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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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Haven, by Emma Donoghue

Three monks set sail in a boat. Thus begins Emma Donaghue’s intensely focused novel set in a religious community during the Dark Ages. Artt is a middle-aged giant of a man whose extreme piety and spiritual experiences set him apart as a saint. When he has a vision in the night, he wakes the abbot with a demand that he let him depart from the monastery for an uncharted island with two brother monks. Not just random men, though. He requires Cormac, a battle-scarred older man who is a recent convert, and young Trian, an innocent young monk whose childhood by the sea will prove invaluable.

Unquestioning obedience was assumed for clergy in those days, but eventually Cormac and Trian realize that Artt is not headed for a particular island, but rather he depends on the Lord to lead them to the right bit of land. After passing by every inhabited site they see, he pulls up on a rocky cliff of a place, with less than one inch of soil, covered with birds of every kind screaming and flapping. Cormac tries to grow vegetables, and when Trian is unable to catch many fish, Artt sets him to killing the birds for food. Artt does not want them to trade with other settlements, nor does he want them to build shelters for themselves, but he does want Trian to begin copying manuscripts for hours each day. Cormac and Trian silently repent for their own lack of faith when compared to this incredibly holy man.

Emma Donoghue wrote this quietly disturbing novel during the pandemic, and it is certainly a study of the effects of isolation on individuals and small communities. Although it is a fictional story, it is set on the actual island of Skellig Michael, a rocky island off the coast of Ireland that shows archeological traces of a small monastic settlement. Donoghue pursues a slow pace, with time to drill deeply into the inner world of each of these three very different men and to observe the struggle that Cormac and Trian endure as their lifelong beliefs crash into their dawning fear and horror.

One might think that fourteen hundred years would remove the reader from the emotions of the story, but history is replete with powerful leaders who have manipulated their followers into performing acts they would have abhorred just a few years earlier. Even in our own small lives, there are always authoritarian narcissists scheming to gain control over groups of willing admirers, and often we don’t wake up and break the spell before innocent people suffer.

Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room was about two people locked in a small shed. This novel is similarly claustrophobic and compelling, even though it takes place on an uninhabited island in the middle of the wild, wind-swept sea.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel from @LittleBrown, which will be published on August 23, 2022. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahIfemelu sits in a shop in Trenton, having her hair braided before she returns to her native Nigeria. She half-listens to the African hair dressers around her as she thinks back over her life—her childhood in Nigeria and her thirteen-year sojourn in the United States—wondering whether she is making the right decision.

The dream of so many of her friends and relatives was to get a visa to live in America and to make it big, sharing the wealth with all of the family they left back home. Reality was jarringly different. No one wanted to hire an African woman. There were financial struggles and struggles of the soul. After a time, she started a blog, explaining black American culture to non-American blacks. Later, she said that she had never felt black until she came to the U.S. “I discovered race in America and it fascinated me.” (p. 499)

The story of Ifemelu’s awakening is a journey of awareness for the reader, as well. Her hopeful and frustrating romances: the experiment, the one who seemed so perfect, the one who got away. Ifemelu desires happiness with another, but the only man who understands her is the Nigerian she grew up with, whom she repeatedly and thoroughly rejected years ago.

Just as a traveler never returns to exactly the same place, so also does a reader never remain the same person after a novel this immersive and wise. We read in order to see the world through the eyes of someone unlike ourselves, and in this absorbing story, we journey with a woman who seeks her fortune in another nation, where there are people who look like her, but do not think like her, and others who look very different. This is a fascinating gaze at our own country through an intimate observer.

Do not miss this bestselling novel by an important author. Adichie’s brilliant and moving Ted Talk on feminism will also allow you to hear her beautiful voice. That accent will follow you all the way through Americanah. In this tumultuous time in our nation, let’s hear from all the reasoned voices, and let’s listen.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a 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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Birth Announcement: TheReaderWrites!

