Tuesday, June 11, 2019


Title: Dress
Author: Anna Harris-Parker
Genre: poetry, Georgia author, Augusta author

I have a confession to make: as much as I love reading, I have a difficult time finding poetry that speaks to me. That said, one of my friends, Anna Harris-Parker recently published her first book of poems, Dress, and though I don't know a lot about poetry, I attended her release party to support her and the literary community in Augusta.

The concept and layout of Dress is based on some fashion advice Anna's grandmother gave to her: "Always buy a CCC dress so you can wear it to church, the cemetery, or a cocktail party." (Great advice, right?). Each section features poems that highlight pivotal moments in life: 

Church: faith (loss of faith, search for faith) 
Cemetery: loss (romantic relationships, friendships, death)
Cocktail: love (meeting The One, weddings, family heritage)

During the Q&A section of her reading, Anna told the crowd that the poems in this book are a compilation of 10 years' worth of writing. She also encouraged aspiring writers and poets to find the writing method and mindset that works best for them and to be prepared for multiple rejection letters from publishing houses. 

Still intrigued? You can purchase a copy of Dress here

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go
Author: Patrick Ness
Genre: book club pick, book-to-movie, scifi, dystopian, young adult

At the beginning of The Knife of Never Letting Go, our protagonist, Todd Hewitt is one month away from his 13th birthday. Thirteenth birthdays are special in Prentisstown since this is when a boy  "becomes a man." Becoming a man in Prentisstown is a mysterious process, and since Todd is the youngest resident, he is the last boy to reach manhood.

By now you're probably wondering when the girls of Prentisstown are considered women. Well, this never happens because there are no women in Prentisstown. They were killed by the Noise germ before Todd was born. Not only is Prentisstown a unique community because all the residents are males, it's also unique because the residents can hear each other's thoughts- they even hear the thoughts of animals (which comes in handy when trying to avoid crocodiles in the nearby swamp). The males of Prentisstown hear each other's thoughts all the time and there is no way to tune out the Noise (and it's invasive, frustrating, and uncomfortable, to say the least).

While Todd is literally counting the days to adulthood, he makes a startling discovery in the swamp that changes his life forever. His discovery is dangerous, although he doesn't know why at first, and since thoughts are public information in Prentisstown, the older men soon find out about his secret. Todd is sent away from town by his two adoptive fathers who give him a pre-packed backpack full of supplies, his mother's journal, and these vague instructions: "You ain't coming back, Todd... you can't...There's a map...but don't look at it, not till yer well outta town, okay? Just go to the swamp. You'll know what to do from there" (49, 51).

While running from the Prentisstown residents, Todd finds a girl in the swamp (Viola). Todd learns that Viola has secrets of her own- secrets he can't hear. Todd's worldview is literally expanded in his escape. He was told that Prentisstown was the only settlement on New World; Todd learns this is false. He also learns that the other settlements know more about the true history of Prentisstown than he does- a history he was shielded from for his own protection.

This was an awesome book- I read 300 pages in a few hours only to find out it ends on a cliffhanger!! This book club pick inspired a lively discussion about power, control, and masculinity. After you read it, let me know what themes stood out to you. Stay tuned for the movie version to be released in 2020 (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2076822/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1).

Monday, April 1, 2019

Houdini vs. Rasputin

Title: Houdini vs. Rasputin
Author: C. Michael Forsyth
Genre: historical fiction, historical mystery, adventure

Another action-packed historical adventure featuring America's most beloved magician- Harry Houdini! This book takes place in Russia in the years 1903-1911, about a decade before C. Michael Forsyth's other historical fiction novel about Harry Houdini, The Adventure of the Spook House. The book opens with Harry escaping from a padlocked train car in Siberia, much to the consternation of the chief of the secret police. The favorable press piques the attention of the Tsar, and soon the Houdinis are performing in front of the royal court. Harry accidentally exposes the Tsarina's spiritual adviser as a fraud, in front of everyone at a dinner party (oops!). Although Harry angers certain members of the royal family over this showdown, the Tsar and Tsarina summon the Houdinis back to Russia eight years later to entertain the royal children. While staying in the royal palace, the Houdinis meet the infamous and creepy Rasputin, who holds the royal family in his spiritual sway while engaging in certain distasteful behaviors on the streets. 

