Review of A Bigger Table, by John Pavlovitz

April 19th, 2019

A Bigger Table

Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community

by John Palovitz

Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 192 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 11, 2019, from a book purchased via

A Bigger Table is all about Christians reflecting our God, who pours out his great love on everyone. John Pavlovitz talks about a bigger table that includes radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community.

He begins by telling his story, about his upbringing in the Catholic church and how he eventually became an evangelical pastor. But he had made some LGBTQ friends and his brother came out as gay, and when he started to question the church’s attitude toward them, he got fired. Now he talks about that as the best thing that ever happened to him.

A lot of churches are not welcoming. He talks about that in the beginning section, “Big God, Small Table”:

There are many reasons the local church is so vulnerable to such all-or-nothing extremism; not least among them is the way so much of our Christianity has been immersed in relentless us-vs.-them culture-war rhetoric. Scaring people into the kingdom by enlisting them for combat has been the evangelical church in America’s bread and butter for the past fifty years, and it’s worked out pretty well. It’s been a reliable way to generate urgency among the faithful and to get people worked up, but ultimately it’s also been costly. Frame the spiritual journey as a stark good-vs.-evil battle of warring sides long enough and you’ll eventually see the Church and those around you in the same way, too. You’ll begin to filter the world through the lens of conflict. Everything becomes a threat to the family; everyone becomes a potential enemy. Fear becomes the engine that drives the whole thing. When this happens, your default response to people who are different or who challenge you can turn from compassion to contempt. You become less like God and more like the Godfather. In those times, instead of being a tool to fit your heart for invitation, faith can become a weapon to defend yourself against the encroaching sinners threatening God’s people – whom we conveniently always consider ourselves among. Religion becomes a cold, cruel distance maker, pushing from the table people who aren’t part of the brotherhood and don’t march in lockstep with the others.

Here’s a paragraph from the chapter where he talks about getting fired:

It’s easy for religious people to be intimidated by those seeking a bigger table. This was always the Pharisees’ struggle. It wasn’t a lack of faith or lack of love for God, but a resistance to the idea that God could speak in new ways, could come packaged differently than they expected, and could exist outside the box they built for God. When we dare to step outside that box, when we ask the most difficult questions, and when we unearth our own spiritual junk, others are reminded of the unattended longing in their own hears. Christian people rarely get angry at theological claims I make in my blog posts or when I’m speaking somewhere, but almost always at the questions I ask, because they are forced to entertain those questions themselves whether they care to or not. Those questions press against the tender spots where their doubt sits buried just below the surface.

Then he talks about building a bigger table. And it’s all based on the ministry Jesus had.

One of the most powerful examples of Jesus’ table ministry is recorded by all four of the Gospel biographies. Jesus has been teaching in a remote spot and the place is packed. It’s getting late and those gathered, miles away from the nearest Chick-fil-A, are getting hungry. Jesus, drawn to the need by his disciples, responds by feeding the whole lot of them with the small bit of food present. As the story goes, thousands have their bellies filled and some get to-go boxes. As so often happens when reading these stories, we can easily be tripped up by the miraculous aspect of the moment, preoccupied by the mechanism rather than the meaning of it all. If we see this meal as merely a how story, we will be forever burdened with intellectually explaining the exponential multiplication of the bread and fish, trying to wrap our minds around the physics and food science involved – and we will be doomed to miss the point gloriously. But if we view this as a who story and a why story, we will find the clear invitation for we who seek the ways of Jesus. We can see the heart of God for hungry people. We can see the tremendous challenge of expanding the table. This is where the miracle takes place.

I can’t fathom the transformation of a basket of food to accommodate a multitude (heck, I’m not even sure how our toaster works), but I can see the boundless compassion of the open table and endeavor to re-create that on whatever spot I stand at any given moment and with the people in my midst. Jesus feeds people. That’s what he does. And as striking as what he does is, equally revelatory is what he doesn’t do here. There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table. Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us.

I like his metaphors. One is about showing people the ocean:

For me, going to the beach is always like meeting God. There’s that moment when you make your way down the path that cuts through the dunes. As you walk farther, the quiet noise in the distance gradually becomes a welcome roar. You crane your neck as if unsure it’s all still there. Your pace quickens as the sound rises and the wind grows, and suddenly you’re emptied out into the full, vivid majesty of it all. And you breathe. It never fails to level me. It is never commonplace. It is always holy ground. If you’ve been to the beach, you understand exactly what I mean. If you haven’t – well, you just won’t. That’s the thing about the ocean: until you experience it, no one can explain it to you, and once you have experienced it, no one needs to. The love of God is this way. For far too long, Christians have been content with telling people about the ocean and believing that is enough.