This labor of love called has been so fulfilling for me for the past four years, but it has become more and more obvious that this blog needs to be all about pure book reviews. To that end, I have copied all of the posts on this blog that are my more personal writing, as well as posts about books that go beyond the scope of a simple review, and put them on my new, daughter blog, Head on over there and hit “like” to receive automatic updates.

I will continue to post book reviews on EatReadSleep, but now further discussion of the books, as well as articles and random musings, will be posted on TheReaderWrites. The first topic on TRW will be my home renovation! That’s right, we’ve got some HGTV-worthy things going on here these days! Stay tuned to for all the fun.

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What Was 9-11?

It recently occurred to me—and apparently to all children’s writers and publishers—that we have kids in high school today who were not alive on September 11, 2001. We have college students today who have no memory of this incredible disaster that happened when they were toddlers. As we approach this fifteenth anniversary of mourning, many authors have taken up the pen to help children understand what happened and the effect that it has had on our nation and on the American culture ever since. In addition to the picture book Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, which I reviewed here earlier, I have also read two brand-new, middle grade novels.

Nine TenNora Raleigh Baskin begins her Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story in O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Several families are gathered there, some waiting for loved ones to arrive, others wishing family members good-bye. I had forgotten the days when everyone could crowd right up to the gate and watch the planes take off, and kids who know the security of today’s airports will wonder at these family scenes. From Chicago, one mother goes to New York on business while her family moves to California. Other passengers are going home to New York, and one main character goes to Pennsylvania. From there, the story is told from four different perspectives. Baskin focuses on the children’s lives on September 10th, helping today’s kids to see both an America that is gone forever and that diverse American people share more things in common than their differences would make one expect. They did then, and they still do. The story shows the various ways that citizens around the country experienced the attack itself. In an epilogue, the characters— who do not know one another— are assembled together at the one-year memorial ceremony. An author’s note tells Baskin’s own experience of 9-11 as a Connecticut resident about an hour’s drive from Manhattan.

Towers FallingOn a somewhat older level, Jewell Parker Rhodes tells the story through the eyes of a poverty-stricken, African-American, fifth-grade girl in her novel, Towers Falling. Dejà, her parents, and her two younger siblings have recently moved into a homeless shelter for families. Dejà’s father is so sick that he can no longer hold down a job, and although her mother sometimes works extra shifts, her family barely has enough to eat. In her new school in Brooklyn, the teachers have begun teaching the children about something that happened in Manhattan on a site that they can see from the school windows. All of the children know more about it than Dejà, who doesn’t see how history lessons are going to help her pull herself out of poverty and attain her life’s goal: to buy the biggest house in the world. Sabeen, a wealthy Muslim girl, and Ben, a boy who recently moved from Arizona when his parents divorced, become her close friends as they work on school projects together. Ben and Dejà go beyond their teachers’ guidelines to travel to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center, where they are faced with more information than may be appropriate for ten-year-olds. Confronting these memories, however, may help bring healing to Dejà’s family.

Either of these novels could be an excellent companion to a discussion of September 11th for your family. Ms. Rhodes’ novel digs more deeply into the actual events and the reasoning behind it, but it also describes the attack in fairly horrific detail, including people jumping from the burning buildings and the towers collapsing on people inside. I did find Dejà’s complete ignorance of the event difficult to believe, but I have never been in her environment, so I will withhold judgment. Both books included Muslim characters, notably female in both instances, since the hijab caused them to stand out in public. In Baskin’s novel, Muslim harassment was expressed, whereas in Towers Falling, discrimination was felt by Sabeen, which was even more interesting, considering that Nine, Ten takes place fifteen years ago and Towers Falling takes place in the present time. While Towers Falling focuses completely on New York, Nine, Ten has one character in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and mentions the attack on the Pentagon, as well.

14 Cows for AmericaI cannot leave a discussion of books about September 11th without mentioning one of my favorites, 14 Cows for America, by Carmen Agra Deedy, published in 2009. Rather than focusing on the event itself, this picture book tells a true, related story about a diplomat from Kenya who was in New York at the time, and then returns to the Maasai people to try to explain it to them. Their beautiful gesture of sympathy will restore your faith in humanity by showing one culture reaching out to grieving people halfway around the world, and the receiving nation treating their gift with great honor and appreciation. There is love in the world, after all.