Harry is soon recruited by the secret police to catch Rasputin in the act, and Harry's wife, Bess, joins in the investigation, too.  And why do the secret police care about a stinky, creepy healer? The more Rasputin hangs around the royal children and the royal family, the more his personal political power and influence grows: "You revealed Monsieur Philippe to be a fraud. We hope that you can do the same for Rasputin. You must break his spell over the Tsarina, or the nation will fall into ruin. Revolution, blood in the streets- and I am being quite literal" (Chapter 10). 

Harry traces Rasputin through the streets of Saint Petersburg and follows Rasputin's past in the Russian countryside. What Harry finds is a mystic and healer with uncontrolled, evil impulses. Rasputin and his henchmen seem to be everywhere and aware of Harry's every move. Harry almost dies during one of his public escape tricks, is almost burned alive in a barn, and is chased by Rasputin himself through the snowy landscape of Siberia. While Harry is creating new escape scenarios to entertain the public and pursuing the evil mystic during a group cleansing ceremony, he meets Lenin and the beginnings of the Bolsheviks, and almost has a run in with a young Stalin. Add in motorcycles, horses, and reindeer (oh my!) and you have an action-packed adventure mystery set in the last days of the Russian empire. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019


Title: Vox
Author: Christina Dalcher
Genres: feminist fiction, dystopian, book club pick

Imagine a world where every word matters...literally. You have a daily limit of 100 words and this limit is monitored through a bracelet locked around your wrist. If you go over your 100-word limit, a painful, electric shock courses through your body. If you continue to speak, each subsequent shock is more painful than the last. So what horrible is this used as a punishment? Being born a female.

The world of Vox echoes many of the same plot points as The Handmaid's Tale: an extremist religious group takes over the government quickly and shuts down the rights and freedoms of the female population. Birth control is outlawed. Women are forced to leave their jobs and all acts of reading are illegal. In THT, women could't even drive although this is allowed in the Vox universe. Mail can only be delivered to the male head of household (women don't have keys to their own family's mailbox). All passports, reading materials, and electronic devices are taken away from women and locked by their husbands. Recipe books, pens, paper, magnets with words- all gone. The husbands also control the key to the word-counting device on their wives' wrists. Adulterous women are sent to work farms in the western US and their wrist counters are set to zero (they can't talk at all). All women are forced to live with their closest male relative. If a woman has no male relative she is forced into a life of prostitution, serving the desires of the male populace (married and single). LGBTQ individuals are sent to prison camps and never heard from again. When a woman is caught breaking the law, her head is shaved, and she is publicly shamed on national television before she is shipped off to a work camp. Government surveillance of the citizens is amped up in an attempt to catch women trying to subvert the rules through nonverbal forms of communication. Girls' education is focused on math and home economics, "One day my daughter will be expected to shop and run a household, to be a devoted and dutiful wife. You need math for that, but not spellin. Not literature. Not a voice" (2). 

Dr. Jean McClellan silently chafes at these rules but her new world is unexpectedly turned upside down when the US President personally asks for her help in finding a cure for his brother after his brother suffered extensive brain damage in a skiiing accident. Dr. McClellan is a sociolinguist specializing in finding a cure for stroke victims's speech loss in the Wernicke's area of the brain. In exchange for her research time, Dr. McClellan gets to experience bits of her old life: work in the lab, no wrist counter, reading, and use of her laptop. Unfortunately, she and her team have a tight deadline and they are constantly watched by government agents. Of course, the government wants Dr. McClellan's research and cure for more than the president's brother...

