Conference Corner: Opening Night ALA Annual Conference 2019

After a delightful ALSC Preconference on June 21, I headed to the Washington Convention Center and was on time to hear Jason Reynolds speak at the Opening Session — though I had to listen in the Overflow Room.

He called his talk “This Is the Ridiculous and Absurd Study of Architecture,” and the structure imitated the style of his new book, Look Both Ways.

Part One: He told the story of his mother’s first funeral.

She was at an old-fashioned funeral and was fumbled as they passed the little girl over the casket. (He told it much, much more colorfully than that!) She became obsessed with death.

At 17 years old, she began studying Buddhism and Hinduism.
She eventually joined the Catholic church because it was quiet and meditative.
When Jason was 12 years old, he said he didn’t want to go to church, and she said, “Okay.”

Part Two: Sundays at his friend Aaron’s house

On Sundays he’d sleep a little later and visit his best friend Aaron’s house.
Their family had 5 kids. Nobody had time to clean.
It was a place of freedom for Jason. (Jason’s house was a place of comfort for Aaron.)
Sunday was fried chicken at Aaron’s house.
Then they’d climb on the roof and share stories and dreams.

Part Three: The Library of Alexandria

In 300 BCE Alexander the Great was in Egypt. First thing he decided to do was build a library. Biggest library on earth. At its peak, it held 400,000 papyrus documents on its shelves. They created an overflow library that shared space with a temple.
Nobody knows what it looked like or how it disappeared.
The theory that’s most true: The Roman empire came in and they got rid of anything against it and burned the books.

Part Four: Rewind. Words from his mother:

“I don’t wanna go to church.” “Okay.”
“My job is to help you find your path, not stop you from looking for it.”
“Your body is a temple.”
“Anything that makes you feel bigger than your burden is sacred.”

Part Five: Principles

Come as you are.
All are welcome.
Turn away no one.
Build community.
Enact service.

Share stories to build community.
Narrative is what we use to fortify us.
Something’s the matter when people try to stop the narrative flow.

Every sacred thing suffers persecution.

Think about this:
Maybe what librarians truly are is architects.
Maybe we’re building walking, talking libraries.
Telling each other stories is storing books in our personal stacks.
Imagine training young people to actually be safe spaces.

The role of an architect:

1) Build a building that pays homage to you.
2) Build a building that services the world.

We’re creating walking, talking libraries.

He’s preaching to the choir — but choirs need to practice.


After that inspirational message, I went back to my car to get my wheeled bag (I have a doctor’s note) and hit the exhibits after the first wave of the Running of the Librarians had subsided.

I had some fun:

And I picked up some loot:

Finally, I headed to a restaurant right next to where I’d parked, where the complete Newbery committee was being treated to a nice dinner with the two Honor authors, Catherine Gilbert Murdock and Veera Hiranandani. It was the first we’d seen each other since January.

Here’s my place card:

We were at two tables, with an author at the center of each:

They spoke to us after dinner:

And traded tables during dessert:

After eating, they signed books for all of us.

Lali showed off her beautiful tattoo from the cover of The Night Diary.

Here are our two honor winners, Veera and Catherine:

And here are most of us with the authors (Alas! Abby, Eric, Pam, and Sue got cut out):

It was a joyous night!

Conference Corner: 2019 ALSC Preconference

Last weekend I spent at ALA Annual Conference. It was in Washington, DC, this year, so I drove in early each morning and drove home each night. I had an awesome time, and now I’m going to post my notes and pictures from all the inspiring sessions.

The first event happened on Friday, a preconference sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children that honored the Honor book winners for various awards — Newbery, Caldecott, Geisel, Sibert, Pura Belpre, and Batchelder Awards. Since the winners get to give speeches but not the Honor books, this is an opportunity to hear from the other honored authors and illustrators and publishers, and I didn’t want to miss it.

I found two of my fellow Newbery committee members to sit with and we all three chose to go to the sessions where “our” honor authors were featured.