We’ve spoken endlessly of a God whose lavish, scandalous love is beyond measure, whose forgiveness reaches from the furthest places and into our deepest personal darkness. We’ve spun gorgeous, fanciful tales of a redeeming grace that is greater than the worst thing we’ve done and available to anyone who desires it. We’ve talked about a Church that welcomes the entire hurting world openly with the very arms of Jesus. We’ve talked and talked and talked – and much of the time we’ve been a clanging gong, our lives and shared testimony making a largely loveless noise in their ears. They receive our condemnation. They know our protests. They experience our exclusion. They endure our judgment. They encounter our bigotry. And all of our flowery words ring hollow. It’s little wonder they eventually choose to walk away from the shore, the idea as delivered through our daily encounters with them not compelling enough to pursue for themselves. Our commitments to hospitality, authenticity, diversity, and community can be empty words, too, if we don’t put them into practice.

Church, the world doesn’t need more talking from us. It doesn’t need our sweet platitudes or our eloquent speeches or our passionate preaching or our brilliant exegesis. These are all just words about the ocean, and ultimately they fail to adequately describe it. The world needs the goodness of God incarnated in the flesh of the people who claim to know this good God. As they meet us, they need to come face-to-face with radical welcome, with unconditional love, with counterintuitive forgiveness. They need to experience all of this in our individual lives and in the Church, or they will decide that it is all no more than a beautiful but ultimately greatly exaggerated story about sand and waves and colors that cannot be described.

He also talks about gaining new eyes:

I want you to think about your eyes for a moment. I want you to think about the way you see the world, especially if you’re a person of faith. When you encounter war, poverty, violence, addiction, human trafficking, and all the other things that horrify you, what story do you tell yourself? Usually we fall into one of two camps. Some Christians look at the dysfunction, injustice, and discord around them as sure signs of a fallen creation: proof of a sinful, rebellious culture rejecting God and paying the price. They see suffering as the by-product of wickedness, the unpleasantness they rub shoulders with every day clear symptoms of the moral decay of everything. These followers of Jesus primarily see sin, and the lens through which they view the world around them and the people in their path. With this as their primary filter, they tend to respond with a burden to save souls. The answer to everything becomes conversion, salvation as eternal rescue from the cancer that afflicts us all. It is next-life focused. Or they see Jesus as an instant, magic cure-all for the behavior in others that they find objectionable or uncomfortable. They imagine that simply “coming to Jesus” will eliminate all the immorality that may or may not bother Jesus – but that certainly bothers them. Apparently they’ve come across more fully perfected Christians than I have.

Other followers of Jesus see something different when they look at the mess in front of them. They see pain. They see need. They see longing. They see an opportunity to bring restoration here and now. They are focused as much on this world as they are on the next. These, I’ll contend, are the eyes of Christ, and these are the eyes of those who would build the bigger table. We are learning to see differently than we once did.

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus looks upon the crowd gathered before him and is deeply burdened by what he sees, not because of what they are doing or not doing, but because of what is being done to them and what it is creating in them (9:35-38). He is moved in that moment, not by some moral defect but by their internal turmoil. Just as when he feeds the multitudes, Jesus is not concerned with behavior modification, as we so often imagine; he is most concerned with meeting the needs that prevent people from knowing their belovedness, and he offers an expression of God’s provision. Matthew records that Jesus, seeing those in front of him, notes not their conduct, but their condition, observing that they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This realization prompts a passionate, public appeal for those who would do the work of restoration and healing in the name of God. The distinction between seeing sin and seeing suffering is revelatory if we really let it seep into the deepest hollows of our hearts. Jesus’ default response to the fragile humanity before him is not contempt but compassion.

That gives you a taste of what’s in this book – an effort to follow Jesus and be like Jesus in making our churches more welcoming to more people, of sitting down together and listening to more opinions and caring about more people.

I especially like the chapter where he talks about the Mama Bears – because that’s a Facebook group I’m part of, a private group for Christian mothers of LGBTQ kids. The group is wonderfully supportive, and they are where I first heard of John Pavlovitz, since the group reached out to him after he wrote a blog post, “If I Have Gay Children,” talking about how what is important is loving those children. So, yes, the bigger table involves welcoming LGBTQ folks, too.

The expanding of the table isn’t an effort to abandon our Christianity or to reject the Church. It’s an attempt to jettison everything else but that which is essential to reflecting Jesus in the world and to sharing in redemptive community with people in a way that is so loving, so embracing, and so open, that it seems queer to the rest of the world. And that will be what brings revolution.