This book started out as five stars for me but I ended up downgrading it to four stars. While I enjoyed the quick plot and short chapters, I felt the ending was rushed and I was very disappointed when a major moment of comeuppance happened off the page. At first all the men in the book are portrayed as weenies or jerks, but eventually a few allies appear in the plot. One of the members of my book club didn't like how the book portrayed only kind of Christian (the controlling, extremist kind) without also including some moderate Christians that were against these new laws. Due to the quick nature of the book, there were some unanswered questions for me:
A whole nation of men let the government install wrist counters on their wives and there were no protests from the male citizens?
If nonverbal communication between women was forbidden, what happened to deaf women? In one scene, Dr. McClellan sees two mothers and their toddlers communicating in a made up sign language. The women and children were promptly whisked away, never to be seen again. 
In the Acknowledgments page, the author mentions that she wrote the book in two months. This is an admirable feat since I imagine it's difficult to write a book in any amount of time, but I wonder if the book could have benefited from a bit more editing to answer those questions and add a bit more detail to the plot. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Banned/Challenged Books Double Feature

**This post originally appeared on a Banned/Challenged Books discussion board for my Children's Literature class**

Title: Habibi
Author: Craig Thompson
Genre: graphic novel, magical realism, mythology, banned or challenged book

I just finished reading Habibi and, oh my goodness, I don’t even know where to begin my review. At 672 pages, there is a lot of material and themes to process. First off, I would like to mention the positive aspects of the book: the plot is interwoven with magical realism, Islamic mythology, beautiful Islamic artwork, and intricate calligraphy (this book contains the prettiest and most ornate title page I have ever seen). Some aspects of the book that will make some readers uncomfortable are violence, rape, abuse, full frontal female nudity (and lots of it), lack of female agency, and male characters that epitomize “Western culture’s sheik stereotype of Arab men as overly sexualized, brutal, and greedy rapists” (Miller, 2016).
Habibi is told from the alternating viewpoints of Dodola and Zam who have both experienced various forms of tragedy and trauma in their young lives. Dodola’s family sold her at age 9 into marriage to ward off starvation due to drought. Her husband was a scribe and taught her to read and write. Dodola and her husband were separated after thieves broke into their house, kidnapped Dodola, and killed her husband. Dodola and Zam met at the slave market after Dodola found him abandoned and saved him from the slavers’ swords. After a daring escape through the market and sewers, they stowaway on a carpet-laden camel that’s part of a desert caravan.
Although they find sanctuary in their ship of the desert, life is still not easy for Dodola and Zam. Dodola takes care of Zam in a motherly fashion but soon learns that survival for a woman in the desert includes treating her body as a commodity. Dodola tries to shield Zam from this harsh reality but after he discovers her secret, he takes on some “breadwinning duties” to protect her. Dodola and Zam lived in their desert dwelling for nine years until Dodola was kidnapped and taken to the sultan’s palace as a prize. Dodola enters into a bargain with the sultan for her freedom, which the sultan reneges on at the last minute. Soon Dodola becomes pregnant and grief, guilt, and worry over Zam consume her during the course of her pregnancy.
While Dodola is trapped in the palace walls, Zam’s also finds survival difficult alone on the abandoned desert boat. He heads to the nearest town, lives on the streets, and barely survives on menial labor. A woman from the local hijra community takes him under her wing and introduces him to their beliefs and lifestyle: “You called me a pervert? Why? Because I cut off my manhood? I did it to give myself wholly to God. I am not a pervert. I am an ASCETIC, and my community is my monastery” (Thompson, 2011, p. 328). At first Zam believes that Nahid and the others are perverts but Zam eventually becomes a eunuch to quench his carnal desires for women; since Dodola disappeared he can’t stop thinking about her in a sexual manner. The hijras earn their money and food by visiting weddings and new mothers and yelling. Since the hijras are looked upon as freaks, the locals give them food and money to make them go away. While Nahid became a hijra for spiritual enlightenment, others become a hijra for more sensual reasons. When Ghaniyah, the biggest wage earner of the hijras, is brutally attacked and raped, Zam is coerced by the others to prostitute himself so that the whole community can survive, thus mirroring Dodola’s survival-by-prostitution. Fortunately, Zam never fulfills the role of prostitute since his first customer is a human trafficker who kidnaps Zam and sends him straight to the sultan’s palace- where Dodola is!
Once again, they escape, mirroring their first journey through the sewers which makes Dodola gravely ill due to the pollution and disease in the city’s water supply. They are taken in by Noah who “fishes” the sewers for treasures he can give to his fellow citizens. This is where the book turned weird for me. Noah started out happy-go-lucky until his water converter contraption exploded in his home and then he takes a fatalistic tone, “Our species is destined to consume itself…We’ve poisoned the earth, and we’ve poisoned ourselves” (Thompson, 2011, p. 505). Eventually, Dodola and Zam rebuild a life for themselves and save a little girl from the slave market.
I enjoyed the artistry of the book overall but there were some parts I found confusing. When the story is told from Dodola’s viewpoint, her time in the sultan’s palace is intertwined with flashbacks from her childhood, meeting Zam, and living with Zam on the boat. I felt the non-linear storytelling to be very jarring at first. I was also confused when in time this story takes place- I assumed it was before the modern era because of the sultan’s harem, but once Dodola starts walking around Wanatolia, there are cars, Pepsi signs, and people wearing a mixture of traditional Arabic garments and modern Western fashion. Also, the environmental aspect seemed to come out of nowhere and felt out of place with the rest of the themes and content of the book.
I loved the imagery of the book and I wish there was an author’s note at the back explaining some of the imagery and suggestions for further reading. There were lots of references to rivers and water in the beginning of the book when Dodola and Zam are living in the middle of the desert:
·       “From the Divine Pen fell the first drop of ink. And from a drop, a river” (p. 9)
·       “an ocean of sand” (p. 24)
·       “Once there had been a river here…meandering…a muted voice” (p.30-31)
The number 9 was mentioned repeatedly in the book but when I tried to research the significance of the number 9 in Islam and Islamic mythology, I really couldn’t find anything, so I don’t know if this has cultural significance or if the number 9 has personal meaning for the author: “Zam was twelve when we were torn apart. He was three when we met. He is 9 years younger. We spent nine years together. For nine months, someone else has grown in my womb” (Thompson, 2011, p.109).
I would reserve my recommendation for this book for mature teenagers and adults and warn them that is triggering content that some readers might find disturbing and traumatic if they have suffered past trauma themselves.
This book has earned mixed reviews which you can read at the below links. While reading Habibi did any of the concerns listed in these articles come to your mind?
Recommended Readalikes:
The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones. This Tor.com review compares this fantasy/action/adventure describes this novel as “Sherlock Holmes crossed with The Arabian Nights except Watson has a sword” and “a cross between Sinbad and Indiana Jones.”
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson is an alternative historical fiction novel that looks at how history might have changed if the bubonic plague in 14th century Europe had killed 99% of the European population and Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations became the superpowers in the pre-modern and modern eras.

