Archive for the ‘Starred Review’ Category

Review of Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy

by Laurel Snyder
illustrated by Emily Hughes

Chronicle Books, 2017. 36 pages.
Starred Review

It’s another beginning chapter book about Charlie and his little brother Mouse. In this book their grandfather, Grumpy, comes to visit.

This book hits just the right note, telling about interactions of the boys with Grumpy. There are four short stories. The parents don’t come into it at all (except being referred to a bit), but each story is strictly between the boys and Grumpy.

My favorite story is “Pouncing.” Here’s how it begins:

Charlie woke up.
Mouse woke up.
“Grumpy is here!” said Charlie.
“Should we pounce him?” asked Mouse.
“Of course!” said Charlie.
They snuck downstairs.

Grumpy was in the kitchen.
Grumpy was drinking coffee.

Mouse looked sad.
“Why are you sad?” Grumpy asked Mouse.
“We wanted to pounce you,” said Mouse.
“So pounce me!” said Grumpy.
“We can only pounce
when you are sleeping,”
said Charlie.
“It is a rule,” said Mouse.
“That makes sense,” said Grumpy. “But you will have to get up very early to catch me sleeping.”

As the story continues, Grumpy “rests his eyes” and his nose begins to snore. I like that the author doesn’t tell us what the boys decide to do. We know what will happen!

There’s all kinds of charm in these stories. They’re suitable for a beginning reader to read themselves or for a young one to listen and enjoy. Grandparents will especially enjoy reading these to their grandchildren.

laurelsnyder.com
chroniclekids.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Picture_Books/charlie_and_mouse_and_grumpy.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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.

What did you think of this book?

Audiobook Review of My Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, performed by Katherine Kellgren

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

My Lady Jane

by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
performed by Katherine Kellgren

HarperAudio, 2016. 13.75 hours on 11 discs.
Starred Review

I’ve already reviewed this book in print form, but oh, Katherine Kellgren’s performance makes it so much fun!

We’ve got alternate history England, featuring Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days. In this version, many people have the magic power to turn into an animal. In the course of things, Jane finds out she is one, which is how she escapes losing her head.

The story is funny and clever and twists history just enough to be terribly fun. And Katherine Kellgren’s brilliant vocal abilities are perfect to bring out all the humor in the situations.

By now, I’ve become Katherine Kellgren’s fan. In a story set in England that was already outstanding in an over-the-top humorous sort of way, her performance puts it even more over the top. Now when I recommend this book, I’m going to suggest listening.

harperaudio.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/my_lady_jane_audio.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Friday, June 8th, 2018

Option B

Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy

by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 226 pages.
Starred Review

Option B is a book about grief.

Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave died suddenly after they had been married only eleven years. This book is framed as the story of her loss and the hard road of recovery, but she’s extended the application to a look at how to build resilience in the face of adversity.

Yet try as we might to prevent adversity, inequality, and trauma, they still exist and we are still left to cope with them. To fight for change tomorrow we need to build resilience today. Psychologists have studied how to recover and rebound from a wide range of adversity — from loss, rejection, and divorce to injury and illness, from professional failure to personal disappointment. Along with reviewing the research, Adam and I sought out individuals and groups who have overcome ordinary and extraordinary difficulties. Their stories changed the way we think about resilience.

This book is about the capacity of the human spirit to persevere. We look at the steps people can take, both to help themselves and to help others. We explore the psychology of recovery and the challenges of regaining confidence and rediscovering joy. We cover ways to speak about tragedy and comfort friends who are suffering. And we discuss what it takes to create resilient communities and companies, raise strong children, and love again.

Right in the first chapter, she talks about important obstacles you need to overcome:

We plant the seeds of resilience in the ways we process negative events. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three P’s can stunt recovery: (1) personalization — the belief that we are at fault; (2) pervasiveness — the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life; and (3) permanence — the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever. The three P’s play like the flip side of the pop song “Everything Is Awesome” — “everything is awful.” The loop in your head repeats, “It’s my fault this is awful. My whole life is awful. And it’s always going to be awful.”

Hundreds of studies have shown that children and adults recover more quickly when they realize that hardships aren’t entirely their fault, don’t affect every aspect of their lives, and won’t follow them everywhere forever. Recognizing that negative events aren’t personal, pervasive, or permanent makes people less likely to get depressed and better able to cope.