Of course, as a universalist, I especially like the chapter called “Fear Less.” He doesn’t call himself a universalist, but he does say things like this:

One of the great comforts in my travels to build a bigger table and to right-size God has been a simple reality that I’ve embraced, one that I hope seeps deep into your heart whatever your theological leanings are: God is not out to squash you. This is an incredibly difficult truth to claim if you’ve experienced religion through the lens of fear that told you otherwise. . . .

For much of my life, this guilt, pressure, and fear of exposure had left me fairly exhausted. But I am slowly but surely walking into a new story, gradually but most definitely jettisoning those things that don’t ring true anymore and traveling much lighter. My reverence for God has never been greater, my wonder never more full, my desire to know my Maker never stronger. The difference is, I now see God through the lens of one who is beloved, not one who is beloved with conditions. Life now is not a test to try and reach God, but an opportunity to notice God. I am seeking Jesus more deeply than ever – not to escape punishment, but to discover life as it is best lived. My faith is not about fleeing something horrible, but running toward something beautiful. I am daily responding in gratitude for the beauty of the gift of this world, not in the hope I can eventually escape it. I come to the Scriptures now not as divine dictation, but as the journal entries of those who came before me and who have walked this road of asking, seeking, and knocking. . . .

I return again and again to this place, to the belief that God is fully aware of the road you and I are on, that God is far more merciful and forgiving than we would ever be with one another or with ourselves. My prayers are different now because of it.

After all, this is God we’re talking about. If God is everything we’ve been led to believe God is, God has such patience with us that, were we to embrace it, it would make us rightly fearless. And once the fear of “getting it wrong” departs we can be completely ourselves, sharing the full contents of our hearts – hopefully with God’s people, but at the very least with God.

This book contains a lovely vision of reaching more people by demonstrating the amazing love of God for all people. Encouraging and inspiring.

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Review of Gondra’s Treasure, by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt

April 17th, 2019

Gondra’s Treasure

by Linda Sue Park
illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2019. 40 pages.

This picture book is a delightful way to approach the topic of liminal spaces – being neither here nor there – trying to figure out where you belong if you come from a mixed-culture marriage. In this case, Gondra is a little dragon. Her mom is an Western Dragon, and her dad is an Eastern Dragon.

“In the West, dragons breathe fire,” Mom said.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.
“That’s what I said, when we first met,” Dad said. “In the East, dragons breathe mist.”

Mom shrugged. “Compared to fire, it seems . . . um . . . pretty boring.”
Dad frowned,. “What did you say?”
Mom cleared her throat and spoke loudly. “I said ‘pretty.’ Mist is pretty.”

We learn more about differences between dragons of the East and the West, including how they fly, how they look, where they live, and how they feel about treasure. And Gondra is proud to have some characteristics from each of her parents, but also to be entirely herself.

I like it when an author uses fantasy to present a situation many different readers can relate to, rather than looking at one specific human instance of a mixed marriage – they can see how a dragon mixed marriage relates to them.

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Review of Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly

April 13th, 2019


by Jennifer Donnelly

Scholastic Press, May 14, 2019. 342 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 13, 2019, from an advance reader copy I got at ALA Midwinter Meeting.

Stepsister was my airplane reading on my way back from ALA Midwinter Meeting and made the long flight a delight. It tells about Isabelle, one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.

The story begins when Isabelle is ready to cut off her toes so they will fit into the glass slipper the prince has brought, after her sister Octavia was discovered to have cut off her heel.

“We should’ve heated the blade for Tavi,” Maman fretted now. “Why didn’t I think of it? Heat sears the vessels. It stops the bleeding. Ah, well. It will go better for you, Isabelle.”

It’s not easy, but Isabelle cuts off this part of herself, as she has cut off metaphorical parts of herself all during her life at Maman’s bidding.

And yet, when Maman demanded that she get up, Isabelle did. She opened her eyes, took a deep breath to steady herself, and stood.

Isabelle could do this impossible thing because she had a gift – a gift far more valuable than a pretty face or dainty feet.

Isabelle had a strong will.

She did not know that this was a good thing for a girl to have, because everyone had always told her it was a terrible thing. Everyone said a girl with a strong will would come to a bad end. Everyone said a girl’s will must be bent to the wishes of those who know what’s best for her.

Isabelle was young, only sixteen; she had not yet learned that Everyone is a fool.

Anyone who knows the fairy tale “Cinderella” knows that this didn’t go well for Isabelle. However, that’s only the beginning of this book.