Charlton, B. (2011). Arabian culture myth as fantasy: an interview with debut historical fantasist Howard Jones. Retrieve from https://www.tor.com/2011/02/18/howard-jones-interview/
Creswell. R. (2011). The graphic novel as orientalist mash-up. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/books/review/habibi-written-and-illustrated-by-craig-thompson-book-review.html
Damluji, N. (2017). The spectre of orientalism in Craig Thompson’s Habibi. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@ndamluji/the-spectre-of-orientalism-in-craig-thompsons-habibi-dde9d499f403
Jones, H.A. (2011). The desert of souls. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Miller, M. (2016). Let’s talk about banned books: Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi is powerful and problematic. Retrieved from  https://thehumanist.com/arts_entertainment/books/lets-talk-banned-books-craig-thompsons-graphic-novel-habibi-powerful-problematic
Robinson, K.S. (2003). The years of rice and salt. New York: Bantam Books.
Thompson, C. (2011). Habibi. New York: Pantheon.

Title: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Genres and Themes: YA, realistic fiction, banned or challenged book, teen suicide

The second book I chose for this week was Thirteen Reasons Why; I remember this was a controversial book-to-TV adaptation when it was released on Netflix a year or two ago. I remember from various social media posts that teens seemed to love the show, but some adults thought it glorified suicide. I never watched the show since I always try to read the book first, but now that I have read the book, I don’t think suicide was glorified at all. The book was extremely well written, I could barely put it down, so now I will have to watch the show soon and find out for myself if all the fussing was justified.