This book is best and most powerful in all the personal moments she shares about her own struggles after her husband’s death. Bringing in psychological research and other stories of loss does reinforce those lessons, but they almost feel canned in comparison.

And although the authors work to make the book applicable to building resilience in any adversity, I would most recommend it to people who are also dealing with the death of someone close to them.

Don’t shoot me, but I’ve long thought that in many ways divorce is worse than the death of a spouse. Reading this book reminded me that in many ways the death of a spouse is worse than divorce. Both are terrible, and in dealing with both you need resilience. But I’m not sure I would have liked reading this book when my divorce was fresh. Because she got to keep her good memories of her spouse, and they weren’t tainted by wondering when he stopped loving her. As she grew and healed to where she was ready to try to love again, she didn’t have to figure out how to stop loving her spouse, who was not the loving husband she thought he was. Her world was shaken — but in just similar enough ways, I think I would have envied her if I’d read this ten years ago. And been mad at her for not realizing how lucky she was but also been ashamed of myself for not realizing how horribly unlucky she was — in short, I think it might have added to my mess of emotions for being so close but so far from what I was going through.

However, ten years down the road, after reading this book, I’m almost ashamed to even compare my journey with hers. I think perhaps because I did work at falling out of love with my ex-husband and I truly don’t want him back any more, the grief doesn’t last as long. But the lessons of resilience that she points out will help you through whatever Option B you have to settle for.

I like the way she winds things up in the final chapter.

But just as grief crashes into us like a wave, it also rolls back like the tide. We are left not just standing, but in some ways stronger. Option B still gives us options. We can still love . . . and we can still find joy.

I now know that it’s possible not just to bounce back but to grow. Would I trade this growth to have Dave back? Of course. No one would ever choose to grow this way. But it happens — and we do. As Allen Rucker wrote about his paralysis, “I won’t make your skin crawl by saying it’s a ‘blessing in disguise.’ It’s not a blessing and there’s no disguise. But there are things to be gained and things to be lost, and on certain days, I’m not sure that the gains are not as great as, or even greater than, the inevitable losses.”

Tragedy does not have to be personal, pervasive, or permanent, but resilience can be. We can build it and carry it with us throughout our lives.

optionb.org
aaknopf.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Tattoos on the Heart

The Power of Boundless Compassion

by Gregory Boyle
read by the author

HighBridge Audio, 2010. 7 ½ hours on 6 CDs.
Starred Review

I put this audiobook on hold after my sister Becky told me that her daughter’s college graduation had the best graduation speaker she’d ever heard – he even got a standing ovation. That was enough of a recommendation for me. I was not at all disappointed when I started listening.

I got the audiobook because while I’m on the Newbery committee, that’s the best way for me to get books read that are written for adults. And with all the Spanish words used in this book, it was nice to hear the author read it. He doesn’t use a lot of variety in voices, but that’s okay – it works with this book. But I ended up checking out the print version in order to pull out quotes for Sonderquotes – I kept getting blown away by his words and I wanted to remember them.

Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is the founder of Homeboy Industries, an organization that gives jobs to gang members and helps them get out of gangs and removes their tattoos. He lives in downtown Los Angeles, and has since the 1980s (when I lived in downtown Los Angeles for a few years) – and knows and loves gang members. He learns their names and knows them as people – and that makes a powerful difference.

The book is mostly stories, and they touch your heart. Something about seeing, through Father Boyle, that God sees and cares about gang members – helps me understand with my heart that God sees and cares about me. And not only does God care about me, He delights in me. Gregory Boyle shows that it’s possible to not only tolerate kids who are gang members – but even to see that they are delightful. Wow.

Here’s what Gregory Boyle says at the end of the Introduction:

In finding a home for these stories in this modest effort, I hope, likewise, to tattoo those mentioned here on our collective heart. Though this book does not concern itself with solving the gang problem, it does aspire to broaden the parameters of our kinship. It hopes not only to put a human face on the gang member, but to recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women in these parables.

Our common human hospitality longs to find room for those who are left out. It’s just who we are if allowed to foster something different, something more greatly resembling what God had in mind. Perhaps, together, we can teach each other how to bear the beams of love, persons becoming persons, right before our eyes. Returned to ourselves.

