Archive for May, 2018

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.

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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 After the Fall, by Dan Santat

Friday, May 18th, 2018

After the Fall

How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again

by Dan Santat

Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 36 pages.
Review written October 2017.

Here’s a lovely parable about Humpty Dumpty’s recovery.

Humpty Dumpty’s favorite spot was high up on a wall, close to the birds.

Then one day, I fell. (I’m sort of famous for that part.)
Folks called it “The Great Fall,” which sounds a little grand.
It was just an accident.

But it changed my life.

After that, Humpty was afraid of heights. But he got an idea. He made a paper airplane, and painted it to look like a beautiful bird.

But then, another accident happens (They always do.), and Humpty’s bird got stuck on the top of the wall.

I almost walked away, again.
But then I thought about all the time I’d spent working on my plane, and all the other things I’d missed.

I decided I was going to climb that wall.

But the higher I got,
the more nervous I felt.
I didn’t want to admit it:
I was terrified.

But he keeps going, one step at a time, until he’s no longer afraid.

This sounds simple, and it is – but the execution is brilliant. The timing of the page turns and the dramatic illustrations carry the theme beautifully. I love the page where Humpty reflects that his fear of heights is keeping him from enjoying some of his favorite things – the illustration shows a range of cereals, with gray, boring cereals on the bottom (names like “Fiber Flakes” and “Grown-up Food” and Humpty holding “Bo-Rings”), and bright, colorful cereals on the top (including “Rainbow Bites,” “Sugar Bunny,” “Just Marshmallow,” “Bowl-O-Cookies,” and “Free Toy”).

The catch is the climax. It’s lovely and inspirational – you just have to not think about it too hard (which I have a big problem not doing). Humpty Dumpty hatches! Into a beautiful bird, and flies away!

It’s lovely and wonderful and all about overcoming your fears and going on to soar. There are two problems that persnickety me can’t quite overlook. One is that if Humpty was an egg with a live embryo inside – that embryo wouldn’t have survived his fall. (I always thought he was hard-boiled.) The second problem is that birds can’t fly moments after hatching.

But every other single thing about this book is beautiful and brilliant. You can rise again after unfortunate accidents and emerge better than ever.

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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.

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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 Sword and Verse, by Kathy MacMillan

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Sword and Verse

by Kathy MacMillan

HarperTeen, 2016. 376 pages.
Review written October 2016.

This book starts on the day the palace Tutor-in-training is executed for teaching other slaves to read. Raisa is one of the Arnath slaves who cleans the palace friezes, but she is chosen to be the new Tutor-in-training.

Only the Qilarite nobles are allowed to learn to read, and only the royal family learn the Higher Order symbols, which they use to write to the gods. No one in Qilara knows that Raisa has a piece of writing given to her by her father, one of the Learned Ones of Arnath, where they believed that all should be given knowledge. Before their village was raided and he was killed, her father gave her her heart verse, written out on a soft piece of paper. Raisa hopes that when she’s taught to read, she will be able to understand what that valuable piece of paper says.

But as Raisa is studying with Prince Mati, learning the word-based writing system of Qilara, the prince begins seeking quiet moments with her, and she can’t resist.

But he is a prince and she is a slave. He needs to marry for political gain.

Raisa does remember enough to know the Arnath writing system is sound-based, so it’s going to take some work to decipher it. And if anyone finds out she’s saving any writing from one day to the next, she knows she would be executed.

All these threads are woven together in such a way that not only Raisa’s romance, but the whole kingdom lies in the balance. Prince Mati is to be the next king, and he talks about putting an end to slavery, but there are powerful forces in the Council who won’t let that happen. Meanwhile, Raisa’s being contacted by members of the Rebellion who want to put an end to it their way.

It all leads to Raisa being embroiled in dramatic political upheaval and even needing to request help from the gods.

This book is absorbing and well-written, and was a lovely way to start my reading retreat. I did enjoy that it was a stand-alone fantasy novel rather than a trilogy – but I’m afraid it did feel like it all wrapped up too neatly.

It’s hard for me to root for a romance between a prince and a slave, hard for me to believe that he’s actually a good guy she can trust, and hard to believe they would really end up together.

The author did have the enslaved people from Arnath be the fair-skinned blondes and the ruling Qilarites be dark-skinned with curly hair. It would have been nice to be a little more subtle there, but at least it was a reversal of American history.

I was recently faulting a different book because in it, the protagonist taught herself to read a sound-based writing system, which isn’t actually possible. In this book, Raisa does have verbal cues to start with, and she is taught the word-based writing system, so it was more plausible. I did like that the author made clear it took her a lot of work to figure out the Arnath sound-based system, but she was rather vague about how that could actually be done.