There are two protagonists with intersecting, first person narratives in this book; it sounds confusing but it’s not. The reader views Clay’s emotional suffering and thoughts along with Hannah’s even though the events affecting both of them took place at different times. Hannah’s story arc unfolded over a few years, while the reader views the world through Clay’s eyes over a few days. Clay, along with his high school, is grieving the suicide of his major crush and classmate, Hannah Baker, when a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep: 13 cassette tapes narrated by Hannah:

“I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why….The rules are pretty simple. There are only two. Rule number one. You listen. Rule number two. You pass it on. Hopefully, neither one will be easy for you. When you’re done listening to all thirteen sides- because there are thirteen sides to every story-rewind the tapes, put them back in the box, and pass them on to whoever follows your little tale” (Asher, 2007, p. 8-10).

So, who contributed to Hannah’s death?
Justin Foley- Hannah’s first kiss although Justin started rumors that lied and exaggerated what really happened between them. (And that’s when Hannah’s reputation problem began. Once Clay heard the truth about the kiss and the aftermath, he realized, “Her reputation started in Justin Foley’s imagination” (Asher, 2007, p. 39).

Alex Standall- voted Hannah “Best Ass in Freshman Class.” Of course, this did not help Hannah’s reputation and certain male classmates felt the need to capitalize on this. “Every single event documented here may never have happened had you, Alex, not written my name on that list. It’s that simple. You needed someone to put down opposite Jessica’s. And once everyone at school already had a perverted image of me after Justin’s little number, I was the perfect choice, wasn’t I?” (Asher, 2007, p. 41).

Jessica Davis- Hannah started her freshman year hanging out with Jessica and the above-mentioned Alex. All three of them were freshmen and new to the town. But Alex ruined it with his “special” list and it drove a wedge between Hannah and Jessica because of the “Hot/Not” designation.

Tyler Down- peeping Tom. Hannah and Courtney Crimsen caught him hanging outside of Hannah’s bedroom window, taking photographs, and participating in certain other activities.

Courtney Crimsen- Hannah’s fairweather friend. She helped Hannah with the Peeping Tom issue and then ignored Hannah for weeks. Courtney has a reputation for being “perfect” but Hannah saw through Courtney’s façade pretty quickly.

Marcus Pooley- asks Hannah out on an ice cream date and then shows up 30 minutes late because he viewed it as a joke. Marcus then proceeds to try and feel up Hannah’s leg.

Zach Dempsey- awkwardly attempts to ask her out immediately after Hannah pushes away Marcus (Zach, seriously needs to work on his timing). He steals notes from Hannah’s paper bag in their Peer Communication class. “It’s there that I first started to consider…a word that I still cannot say” (Asher, 2007, p.161). “My world was collapsing. I needed those notes. I needed any hope those notes might have offered…You took that hope away. You decided I didn’t serve to have it” (Asher, 2007, p.165).
Ryan Shaver- editor of the school’s newspaper. He stole Hannah’s most personal poem and published it in the school paper. “School hadn’t been a safe haven of mine for a long time. And after your photo escapade, Tyler, my home was no longer secure. Now, suddenly, even my own thoughts were being offered up for ridicule” (Asher, 2007, p. 192).

Clay Jensen- Clay is the only person on this list that was kind to Hannah and treated her like a human being. Hannah’s quote about his reputation shows how his reputation amongst their peers was in complete opposition to her reputation: “Most of what I knew was secondhand information and that’s why I wanted to know him better. Because everything I heard- and I mean everything!- was good” (Asher, 2007, p. 198). Hannah and Clay talk for hours at a party, share a kiss, but the events mentioned above prevented Hannah from enjoying the moment with Clay.

Justin Foley (again): While Hannah was hiding in a bedroom at the party, she hides in a closet and is an auditory witness to a rape of an unconscious girl by one of Justin’s friends.

Jenny Kurtz- cheerleader who drives Hannah home from the party or attempts to before her drunken driving takes out a stop sign. Hannah tries to stop Jenny from driving but is unsuccessful. This unreported crash ends in tragedy later that night in a two-vehicle crash where a high school student is killed, and an elderly man injured. Hannah feels tons of guilt for not attempting to do more to stop the rape and not reporting the stop sign accident right away.

Bryce Walker- has a reputation as a player and abusive to his many girlfriends. He’s on Hannah’s list because of an incident involving a hot tube (this scene might be upsetting and triggering for some people).