There’s a Prologue that came before this, and we learn that the three Fates have a wager going wiith Chance, who appears as a bold and handsome young man.

He was dressed in a sky-blue frockcoat, leather britches, and tall boots. A gold ring dangled from one ear; a cutlass hung from his hip. His face was as beautiful as daybreak, his smile as bewitching as midnight. His eyes promised the world, and everything in it.

Isabelle is the very mortal whose life map (showing her fate) Chance has stolen. The Fates are not happy about it.

“All this trouble for a mere girl?” asked the crone, regarding Chance closely. “She’s nothing, a nobody. She possesses neither beauty nor wit. She’s selfish. Mean. Why her?”

“Because I can’t resist a challenge,” Chance replied. He rerolled the map with one hand, steadying it against his chest, then tucked it back inside his coat. “And what girl wouldn’t choose what I offer?” He gestured at himself, as if even he couldn’t believe how irresistible he was. “I’ll give her the chance to change the path she is on. The chance to make her own path.”

“Fool,” said the crone. “You understand nothing of mortals. We Fates map out their lives because they wish it. Mortals do not like uncertainty. They do not like change. Change is frightening. Change is painful.”

“Change is a kiss in the dark. A rose in the snow. A wild road on a windy night,” Chance countered.

“Monsters live in the dark. Roses die in the snow. Girls get lost on wild roads,” the crone shot back.

So there’s something at stake as Isabelle’s life plays out. The stepsisters’ story becomes known to the people around them, giving them contempt from the other villagers. Then war comes close to the region. Isabelle hears from a fairy queen a way to change her fate, but will she dare seize that? And meanwhile, neither Chance nor the crone of the Fates is shy about inserting themselves into Isabelle’s story to make sure they win the wager.

Yes, some may say you need to cut off pieces of yourself to make your way in the world. But this book suggests that it’s possible to recover those pieces again and take your fate in your own hands. A wonderful story about what happens after the fairy tale.

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Review of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, lyrics by Fred Rogers, illustrations by Luke Flowers

April 12th, 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The Poetry of Mister Rogers

lyrics by Fred Rogers
illustrations by Luke Flowers

Quirk Books, 2019. 143 pages.
Review written April 9, 2019, from a library book
Starred Review

They’re all here! The songs that make you think of Mister Rogers, beginning with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” including songs like “You Can Never Go Down the Drain,” “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” “Everything Grows Together,” “It’s You I Like,” “Sometimes People Are Good,” “You Are Special,” and finishing with “It’s Such a Good Feeling.”

The only thing wrong with this book? Music is not included. All of this poetry was meant to be sung. And the only tunes I can partially remember are pretty much the songs I listed in the last paragraph. So I wish they had figured out a way to include the tunes. If not in the book, then maybe an accompanying CD?

In fact, not all of the poems here were written by Fred Rogers. Several are listed with the tagline, “Lyrics by Josie Carey, Music by Fred Rogers.” These poems are very much in the same style and are from the show, but unfortunately, we don’t get to see Mr. Rogers’ contribution.

It did dawn on me that “Everything Grows Together” would make a great song to sing at storytimes. It’s one of the few that I can remember the entire tune. So that will be my new little tribute to Mr. Rogers in my storytimes.

The book is packaged with bright pictures for children. But the truth is that the songs are all so affirming and joyful that I read a few songs every day for a nice boost to my spirits as I set out on that day. Sure, some songs like “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” speak to worries I’ve long put behind me. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, young or old, to be reminded that “You Are Special.”

Mr. Rogers packed a whole lot of wisdom into his simple songs. Reading them is a cheering thing to do. I love that they have been collected!

Won’t you be my neighbor?

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Sonderling Sunday – Alone with the Belgian Prankster

April 7th, 2019

It’s time for Sonderling Sunday, that time of the week when I play with language by looking at the German translation of children’s books. This week, we’re back to the book that started it all, The Order of Odd-Fish, by James Kennedy, otherwise known as Der Orden der Seltsamen Sonderlinge.

Last time, we left off on page 335 in the English edition, Seite 426 in the German edition. I’ll begin with the first sentence of the new section:

“Jo and the Belgian Prankster were alone.”
= Jo und der Belgische Scherzkeks waren allein.

Aren’t you glad to know how to say these things?
“dirty fur pelts, green ski goggles, and enormous rawhide diaper”
= schmutzigen Pelze, die grüne Skibrille und eine riesige Windel aus Rohleder.