First was an intro session where the 22 honored individuals told three things about themselves. These were fun and light-hearted. I got not-very-good pictures of our Honor authors Veera Hiranandani, author of The Night Diary:

and Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of The Book of Boy:

Then came lunch, and Caldecott-Honor-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal sat at our table, so we had the fun of getting to know her a little bit.

The first panel after lunch was called “Who Am I? Where Do I Fit In?” The panelists were Leo Espinosa, Belpre illustrator of Islandborn, Claudia Bedrick, Batchelder publisher of Jerome by Heart, Juana Martinez-Neal, Caldecott illustrator of Alma and How She Got Her Name, David Bowles, Belpre author of They Call Me Guero, and Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Newbery author of The Book of Boy.

I’ll write out my notes from the panel.

Question: How do your books resonate with kids who feel they don’t fit in?

Leo: He gets to choose the stories he wants to illustrate. His job is to amplify those messages. He offers reflection and empathy. Some kids see themselves in the books. Some kids feel empathy and want to know these kids who aren’t like themselves. As an illustrator, he has the luxury of adding mini-stories within the big story (such as showing a family with two fathers).

David: Identity and belonging is the core of the story. Kids who are different from a group while simultaneously in that group and feeling solidarity with that group. With light skin, he’s treated differently inside the community. There’s a cognitive dissonance — privileged and oppressed at the same time. Any child can identify with this.

Juana: To fit in is to know who they are, and that’s why she wrote Alma. She couldn’t see herself in picture books. Latinx fit into so many different groups, and that’s why she made Alma. She hopes more kids will see themselves.

Claudia: Jerome By Heart was intentionally about two boys, because if it had been two girls being so tender with each other, it wouldn’t have been so special. In France, two boys holding hands and declaring love is taboo.

We’re shaped in who we are by the responses we receive. This child’s buoyant expression of his personality is not readily embraced by his parents. It shows agency and embracing one’s identity.

Catherine: Her character is an orphan in a goat shed. None of her readers can relate to that, but kids deep dive into it. Kids make it part of them.

Question: Do you write more for reflection or for empathy?

David: He’s primarily thinking of a particular group of students when writing. Kids that need him to write stories about themselves. But other kids need to hear the story as well. The universal comes through the specific.

Claudia: The author of Jerome at Heart was focused on telling the best, truest story about these kids as he could. Every good story promotes empathy. You’ll come away slightly changed.

Leo: He realized the book would be important for Latinx kids. But it’s also important for other kids. He’s read it to Latinx kids, but also to white Mormon kids, and the response is similar.

Juana: She prefers “underrepresented” to “marginalized.” Alma is just about that specific little girl. She hopes this book won’t only be enjoyed by Hispanic communities. We all have names, and we all have families.

Catherine: She had to consider her audience in choosing the words for her book because they need to be understandable for a variety of reading levels.

David: He chimed in that kids are sophisticated thinkers but don’t necessarily have the vocabulary required.

Question: How do you feel about groups you’ve found in publishing circles?

David: The Latinx caucus of children’s publishing tend to gravitate toward each other and there’s a larger community of authors of color. It’s nice to have people helping guide you through it.

Juana: She’ll often spot another author of color across the room.

As far as publishing, editors help her find a balance between what she wants to do and what can be put in a book and what people will understand.

Leo: He doesn’t write his own stories. English not being his first language makes writing scary. He uses illustrations as an international language.

Claudia: Her experience as a small independent publisher is very different from a big publisher. It’s a very different community. There’s a big power difference between indie publishers and the Big Five. She doesn’t hear about “trends.”

Question: Talk about balancing the tension of what we want the world to be and how the world could be.

Catherine: Her big goal is to take readers of all ages back so they’ll say about medieval times: “It was really weird!” If you can appreciate the different values of that time, you can appreciate different values today. We’re part of a big puzzle, and the puzzle is more complicated than we realize.