But those are quibbles. I enjoyed reading this book, and was personally glad Raisa got a happy ending, even if the skeptical side of me thought it was a little too neat. If you’re looking for a cautionary tale about not trusting a powerful young man who wants to have sex with you, don’t look here. But if you’re looking for a fun story about daring to learn and daring to shake up the status quo and trusting your heart – this book is absorbing reading and will leave you smiling.

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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 Bessie Stringfield, Tales of the Talented Tenth, volume 2, by Joel Christian Gill

Saturday, May 12th, 2018

Tales of the Talented Tenth, Volume 2

Bessie Stringfield

The amazing true story of the woman who became The Motorcycle Queen of Miami!

by Joel Christian Gill

Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado, 2016. 122 pages.
Starred Review
Review written in 2017.

I think that nonfiction in graphic novel form (okay, necessarily fictionalized a bit) is one of the best things that could happen to education. Joel Christian Gill has started a series about remarkable African Americans, telling their amazing stories in comic book form.

I’d never heard of Bessie Stringfield, but she was the sole woman in the U. S. Army’s civilian motorcycle courier unit during World War II, and the first black woman inducted into the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Harley Davidson Hall of Fame.

The book begins with her childhood. After her family moved to America from Jamaica, her mother died and her father just abandoned her in their hotel room. The book tells about her unusual upbringing after that and how she grew a passion for motorcycles and traveling.

She traveled across the United States eight times, and ended up doing lots of traveling in the Jim Crow South. (I like the way the author pictures bigoted people in this series as giant crows. It’s disturbing, as it should be.) She had run-ins with people who wanted to harm her, but was always able to outrun them on her motorcycle.

The story of her varied exploits is a quick but very entertaining read. And you’ll learn about someone who deserves to be remembered, the Motorcycle Queen of Miami, Bessie Stringfield.

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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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Newbery Notes – 48-Hour Book Challenge Finish Line

Friday, May 11th, 2018

I did it! I focused on reading and reviewing for a solid 48 hours, and now I’m ready to report.

I’m a little disappointed in my totals, since I’ve broken 30 hours in previous years, but since I still have the weekend, it’s still good.

Here are my totals for the 48 hours from 1:30 on May 9 to 1:30 on May 11:

Grand Total of time spent: 26 hours, 5 minutes

15 hours and 45 minutes of that time was reading.
4 hours and 20 minutes was writing reviews.
2 hours and 10 minutes was other blogging.
2 hours and 15 minutes was messing with my spreadsheets and gathering books. (!)
15 minutes was listening to an audiobook while I drove to and from Silent Book Club.
1 hour and 20 minutes was posting two reviews.

In that time, I read 15 complete books and 4 partial books, but 9 of those complete books were picture books. I read a total of 2,090 pages.

I wrote 12 reviews, posted 2 reviews, the Starting Line post, and 2 Sonderquotes posts, for a total of 5,537 words written.

This brings my totals for Newbery-eligible books to:
229 books received from publishers (including now 2 duplicates).
107 middle grade books read, including 14 not finished, for a total of 22,504 pages.
32 young adult books read, including 2 not finished, for a total of 10,253 pages.
188 picture books read, for a total of 7,090 pages.

Grand total: 327 books read, 39,847 pages.

Best of all, this year’s 48-Hour Book Challenge was fun! The weather has been glorious, just perfect for sitting out on my balcony and reading. I also got caught up on writing reviews – though I still need to write reviews of the last two books I read. So far, I’ve been able to mostly vary the styles of books enough that I’m not getting bored. (I began each hour of reading by reading a picture book, for example.)

And here are parts of my view while reading:

There are still an awful lot of books left that I need and want to read. But at least I’m having fun doing it!

Review of Phoebe and Her Unicorn, by Dana Simpson

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle

by Dana Simpson

Andrews McNell Publishing, Kansas City, 2014. 222 pages.
Starred Review
Review written in 2016.

I was sent some later volumes about Phoebe and Her Unicorn and realized at last what I’d been missing. I’d even had this first volume checked out, but never cracked it open.

This time, I read the Introduction by Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, and I knew I needed to read this. He mentions that in the early pages of his book, he wrote, “Unicorns are immortal. It is their nature to live alone in one place: usually a forest where there is a pool clear enough for them to see themselves – for they are a little vain, knowing themselves to be the most beautiful creatures in all the world, and magic besides . . .”