“His breathing was forced and shallow”
= Er atmete heftig und flach

“fatty bulk” = feister Wanst

“patchwork” = Flickwerk

“Sweating and snuffling, slowly smacking his lips”
= Er schwitzte, keuchte, schmatzte

This seems like a good sentence to know:
“With all her might Jo resisted the mad urge to run away screaming”
= Jo musste sich zusammenreißen, um dem dringenden Bedürfnis zu widerstehen, schreiend wegzulaufen
(“Jo must herself together-pull, for the urgent need to resist screaming away-running”)

“almost tempted” = fast geneigt

Too bad, they took out the picturesque elements here:
“But Jo held her ground with the last shred of her fingernails, even as it seemed to be crumbling away from her.”
= Doch Jo widerstand dem Drang mit letzter Kraft, obwohl sie zusehends schwächer wurde.
(“But Jo resisted the urge with last strength, although she rapidly weaker was.”)

“satisfaction” = Genugtuung (“enough-doing”)

“I’m forlorn”
= Ich bin vollkommen einsam und verlassen.
(“I am completely lonely and forsaken.”)

“Jo gritted her teeth.”
= Jo knirschte mit den Zähnen.

“icy attitude” = eisige Haltung

“saw through” = durchschaute

“come back with a nasty insult”
= mit einer boshaften Beleidigung konterte
(“with an evil insult countered”)

“her voice close to breaking”
= Ihre Stimme klang brüchig.
(“Her voice sounded broken.”)

“A wave of dread crashed through her.”
= Eine Woge von Angst durchflutete sie.

“get back” = zurückzubekommen

“Brave girl!” = Tapferes Mädchen!

“Jo clenched her fists.” = Jo ballte die Fäuste.

“devour and devour and devour” = schlingen und schlingen und schlingen

“a force” = ein Naturgewalt

“an unstoppable, annihilating wave”
= eine unaufhaltsame, alles vernichtende Woge

“It was a horrible tingle of joy.”
= Es war ein schreckliches freudiges Kribbeln.
(“It was a horrible joyful tingle.”)

Okay, everybody needs to know how to say this in German:
“The nose twitched and quivered in front of her, running juices all over the glass.”
= Die Nase zuckte und zitterte vor ihren Augen und Schnodder lief über das Glas.von Schorf übersät

“hideous beak” = grauenvoller Schnabel

“sticking out” = herausragte

“pricked” = pikste

“scratched” = gekratzt

“roaring” = brüllte

“a twitching stinger” = ein zuckender Stachel

“She was sobbing and screaming” = Sie schluchzte und schrie

And the final phrase of Chapter 24:
“and then blackness fell like an avalanche”
= und dann brach die Schwärze wie eine Lawine über sie herein

And that’s all for tonight! With all your might, do resist the mad urge to run away screaming!

Review of The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin

April 5th, 2019

The Obelisk Gate

by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit Books, 2016. 410 pages.
2017 Hugo Award Winner
Review written April 2, 2019, from a library book

I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book more than I did. It is the middle book of the first-ever trilogy to have all three books win the Hugo Award. The world-building is intricate, complex, and mind-blowing.

I’ll say the good things first. I indeed understood better what was going on in the second book, and appreciated the richness of the background that her way of writing the first book gave us. In this book, Essun has lost track of her daughter Nassun, but the reader gets to follow both. Both find a place of refuge against the Season which is building up – ash covering the sky and the whole world hunkering down and trying to survive.

Orogeny – the ability to sense and manipulate the movement of the earth and stone – is commonplace in that world, although feared by the “stills.” Both Essun and Nassun are powerful orogenes still growing in their power. In this book, they each also discover an ability to sense magic – silver threads in the world and people and creatures around them.

Most of the book is about their survival concerns in two different locations. Essun is in an underground comm that accepts orogenes – or do they? Nassun is far to the south, still learning from Schaffa – and we’re not sure if that’s a good thing or very, very dangerous.

But we do sense that something much, much bigger is at stake. We learn that the moon left the earth’s regular orbit long ago – and that’s what started the cycle of fifth seasons. But it’s due to come back around before long. Alabaster is dying – but he’s trying to teach Essun what she will need to be able to do to deal with that. And then there are those obelisks in the sky, obelisks with strange and awesome power. And stone eaters – those statue-like creatures that move either very slowly or more quickly than sight – turn out to be both benevolent and malevolent, with agendas of their own.

This book is also very violent. You should not pick this up if you’re looking for pleasant, light-hearted reading. The earth has been broken, and everyone on it is somewhat futilely fighting for survival. Unfortunately, this is the book I was reading when I tried to read on the metro going into DC and was struck with motion sickness. Alas! In that section, a couple of arms got cut off and many people died in gruesome ways. That was decidedly not good for decreasing my nausea. So I’m afraid that influenced my enjoyment of the book.

