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

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
read by Lin Manuel Miranda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

benjaminsaenz.com/

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

Blips on a Screen

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

written by Kate Hannigan
illustrated by Zachariah OHora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review of The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review of Mina, by Matthew Forsythe

Mina

by Matthew Forsythe

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

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

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

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

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

Except one thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heavenly Man

The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun

by Brother Yun
with Paul Hattaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is true freedom!

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

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

asiaharvest.org

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Review of I Must Betray You, by Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You

by Ruta Sepetys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rutasepetys.com

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

The Tide Pool Waits

by Candace Fleming
pictures by Amy Hevron

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

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

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

Here’s the last group:

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

They all wait.

And wait.

And wait.

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

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

the pool is part
of the sea once more.

The tide has come.
The wait is over.

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

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

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

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

A marvelous beginning science picture book.

HolidayHouse.com

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Review of In Search of Safety, by Susan Kuklin

In Search of Safety

Voices of Refugees

written and photographed by Susan Kuklin

Candlewick Press, 2020. 246 pages.
Review written July 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Like the author’s book Beyond Magenta, which featured the stories of transgender teens, this book takes an in-depth look at individual refugees stories, with photographs. This paragraph at the front of the book explains it well:

Refugees are people who are forced to leave their country because they are being persecuted. From 1980 to 2018, the number of refugees resettled in the United States each year was between 50,000 and 100,000 people. In 2019, that number dropped to 30,000 people, and in 2020 it dropped again to 18,000. Many of them are from Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, the Middle East, and Africa. Some have resettled in the Midwest because housing there is reasonably priced and jobs are relatively plentiful. The five refugees featured in In Search of Safety are from Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, and Burundi. One refugee had been a translator for the U. S. military. Another recently escaped the horrors of captivity by fundamentalist militants. And three spent years in refugee camps, growing up in countries other than their homeland. They all survived wars. They all were carefully screened by several security organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States State Department, and the United States Department of Homeland Security. They have all been resettled in the state of Nebraska, where they have been warmly welcomed. This book tells their stories

Some of the stories here are indeed horrific. But hearing detailed stories puts a face on a desperate situation and helps the reader understand that refugees are by no means just looking for a hand-out.

The five stories are told with multiple chapters each, with many photographs, and in the refugees own words. The group that sponsored them to come to Nebraska, Lutheran Family Services, is also featured, and we see what good work they do.

These stories will tear at your heart, but also make you rejoice that people in need were welcomed to a new home.

candlewick.com

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Review of Here We Come! by Janna Matthies and Christine Davenier

Here We Come!

written by Janna Matthies
illustrated by Christine Davenier

Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), 2022. 40 pages.
Review written May 26, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Okay, I just recently got news that I landed my dream job of Youth Materials Selector for my library system — and this is the first picture book I’ve read since that news that makes me sad I’ll no longer be doing storytimes. (I anticipate lots of picture books like that in the future.) However, the good news is that I have one last storytime next week, and this book is going to be featured. *Update* – the day I’m posting this is the same day I did my last storytime ever – and used this book.

Here We Come! has the kind of rhythm and rhymes that beg to be read aloud. The illustrations portray a joyful fantasy parade at night.

It starts with a boy heading out the door on a moonlit night playing a musical pipe with his teddy bear marching behind him.

The only line on that first spread is:

Here we come with a rum-pum-pum

When we turn the page, we see a dog peeking out of its doghouse with the teddy bear beckoning. The caption is:

Wanna come?

From there, we’ve got a parade and a cumulative rhyme going. Next is “a pick and a strum.” Then “Little Lu on her thumb with a swish-swish bum.” And so on. After each new line is added, we see another creature ready to join and the question, “Wanna come?”

The action is reminiscent of the classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, because we do have something that prompts the group to run back home — in this case, it’s rain and thunder. But instead of going right to bed, there’s a nice meditative bit at the end that continues to rhyme and finishes up with “Here we come!”

This book is almost impossible to read silently as the rollicking rhymes bring out the joyful exuberance of the illustrations. Although I’m going to use it in Baby Storytime, I think the ideal audience would be toddlers, who would surely start marching around the room. Check it out and read it with a child.

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Review of Invisible Acts of Power, by Caroline Myss

Invisible Acts of Power

Channeling Grace in Your Everyday Life

by Caroline Myss

Atria (Simon and Schuster), 2004. 269 pages.
Review written April 26, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

I read this book slowly, trying to absorb a small section each day. This is a book that works well for that.

The “Acts of Power” in this book are about personal power and grace to bless others. The author solicited stories from contributors, asking them to tell about times that other people had blessed them.

Here’s how she talks about those stories. You can hear how they touched her life — and they will touch her readers’ lives as well.

In the course of writing this book, I solicited stories from readers and subscribers to my Web site about their experiences with grace and life-changing acts of service. I was honored and overwhelmed to receive twelve hundred letters within six days of making my request. I discovered that it is one thing to talk abstractly about human goodness and our potential to be kind, but it’s quite another to come into direct contact wwith hundreds of real stories of real people exercising their power to heal, to help each other, to make a difference. I felt saturated in the caring and warmth of being human that these stories convey. They are solid evidence that the great power of compassion, honor, and grace still exists, even in the middle of national and world crises. They also prove that we are not alone in this world and that even in the direst times, our prayers are heard and answered.

The stories are divided up by seven chakras — essentially how deeply the recipient was touched, going from purely physical help to deeply spiritual help. She explains how this arose naturally from the letters:

As I considered how grace, intuition, and power worked together in the stories of the people who wrote me, I noticed that most of the writers quite unconsciously categorized their letters for me by using the same or similar turns of phrases. For example, people who received assistance out of nowhere from a stranger referred to either the person or his or her story as “The Good Samaritan.” After I organized all the letters, seven categories emerged….

When seven categories emerged out of one thousand two hundred letters, I wanted to see if they might correspond with the meaning of the chakras. At first I did this out of curiosity, not really expecting that I’d find a new perspective on the architecture of the human energy system. Yet when I finished this little exercise, I discovered that just as there is a hierarchy of power, there is also a hierarchy of grace. And I realized that the call to be of service to one another, the intuition that prompts us to use our power to help others, is wired into our physical and spiritual nature.

Reading this book gave me a much deeper awareness of how my life can touch others and made me want to be more aware of intuitive promptings to be a help to other people. A very uplifting book. Reading this book was itself a blessing.

myss.com

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