David: Guero wants the life he lives to be allowed to exist. Guero isn’t looking for perfection — he’s looking for respect for the autonomy of his community. Kids on the border have to grapple with what’s happening to kids their own age.

Claudia: Depicting characters as actors with agency is all about “What If?” So much we live within can be changed.

Leo: He struggled with depicting “the monster” — how to put a really cruel dictatorship into a children’s book? The beautiful part is that the characters are able to defeat the monster.

Juana: She hints at a dark part of history when she depicts Camilla taking a stand.

The second panel was called “Rough Grace.”

Participants in this panel were Veera Hiranandani, Newbery author of The Night Diary, Don Brown, Sibert author of The Unwanted, Gail Jarrow, Sibert author of Spooked!, Brian Lies, Caldecott illustrator of The Rough Patch, and Nathan Rostron, Batchelder publisher of Run for Your Life.

Question: How do you define grace? Rough grace?

Veera: Grace is not an intentional thing. Nisha carries herself with grace in rough times. It’s part of who she is, and it’s not intentional.

Nathan: There are many definitions of grace and graciousness. In the book, set in Sicily, it’s the idea of salvation from on high. What do you do when you can’t rely on outside forces to help? Need to find salvation in yourself and find people to help.

Brian: Rough grace is peace or acceptance through or in spite of adversity. His character’s grace comes because he can’t help being who he is. Souls and stones both get their luster through adversity. It’s not necessarily acceptance, but simply being.

Don: He hasn’t come to a conclusion about grace. There’s no grace when you watch your family drown in the Mediterranean. Or dying in a gas attack. Hemingway romanticizing war was wrong. He’s left not knowing.

Gail: Grace is a gift bestowed on others. The gift of history given to us — we can learn from it. We can learn from the history of The War of the Worlds. There’s a gift bestowed on us from what happened in history. Rough grace is like tough love. Some lessons from history are tough.

Question: How do people go on? How do you wrestle with that as a writer of books for young people?

Veera: I don’t know. Part of it is the not knowing. Nisha’s an observer because she has no choice. In that listening space, an openness comes with that. Taking it in can give you a certain kind of strength. Courage comes in the ability to simply keep moving forward.

Don: It’s a mystery why humanity keeps going. Maybe it’s a basic biological thing to move towards life. It’s inconceivable. As Americans, we look from the outside. The blessing: “May you live in uninteresting times.”

Gail: She also writes about diseases. When you read about people in history who experienced terrible things — some are strengthened and some despair. We can learn from history and those who went through it.

Brian: Resilience. In books, we model resilience for our readers. If you’ve never imagined resilience, how can you learn it?

Nathan: For a kid, the world is always normal. Their author just described daily life. She keeps it very immediate. She has two narratives going — the main character at 6 years old and at 11 years old. Making it immediate can open it up for kids.

Question: Do you self-censor?

Nathan: Self-censors now more than before, from being socially conscious.

Brian: He doesn’t self-censor, but he does self-criticize. Figuring out how to show the dog had died was an example of that. If you don’t see it, you’re asking the reader to care, not making the reader care. It felt more honest to show it on stage. But he didn’t make the reader feel awful — but they see Evan feeling awful.

Veera: She thought about it all the time. More than a million people died in horrific ways during Partition in India and Pakistan. She wanted to show some of the violence. She wanted to include a train with violence — but limited it for a young reader.

Gail: If she has doubts about the accuracy of information, she doesn’t put it in the book. Orson Welles was a notorious liar. Medical mysteries have a lot of gory stuff, but she doesn’t censor.

Don: Do you self-censor because of yourself or other people? I don’t know if I’m being sensitive or I’m being cowardly? Sometimes he can draw around terrible things. The Syrian war began with teens drawing graffiti and they were tortured for it. How to portray that? It’s something he struggles with all the time. How to present nonfiction to kids ages 8 to 13? Older kids can handle literally anything. For them, anything less is phony.

Great difficulty in a book about 9/11 as to how to show someone who jumped.