He achieves these goals in this book. He does such a good job of putting a human face on the gang member for me – that it was unfortunate timing that I was listening to this audiobook at the same time the president called members of MS-13 “animals.” The contrast was huge. (Gregory Boyle, by the way, doesn’t name any of the gangs he works with, so as to not give the gangs that dignity. The people, however, he lavishes with dignity.)

The beauty of this book is watching Father Boyle treat gang members as delightful human beings. It’s obviously not easy, and comes with a lot of pain. At the time of writing the book, he had buried more than 170 people he cared about because of gang violence. Many of the stories he tells end with the tragic too-soon death of the subject of the story.

And the things he pulls out touch your heart. He talks about the “no matter whatness” of God’s love and God knowing us by name. You’ll see lives changed because someone showed compassion on an outcast – and maybe that will change your life, too.

Look for more quotes on Sonderquotes. I highly recommend this book.

highbridgeaudio.com
homeboyindustries.org

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library audiobook 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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Review of The Poppy Seed Cakes, by Margery Clark

Friday, June 1st, 2018

The Poppy Seed Cakes

by Margery Clark

with illustrations by Maud and Miska Petersham

Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics, 2013. First published 1924. 157 pages.
Starred Review

Last year I wrote Project 52 – each week reflecting on one year of my life. Which brought back memories. And one of the memories was about which chapter books I read when I was still small, before we moved away from Seattle.

One of those first chapter books was The Poppy Seed Cakes.

I hadn’t read The Poppy Seed Cakes in years. But remembering it made me want to get a copy and hold it in my hands and read it over again. So I looked on Amazon and was delighted to find an Everyman’s Classics edition.

Once the book arrived, I read it immediately. All the pictures and page decorations are there! And I remember every single one and greet them all as old friends. There are many full-page illustrations, alternating between color and black and white. But there are also decorative patterns on each page, with each chapter having its own theme, and the pattern enclosing the text. For example, the chapter “The White Goat,” has a stylized picture of a goat parading across the top of the page. “Erminka and the Crate of Chickens” has chickens across the top, and “The Picnic Basket” has a goose reaching for a picnic basket.

The only thing wrong with this book is its bright yellow cover. I’m pretty sure my grandma’s copy was red. And that’s another thing. I’m not so sure any more that I did read this book from the library in Seattle. But I specifically remember reading it at my grandma’s house in Salem, Oregon – and I think maybe my great-grandmother had a copy as well. (However, that means my mother had read it as a child, so there’s a very good chance she did check it out for me from the library. Which would explain my memory of it as one of the first chapter books I got from the library.)

I am very sad I didn’t think of ordering this book when my own children were small, because I find it’s a book that begs to be read aloud. In fact, I’ll admit that I read some of it aloud even when sitting in my own home all alone. The phrase “Andrewshek’s Auntie Katushka,” which appears over and over just doesn’t want to remain silent in your head.

The stories are old-fashioned and quaint – but do stand the test of time. And the language! First we have stories about Andrewshek and Andrewshek’s Auntie Katushka. Andrewshek’s Auntie Katushka asks him to do something while she is gone – and Andrewshek consistently chooses to do something else – with varying results. Though they usually manage to deal with said results.

Then we have stories about Erminka and her red topped boots. They are her brother’s, and they are too big, so wearing them gets Erminka in trouble more than once.

At the end of the book, the stories come together when Erminka comes for a tea-party at Andrewshek’s house. With poppy seed cakes.

All the animals can talk in this book. Each story is child-sized and matter of fact, and the animals are child-like in their responses. Here’s how the last story ends:

Andrewshek’s Auntie Katushka spread a clean white table cloth on the table under the apple tree in the garden. She brought out two plates of poppy seed cakes and five cups and saucers and five spoons and five napkins. Then she went back into the house to get some strawberry jam.

The white goat and the kitten and the dog and the two chickens came and sat down on the bench beside the table under the apple tree in the garden. They sat very quiet with their hands folded.

“If we behave nicely,” said the white goat, “perhaps Andrewshek’s Auntie Katushka will let us join the tea-party.”

Andrewshek’s Auntie Katushka came out on the porch with a bowl of strawberry jam in her hand. She saw the white goat and the kitten and the dog and the two chickens sitting quiet on the bench, with their hands folded.

“Well! Well!” said Auntie Katushka. “Some more friends have come to our tea-party. I hope they will like poppy seed cakes and strawberry jam, too.”

And they did.

