Review of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 7 hours and 29 minutes.
Review written February 12, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2013 Pura Belpré Author Award Winner
2013 Stonewall Book Award Winner
2013 Lambda Literary Award Winner
2013 Printz Honor Book

I got to hear Benjamin Alire Sáenz give his Printz Honor acceptance speech in 2013, and that speech made me very much want to read this book. I finally got around to it after a sequel came out in 2021 – and the same day I finished listening to this, I began listening to the sequel. I am so glad to finally read this marvelous book.

It’s a friendship story about two Mexican American boys. They meet at the start of summer before their sophomore year of high school at different high schools in El Paso, Texas, and have a laugh over their similar names. Ari is the narrator of the book, a boy who spends a lot of time in his own head – which makes him a good narrator. Dante is an open-hearted boy full of philosophical questions and free with his emotions – the sort of boy who’d try to rescue a bird with a broken wing in the middle of the street.

But when Dante does that on a rainy day and a car comes around the bend, without thinking, Ari runs and pushes Dante out of the way – at the risk of his own life. There are some other crises in the book, and lots of thinking about life and what things mean. Ari has a brother twelve years older who is in prison, and his family never talks about that brother.

I knew from the Printz acceptance speech that this is also a book about coming out as gay and figuring out who you are. But that takes up most of the book, so I won’t say a lot about that – except it is heart-wrenching and feels true. The book is set in the late 1980s, and they’re up against harsh attitudes in the world around them, many of which are internalized.

Something I love about this book are the two sets of parents, both of whom are wonderfully drawn and love their sons with all their hearts. It’s refreshing to read a book about teens with loving and supportive parents. Ari’s dad is dealing with post-traumatic stress from his time in Viet Nam, but that makes him human and real, not irreparably scarred.

In fact, that’s what’s so wonderful about this book – all the characters feel true. Nobody’s perfect, and they’ve got flaws consistent with their strengths. I found myself wanting to hug these two boys.

And it’s narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda! He didn’t do a tremendous job distinguishing between the voices of the different characters, though I find I’m picking up on subtle differences a little more by the time I’ve started the second book. But in spite of that tiny quibble, I could listen to Lin Manuel Miranda read anything. When it’s a wonderful book he’s reading, it simply added to my love. Of the book!

benjaminsaenz.com/

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Review of Blips on a Screen, by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Zachariah OHora

Blips on a Screen

How Ralph Baer Invented TV Video Gaming and Launched a Worldwide Obsession

written by Kate Hannigan
illustrated by Zachariah OHora

Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. 44 pages.
Review written June 8, 2022, from a library book.
Starred Review

Here’s a picture book biography of the guy who invented the first video game. I think of creating video games as something for people who are good with computers, but Ralph Baer came at it from the perspective of someone skilled in electronics and understanding how televisions work. And of course that makes sense, because video games came along before home computers.

Rolf Baer was born in Germany, but his family fled from Hitler and the Nazis in 1938 a few weeks before the border closed. In America, he changed his name to Ralph.

Ralph was always interested in inventing. He worked in radio repair and used his radio skills during World War II. From there, it was a natural next step to work on televisions. He worked for military electronics, but couldn’t get over the idea of figuring out how to play games on a TV.

The book tells about the process he went through, which included getting a patent, so his company was able to license his new invention when the boom took off. But before that happened, he got plenty of rejection for his idea. But after the Odyssey finally came out in 1972, it began a new obsession with video games.

The book makes the process understandable and accessible to kids. I always love Zachariah OHora’s illustrations, and his cartoons give a simplified picture of the essentials of this story.

This book tells about an inventor who created something important to kids and it also talks about the process of getting an invention produced — in a fascinating and informative picture book.

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Review of The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List

by Sara Nisha Adams
read by Tara Divina, Sagar Arya, and Paul Panting

HarperAudio, 2021. 12 hours, 47 minutes.
Review written June 8, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

This book is about a handwritten reading list that several people find in different surprising places in Wembley, a suburb of London. And then how reading those books changes people’s lives.

The two central characters who get most of the book’s time are Aleisha, a 17-year-old who’s working at the library as a summer job, and Mukesh, an elderly Indian gentleman who lost his wife two years before. Aleisha has her own pressures as she and her older brother are trying to care for their mother, who keeps the house dark and rarely leaves her bed. Aleisha’s planning to head to university and study to be a lawyer when the summer is over.

