctness is spot on. Although all of the members of the book club are individuals, they display various facets of Southern women of a certain class. Their homes are perfect, their children are in all the right activities, and their world is amazingly narrow. The husbands are in authority, controlling their wives’ choice of friends, activities, and books. This would be a horror novel if only for the husbands.

Hendrix’s writing is absolutely hilarious. He skewers upscale Southern culture with a fondness that reveals an intimate acquaintance. On the other hand, he also scared the daylights out of me. A friend warned me that some of the scenes were gory— and they were— but the scenes of psychological tension were the best. I have had nightmares before where I am running around the house, trying to get all of the doors and windows locked before someone outside gets to them first—or pops up in the glass right in front of me. Yeah, that was in there. I don’t think I breathed for page after page, terrified for Patricia and her children. There were other such scenes that fill the reader with such creeping dread that you can’t turn the pages fast enough.

The tension builds throughout this delicious novel right up to the horrible, disgusting, and totally well-deserved ending. Even though the plot is all about ridding the old-money neighborhood of monsters and McMansions, Patricia is actually finding out about real friendship, women who will show up for you even when it means ruining their shoes and their manicures.

If you have a strong stomach and don’t mind a couple of weirdly sexual scenes, y’all, this book is a hoot.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be available on April 7th. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. #LibraryReads

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A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

Long Petal of the SeaVictor was not the handsome Dalmau brother; that was Guillem, a charmer who had fallen in love with Roser, the young woman his family had rescued. No, Victor was consumed by his desire to be a doctor. His studies were interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, but he received plenty of on-the-job training on the battlefield. The day that he reached into a young man’s open chest and massaged his heart back to life, his reputation as a miracle-working cardiologist began.

But the war churned on. Victor, Roser, and his mother were driven from their homes by Franco’s Fascist forces, and they joined the sea of starving refugees pouring toward the French border. Guillem was killed in battle, his mother despaired, and Roser was pregnant. The famous poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda had chartered a ship to bring Spanish refugees to his home country of Chile, the “long petal of the sea,” but he had a limited number of spaces, and only married couples were welcomed.

The refugees were surprised to find a warm welcome in Chile, but their hearts longed for their home in Spain. For years, Victor hoped to return, but instead found himself running, decades later, to Venezuela to escape the Chilean revolution. New friends and family entered his life, and his definition of “home” began to change.

Spanning generations, this intense and enthralling novel weaves fictional and historic characters together in an unforgettable story. Each chapter opens with a few lines of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and he is portrayed in the book as a friend and confidant of Victor. Isabel Allende’s second cousin and godfather, Salvador Allende, was president of Chile just before the revolution, and he plays a minor role in the story, as well.

Allende observes how huge, worldwide events affect obscure people in life-altering ways, and yet, the slow, invisible workings of the human heart can also change the world forever. She explores the meaning and nature of love, the necessity of courage, and the obstinance of hope. Unlike her novels of magical realism, this is a work of historical fiction that will keep you busy researching South American history and political movements, and it is woven into the author’s own story, as well. Victor and Roser are unforgettable. You will ache for them, hope for them, and be so proud of them.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to all. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Notre Dame, by Ken Follett

Ken Follett Notre DameKen Follett is the author of the bestselling, massive novel Pillars of the Earth and its sequels, so he knows a thing or two about cathedrals. His novels revolve around an imagined medieval town in the process of building a cathedral, a project that spans generations. In preparation for writing his books, Follett did years of research on real cathedrals, not least of which was Notre Dame.

Follett and his wife were at home in England when a friend from Paris called to tell him that the symbol of Paris was burning. He turned on the television and they watched, stunned and tearful. In this little book, subtitled A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals, he relates to us his personal connections with Notre Dame, and then goes on to help the reader understand the importance of this church– and cathedrals in general– to our history, literature, and our shared culture. Without the builders’ desire for these houses of worship to reach closer to heaven and to be filled with more light, our knowledge of architecture would not have taken the leaps of understanding required to move from the heavy, squat Romanesque buildings to the graceful, lacy Gothic spires.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Follett’s own personal favorite literary work dealing with the cathedral, and he writes of it lovingly. He moves through the centuries to talk about the symbolic importance of the edifice during World War II, and then the birth of his own book in the 1980s. Not including the color plates in the center, this book is only 62 pages long and the proceeds from its sale will be donated to rebuild the cathedral. It is less than $14 on Amazon and so worth it.

I prayed in the cathedral of Notre Dame for the first time in my life about five hours before it burned, so I have a lot more to say about that experience. Please go to www.TheReaderWrites.com for a fuller accounting, with photos.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book and then bought a copy to support the rebuilding of the cathedral. My son bought a copy. The library bought 15 copies. You should buy a copy. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mbalia

Tristan StrongTristan met Eddie a few years ago in the school library, where Eddie showed him the notebook full of traditional stories that he was collecting. Eddie didn’t make it through the bus crash, so now all Tristan has left of his best friend is the notebook, and it seems only he can see the green glow peeking out of its pages.

Tristan hasn’t handled life very well since the accident, so his grandparents have come to take him down to their farm in Alabama. He’s just lost a boxing match at school, and his father and grandfather have let him know that Strong men do not lose boxing matches. At this point, Tristan is as low as he’s ever been, so when a little doll made of sap shows up in his room one night trying to steal Eddie’s journal, Tristan ignores his better judgment and takes off after her, smashing into his grandparent’s bottle tree that keeps the evil spirits at bay. Unknowingly, he has ripped a hole in the veil between his home and the world of African folktales, setting that world on fire.