Simple stories and simple concerns, with a happy ending. Though a modern child probably won’t hang out with geese and goats and chickens like Andrewshek and Erminka, they will understand how easy it is to be distracted, the lure of new boots, and the delight of eating poppy seed cakes.

randomhouse.com/everymans

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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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Review of This Is What a Librarian Looks Like, by Kyle Cassidy

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

This Is What a Librarian Looks Like

A Celebration of Libraries, Communities, and Access to Information

by Kyle Cassidy
with thoughts on libraries from Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Nancy Pearl, Cory Doctorow, Jude Deveraux, Amy Dickinson, Amanda Palmer, Samira Ahmed, Sara Farizan, Jeff VanderMeer, John Scalzi, and more

Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2017. 234 pages.
Starred Review

It’s no surprise I love this book. It contains photos of hundreds of librarians, with short quotations from them about their jobs. There are essays about the importance of libraries. Essays by famous writers about their experiences with libraries and other essays featuring notable libraries and the good work they are doing. In short, the subtitle says it well – this is a celebration of librarians and libraries and the vast depth of resources they bring to their communities.

I hope that non-librarians will look at this book and gain a new appreciation of all that modern librarians do. I already know all this! In fact, non-librarian friends and family, please read this book as a favor to me. You’ll understand all the better why I am so proud to be a librarian and see librarianship as my calling.

And yes, I have several friends featured in these pages – well, they are at least acquaintances and people I have worked with on committees. I’ve spoken and worked with them. Even had lunch with a few at conferences.

But besides that, this is a beautiful look at the wide variety of missions of librarians and libraries in American communities today.

Here’s how the author and photographer starts the book in the Introduction:

How can I help libraries?

That’s a question I never really thought about until recently. But now it’s something constantly on my mind, because libraries can use some help, and very often the people in the best position to do so are those of us who haven’t thought about them for a long time.

If you travel across America talking about libraries, you will meet some people who love them, some who are indifferent, and others who think they are a waste of resources. The functions that libraries serve are bound up with their communities; indeed, the two are symbiotic. The more love you put in, the more you will get out.

And here’s how he finishes the book in the Afterword:

There’s so much work being done in every community across the country by these people. This isn’t a book about America’s most significant libraries; it’s a book about everyday libraries doing everyday work. They’re just drops of rain in a thunderstorm, but together they work to make the ground fertile.

Wherever you are in America, there is a librarian fighting to get you something, whether it’s a computer, an audio book, a children’s book, a banned book, job skills, a citizenship test, a record deal, a movie to watch, a fishing rod, answers about thirteenth-century clothing, voter registration, local archives, a place to stay warm or cool or dry, a kayak on a breezy summer afternoon, or any of a thousand thousand other things. These librarians are fighting against incredible odds and against powerful forces and against ignorance and arrogance. They don’t even know you, but they’re getting up every morning, relentlessly building a colossus for you to stand on to see farther, reach higher, and achieve more. They’re fighting for your right to access information.

How can you help libraries?

What are you waiting for? Check this book out from your local library! If you need help finding it, I know someone who’d be glad to help.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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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Review of Thanks for the Trouble, by Tommy Wallach

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Thanks for the Trouble

by Tommy Wallach

Simon & Schuster, 2016. 276 pages.
Starred Review

This book opens as Parker Santé is in a hotel, looking for something to steal. He sees a girl with silver hair pay for her coffee.

She reached into her purse and pulled out the fattest stack of hundreds I’d ever seen in real life. I’m talking a hip-hop video kind of wad, thick as a John Grisham paperback. She peeled off one of the bills — (I see you, Mr. Franklin) — and handed it over. “Keep the change,” she said. The waiter nodded a stunned little bobblehead nod, then peeled out before the girl could think better of her generosity, leaving her to tap idly at the top of a soft-boiled egg in an elaborate silver eggcup. I stared at her staring off into space, and counted the many ways in which she was incredible.

He’s attracted to the girl, but that doesn’t stop him from stealing the wad of cash when she leaves her purse behind. However, he makes a fundamental mistake, a mistake that reminds him of the myth of Orpheus.

But my dad said it was the most perfect myth ever written, because it represented the most fundamental human error: we all look back.