The first time Mukesh comes to the library, he encounters Aleisha, who has no recommendations for him and is quite rude. But Aleisha feels guilty, so when she finds the Reading List, she decides to read the books and then pass them on to Mukesh. Both their lives are profoundly touched.

I love the way this book highlights how a good book can affect you so deeply. Books can give you insights into your own life and even help build relationships. Besides Mukesh and Aleisha, Mukesh also gains new ground with his granddaughter through books.

I’ve read and loved all but three of the books on the list. Here are the books:

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier
The Kite Runner, by Kaled Hosseini
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

The book The Time Traveler’s Wife is also featured.

The three I haven’t read are The Kite Runner, Beloved, and A Suitable Boy. Now I want to go out and read those three if they’re anything as good as the others.

I did laugh that my favorite on the list – Pride and Prejudice – was the least favorite of the characters in the book. Oh well! At least it got included.

So it was all a wonderful story. I particularly loved the narrator who read Mukesh’s chapters. I felt like the character was talking with me and this kind elderly widower won my heart.

I did have some things that bothered me a lot about their portrayal of a library. Maybe things are different in the U.K., but I’m not really convinced they are.

First, a student working in the library for the summer is not called a librarian. A librarian is someone with a master’s degree in library science. Although a customer might mistakenly call such a person a librarian, the workers would not perpetuate that mistake.

Next, this poor hardly-occupied library needed library outsiders – Mukesh and Aleisha – to come up with an idea to “save” it – by having a program! A program where the community gets together. That’s all well and good and they had a very nice reason for it. But come on, is the author aware that most libraries have a full schedule of programs to engage their communities? It’s not actually a novel idea.

I did think it was interesting that while they talked about a few regulars, that particular library didn’t have any patrons experiencing homelessness. Maybe that’s not a problem in England? Of course, the library in the book was much, much less frequented than the one where I work. We get more than 800 customers on a typical day. I know there are libraries that don’t get so many, but the portrayal – in a book reminding us how reading can change lives – made me wince a little bit.

I also really wondered how the books on the list were chosen. It was interesting that there was only one children’s book – Little Women – and it’s a very old children’s book, set in 1860s America. But that of course got me thinking: If I were to make a list of my favorite books, books that had power to move people deeply and affect their lives and relationships, which books would I choose?

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Review of Give Us the Vote! by Susan Goldman Rubin

Give Us the Vote!

Over 200 Years of Fighting for the Ballot

by Susan Goldman Rubin

Holiday House, 2020. 124 pages.
Review written April 8, 2020, from a library book

Give Us the Vote! opened my eyes about the history of voting in the United States. Sure, I knew that African Americans needed a Constitutional amendment before they could vote, as did women. What I hadn’t realized is that it’s still always been a battle to have free and fair elections.

I didn’t realize, for example, that we didn’t have a secret ballot until the early 1900s. Before that, people would buy and sell votes – and they could follow up depending on how the person voted. But even after that, it was still possible to bully people at the voting booth or try to exclude people from voting.

All the way through the 1850s, people voted with their voice. (Or I should say, men voted with their voice.)

The earliest method of voting was voicing one’s choice in public. A citizen would literally stand up and say who he was voting for or raise his hand. This made intimidation easy. Around Election Day, candidates plied voters with rum, wine, and beer to win their votes, or bribed them with food and money. Since only property owners could vote, candidates often bought “freeholds,” or temporary land rights, from large landowners. They gave these rights to landless men, and returned the deeds to the real owners after the election. Sometimes corrupt candidates would even pay voters not to vote so that they could win a majority.

This book covers the battle to gain the right to vote for many different groups, as well as the many different kinds of cheating that people have used successfully over the years our country has been a nation. One popular method is getting fake people to vote or the same people voting many times. But then another technique is stealing and destroying ballots and/or replacing them with fake ones. Getting the count correct is another whole area of danger. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t until the Civil War when soldiers wanted to vote that absentee ballots were allowed, and it was a big area of controversy, including new ways of committing voter fraud.

Gerrymandering is mentioned, with both old and recent examples from both parties. The author mentions a 2019 Supreme Court case that decided that this is an issue for elected branches of government to decide, not the federal courts.

This book is geared to teens, so it includes the movement to change the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen during the Vietnam War – and the current wish of some to bring it down to age sixteen.

Many people agree that high schoolers care about local and national problems and should be allowed to vote. Studies prove that teenagers can gather and process information, weighing pros and cons as well as most adults. Research conducted by FairVote shows that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are as informed and engaged in political issues as older voters. If they start voting in their teens, they are more likely to make voting a lifelong habit and increase voter turnout.