In this thick, action-packed adventure story, Mbalia introduces western readers to a panoply of African gods and goddesses, both good and evil, along with a wealth of African-American folklore. Tristan turns out to be an excellent storyteller, like the spider god Anansi, spinning webs of tales. It is up to Tristan and John Henry to repair the hole in the sky and save his new friends, including Brer Rabbit and his brilliant bunny student, Chesnutt. In order to do so, he has to retrieve the Story Box, which has been stolen from MidPass and taken to a rival kingdom. Tristan’s own mission is to recover Eddie’s journal before he can go home. His friend’s handwritten notebook is mysteriously valuable, and the war to possess it has already caused the death of several beloved characters.

This new novel is part of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint. The bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase series is lending a hand to new writers whose works feature non-western mythologies. For those of us at Wake County Libraries, it is a special treat to know that Mbalia is a Raleigh resident who wrote Tristan Strong in our North Regional Library! I also listened to portions of the audiobook, read by Amir Abdullah, and especially enjoyed the sassy voice he gave to the exasperating Gum Baby.

Since Tristan will no doubt return to MidPass in future installments, parents will be happy to know that– for all the superhero action– Tristan is a great kid who is overcoming his heartbreak and self-doubt, and his strongest epithet is “Sweet peaches!” Highly recommended for fantasy lovers 10 and up, especially those looking for more Percy Jackson readalikes.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book—one of the dozens that I bought! Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Craftsman’s Legacy, by Eric Gorges

Craftsman's LegacyMy husband actually read this one, but he read so much of it aloud to me and we discussed it so thoroughly that I feel as though I read it myself. Based on the PBS television show of the same name, the book’s subtitle, Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning, was the catalyst for me to bring it home from the library for David.

Gorges worked in the corporate world before opening his motorcycle shop, Voodoo Choppers, and becoming a master metal shaper. After considering the changes in his life because of his creative work, he decided to visit craftsmen in other disciplines to examine the influence their handwork wrought on their minds and souls. Deep stuff for a biker.

David and I have been diving into the spiritual aspects of handwork lately, as well, and this book really helped to drive some of our conversations. David has been continuing his generations-long family tradition of woodworking with small and large projects, and perhaps a future of entrepreneurship. A year and a half ago, I checked off a box on my bucket list by learning to knit. Since then, I have become an avid fan of this needlecraft, my favorite in a long list of needlework throughout my life. Each project has taught me a new skill, along with knowledge of the fibers and the history of the stitches. The tactile pleasures of working with wool, silk, and cashmere while crafting warm garments with Celtic-knot cables or open lacework are soothing and satisfying. I liked it so much that I committed myself to knitting five Christmas presents this year, which I will never do again.

Working with one’s hands does absorb the same time that could be used for reading and writing, and I am only so fond of audiobooks, so I will have to take that into consideration in the future. However, David and I both found that handcrafts moved us away from technology and slowed our thinking in ways that were healthy for us. We both believe that God created people in his own image, and part of that image is our innate desire to be sub-creators, as Tolkien expressed it. The growing joy that one feels as a project begins to take shape under our hands, gradually assuming the image that we had in our minds, is a delight that makes us return to our craft again and again. Each time, we also have grown and learned new skills and are able to bring more complex and beautiful works into being. A bit of ourselves is woven into each product, and inanimate objects take on meaning that survives beyond our human lives.

As Gorges visits each artisan, he tries his hand at their craft. Pottery turns out to be much more difficult to throw than he expected, and he marvels at the bulging muscle on the engraver’s carving hand. Glassblowers, woodworkers, and sculptors all have skills developed over years of labor. I was especially interested in the chapter on calligraphy, since that is next on my list of artistic endeavors. I made a stab at it years ago, but my Christmas list this year included split-nib pens, ink, alphabet books, and a light table. We are fixing up a craft room right now, and I hope to have ink-stained fingers in no time. But first, I owe David a scarf.

If you have an itch to create, Eric Gorges will show you how your soul will be enriched by the work of your fingers. Oh, and download an audiobook from your local library while you work.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and my husband’s and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. This column is reprinted at www.TheReaderWrites.com, with additional photographs.

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Beverly, Right Here, by Kate DiCamillo

Beverly Right HereNow that Buddy was dead, no one would care if Beverly Tapinski ran away from home. She hitched a ride to Tamaray Beach in her cousin Joe Travis Joy’s red Camaro and landed a job at Mr. C’s seafood restaurant, busing tables under the watchful eye of Freddie, who was only waitressing until her modeling career really took off. Beverly missed her dog so much that she was determined not to become attached to anyone ever again, but when elderly Iola Jenkins discovered that Beverly had no kin, she invited her into her pink trailer for a tuna melt in exchange for Beverly’s promise to drive Iola wherever she needed to go in her ancient Pontiac. Beverly was only fourteen, but she agreed. What else could she do? When she’d called her mother from the phone booth to tell her that she was okay, her mother had taken a long drag on her cigarette and said, “Whoop-de-do.”

Here, Kate DiCamillo completes the series of companion novels that she began in Raymie Nightingale and continued in Louisiana’s Way Home. These three Floridian girls may have heartbreaking circumstances in their lives, but the love and courage in their hearts propel them forward to create a new life wherever they can. Although Beverly strives to keep all the walls up around her fragile soul, she can’t help but fall for that acne-scourged boy at the checkout counter, the one who is poring over massive volumes of Renaissance art.

DiCamillo’s books explore the tenacity of the human spirit, especially in young people whose caregivers have failed them. We crave connection, and our scarred and vulnerable hearts still reach out in hope, even when our reason warns us to choose stoicism. As a children’s librarian, I have read almost all of DiCamillo’s works, and her delicate sense of humor in the midst of heartbreak glows through all of them. When I recall her many characters, from Despereaux to Flora to Beverly Tapinski, I can’t help but smile.

Highly recommended for 10 and up. All children should grow up with Kate DiCamillo.

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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