As we come up on this somber anniversary, it is reassuring to know that gifted writers are creating stories that can help families to explain to their children, in age-appropriate ways, an unfathomable tragedy that happened to us, to them, to our nation just fifteen short years ago.


Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Nine, Ten, and library copies of Towers Falling and 14 Cows for America. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo

Raymie NightingaleRaymie Clarke’s father has left town with a dental hygienist, and she is convinced that if she wins the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest, he will see her picture in the newspaper and want to come back. To that end, she has decided that she has to take baton-twirling lessons from Ida Nee, who is famous and has an office covered with baton-twirling trophies. When she arrives at her first lesson, Raymie meets Louisiana Elefante, daughter of the Flying Elefantes, who has “swampy lungs” and faints at the slightest provocation, and Beverly Tapinski, one tough little chick who refuses to answer questions about the bruise on her eye. These two become Raymie’s best friends, the “Three Rancheros,” who set out to do great deeds, such as to recover Raymie’s library book about Florence Nightingale and save Louisiana’s cat from an animal shelter.

Kate DiCamillo is such a decorated middle-grade author that her books become classics as the letters leave her fingers for the screen. Her pitch-perfect language and her ability to write lightly and humorously while dealing with deep, painful issues show her grasp of her young audience, acknowledging their struggles without overwhelming them with adult expectations. Raymie is at an age where the adults in her life have tremendous influence, and she literally sits at the feet of her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Borkowski, and follows the advice of her swimming instructor to “flex your toes and isolate your objectives.” As an earnest young lady, she does the very best she can—even though that is sometimes not what she thought it should be—but Raymie eventually learns that she cannot control everything that happens in her life, and even more importantly, that she is not responsible for other people’s decisions, and she may never understand them. A moving, semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story that is a joy to read.

Very highly recommended.


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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Where Are the Gangsters?

Chicago DuskBefore last week, when I thought of Chicago, it was dirty, dark, and violent. Have I seen too many movies? My trip to Chicago for Book Expo America showed me a completely different side of the town! Granted, our hotel was in the “North River” area, and I never ventured into the South Side to see Leroy Brown, but our visit was spectacular.

Devil in the White CityAs a librarian should, I read some books before getting on the plane. Besides Fodor’s and Lonely Planet’s guides to Chicago, I read The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. This nonfiction account of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 introduces the reader to the leading names in architecture of the time, the men (and one woman) who built what they considered the first truly American city. If you can stomach the chapters on the serial killer who was quietly causing young women to disappear at the time of the fair, this book reads like an exciting novel. Larson laces in the names of many historical figures who wove in and out of Chicago’s narrative at the turn of the last century.

Chicago Art Institute

The Art Institute of Chicago

David was able to accompany me on the trip, and we caught a morning flight so that we could take in the Art Institute in the afternoon. It was glorious! So many treasures that I had always wanted to see. We did not have time to go to the special Van Gogh exhibit—the museum closes at 5:00!— but they had other works of his in their permanent collection, anyway. Here are some of my favorites.


First Impressionist room

First sight upon walking into the Impressionist Wing

Paris Street on a Rainy Day

They are staring at Paris Street; Rainy Day, by Caillebotte. I could only get close enough to take this crooked picture!


Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper. As stark and captivating in real life as I’d imagined.

American Gothic

American Gothic, by Grant Wood. The artist’s niece and his dentist.

Mary Cassatt

The Child’s Bath, by Mary Cassatt












Lou Malnati 2That first evening, we crossed another “must” off of our list by sampling Chicago-style deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, recommended by a friend who is a former Chicagoan. It tasted fresh and delicious, but I have to say that New York pizza is the real thing for this east-coast girl.