Mr. Porter- school guidance counselor. Hannah goes to him for help about life and Mr. Porter totally screws it up. Encourages Hannah to “let go” of the fact she was a witness to a crime (this part exasperated me the most in the book).

All of these incidents had a snowball effect on Hannah’s mental and emotional health. Since her parents were busy with business drama and she had no real friends in this new town, she had no one to turn to for help. This book also showed how people, events, and actions are interconnected and that rumors and gossip regarding sexual issues and women is usually negative, while men benefit from rumors and gossip about their sexual escapades. There were a few times when Hannah accused someone of “taking hope away,” “taking my reputation away,” and “you decided I didn’t deserve it” which points to underlying themes of power and harassment.

Hannah tried asking for help through an anonymous note that served as a class discussion prompt, but that proved fruitless too. Suicide is still a taboo topic in our society and researchers still haven’t defined a single cause of suicide. Of course, it doesn’t help when someone’s suicidal signs or tendencies are dismissed as attention-seeking behavior. No, it’s a silent cry for help!

Some notable quotes from the text:
“When you hold people up for ridicule, you have to take responsibility when other people act on it” (p. 53). (This needs to be plastered all over social media!)
“For the longest time, from almost day one at this school, it seemed that I was the only one who cared about me” (p. 144). Clay tried to help her in his limited way, but Hannah pushed him away.
“No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people” (p.156).

Before I list my book recommendations, I want to list the two most important resources of this post: the phone numbers for the Georgia and national suicide prevention hotlines:

Georgia Crisis and Access Line: 1-800-715-4225
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

I found this interesting article while researching the hotline numbers:

Readalikes (descriptions provided by Epic Reads):

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand
The Last Time We Say Goodbye follows the story of those left behind when a loved one commits suicide. This is a gorgeous and heart-wrenching story  of love, loss, and letting go.
The last time Lex was happy, it was before. When she had a family that was whole. A boyfriend she loved. Friends who didn’t look at her like she might break down at any moment.
Now she’s just the girl whose brother killed himself. And it feels like that’s all she’ll ever be.
As Lex starts to put her life back together, she tries to block out what happened the night Tyler died. But there’s a secret she hasn’t told anyone-a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.Lex’s brother is gone. But Lex is about to discover that a ghost doesn’t have to be real to keep you from moving on.”

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
“A remarkably moving tale about the unexpected road to happiness. Like 13 Reasons Why, this story explores suicide and the importance of mental health.
Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life – which means getting into the right high school to get into the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.
Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.”

Asher, J. (2007). Thirteen reasons why. New York: Penguin.

Dastagir, Alia E. (2018). What actually happens when you call the suicide prevention lifeline. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/09/10/suicide-hotline-national-suicide-prevention-lifeline-what-happens-when-you-call/966151002/

Epic Reads (2017). 13 YA books to read if you loved Thirteen Reasons Why. Retrieved from https://www.epicreads.com/blog/books-read-after-13-reasons-why/

Hand, C. (2015). The last time we say goodbye. New York: HarperTeen.

Vizzini, N. (2007). It’s kind of a funny story. New York: Disney-Hyperion.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Juvenile Nonfiction Double Feature

**These reviews were originally posted on a Juvenile Nonfiction discussion board for my Children's Literature class**

Title: Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras
Author: Duncan Tonatiuh
Genres: juvenile nonfiction, holidays around the world, read for school, juvenile biography

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras is a combination picture book/informational book about the little known (at least in the US) Mexican artist, Posada. Funny Bones chronicles the life of Posada from budding artist days as a child, to print shop apprentice and political cartoonist as an adult. His experiences and talent eventually came together with his prolific creations of literary calaveras.

The illustrations are folk art in style, inspired by Posada’s playful skeletons and the book also contains an author’s note about the Day of the Dead holiday, a glossary and pronunciation guide of Spanish language terms, a bibliography, art credits, and a list of museums where visitors can view Posada’s works. Due to the amount of material in this book, I would recommend this as a readaloud book, if reading to younger children; older elementary-aged children with an advanced reading level could handle this on their own.