Brian: Every book is imperfect.

Veera: Kids let in what they’re ready to understand. Don’t let go of the struggle. That’s how you learn.

Don: After writing books, he only sees the mistakes.

Brian: He seeks a 5-year book, a book he’ll be happy with for five years. He has to come to a place of forgiveness. And make sure the next book is better.

Don: Do you like your books?

Gail: I don’t look at my books again.

Veera: I don’t read it again. It’s the readers’ now, not mine.

Question: Talk about the common threads of Fear and Forgiveness.

Nathan: Fear is a big part of Run for Your Life. The boy understands the code of silence. The Mafia’s built it into that society. The structure of fear enables the Mafia. To get over fear, you must let go, and forgiveness is a kind of letting go. Letting go of the silence of the past.

Brian: He purposely avoided reading about the “stages of grief.” There’s an anger aspect to Evan’s grief that wasn’t intentional. Forgiveness comes with time.

Gail: Fear is a big part of Spooked. She told about a couple who fled — and learned that their fear was based on sand. Sometimes fear has no basis. Get info before you act on fear. This story gives you a way to deal with fear.

Don: Fear is in abundance for Syrian refugees. As an example of grace, on a rainy day when he and his wife were visiting a camp, a refugee leant his wife her raincoat. Probably one of her few possessions. That simple act of humanity was one of the most touching things he’s seen in his life.

Veera: Her book is all about fear and forgiveness. People who survived Partition are now in their 80s. It’s up to her generation to preserve the history and begin to heal. That’s why Nisha had a Muslim mother and Hindu father — to be a bridge. Her generation has the distance to do that.

How do you forgive attackers? But now there’s distance, so forgiveness can counteract fear.

Moderator: What does it mean to be human in an imperfect world? Literature reminds us of humanity in the world we live in.

So that was the ALSC preconference. The only frustrating part was that several other fascinating sessions were going on in other rooms while I was at those two! But those two were inspiring.

Review of Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay

by Adib Khorram

Dial Books, 2018. 316 pages
Starred Review
Review written September 18, 2018, from a library book
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 General Teen Fiction
2019 Morris Award Winner
2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature

Darius the Great Is Not Okay is the story of Darius Kellner, who is a Fractional Persian – half Persian in his case, from his mother. Darius works in a tea store in Portland, and when we meet him, the kids who bully him walk in and give him a new degrading nickname and vandalize his bike.

His father, a German Übermensch, thinks he should just stand up to the bullies. Darius is sure he can never please him. Though at least they still have one thing they share – nightly time together watching Star Trek, Next Generation.

There’s a Skype visit with Darius’s grandparents in Iran, and his little sister, Laleh, speaks fluently with them in Farsi, but Darius never knows what to say. When they learn that his grandfather has a brain tumor and is not doing well, the family makes plans for an extended trip to Iran.

Most of the book is about that trip to Iran. But it’s also a book about friendship. Yes, I said friendship, not romance. I was delighted to read a book about genuine friendship between high school boys. Darius meets and makes friends with Sohrab in Iran, and right away they can be honest and open with each other. There are some bumps in their friendship – which makes it all the more authentic.

This is also a book about depression. Both Darius and his father take medication for depression, and Darius cries easily. He calls it “stress hormone secretion.” Darius does a lot of obsessing over what people think of him, and I like the way that’s honestly portrayed.

It’s also a book about family. Darius is meeting his Iranian family in person for the first time, and learning about his heritage – generations of his family have lived in the town of Yazd for centuries. They celebrate holidays together with extended family during the visit, and Darius realizes he loves these people.

But none of it is simple. His friend Sohrab is bullied for being Baha’i, and Sohrab’s father is in prison. Darius’s grandfather is dying, and his personality is changing – or so Darius is told, but he mourns that he never really knew his grandfather before, except on the computer screen. Laleh fits in so much better in Iran, since she speaks Farsi. And his father even lets Laleh replace Darius watching Star Trek, Next Generation.