Cubs gameI had professional sessions all day and night the next day, which I’ll get to in a later article, but David took advantage of the time by taking in a Cubs game. Since he’s a South Carolina guy, he’s never met a stranger, so he made friends with a Michigan couple in the hotel elevator who were also headed to the game. They taught him all about the train system, and they rode together to Wrigley Field. David took pictures of the houses all around the field that have benches on the roof! The owners rent the space. Clever! David got a ticket for a cheap seat online, but as the game wore on, the ushers wore out, and he was able to wander down to snap a photo this close.


Architecture Foundation boat

The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river tour of the city was a highlight of our trip. Even though it was a chilly, cloudy morning, this 90-minute cruise featured all three branches of the Chicago River, narrated by a brilliant architect/ docent who knew all of the technical information as well as fascinating anecdotes of Chicago history. I discovered, to my own surprise, that my favorite styles of architecture were Art Deco and Post-Modern. Although it started to rain and the temperature dropped to what would be winter temps in North Carolina by the time we got to the edge of Lake Michigan, this tour was worth every penny. If you go to Chicago, do not miss it. Here are some of my favorite buildings:


Right in front as we start off, the modernist masterpiece by a man we can’t escape even when we turn off the TV.









Wrigley Building

The Wrigley Building, built for the man who accidentally made a fortune from chewing gum.









Curved green building far

The long view of 333 Wacker Drive, a postmodern building that curves with the riverfront.









Curved green building close up

A close-up of 333 Wacker Drive that shows the rippling, blue-green glass that reflects the river water. This is possibly my favorite building.









Wedge Bottom building

As you can imagine, real estate is at a premium in downtown Chicago, so architects get creative. If you look closely, you will see that the glass building in the center is being built on a wedge-shaped base, as if it were an arrow thrust into the ground. Amazing engineering.

Willis Tower fog

The top of the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, peeking from the clouds.

Triangle condos

Some postmodern architects love triangles, and…

Curved condos

some like curves.











Bridge Going Up

The many bridges really work!

David Tilt Chicago

After professional workshops that afternoon, our entire group of librarians was invited to the Sourcebooks Publishers cocktail party at the top of the Hancock building, Chicago 360. What a view! The entire room on the 94th floor is surrounded by ceiling to floor windows. David took photos for hours, catching the changing light over the city and the shores of Lake Michigan. The picture at the top of this post was from this vantage point, and my husband was brave enough to do the Tilt! They put you in a little glass box and tilt it out 30 degrees so that you look down on the city. Although the light was behind him, I can attest that he is the person all the way to the right. At the maximum tilt, he let go of the handles and spread out his arms like Superman. A couple of my colleagues also took the dare. I stood a safe distance away and had an extra cocktail in their honor.

IMG_3328We ended the week at Quartino’s Italian Restaurant, where I had a bowl of tentacles. Not what I expected, but the Frutti di Mare featured more octopus than I had anticipated. We shared lots of other goodies, so it was alright. Great food and a lively place filled with locals. An excellent finish to our trip!


But wait! There’s more! The real reason for our journey to the north was the Book Expo America. In the next posts, I’ll let you in on all the book news and views that I learned from authors and publishers in one info-packed week.

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Meanwhile, Back on the Right

Miss Manners might say that it is impolite to talk about politics or religion in public, but since most of what I talk about in private is politics and religion, and since these are such extraordinary times, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if I let you know what I will be putting in the mail tomorrow morning.

The Republican party establishment and the anarchist group Anonymous seem to be strange bedfellows, but it’s even stranger to watch a slate of seventeen of the best candidates the Republican party has had in years being boiled down to Donald Trump. When I marveled to my son that I had never actually met a Trump supporter, he replied, “Yes, Mother, that’s because you work in a library.” It’s true that probably most of the people I work with are Clinton supporters, and most of the people I go to church with are probably Cruz supporters. Until last week, I continued to be an ardent, though lonely, Rubio supporter, because he was super-smart, honest, and reflected my values better than anyone else.