Books like this will help young people realize we can’t take for granted our rights to fair and free elections.

HolidayHouse.com

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Review of Mina, by Matthew Forsythe

Mina

by Matthew Forsythe

Paula Wiseman Books (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), 2022. 64 pages.
Review written May 20, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book made me laugh out loud in several places.

Mina is a little mouse who loves to read. She’s always pictured with her head in a book or using art supplies. She lives with her father in a piece of wood in the forest.

On the first page, we’re introduced to her this way:

Mina lived in her own little world where nothing ever bothered her.

Except one thing.

We’re told that one thing is not her father, even though you’d think his ambitious projects would disturb her concentration. But no, we always see Mina lost in her book, doing her own thing.

However, Mina started to worry when her father brought home a big surprise. He says it’s a squirrel, since squirrels are bigger than mice and have long, bushy tails. But the reader can see what the mice don’t understand — the animal her father brought home is a cat.

Mina’s father keeps telling her not to worry. He knits a sweater for the squirrel. When the squirrel doesn’t eat and he thinks it might be lonely, he finds it two more friends.

How does this situation resolve? I’m not going to give it away, because it’s way too much fun to read yourself. I can confidently promise that you’re going to be surprised.

This is one I’ll be urging my coworkers to take a few minutes and read. Please do that yourself! I guarantee it will bring a smile.

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Review of The Heavenly Man, by Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway

The Heavenly Man

The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun

by Brother Yun
with Paul Hattaway

Kregel Publications, 2020. First published in the United Kingdom in 2002. 338 pages.
Review written May 28, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is the amazing true story of the life of Brother Yun, a pastor in the Chinese house church movement. The story of Brother Yun’s faith is full of miracles from start to finish. His family first accepted Christ when Yun was a child, after his mother received a vision and then his father was miraculously healed of cancer.

Brother Yun devoted his life to Christ when he was still young. One of the early miracles he experienced was when he prayed earnestly for a Bible, and one was then brought to him. The entire book testifies over and over to the great power of God.

After Brother Yun became a pastor, he was imprisoned in China three times. Each time, he was tortured horribly. At one point in prison, he followed the Holy Spirit’s guidance and miraculously went without food or water for 74 days.

And despite all the torture, all the difficulties, his passion for Jesus, commitment to tell about him, and determination not to betray his brothers and sisters all shine through. During his third time in prison, he experienced a miracle like Peter’s as the doors of the prison were standing open and he walked right past the guards to escape, with his broken legs cured as he walked away.

Brother Yun’s story is told in his own voice, with interludes from his wife, telling how things were for his family when he was imprisoned. Both attest to miracle after miracle and God’s faithful care.

After the escape from prison, Brother Yun miraculously made his way to the West. He still preaches to those who haven’t heard, especially as part of the “Back to Jerusalem” movement, which plans to send millions of missionaries from China.

I was amazed that Chinese Christians don’t want people in the West to pray that their persecution will stop. Here’s one place where Brother Yun talks about this:

Don’t pray for persecution to stop! We shouldn’t pray for a lighter load to carry, but a stronger back to endure! Then the world will see that God is with us, empowering us to live in a way that reflects his love and power.

This is true freedom!

This book is riveting reading. As a western Christian reading it, of course I’m struck by how different my life is from Brother Yun’s. It’s a story of God’s power and the Lord’s amazing faithfulness. And amazing stories of how God is changing lives today.

The one thing I didn’t like was that, because this was originally published in 2002, that’s when the story ends. I am completely sure that Brother Yun did not stop following God twenty years ago, and I would like to know what happened next.

asiaharvest.org

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Review of The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista

by Donna Barba Higuera

Levine Querido, 2021. 320 pages.
Review written April 6, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
2022 Newbery Medal Winner

The Last Cuentista won the Newbery Medal. Everyone should read it. The writing is lyrical, lush, and gorgeous. It talks about the power of Story, greater than anything.

As the story begins, Petra and her family are getting ready to leave earth. She misses her grandmother Lita, who told her a story about Halley’s Comet as a fire snake with bad eyesight that accidentally hit its mother, earth, and destroyed it.

It feels wrong to be sneaking off Earth while so many are left behind. They don’t even inform my parents of our destination until the day before. Dad says Pleiades had been storing their ships in a massive underground facility at the old Denver airport — they weren’t supposed to leave Earth on their first official trip for another two years. The maiden test flights into nearby space a few months earlier had been successful, but because we’re now leaving so suddenly, this will be the first interstellar journey.