I am indeed fascinated by the world-building, and I do want to know what happens next, so I will be finishing the trilogy before long. But I’m going to read something light and fluffy first!

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Review of Pay Attention, Carter Jones, by Gary D. Schmidt

April 4th, 2019

Pay Attention, Carter Jones

by Gary D. Schmidt

Review written March 25, 2019, from a library book
Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2019. 217 pages.
Starred Review

This book was delightful. I shouldn’t have chosen it to read during Silent Book Club, because I kept coming to spots that made me chuckle. My friend was reading Game of Thrones, and she said it was a little incongruous. Oops!

And yet some serious topics are covered in this book. There’s a little brother who died and an absent father. So that my primary response was chuckling shows that the serious topics were handled with a light touch and my overall response is delight.

Here’s how the book begins:

If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm – and I’ve been in one, so I know what it’s like – and if the very last quart of one percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house.

As it was, it was a crazy morning, and Carter Jones was the one who answered the door when the Butler rang their bell.

There’s some confusion, but the Butler, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, takes things in hand. It turns out that Carter’s grandfather has died, and in his will, he provided a generous endowment for Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick to now serve his son’s family.

That son is Carter’s father, who is now serving with the military in Germany. But the family can definitely use his services, though Carter’s not so sure he wants someone calling him “Young Master Jones” and requiring him to behave with good manners.

And then the Butler dresses Carter up in white, along with his friend Billy, and takes him to the school football field to learn to play cricket.

It seems like disaster when the eighth grade cross country team sees them – two sixth graders dressed strangely being taught to play cricket by an Englishman. But one thing leads to another, and soon the entire eighth grade cross country team is learning the fine points of playing cricket.

There are tidbits about the game of cricket at the start of each chapter – and I’m still completely confused by the rules. Though I do have a much better idea of how it works than before I picked up this book.

The whole idea of a proper English gentleman’s gentleman dealing with an American sixth-grade boy is what gives this book layers upon layers of humor. Carter Jones, though, is dealing with some big issues – and Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick also has compassion, in his proper English way.

I finished this book with a smile on my face. Completely delightful!

PS: Something else I loved about the book was that the principal was Principal Swietek! And the town is Marysville! Why is that so exciting? We find out who Doug Swietek married from Okay for Now, which was set in Marysville in the sixties. (The principal is female and her first name is given at one point.) Very fun for Gary Schmidt fans. In fact, I reread my review of Okay for Now, and yes I was right that it was the same town. Now I want to reread the book.

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Review of Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee

April 4th, 2019


The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness

by Ingrid Fetell Lee
read by the author

Hachette Audio, 2018. 9.5 hours on 8 CDs.
Starred Review

I listened to this in audio form, then put the print book on hold so I could pull out the main points for this review. I’m finding I want to read it again.

I’ve read other books on finding joy, most notably Champagne for the Soul, by Mike Mason. This one is very different, not looking at joy from a spiritual or emotional perspective, but from a design perspective. It turns out that certain objects and certain sights can actually spark joy. In this book the author categorizes the types of things that bring joy and tells about visiting places that embody this. It’s a fascinating book and will give you plenty of ideas to try in order to bring joy into your everyday life.

This is a perspective on joy that I never thought of before, and I love it. In the introduction, she talks about finding joy in physical things.

I noticed many moments when people seemed to find real joy in the material world. Gazing at a favorite painting in an art museum or making a sandcastle at the beach, people smiled and laughed, lost in the moment. They smiled, too, at the peachy light of the sunset and at the shaggy dog with the yellow galoshes. And not only did people seem to find joy in the world around them, but many also put a lot of effort into making their immediate environment more delightful. They tended rose gardens, put candles on birthday cakes, and hung lights for the holidays. Why would people do these things if they had no real effect on their happiness?

A body of research is emerging that demonstrates a clear link between our surroundings and our mental health. For example, studies show that people with sunny workspaces sleep better and laugh more than their peers in dimly lit offices, and that flowers improve not only people’s moods but their memory as well. As I delved deeper into these findings, joy started to become less amorphous and abstract to me and more tangible and real. It no longer seemed difficult to attain, the result of years of introspection or disciplined practice. Instead, I began to see the world as a reservoir of positivity that I could turn to at any time. I found that certain places have a kind of buoyancy – a bright corner café, a local yarn shop, a block of brownstones whose window boxes overflow with blooms – and I started changing my routines to visit them more often. On bad days, rather than feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I discovered small things that could reliably lift my spirits. I started incorporating what I learned into my home and began to feel a sense of excitement as I put my key into the lock each evening. Over time, it became clear to me that the conventional wisdom about joy was wrong.