When I did, I saw that the silver-haired girl had returned to her seat. In spite of the fact that her purse was open and half its contents had spilled out across the tablecloth, she wasn’t screaming or crying or scrambling around, looking for the culprit. Why, you ask? Because she’d been distracted by something else. By what, you ask? Well, by my journal, of course! I’d left it behind when I tore off with all that money. It had my name in it, and my e-mail address, and an incredibly embarrassing story I’d recently written called “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Kingdom,” which she was now reading.

They get to talking. Or, I should say, the girl talks and Parker writes. Parker hasn’t been able to talk since the accident when his dad died.

But the girl tells him her plan:

“I am waiting for a phone call. And when it comes, I’m going to give this money to the first needy person I see. Then I’ll take the trolley to the Golden Gate Bridge and jump off it.”

Parker doesn’t like the sound of that. So he negotiates. He thinks he’s talking her out of jumping off the bridge, but they end up with the deal that she’s going to spend all that money on him (and with him), and he is going to apply to and attend college.

As their adventure takes off, they get to know each other better. When Parker tries to find out more about Zelda, she tells him that she was born in 1770 in Kassel, Germany. She doesn’t age.

Now her second husband is dying of old age, and she’s had enough.

But whether or not he believes her, Parker has some things to show her about life.

And she has many things to teach Parker.

I like all the questions this book opens up. What would it be like not to age? What would you do?

I wasn’t crazy about the framing — It’s supposedly Parker’s college application essay. I didn’t actually believe you’d be able to submit a book-length manuscript online. Though that does add to the fun because you don’t know if it really happened to the character. Though it certainly supports how dramatically his life changed.

An entertaining book that you can think about for a very long time.

tommywallach.com
simonandschuster.com/teen

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Creekfinding, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrations by Claudia McGehee

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Creekfinding

A True Story

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
illustrations by Claudia McGehee

University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 40 pages.
Starred Review

This picture book tells the true story of restoring a lost creek.

How can a creek be lost? Years before, a farmer had used a bulldozer to fill the creek with dirt, so he could turn the prairie into a cornfield – growing corn where the creek used to be.

A man named Mike Osterholm bought the farm and planned to restore the prairie. Then a neighbor told Mike that he used to catch brook trout at that very spot. Mike set to work to restore the creek.

The book shows the many steps this took. He started with old photographs to mark out where the creek had been. Then he used a bulldozer and an excavator to dig a path for the creek.

Mike said the water remembered.
It seeped in from the sides,
raced down the riffles and runs,
burbled into holes, filled the creek.

But a creek isn’t just water.
It’s plants, rocks, bugs, fish, and birds.

The book goes on to explain how they got each of those ingredients into the restored creek.

It took years to restore the creek, but now:

If you went to the creek with Mike,
you’d see water.

But a creek isn’t just water.
You’d see brook trout and sculpin.
You’d hear the outdoor orchestra –
herons, snipe,
bluebirds, yellowthroat warblers;
frogs, returned home;
and insects –
thousands, and thousands,
and thousands of insects.

Now a new generation can catch trout on Brook Creek – and a new host of creatures has a home.

The art in this book is amazing and evocative of the prairie. The illustrator’s note at the back is poetic:

One hot July afternoon, I visited Prairie Song Farm, home to Brook Creek, to gather images and impressions for this book’s illustrations. As I waded into the deep greenness, all sorts of creatures – winged, scaled, feathered and furred – bustled in the grasses and along the water banks. I wanted to re-create the textures and colors I saw, so readers could “walk” alongside Brook Creek as they learned about its restoration. I made the ripply, sturdy lines of earth, water, and sky in scratchboard and painted the prairie greens, creek blues, and everything in between with watercolors and dyes.

Because of the simple language and picture book format, young children can enjoy this book. But older children will get even more out of the story and learn many things about creatures, creeks, and prairies.

upress.umn.edu

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Nonfiction/creekfinding.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

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.

What did you think of this book?

Review of The Upside of Stress, by Kelly McGonigal

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

The Upside of Stress

Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It

by Kelly McGonigal, PhD

Avery (Penguin Random House), 2015. 279 pages.
Starred Review

The same friend who recommended Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct to me also recommended The Upside of Stress. Even though I don’t think of myself as having a big problem with stress, I also hadn’t thought of myself as having a big problem with willpower – so this time, I put the book on hold right away, and was not surprised when it turned out to be outstanding.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of stress. Too much stress is bad for you, right? Well, this book looks more closely at that question. It turns out that if you think stress is bad for you, then it is. But if you focus on the upsides of stress – and there are many – stress can actually be good for you.