Now that he is gone, it would seem natural for me to gravitate to Cruz, and while I would hold my nose and vote for him, he is just not my guy, for reasons that I cannot list without offending a lot of my favorite people. Not that it matters, because Trump is almost impossible to beat at this point. The rioters can riot, and the establishment can contest, but without a full-on revolution, he will win the nomination. And here is the story that the media have missed completely: The strongest group of voters opposed to Trump are traditional conservatives. Not liberals, not the Republican Party establishment. Conservatives.

At the very beginning of the primary season, when everyone thought he didn’t even have a chance, those of us who are people of faith listened to his hateful rhetoric and turned away in disgust. I have no problem voting for someone who does not share my faith if I believe that person is the best qualified, has good values, and will protect my right to religious freedom. I will not vote for someone who spreads hatred toward entire ethnic groups, or spews ignorant, misogynist remarks, or would force American soldiers to murder babies because of their fathers’ sins. Furthermore, it is so obvious that he has no particular position on– or even knowledge of– the many issues facing our nation. He was fine with partial-birth abortion not long ago; I can watch him saying so over and over. Now I’m supposed to believe that he’s pro-life? He has fallen flat on his face so often in the debates when trying to explain his positions, but his supporters don’t seem to notice! When asked about Cuba during the last debate, he danced around it, and then listened to Rubio explain the situation and his solution, after which Trump more or less added, “Yeah. What he said.” I texted my sister, “Look! He just evolved in 30 seconds!” None of this moves his supporters. I don’t understand.

Once his nomination began to look inevitable, the Republican Party and its operatives, such as Sean Hannity, began to announce that all good Republicans should rally ’round the nominee and support Donald Trump. Excuse me? I don’t know about you, but I chose a political party by seeing which one reflected my opinions the best, so that they could put people in office who would enact and enforce laws that I believe are just and right. In other words, I expect them to work for me. And what did I get? Weak, establishment candidates like McCain and Romney. Now I am supposed to support a ridiculous bigot for the good of the party. What has the Republican Party ever done for me? My votes are moral choices for me, and voting for this hateful man would be immoral. I will not do it. And as for the line, “But if you don’t vote for Trump, Hillary will win!” I say, “And?” I do not see Trump as the lesser of two evils, either.

The Republican Party and the media believe that the Evangelical vote went to Trump. I think that the church has a lot of soul-searching to do, particularly the parents who are sending their children to a certain large university, but in my mind, Trump got the “God and country” crowd, those who think that being a Christian and being an American are the same thing. Those who think that sending little children “back” to a place they’ve never seen is somehow consistent with Biblical teaching on compassion toward foreigners and sojourners. However, I go to church and know hundreds of other Christians who do not attend my church, and as I said, I’ve never heard any of them say that they support Trump. Most are openly supporting Ted Cruz.

How surprised the Republican establishment and the media will be when Trump secures the nomination and they hear that giant sucking sound as traditional conservatives pull themselves out of the Republican Party, finally acknowledging that it hasn’t been our home for quite a while. We’ve been used.

I had just been ranting about this to my longsuffering husband when I saw Franklin Graham on television talking about his Decision America movement. I listened cautiously, fully aware of other prominent clergymen’s recent sycophantic falls from grace, but when he started out with, “I am here to announce that I have left the Republican Party…,” I knew he was on to something. He is traveling the country, encouraging the church to repent of the sins of the nation, and he did not feel that he could be considered honest if he had a party affiliation. There’s a movement I can get behind.

So, I did it. I called the Board of Elections with my questions, and then downloaded and filled out the form on their website, and I am leaving the Republican Party. I am now an unaffiliated voter. No rallying ’round required. In North Carolina, I can still vote in primary elections, and I will vote in November for the other important races. I may write in a presidential candidate, as well, but I will never vote for Donald Trump.

I feel so free! Still doomed, yes, but free.


Sorry about the lack of pictures. I considered a picture of Trump, but I just couldn’t bear it.