Joy isn’t hard to find at all. In fact, it’s all around us.

The liberating awareness of this simple truth changed my life. As I started to share it with others, I found that many people felt the impulse to seek joy in their surroundings but had been made to feel as if their efforts were misguided. One woman told me that buying cut flowers lifted her spirits for days, but she felt like it was a frivolous indulgence, so she only did it on special occasions. It had never occurred to her that for the price of one of her weekly therapy sessions, she could buy a bunch of flowers every other week for a year. Another described how she had walked into her living room after repainting it and felt an “ahhh” feeling – a sense of relief and lightness that made her wonder why she had waited so long to do it. I realized that we all have an inclination to seek joy in our surroundings, yet we have been taught to ignore it. What might happen if we were to reawaken this instinct for finding joy?

As she studied joy and sought out the aesthetics of joy, she was able to make connections and put them into ten categories.

In all, I identified ten aesthetics of joy, each of which reveals a distinct connection between the feeling of joy and the tangible qualities of the world around us:

Energy: vibrant color and light
Abundance: lushness, multiplicity, and variety
Freedom: nature, wildness, and open space
Harmony: balance, symmetry, and flow
Play: circles, spheres, and bubbly forms
Surprise: contrast and whimsy
Transcendence: elevation and lightness
Magic: invisible forces and illusions
Celebration: synchrony, sparkle, and bursting shapes
Renewal: blossoming, expansion, and curves

The ten chapters of the book delve into these ten aesthetics in lovely rambling detail. They give ideas for how you can build them into your own life, but in many cases tell about someone who has indulged in this particular aesthetic in a big way – with striking results.

The final chapter in the print book wasn’t included in the audiobook (unless there were extra files I didn’t notice) – a Joy Toolkit with worksheets to fill out to help you fill your own life with joy.

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The 2019 Walter Awards Presentation

April 2nd, 2019

Last Friday, March 29, I got to attend the Walter Awards at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The Walter Awards are sponsored by and named in honor of Walter Dean Myers. A Symposium was held in the morning featuring the Honor Award winners, and the awards were presented after a coffee break.

Ellen Oh spoke first. She was the one who began WeNeedDiverseBooks with a hashtag on twitter five years ago. Since then, they incorporated, and have distributed all the benefits I mentioned in the first post, and this is the fourth year of the Walter Awards.

It’s not just about seeing ourselves. It’s also about reading the stories of others. It’s about building empathy in children. They need books that accurately reflect the world they live in.

The first year of the Walter Awards, they had 50 submissions. This year, there were 244 submissions. They are proud of the good work they are doing!

The executive director of WNDB, Nicole Johnson, spoke next. Their authors are saying, “We see you!”

The emcee for the awards was Linda Sue Park. She first told a story about Walter Dean Myers. He listened to her when she wanted to make a difference. When she floated the idea of internships in publishing, he told her that was the right track. For the next few years, she talked about internships to anyone who would listen. Now she’s the honorary chair of the internship program. “We’re doing it, Walter!”

Chris Myers spoke next, in honor of his father. He said it’s nice to hear so many nice things about his dad and almost makes him forget the other things! Chris told about a trip he took to Papua New Guinea. When he got off the boat on a small island, the villagers were excited to see someone get off the boat who wasn’t white.

They had no mirrors on the island or photos or electricity. He was struck by the immediacy of what he could do – he painted all the kids on the island. The universality of that problem struck him – we’re all starved for images.

Then he talked about the group of us gathered in honor of diverse books. We’re all Family. We’ve got characters and conflicts and cool uncles (Jason Reynolds). Five years in is a good time to note our common mission and conflicts. I know we’re on the same side even if I don’t like your approach to solving the problems.

But we’re family. We need to have creative fights together. Our job is to say, “We can do better.” This family has continuity.

We’re on an island with few images. Sit there and draw every kid.

Thank you for keeping that continuity going.

Then it was time for the Awards! We’d already heard from the Honor authors in the Symposium panel, so they accepted their awards with applause. The Winners each gave an acceptance speech.

The Honor winners in the Younger Readers’ category were David Bowles for They Call Me Güero and Veera Hiranandani for The Night Diary. The 2019 Walter Award winner for Younger Readers was Jewell Parker Rhodes for Ghost Boys.