So all by itself, reading this book can make you healthier! You will learn about the many positive effects of stress, thus breaking the belief that stress is bad for you, thus ensuring it is not as bad for you.

On top of that, of course, you’re going to be much happier, the next time you’re in a stressful situation, when you start remembering the good it can do you.

Here’s how the author summarizes her purpose after she saw these new studies about stress.

So, my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to help you get rid of your stress – I want to make you better at stress. That is the promise of the new science of stress, and the purpose of this book.

I like the way, in both her books, she bases everything on scientific studies.

It’s helpful to know a little about the science behind embracing stress for two reasons. First, it’s fascinating. When the subject is human nature, every study is an opportunity to better understand yourself and those you care about. Second, the science of stress has some real surprises. Certain ideas about stress – including the central premise of this book: that stress can be good for you – are hard to swallow. Without evidence, it would be easy to dismiss them. Seeing the science behind these ideas can help you consider them and how they might apply to your own experiences.

The advice in this book isn’t based on one shocking study – even though that’s what inspired me to rethink stress. The strategies you’ll learn are based on hundreds of studies and the insights of dozens of scientists I’ve spoken with. Skipping the science and getting straight to the advice doesn’t work. Knowing what’s behind every strategy helps them stick. So this book includes a crash course in the new science of stress and what psychologists call mindsets. You’ll be introduced to rising-star researchers and some of their most intriguing studies – all in a way I hope the reader can enjoy. If you have a bigger appetite for scientific details and want even more information, the notes at the end of this book will let you dig deeper.

But most important, this is a practical guide to getting better at living with stress. Embracing stress can make you feel more empowered in the face of challenges. It can enable you to better use the energy of stress without burning out. It can help you turn stressful experiences into a source of social connection rather than isolation. And finally, it can lead you to new ways of finding meaning in suffering.

She ends the introduction with big goals for her readers – and I have to say that this book really does move you in this direction:

Why would seeing the good in stress help in these circumstances? I believe it is because embracing stress changes how you think about yourself and what you can handle. It is not a purely intellectual exercise. Focusing on the upside of stress transforms how you experience it physically and emotionally. It changes how you cope with the challenges in your life. I wrote this book with that specific purpose in mind: to help you discover your own strength, courage, and compassion. Seeing the upside of stress is not about deciding whether stress is either all good or all bad. It’s about how choosing to see the good in stress can help you meet the challenges in your life.

Many of the interesting studies of stress looked at people’s biological response to stress. You’ve all heard of fight-or-flight, right? Well, that’s only one possible response to stress. We find different physiological changes in the different responses.

There are several prototypical stress responses, each with a different biological profile that motivates various strategies for dealing with stress. For example, a challenge response increases self-confidence, motivates action, and helps you learn from experience; while a tend-and-befriend response increases courage, motivates caregiving, and strengthens your social relationships. Alongside the familiar flight-or-flight response, these make up your stress response repertoire.

I think my favorite chapter was titled “A Meaningful Life Is a Stressful Life.” It turns out there’s a strong correlation between high levels of stress and engaging in meaningful activities – which shouldn’t actually be a surprise. But I liked the observation that just thinking about the meaning behind your stress – why you’re doing this – can increase the physical benefits of stress. One of the studies cited just asked students to write about their values – and this simple act let them see meaning for their stress.

Since that first study, dozens of similar experiments have followed. It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.

In the long term, writing about values has been shown to boost GPAs, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with everything from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing problem drinking. It helps people persevere in the face of discrimination and reduces self-handicapping. In many cases, these benefits are a result of a onetime mindset intervention. People who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later.

I also loved this strategy of comparing your stress to what you would go through if you were climbing Mount Everest:

Everyone has an Everest. Whether it’s a climb you chose, or a circumstance you find yourself in, you’re in the middle of an important journey. Can you imagine a climber scaling the wall of ice at Everest’s Lhotse Face and saying, “This is such a hassle”? Or spending the first night in the mountain’s “death zone” and thinking, “I don’t need this stress”? The climber knows the context of his stress. It has personal meaning to him; he has chosen it. You are most liable to feel like a victim of the stress in your life when you forget the context the stress is unfolding in. “Just another cold, dark night on the side of Everest” is a way to remember the paradox of stress. The most meaningful challenges in your life will come with a few dark nights.