On pages 17-31, the author uses repetition and questions to keep a child’s interest. In this section Tonatiuh’s illustrations alternate with calavera drawings and questions about the deeper meaning behind the drawings. At first, I was annoyed that the questions appear to give away the symbolism and hidden meaning, but then I had to remind myself that this is a children’s book, and symbolism needs to be explained to children due to their age, stage of development, and limited life experience. Tonatiuh is “using a familiar, expected pattern to make children feel comfortable and ready to face the unfamiliar and unexpected” (Horning, 2010, p. 90). Both the holiday (Dia de los Muertos) and the concept of death are both unfamiliar to children. The use of questions in the text also serves multiple purposes:
·       add auditory variety to the text
·       keep little minds focused on the story
·       lets children try their growing critical thinking skills
·       gives the adult reader a quick assessment of the child’s understand of the text (Horning, p.91)

Dia de los Muertos is little known in much of the United States, but I have noticed in the past few years that sugar skulls (alfeñiques) are melding more and more with traditional American Halloween decorations. Dia de los Muertos occurs on November 1-2, right after Halloween, but it is not a scary holiday like Halloween can be. Although Halloween can be family-friendly, some people go over the top with the scary elements such as haunted houses, fantastical creatures, and various bits of gore. Dia de los Muertos is a holiday dedicated to respectful ancestor worship:

              “People often go to the cemetery to pray. They weed and repaint the gravestones of their loved ones. They bring their loved ones’ favorite food and tell stories about them. Sometimes they hire musicians to play their loved ones’ favorite songs. They have a picnic and spend the whole day at the cemetery. In some places they spend the entire night too” (Tonatiuh, 2015, p.36).

Now compare this to how most Americans view/treat cemeteries:
·       We only visit a cemetery when we have to (a funeral)
·       Cemeteries are run by funeral industry professionals (part of the reason why funerals are so expensive)
·       Local government-owned cemeteries are full and budgets are not which has led to a deterioration in upkeep
·       Old, private family cemeteries become overgrown and eventually forgotten
·       Genealogists wander around cemeteries taking photos of gravestones

If someone in the US stayed at a cemetery all day and night, other people would assume that person is mentally ill or homeless; that same person would be accused of loitering and escorted off the premises by the police. If someone painted a gravestone at a US cemetery, they would be arrested for vandalism; if musicians were hired to sing and play in a cemetery, everyone involved would be arrested for disturbing the peace.

A Gift for Abuelita by Nancy Luenn [picture book] Review from Colours of Us blog: “tells the story of a young girl’s bond with her deceased grandmother. Abuelita taught Rosita how to braid, make tortillas, and grow chiles. On the Day of the Dead, Rosita makes a beautiful braid as a gift to her beloved abuelita. With unique paper pulp illustrations, this is an affectionate picture about loss and the healing power of remembrance.”

Day of the Dead Crafts: More Than 21 Projects that Celebrate Dia de los Muertos by Kerry Arquette, Andrea Zocchi, and Jerry Virgil. Instead of learning by reading, kids can learn by doing! Crafts include calaveras, masks, sugar skulls, altar, and jewelry. A nice way to tie in a hands-on element to learning about other cultures.

Arquette, K., Zocchi, A., and Virgil, J. (2008). Day of the dead crafts: more than 21 projects that celebrate dia de los muertos. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Horning, K.T. (2010). From cover to cover: evaluation and reviewing children’s books. New York: HarperCollins.

Luenn, N. (2004). A gift for abuelita. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Tonatiuh, D. (2015). Funny bones: Posada and his day of the dead Calaveras. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Title: My Names is James Madison Hemmings
Author: Jonah Winter and Terry Widener
Genres: juvenile nonfiction, juvenile biography, read for school

In the article, “How Nonfiction Reveals the Nature of Science,” the authors caution against selecting science books that contain “idealized descriptions of scientists as heroic and larger than life” (Zarnowski and Turkel, 2013, p. 298). This same advice could also be used when selecting nonfiction materials related to the Founding Fathers of the United States, of which Thomas Jefferson was one. Jefferson has been memorialized as a president and author of our nation’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence. This memorialization in text and architecture (the Jefferson Memorial) glosses over the more disturbing details of Jefferson’s life. Like all of us, he was imperfect, but after reading this book, he could also be viewed as hypocritical too (or some will argue, a man of his time). In the Author’s Note, Jonah Winter states that “Jefferson’s life and legacy are full of contradictions” (Winter, 2016, p. 31), which is putting the contradictions in Jefferson’s personal life and public politics, quite mildly!

