Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Great American Read

I am a Brit. I'm also an immigrant, non-citizen living in California and I spend way too much time trying to understand America and Americans.

What does it mean to be American? I have no idea and a million ideas:

Apple Pie, cowboys, racism, Independence, Hollywood, freedom of speech, guns, social justice, Disney, country music, confidence, straight teeth, eagles, slavery, ignorance, innovation, incarceration, money, Jesus.

That doesn’t answer the question. But it does demonstrate that America is all things to all the people living in it and those people are massively different.

So when I saw that PBS had commissioned YouGov to poll Americans and find their 100 favorite books I was instantly intrigued. The resulting list is he basis of a tv show called The Great American Read which producers hope will spark reading and conversation about books. This is a noble cause and one for which (as a bookseller), I am grateful.

Then I read the list.

The list makes NO sense at all. British and Russian classics sit next to contemporary YA series while second tier works by great contemporary authors vie with Christian and Buddhist morality tales. And then there’s Ghost, by Jason Reynolds. I love it, but I don’t know how it got here. The list is exactly like the random list of Americana above.

I have a degree in English Lit. from a UK university and I’ve been an bookseller for 15 years, but at the time the list was published I’d only read 24 of these 100 titles.

So I’m going to read the list, (or at least most of the list).

This isn’t an attempt to enrich my life by reading more. I already read 10-20 books per month. Instead I hope this will help me understand America through reading what Americans love, or at least, what they claim to love.

Every time I finish reading a book from the list, I’ll write a little something about my gut reactions to it and my thoughts about how it got on the Great American Read list.

Wish me luck, I’m going in.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Picture Books starring Change-Making Female Characters

Some excellent and entertaining picture books that star female characters with ambition and agency who change their worlds. These books were all published in America within the last year, except for one that's a notable re-print of a 25-year-old classic.

Bloom by Doreen Cronin and David Small

This looks like a pretty fairy story, there's a king and queen and a sparkly glass kingdom anda green winged fairy. It's actually a story about Maker Women changing the world for the better. The last line always blows me away. "And then an ordinary girl rebuilt a kingdom."

Ada Twist Scientist
by Andrea Beatty and David Roberts

Ada Twist uses the scientific method to find the source of a disgusting smell. She may not succeed, but it's the process that's important, as well as her parents' growing understanding of Ada's passion.

One Word From Sophia
by Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail

Sophia wants something special, but she needs to clear it with an adult in her family.
She presents some compelling and targeted arguments, but keeps using the wrong words. Until her Grandmother puts her right.

The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp
Originally published in the UK, this is a fabulous madcap rhyming picture book starring a "royal twit" of a prince, an indignant dragon and a princess who's not willing to go from one overly protected tower to another.

Be a Friend by Salina Yoon

A little kids book about empathy. Where a girl named Joy reaches out to another child who's lonely in his silent world.

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman

Grace loves stories and she loves to act and perform. But she comes up against opposition when she auditions for the part of Peter Pan in the school play because Peter is a white boy and she is a black girl. A determined black girl opens minds. It's amazing to me that this 25 year old book is still relevant.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

Oh, those indie kids, always dying beautifully of cancer or being the chosen one. But we can't all be indie kids, it would be too exhausting. Luckily, this book is all about non-indie kids, ordinary kids, very much on the edge of the supernatural and with no interest in that dangerous world. The Rest of Us Just Live Here is very clever, slightly funny, but mostly just very familiar in it's realism in the face of the unbelievable.

Published by Harper Collins October 6, 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon

If you look up Doldrums in a dictionary, you will find that it's a state of inactivity, a sad sort of stuckness, the opposite of a daring adventure. And that is how this story begins. Three children who have been confined to their homes for various reasons meet on a rooftop to plan a daring adventure. They really don't expect to get very far, but they all agree they're "in it for the friendship".
The Doldrums is mostly very understated, a gentle and slyly comic exploration of the release that friendship can bring to the lonely. There is a final adventure, which is absolutely extraordinary, but the appeal of this book is found in the quiet small joys that can chase away the doldrums, without ever leaving home.

For ages 8+

Published by Greenwillow books September 29, 2015

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

Madeline is literally allergic to the world. She's confined to her hyper-sterile house with her loving mother and her nurse Carla. She works very hard not to want more, not to press her head against the window and dream of being outside, of meeting other people. This all falls apart when a new family move in next door and a boy her age, named Olly, refuses to let her ignore him. 

Everything Everything is a clever romance with an ending that's an eye-opener for the characters, but also for readers. A book about, love, danger and freedom that kids and adults should all read.

Published by Delacourt Press September 1, 2015

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall

Robin Hood meets Daredevil with werewolves in this medieval fantasy origin story. Shadow of the Wolf is exactly as violent, disturbing and dark as you would expect. What makes this book exceptional is the role of Marion as the real driving force in the story, she's not waiting to be rescued, instead she's masterminding the attack. Shocking and compelling and although this is the first in a series, I can honestly say I have no idea what will happen next.

For ages 14+

Published by David Fickling Books May 26, 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Close to the Wind by Jon Walter

When we meet Malik and his grandfather, they are escaping a war zone. They've made their way to the port under cover of darkness and they can see the humanitarian aid ship in the dock. Malik believes his mother will need a ticket too, even though no-one has seen her since she was taken by the soldiers three days ago. Fortunately, Papa has a plan, although it's going to take some courage, money and connections to get his grandson to safety. 

Close to the Wind shows us war from the perspective of a modern 10 year old boy, not battlefields or bodies, just the frightening and confusing reality that many urban refugees continue to face during political upheaval. The book does not name the country that Malik is escaping from, nor the details of the source of the conflict, this allows us to concentrate on Malik's tender-hearted character and his responses with the detail he and others like him deserve.

Published by David Fickling books May 26, 2015