If a solar flare hadn’t shifted the comet off course a week earlier, we’d be watching Fire Snake harmlessly pass Earth in a few days like it had since the beginning of time.

Petra and her brother Javier are prepared to go into a stasis pod. They will sleep for three hundred and eighty years and wake up ready to go to a new planet, named Sagan, where another ship has already gone to terraform. Scientists like Petra’s parents will help set up life on the new settlement — and Petra and Javier have custom programming that will go into their brains while in stasis, so they will wake up scientific experts as well.

As they go into stasis, Petra learns that her desired elective — storytelling — was overridden by her parents. She doesn’t want to be a scientist. She wants to be a Cuentista like her grandmother.

Not everyone on the spaceship will be in stasis. The Monitors will spend their lives in space making sure that those in the pods are safe.

But something goes wrong from the very start when Petra is supposed to go to sleep. And when she wakes up, near the planet, she discovers the Collective has taken over. They expect her to answer to the name Zeta-1 and serve the Collective.

The story is compelling and beautifully written. But I had problems with it that I’ve had with other dystopian fiction. I couldn’t get around my questions of why? Why would the Collective want to ban memories of earth and ban stories? The explanation given was that earth was a place of war and they were starting over, but I didn’t buy it. I didn’t think people leaving their home planet would want to forget everything.

I also couldn’t really bring myself to believe in the magic technology that could reprogram brains — and somehow didn’t work on Petra. And Petra could make people remember despite that. So although I see the amazing craft in the book, I could never quite suspend my disbelief and really believe it would happen that way.

But it won the Newbery. So there are many people who didn’t have any problem with those things. Try it yourself! Read this beautiful story and then tell me what you think: Were you pulled into this tale of the last survivors of humankind?

levinequerido.com

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Review of I Must Betray You, by Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You

by Ruta Sepetys

Philomel Books, 2022. 319 pages.
Review written March 12, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This is another book that’s sobering to read during the war in Ukraine. I wish this was ancient history, but I remember well when it happened.

I Must Betray You is set in Romania in 1989, during the last days of the Ceausescu regime — but seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu doesn’t know they are the last days. All Cristi has ever known is his family’s bleak apartment, waiting in lines for goods, having to speak softly for fear of being overheard, pictures of the Ceausescus overlooking everything, and knowing that anyone might be an informer.

But when Cristian is called into the principal’s office, he hadn’t been prepared that now he needs to be an informer. His mother cleans the house of an American diplomat. Cristian is to accompany her and befriend the diplomat’s teenage son and report back. The reward? One he can’t give up – medicine for his grandfather, who is dying of leukemia. But the leverage is that the agent who interviews him knows about a dollar bill he got from an American from selling a stamp. That is illegal, and they threaten prosecution — unless Cristian does what they want.

But once he starts as an informer, he doesn’t know who he can trust. And then, when the girl he’s had his eye on for ages actually shares a Coke with him — State Security finds out, and she accuses him of being an informer.

And that’s only the beginning. Through associating with the Americans to spy on them, Cristian finds out about protests in other Eastern European countries. Maybe Romania doesn’t have to be this way?

Several awful things happen in this book. The fight for freedom in Romania wasn’t easy. But this book tells the story from the perspective of a young person trapped by the regime, but who dares to dream of a better life.

I also appreciated the Epilogue, which showed that overthrowing the Ceausescu regime didn’t instantly resolve all problems. There are also historical photos at the back, taken in Romania in the 1980s.

rutasepetys.com

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Review of The Tide Pool Waits, by Candace Fleming, pictures by Amy Hevron

The Tide Pool Waits

by Candace Fleming
pictures by Amy Hevron

Neal Porter Books (Holiday House), 2022. 40 pages.
Review written May 27, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

The Tide Pool Waits is a beautifully simple picture book about a complex scientific topic. I learned things I didn’t know about tide pools, and it was presented in a way that even small children can understand.

The main text is simple. We meet many different kind of creatures in the tide pool. After each one is presented, we see the words, “They wait.”

Here’s the last group:

There are others, too.
Under rocks.
In the tangle of floating, fanning seaweed.
Beneath the sand and between patches of sponge.

They all wait.

And wait.

And wait.

But then the waves crash! They wait for just the right time to sweep over the shore.

They surge over barnacles, mussels, and snails,
stir the tangle of seaweed,
shake the crevice-cracked rocks,
rise higher and higher and higher until . . .

the pool is part
of the sea once more.