In My Name is James Madison Hemings, we read about Jefferson’s son was born into slavery due to the slave status of his mother, Sally Hemings. We read about James’ efforts to reconcile that his master was also his father, and that he would never receive the same amount of love or education that Jefferson’s white children and grandchildren received. Although James, his mother, and his siblings were slaves, they were spared some of the harsher parts of slave life due to their biological connection to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson spared the Hemings family from participating in backbreaking field labor, gave the Hemmings boys violins, and let the Hemings children learn to read and write, in a time when it was illegal to educate slaves in any manner.

There is debate nowadays on whether the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson was consensual or not. While this book doesn’t talk about that aspect of the Hemings/Jefferson relationship, the book tells us that Sally and her children were relocated from the slaves’ quarters to the dependencies- rooms near a smokehouse and the horse stables. Moving the Hemings family to the section of Monticello where animals lived and died was an act of kindness with a double meaning; this relocation could be interpreted that the Hemings were viewed in a liminal status by Jefferson: not animals, but not quite human either.  After Jefferson died, his children were freed from the bonds of slavery, but Sally, their mother, was not.

Although the author notes that he “presented this story in a first-person narrative as historical fiction” (Winter, 2016, p. 31), the spine label on my library copy says, “J B Hemings” for Juvenile Biography. If I were to recommend this book to someone, I would tell them not to be fooled by the slimness of the text. Although the book may be small in pages, the content within is intense for a children’s book. I would recommend this for an older elementary child due to the serious content of the book. The impressionistic art style of the illustrations mirrors James’ uncertainty about his father’s affections and his own place in the world.

You can read more about Sally Hemings and her legacy at the Monticello website.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson. (Synopsis from Kirkus Reviews): “This story whispers of the life of a man most contemporary American readers should know but don’t. Stephen Bishop, born circa 1821, had intimate knowledge of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he served as guide for visitors who traveled far to tour the underground passageways. Despite the ban against teaching slaves to read, Stephen acquired literacy and wrote his name on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave by using smoke from a lighted candle. Henson weaves Bishop’s impressive scientific discoveries of cave life into the sparse narrative, demonstrating the magnitude of his contributions despite that little is known of his life or death…A story that recovers an important piece of African-American history inextricably tied to the history of Mammoth Cave, a national monument visited by 2 million people each year.”
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford. (Synopsis from Kirkus Reviews): “An eccentric, smart, and quirky bibliophile, Arturo Schomburg fueled his life with books. This picture book of free verse poems, lavishly illustrated in oils, opens with stories from Schomburg’s childhood in Puerto Rico, where he constantly asked why the history of black people had been left out of all the history books. Answering him, framed, date-stamped panels, appearing primarily on the right sides of the double-page spreads throughout, capture the stories of important historical black figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Cuffee. The poem “Whitewash” will surprise some readers; Schomburg objected to the common practice of omitting from biographies the African heritage of prominent individuals such as naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon, French writer Alexandre Dumas, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Alongside these, Schomburg’s personal and professional life unfolds in unframed images. Schomburg worked as a mail clerk with Banker’s Trust; his book-collecting and library building resulted from his life’s passion, not his vocation. All of the book’s details paint Schomburg as an admirable, flawed, likable, passionate man whose lasting legacy, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, opens its doors to all who would learn more about the people its founder knew had been left out of the written record. A must-read for a deeper understanding of a well-connected genius who enriched the cultural road map for African-Americans and books about them.”


Kirkus Reviews, (2016, June 28). Lift your light a little higher. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/heather-henson/lift-your-light-a-little-higher/

Kirkus Reviews, (2017, May 24). Schomburg: the man who built a library. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/carole-boston-weatherford/schomburg/

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. (2018). The Life of Sally Hemings. Retrieved from https://www.monticello.org/sallyhemings/

Winter, J. and Widener, T. (2016). My name is James Madison Hemmings. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books.

Zarnowski, M. and Turkel, S. (2013). How nonfiction reveals the nature of science. Children’s Literature in Education 44(4), 295-310.