He continues:

A little vain . . . Marigold would be an appalling monster of ego, utterly self-concerned and completely unlikable, if it weren’t for her sense of humor and her occasional surprising capacity for compassion – both crucial attributes when bound by a wish granted to a nine-year-old girl in need of a Best Friend to play invented superhero games with, to introduce to slumber parties and girl-talk gossip and to ride through the wind after being called nerd and Princess Stupidbutt one time too many. For Phoebe is a remarkably real little girl, as bright and imaginative as Bill Watterson’s Calvin, as touchingly vulnerable as Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown. And if these strike you as big names to conjure with, I’ll go further and state for the record that in my opinion Heavenly Nostrils is nothing less than the best comic strip to come along since Calvin and Hobbes. Simpson is that good, and that original.

And yes, he’s right — Phoebe and her Unicorn is in the tradition of Calvin and Hobbes, this time with a nerdy and precocious little girl – so perhaps I related a little more than to Calvin.

However, Phoebe’s Unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, is not an imaginary friend. She’s real, and people can see her, but unicorns are protected by a SHIELD OF BORINGNESS. (This word should be printed in a fancy font.) As Marigold explains, “The SHIELD OF BORINGNESS is a bit of spellcraft that allows unicorns to remain a myth. Those humans who have seen us don’t find it important enough to mention.”

It helped me enjoy the book more once I realized this is a comic strip collection. There is an ongoing story, but most of the strips end with a joke. And they’re good jokes! (Okay, I like the unicorn puns about Phoebe being pointless.) It helped me enjoy reading them more when I realized what I was reading.

There is an ongoing story. But there are also comic-strip traditions in play. For example, Phoebe is a fourth grader at the start of the book. Then she has a lovely summer off and goes back to school – and starts fourth grade.

And like other great comic strips, there are profound observations behind the jokes. This is a lovely book about a nerdy little girl who wants to be awesome, about a unicorn she rescued (by hitting her with a rock and breaking her out of the cycle of gazing at her own reflection) who granted a wish by becoming her best friend, and about a unicorn who is well aware that she is the loveliest thing on the planet.

Tremendously fun!

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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 Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

Paul Among the People

The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time

by Sarah Ruden

Pantheon Books, 2010. 214 pages.

I checked out this book because I’d read and loved the author’s book The Face of Water (written later) where she takes a fresh look at the translation of several biblical passages.

In this book, the author uses her knowledge of Graeco-Roman literature and culture to take a fresh look at Paul and give us the cultural context of his writings.

Now, I didn’t find this book nearly as pleasant as The Face of Water. The fact is that the context of Paul’s writings was rather horrible. Slaves were not really considered people. Homosexuality was commonplace – but the only one despised was the passive partner. Paul spoke against those who preyed on others, the people his culture thought were real “man’s men.” He was speaking against oppression, and not really from anything like the same context from which we look at those things.

But my summary doesn’t do this work justice. It opened my eyes – though not always in ways I wanted them opened. She examines Paul and pleasure, Paul and homosexuality, Paul and women, Paul and the state, and Paul and slavery. In the context of his own culture, Paul’s words take on a whole new aspect. He’s much less harsh – in fact, he’s speaking up against a harsh culture.

But I think my favorite chapter was the final one, “Love Just Is: Paul on the Foundation of the New Community,” where she looks at I Corinthians 13, “the Love Chapter.” There were plenty of insights I’d had no idea about (how the “clanging cymbal” relates to the cult of Cybele for example). I especially liked finding out that the list of qualities of love that begins in verse 4 (“Love is patient; love is kind….”) are all verbs.

It’s more or less a necessity of our language that the standard translations here contain a lot of adjectives. The Greek does not contain a single one. Instead we have a mass of verbs, things love does and doesn’t do. This is the ultimate authority for the saying “Love is a verb.” . . .

So manically verb-centered is the passage that Paul takes two adjectives and creates a one-word verb from each (neither verb being attested previously in Greek); and he creates yet another verb, in Greek a one-word metaphor….

If we take the meaning from the form, we could say that he is preaching, “You know the right ways to feel? Turn those feelings into acts and perform those acts, ceaselessly. You know the wrong ways to feel? Don’t, ever, perform the acts that spring from them.”

Pick up this book if you’d like a fresh look at the backdrop the Apostle Paul wrote from.

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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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Newbery Notes – 48-Hour Book Challenge May 2018

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

Yes! I took almost a week off this week (all but Monday) for my “annual personal spiritual retreat” (Hey, I made it up, but I love it – I began last year.) – which this year is including a 48-Hour Book Challenge.

I can’t imagine a better beginning than I had yesterday. The weather has turned lovely – highs in the 70s, with gentle breezes and sunny skies. In the morning, I spent some extra time praying and thinking about goals. (Right now my goals are pretty simple: Read! A lot!) I began a walking program that I’ve done in previous years but usually give up on when the sun stops getting up early. After lunch, I visited Burnside Farms and took pictures of tulips.

I even brought some home.