The tide has come.
The wait is over.

Then the book looks at those same creatures we already met, and we see that they do different things now that the tide has come in. Sea anemones bloom, barnacles open their shells and eat, various animals hunt, and some return to the open sea.

There’s a flurry of activity until the tide goes out again.

At the back of the book, there’s “An Illustrated Guide to This Tide Pool.” We learn more about the specific animals featured and their place in the tide pool and how their behavior changes when the tide is in or out. There’s even an illustration on the last page showing which creatures live in which zone of the tide pool — where different zones get different amounts of water.

So the main text is simple language, suitable for storytime. But the back matter fills out the information for curious older readers like me. The illustration style is bold and simple — and does make the different creatures easy to distinguish.

A marvelous beginning science picture book.

HolidayHouse.com

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Review of Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison

Lawn Boy

by Jonathan Evison

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018. 312 pages.
Review written May 28, 2022, from a library book

Okay, I’ll be honest — the only reason I read this book was to find out what all the fuss was about. After another library in our system included this title in a display of banned books, a resident protested, and Fox News picked it up — and people from all over the country called our library and complained. I particularly remember a man from Arizona yelling at me and telling me that I approve of pornography.

So let me tackle the objections head-on. My first reaction after actually reading the entire book is disgust — disgust at the book banners, not at the book.

First, let me point out this is a book for adults. It is published for adults and marketed for adults. However, it features a 24-year-old protagonist who’s figuring out how to make a living and move out of his mom’s house, so it may well be of interest to juniors and seniors in high school who are thinking about their future. It won an Alex Award, which is specifically for adult books that have appeal for teens. So it is appropriate for high schools to carry it. Not middle schools, but I doubt that’s even an issue.

And I have read so many adult books that are much, much more explicit in sexual content. The difference? Most of those other books involve heterosexual relationships, and I can’t help but think it’s the same-sex relationship that bothers the book banners.

But — get this — there is absolutely no “on-screen” sex in this book. I’ll give a little bit of a spoiler that the main character finds a wonderful and affirming relationship with another man and spends the night with him. But the book pretty much fades to black and he simply wakes up in the morning next to his partner. Absolutely no description of having sex.

And I don’t hear much about that. What the banners seem to object to is that the main character mentions some experimentation with another boy in fourth grade. The other kid’s idea, but it was a mutual activity, and not by any stretch of the imagination does it constitute “pedophilia,” as the caller from Arizona seemed to think. The narrator does talk about it using coarse language, and he’s a tiny bit more detailed when he talks about losing his virginity with a girl six years before the book opens, but it’s funny how the banners don’t mention that.

Yes, the book is full of profanity. It’s talking about working-class families where this is how they talk. It would feel very inauthentic if they talked like a suburban mom. Now, I personally prefer novels where characters do talk like me, a suburban mom, and don’t use profanity. But sometimes it’s good to read about lives I wouldn’t otherwise know anything about and build some empathy.

Let me, finally, talk about the story. It’s about a kid named Mike Muñoz who loves landscaping. He even has a talent for topiary. But he currently works for a company that watches his every move and makes him pick up dog droppings (not referred to so delicately), and he has enough, so he quits. But he’s already living with his mom, who works two jobs, and caring for his three-hundred-pound older brother with special needs. It’s not easy to find something new. And meanwhile, there’s a waitress he has his eye on, but how can he impress a girl without having any money?

The book follows his efforts and his stumbles. He encounters various people who seem like they’re going to help but then let him down. About halfway through the book, I told myself I was only finishing it because I wanted to know what I was defending. However, I was glad I did finish. As the book progresses, Mike does learn from his mistakes and his setbacks — even the ones that weren’t his fault. And he really grew on me.

I’ve already given away that there’s a same-sex romance — that happening is the first Mike realizes he’s gay. The portrayal of that relationship is beautifully done and it’s lovely to see Mike relating to someone who builds him up instead of exploiting him. Outside of that, Mike figures out who he is and what he wants — and yes, the book has a happy and deeply satisfying ending, and I’m so glad I didn’t stop in the middle.

I’ll admit this novel is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not the sort of book I typically recommend. But I ended up very happy I’d expanded my horizons by reading this book and gaining empathy for someone whose life is quite different from mine.

So I do recommend putting this book on hold at your local library. Chances are good you won’t find it on the shelves because with all the attention it’s been getting, the Holds list is long.

algonquin.com

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