Her editor Alvina Ling asked her to write this book. Her own child was growing and becoming more and more subject to racism. And images of Emmett Till have haunted her for 65 years, leaving a stew of passion in her heart.

Her other books were practice for this one. In fact, the adult books she’s written were practice to get good enough to write for children.

This book nearly undid her. It took years and came out in bits and pieces. Who was her lodestar? Walter Dean Myers. His commitment to excellence shines. She got to meet him when she wrote her first book, Ninth Ward, and she fan-girled shamelessly. He inspired her to keep writing Ghost Boys.

She always thought Emmett Till was innocent, but she’d already written that scene of the book before the truth came out and the woman admitted that she’d lied. She told what had really happened, and Jewell was able to rewrite that scene.

Another change was made after the ARC was already printed – she realized she needed to add a beat that Carlos could also have been shot for playing with a toy gun.

Then she told us a secret: In 2014, her daughter had a baby and in the same year applied for a WNDB fellowship. Her book will be published next year! WNDB is changing the world.

She finished by saying, “Even if I never publish another book, this was the book I was meant to write.”

Next came the presentation of the awards in the Teen category. Tiffany Jackson received an Honor for Monday’s Not Coming, and Emily X. R. Pan received an Honor for The Astonishing Color of After. Elizabeth Acevedo was the 2019 Walter Award Winner in the Teen category for The Poet X.

Elizabeth Acevedo began her acceptance speech talking about when she was an 8th grade English teacher in a school with many African American kids and many Latinx kids. But she was the first Afri-Latinx teacher in a major subject at that school. She felt “simultaneously seen and invisible.” It was at the intersection of many parts of her life.

She had to teach them how to love reading, because “if they love to read, they will figure it out.”

The kids asked her, “Where are the books about us?” She provided all she could find. Then they asked, “What’s next?”

That’s what prompted her to write for young people. That was the spark. She wanted the kids to see themselves.

She read Walter Dean Myers and interned at the Library of Congress, so it feels like a homecoming to be in this space.

She was writing for young people in the first place, writing in secret, not knowing if anyone would read it. She worked on it for years.

Then in 2014, Walter Dean Myers wrote, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?”

She is so honored to win this award. Those words emboldened her to keep writing. They told her there is room for her in publishing and a need for the stories she wants to tell. In another connection, her editor was also the editor of Walter Dean Myers for many years. Today’s an arrival of sorts.

Write about people of all backgrounds.

Writing love onto the page is pivotal.

Writing can be healing – for the writer and the reader.

She wants to write characters as nuanced as the people she loves.


After the Awards Ceremony, there was a book signing. Since I already had a copy of almost all the books from my year on the Newbery committee, I didn’t purchase any more, but hung out behind the official photographers taking pictures of the awardees.

And, yes, I took a minute to introduce myself to Meg Medina, “our” Newbery Medal winner!

Review of Sweety, by Andrea Zuill

April 1st, 2019


by Andrea Zuill

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2019. 32 pages.

Sweety is a picture book about Sweety, a naked mole rat (who wears clothes) with unconventional habits and preferences. She’s an oddball and has trouble making friends.

I wasn’t crazy about it, not being particularly taken with the art, and sure I’ve heard this story before.

But then, a scene resonated! I realized: This is a picture book for people who have tried online dating!

Here are the pages that spoke to me, though the art does add so much:

Aunt Ruth said that being different was one of the best things about her life, and that if you stayed true to yourself, you’d find your people.

That made Sweety think.

Were there really people out there for her? How would they recognize her? How would she recognize them? Was there a secret handshake she’d have to learn?

She really hoped there was a secret handshake.

Sweety wondered how many times she’d been close to one of her people and not known it.

What if she stepped it up a notch? Would her people be able to spot her more easily?

[Shouting through a bullhorn:] My name is Sweety. I like dancing, mushrooms, and rainy days. You too? Need to find your people? Maybe we’re a match! Flyers are available.

[Picture of Sweety leading a parade of wagons with pictures of herself and her favorite activities.]

[Picture of Sweety in a mushroom costume dancing with fireworks.] Or would she just seem desperate?

For now, she’d trust Aunt Ruth, continue to do her favorite things, and be herself.

And maybe she’d try a couple of new hobbies just for fun.

After all, being Sweety wasn’t so bad.

The book does end with Sweety meeting a fellow mushroom-lover and making a secret handshake.

But I now have a go-to book for those times when I feel like “my people” just aren’t noticing me. A picture book for online dating!

I’m going to continue to do my favorite things and be myself.

And, okay, kids can get a nice message out of it, too.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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