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Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the SeaJoana is a Lithuanian girl whose nursing skills could be her passport home. Florian is a fancy name, but perhaps it fits this young art forger. Emilia has secrets: one is her Polish origin, and the other may be her only reason for living. Alfred writes imaginary letters to his beloved Hannelore. He is eager to show her that the other boys were wrong to make fun of him for not joining the Hitler Youth; he can be a better Nazi than all of them. All four of these characters tell their intertwined stories as they run with thousands of others to the ships that can take them away from war. Some run from Hitler, some from Stalin, but all of them pour down the Baltic states, away from violence and brutality, perhaps to hope and a future. But if they fail, they will become just so much salt to the sea.

Ruta Sepetys once again draws upon her grandparents’ stories of Lithuanian oppression under Stalin to bring us a story we need to remember: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and the loss of over 9,000 lives in the Baltic Sea. These numbers dwarf those of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined, but we have heard the stories of these more famous shipwrecks repeatedly. Sepetys is passionate to expose the horrors of the Stalin regime, which have remained hidden through all the decades of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. Her award-winning debut, Between Shades of Gray, describes the agonies of the Siberian concentration camps during World War II, camps that were not revealed to the world at the end of the war, as Hitler’s camps were. Salt to the Sea tells another story of young men and women with promising futures whose lives were forever altered—and some whose minds were forever bent—because of the actions of powerful people far away.

Besides her important subjects, Sepetys creates fully-realized characters and a compelling plot combined with writing that is filled with emotion, but eschews sentimentality. Her sentences are sharp, but beautiful. Here are some excerpts from the very end of four quick chapters. I won’t tell you who is speaking in each one:

Fate is a hunter.

Its barrel pressed against my forehead.


Guilt is a hunter.

I was its hostage.


Shame is a hunter.

My shame was all around me now.


You see, fear is a hunter. It encircles us when we are unarmed and least expect it. And then we are forced to make decisions.

Your decision… was the wrong one.*

This is a must-read for all middle and high school units on World War II, and for any adults who might think it’s not such a big deal that Putin is trying to reclaim the Baltic States. We all need to hear these hidden stories.

Very highly recommended.


*Pages 347, 349, 351, and 353.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be published on February 2nd. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye StrangerBridget roller-skated right into an oncoming car when she was eight years old. It’s a wonder she survived, and her doctor told her that she must have been put on this earth for a reason. She’s still searching for that reason.

Now Bridge (not Bridget!) is in seventh grade, wears a headband with cat ears all the time, and sometimes freezes before she crosses the street in her New York City home. One of her best friends, Emily, has been launched into puberty well before her classmates, and is suddenly the focus of many boys in their school, including an older boy who encourages her to send pictures of herself via text. Bridge’s other best friend, Tabitha, has become the devoted follower of a stridently feminist teacher. Tab now views all of her friends’ actions through a critical lens and is passionate about social activism. Bridge is struggling to adjust to all of the changes in her relationships, but one thing she knows for sure: her friendship with Sherm is just friendship. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. No, certainly not.

Rebecca Stead, the Newbery-winning author of the brilliant When You Reach Me, tells this story in three voices. The chapters are mostly the third-person narrative about Bridge and her friends, interspersed with unsent letters from Sherm to his grandfather— who recently left his grandmother after fifty years of marriage—  and chapters from an unknown narrator, written in the second person. It was somewhat startling to turn the page and read that second-person voice for the first time: “You should have known about Vinny. You did know.” (p. 20) The identity of the speaker remains a mystery until almost the end of the book.

On one level, this is the tried-and-true middle school novel: growing up, navigating family problems, old friends becoming strangers, the first consideration of romance, and wondering whether you are still the same person you were in third grade. Stead, however, raises that level because of her well-developed characters, the unexpected rotation of the point of view, and the introduction of issues that are unique to this generation right this minute. Sherm was probably my favorite character. He is smart and loving, but so wounded. He is just at an age where he can begin to understand his grandmother’s pain and recognize her dignity, and he is determined to be righteous and true to her.

This is one of my favorite Newbery contenders this year, and it would be a great read for anyone ten and up. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book (which means I bought seventeen of them). Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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