Of course this was good to hear while I’m in the middle of my year of reading as many books as I possibly can for the Newbery committee. So worth it! And just remembering that is sometimes all it takes to feel more able to deal with it.

The second part of the book talks about how to get good at stress. Here’s what that means:

Embracing stress is an act of bravery, one that requires choosing meaning over avoiding discomfort.

This is what it means to be good at stress. It’s not about being untouched by adversity or unruffled by difficulties. It’s about allowing stress to awaken in you these core human strengths of courage, connection, and growth. Whether you are looking at resilience in overworked executives or war-torn communities, the same themes emerge. People who are good at stress allow themselves to be changed by the experience of stress. They maintain a basic sense of trust in themselves and a connection to something bigger than themselves. They also find ways to make meaning out of suffering. To be good at stress is not to avoid stress, but to play an active role in how stress transforms you.

She focuses on learning to use stress to help you engage, connect and grow.

When you engage with stress, you realize that your physical response can help you rise to the challenge. That’s the challenge response in action. I love math, and I remember when I had a math test coming up, I’d be excited and ready to ace that test – my physical response helped me think even more clearly. (I thought of this example when she gave an example of an athlete getting ready to compete. That one doesn’t work for me, though it probably works for more people than my math test example.)

Okay, maybe that’s not the best example for everyone. So let me contrast it with getting up in front of a large group to speak. When I was a kid, that used to always, without fail, make me shake uncontrollably. So when I started feeling nervous, I’d then dread getting the shakes – which of course made the shakes all the worse. (This was a problem when playing in flute recitals, since my entire flute would shake.)

As a matter of fact, the first time I did not shake when getting up in front of a big group was when I gave a Chalk Talk as part of a math competition in high school. Yes, my senses were heightened and my heart rate was up. But in this case, since I was absolutely sure I knew what I was doing, it only made me more alert and able to do a good job. Even knowing nothing about mindset at the time – that shows that how I thought about it made a huge difference. You can think of it as nervousness and as proof that you’re inadequate, or you can think about it as excitement and an extra performance boost.

Viewing your stress response as a resource works because it helps you believe “I can do this.” This belief is important for ordinary stress, but it may be even more important during extraordinary stress. Knowing that you are adequate to the challenges in your life can mean the difference between hope or despair, persistence or defeat. Research shows that how you interpret your body’s stress response plays a role in this belief, whether you are worried about an exam, getting over a divorce, or facing your next round of chemo.

Embracing stress is a radical act of self-trust: View yourself as capable and your body as a resource. You don’t have to wait until you no longer have fear, stress, or anxiety to do what matters most. Stress doesn’t have to be a sign to stop and give up on yourself. This kind of mindset shift is a catalyst, not a cure. It doesn’t erase your suffering or make your problems disappear. But if you are willing to rethink your stress response, it may help you recognize your strength and access your courage.

Having stress motivate you to connect is the tend-and-befriend response to stress. As I suspected, the research bears out that this response comes more naturally to women. When you’re in trouble, reach out to your community! Yes, it will help. (This is partly why church small groups are so effective. They give you a group ready to help when you’re under stress.)

The social nature of stress is not something to fear. When you take a tend-and-befriend approach, even contagious stress can be strengthening. As we’ve seen, caring creates resilience, whether the altruism is a response to rescue us from our own suffering or simply a natural reaction to the pain of others. A sympathetic stress response to another person’s suffering can spark empathy and motivate helping, which in turn enhance our own well-being. Furthermore, we shouldn’t be afraid to let others see the truth of our own struggles – especially when we need their support. In many ways, our transparency is a gift, allowing others to feel less alone and offering them the opportunity to experience the benefits of tending and befriending.

The final chapter was about using stress to increase personal growth. Yes! That chapter got me excited. I’ve come out of the worst time of my life – my divorce – and I feel like on the other side I’m much stronger and more resilient. I’ve grown. So this chapter resonated with me.

This wasn’t saying that terrible events aren’t terrible. Just that good can actually come out of them.

But as much as we want to avoid pain and suffering, it’s almost impossible to get through life without experiencing some trauma, loss, or serious adversity. If avoiding suffering isn’t possible, what is the best way to think about the experience? “Given that it’s happened,” Seery asked, “does it mean your life is ruined?” He thinks his work gives a very clear answer. “People are not doomed to be damaged by adversity.”