After that, my plan was to get my house clean (vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom and kitchen, dusting… that sort of thing) before I began the serious work of reading. But it’s hard to face housework – so during the rest of the afternoon, I alternated spending a half-hour on my balcony reading and then spending fifteen minutes cleaning my house. And I had such a lovely time on the balcony, with the breezes practically caressing me they were so gentle, and the sun shining brightly and the birds singing… it spilled over into enjoying doing the housework.

By the time it got dark, I could envision finishing – and then being able to read the rest of the week and not having to do any housework! And I did it!

What does all that have to do with reading for the Newbery? Well, see how you have to arrange your life to find more time to read? I’m trying to do a 48-Hour Book Challenge once per quarter and a 24-Hour Book Challenge once a month. (I didn’t bother to blog about last month’s.) But I’m excited to have this time smack in the middle of the year. Because, yes, I’m feeling behind.

Here are my current stats, before I started the 48-Hour Book Challenge at 1:30 pm today. Yes! I’ve made progress since I last posted on April 17. Of course, I am fated to always fall further behind. No matter how many books I get read, it will not be as many as I’d like to get read.

But so far, this is how many Newbery-eligible books I’ve read:

Middle grade books: 99 books (11 not finished) and 21,197 pages.
Young adult books: 31 books (2 not finished) and 9,864 pages.
Picture books: 180 books and 6,802 pages.

This comes to a grand total of 310 books (more than half picture books) and 37,863 pages.

It sounds like a lot – but I don’t think I’ve even read half of the eligible books published so far.

And I have received 225 books from publishers so far. I haven’t read half of those.

However, I’ve got fourteen other committee members out there looking for good books. Also, I’ve asked the kids in the Newbery Book Club to alert me when they read a good book.

And that reminds me of one of the highlights of the time since I blogged about Newbery reading – I got to talk to a middle school group and an entire fifth grade at a local elementary school. The day after my talk to the fifth grade, two of the kids sent suggestions, via their school librarian, of titles I should be sure to read. This makes me happy that they were so engaged.

The day after that, I had a meeting of the Newbery Book Club at the library. I had some regulars return, and I had a new boy come. He brought in a copy of a book that had just been published the day before – was a little bothered that I had it in an advance reader copy when he’d just bought it. But then he got excited about the advance reader copies I was offering to the kids and asked if he could bring some extra for his friends. I said sure as long as he gets them to give me their opinions. (I’m asking the kids to rate the books with one to five stars and put their opinion on an index card. I’m collecting these during the year. We’ll have a vote among the kids at the end of the year among books they rated with 5 stars.)

It makes me happy that I do have quite a few kids now who are interested in letting me know which of the new books being published are the really good ones that I shouldn’t miss. Hooray for getting kids excited about reading!

Of course, I’m hoping to have higher totals at the end of 48 hours. The one catch is that, besides needing to get more books read, before I even started the challenge, I’ve got a stack of 7 books that I’ve read already and need to write reviews for. That’s not counting new books I get read during the Challenge. (I’m writing reviews to post after we select our winner. That’s the only way I can remember what the different books were about.)

So – a lot of the 48 hours will be spent writing reviews and not just reading. And I’m also allowing blogging time (like this) and posting old reviews. I still have a backlog of 164 reviews I wrote before 2018 began. I’d like to get all those posted before we announce our winner and I can do 2018 reviews – but I need to try to post a review every day. (Of course, then I’ll have a new backlog of 2018 books. At some point, I’ll probably give up and decide I don’t have to post all the reviews. We’ll see.)

And now I’ve had enough of a break – I’m going back out on my balcony to do some more reading!

Singing in the Rain, illustrated by Tim Hopgood

Monday, May 7th, 2018

Singing in the Rain

based on the Song by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown
pictures by Tim Hopgood

Godwin Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2017. 36 pages.

Yes, this is the song from the film by the same name, illustrated in a picture book. It’s nice simply to have the words!

But yes, the illustrations are what make this extra delightful. We’ve got seven children wearing the colors of the rainbow, some with umbrellas, some with hoods – enjoying the rain.

There are fanciful elements. At some points, their umbrellas make them fly, and they get a trip through a rain forest. Other scenes show them enjoying puddles and rain in a city. The opening page has a girl dancing around a lamp post like Gene Kelly.

I like the artist’s note at the back:

Apart from “Singing in the Rain” being the centerpiece of one of my favorite films, the reason I chose to illustrate this song is its underlying positive message. As adults, it is easy to forget the joy of rain.

We tend to view it as an inconvenience rather than the wonderful thing that it is. Rain is something beautiful that connects all life, from the city to the rain forest. So next time it rains, don’t stay indoors. Go outside and soak it up like the children in this book. What a glorious feeling it is!

Truly a joyous book!

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

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?