Here I turn to the belief that God has promised to work all things together for good. The author takes a secular approach, but she’s also saying that bad experiences can be redeemed by how you react to them.

This is a critical distinction, and one of the most important things to understand about how adversity can make you stronger. The science of post-traumatic growth doesn’t say that there is anything inherently good about suffering. Nor does it say that every traumatic event leads to growth. When any good comes from suffering, the source of that growth resides in you — your strengths, your values, and how you choose to respond to adversity. It does not belong to the trauma.

Here are some inspiring thoughts from her final reflections:

For most of its history, the science of stress focused on one question: Is stress bad for you? (Eventually, it graduated to the question, Just how bad is stress for you?)

But the interesting thing about the science of stress is that despite the overwhelmingly accepted idea that stress is harmful, the research tells a slightly different story: Stress is harmful, except when it’s not. Consider the examples we’ve seen in this book: Stress increases the risk of health problems, except when people regularly give back to their communities. Stress increases the risk of dying, except when people have a sense of purpose. Stress increases the risk of depression, except when people see a benefit in their struggles. Stress is paralyzing, except when people perceive themselves as capable. Stress makes people selfish, except when it makes them altruistic. For every harmful outcome you can think of, there’s an exception that erases the expected association between stress and something bad – and often replaces it with an unexpected benefit.

I like this personal observation:

When I committed myself to the process of embracing stress, I didn’t anticipate the biggest way it would affect my everyday experience of life. To my surprise, I started to feel a flood of gratitude in situations I would also describe as highly stressful. It wasn’t an intentional mindset shift; the gratitude just showed up. I still haven’t fully figured out why this was the biggest change for me, but it probably has something to do with what was most toxic about my experience of stress before I embraced it – a habit of resenting the things in my life that caused stress because I found the experience of stress so distressing.

For me, I’m reading this book at a good time – when my main stress is obviously from a good reason, and is very meaningful – being on the Newbery committee and trying to spend every spare moment reading. But I hope when tougher things come along, I’ll remember to look for the upside – and then the upside will actually become greater.

Got any stress in your life? I highly recommend this book.

kellymcgonigal.com
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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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Review of Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Hello, Universe

by Erin Entrada Kelly
performed by Ramon de Ocampo and Amielynn Abellera

HarperAudio, 2017. 5 ¼ hours on 5 discs.
Starred Review
2018 Newbery Medal Winner

I was disappointed when I hadn’t read this year’s Newbery Medal Winner before it won – though not too disappointed, because now I had a good book to read! The only problem: When to read it? I need to be reading books eligible for the 2019 Newbery Medal.

However, our committee is trying to avoid listening to eligible books, since a good or bad narrator can influence your opinion of a book – so when the library purchased this book in audio format, I knew what my next commuting book would be.

It’s a quirky story. One thing I like about it is that it stands a writing rule on its head: Don’t use coincidences to move the plot. But in this case, coincidences are used repeatedly – and it’s perfect for this story. It reminds me of the old book by Edward Eager, Magic Or Not? — you aren’t sure if the things happening are coincidences or magic. In Hello, Universe you aren’t sure if events are coincidences or fate.

Among the characters, though, Kaori Tanaka is absolutely sure it’s a fateful day. She says over and over: “There are no coincidences.”

Kaori Tanaka is a self-proclaimed psychic. Her little sister follows her around and helps, in a gratifying and subservient way. Kaori has one client so far, Vergil Salinas. Vergil is very shy, and he feels like a complete failure because middle school ended, and he never said one word to that nice girl he saw in the resource room every Thursday, Valencia Somerset. Valencia is deaf, and she’s recently learned that the girls she thought were her best friends are tired of making the effort to communicate with her. She’s started having the same nightmare every night.

But after Kaori asks Vergil to post her card at the grocery store – with the line “no adults” – the one who picks it up and makes an appointment is Valencia. She hopes to get help with those bad dreams. But the day that Valencia makes an appointment to see Kaori is the same day that Vergil has not shown up for his appointment. What could have happened to him? And will the Universe help them find him?

I like the way the apparent coincidences combine to help each character make some changes.

It’s fun to get a peek when fate brings people together. But then, I was also pretty sure in the Edward Eager books that magic was involved.

harperaudio.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/hello_universe.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library audiobook 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.

What did you think of this book?