I love Darius’s expressions throughout the book. There are multiple references to Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. I enjoyed that I got pretty much all the references. Will teens get those? Maybe some will. He calls the bullies “Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy” and his own mood swings “Mood Slingshot Maneuvers.”

Overall, it’s a beautiful story of a young man fighting his demons, finding his place in the world, and making and being a true friend.

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

The Obelisk Gate

by N. K. Jemisin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 2019 Walter Awards Presentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for keeping that continuity going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write about people of all backgrounds.

Writing love onto the page is pivotal.

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

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


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

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

Review of What the Night Sings, by Vesper Stamper

What the Night Sings

by Vesper Stamper

Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 266 pages.
Starred Review
Review written May 27, 2018.
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 General Teen Fiction

Wow. This is a Holocaust novel. They tend to be powerful. But not all of them have me closing the book saying, “Wow” – stunned by hope.

To be fair, the book begins as World War II is finishing. Gerta Rausch is in Bergen-Belsen as the British are liberating the camp, holding her bunkmate, sick with typhus, in her arms:

The soldiers begin removing the dead. There are so many. How could I not have noticed them lying right next to me?

And suddenly – Rivkah, too, is gone.

I feel her final breath wisp across my lips. They pull her from me, but I can’t let her go. She is my last connection to the living world. I clutch her arm, her hand, her fingers. I sing the lullaby after her, my foster mother. I know no one else in all of Bergen-Belsen, either from Auschwitz or Theresienstadt. Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.

This book is about living – and trying to figure out how to make a life – after the war. Gerta is sixteen years old and in a displaced persons camp on the site of the old concentration camp. Her only family – her Papa – died during the war in the furnaces.

Gerta had trained to be an opera singer like her stepmother, her stepmother who watched while she and her papa were taken to the cattle cars. Gerta did manage to bring her papa’s viola with her – and got assignments to play in the camp orchestras. They played while people were sorted, for life or for death.

Part of the power of this book is that it includes illustrations. The book size is larger format than most novels, and many of the illustrations take up entire double-page spreads, though some are next to the text. The picture that hit me the hardest was a picture of a smokestack on the side with smoke going all the way across the top of the two pages. Those pages conclude with these words:

“Come with me,” the woman says softly, pragmatically. “You’ve been sent to the orchestra, yes? Well. Join your very lucky sisters. Music has saved your life today.”

“Where’s my papa?” I plead with her. “I want my papa!”

She signs and points ahead. “See that chimney?” she says, still softly, but so that I will clearly understand. “See that smoke? There’s your papa.”

But I said that it’s a book that left me with hope. Though the book does explain the dark setting, Gerta must make the hard choice to keep living. And to love. And it’s not easy.

I especially appreciated the Author’s Note at the back, because it put a bow on why the book felt so applicable to my life – I, who had never experienced anything remotely like the Holocaust. She explained that in high school she developed a deep identity as a musician.

There’s a problem with that, however. When you decide early on who you “truly are,” it can trick you into thinking that you were destined to live by a certain script. And when you’re out on your own and you realize that there is no script, you might panic.

Several years ago, I was rear-ended by a texting driver, which resulted in my arm being partially paralyzed. I completely lost the ability to play guitar – I had been a touring musician – and it took me a full year of rehab before I could reliably draw again. I had to relearn everything, even how to lift a fork to my mouth. This wasn’t in the script. A huge element of my deeply ingrained identity had been smashed. Like Gerta, I had hinged my future on a set of expectations, which depended on life’s machine running with no glitches. Being disabled cast a pall over every area of my life: my ability to drive, hold a baby, cook, hug or shake hands, let alone create art and music. How could I live my life? Without my script, who was I?

Perhaps that puts all the more power into Gerta’s story – and the art Vesper Stamper created to go with that story.

A stunning book about starting over when everything and everyone is gone. About finding joy again, about choosing life and choosing love.

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Review of The Stuff of Stars, by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

The Stuff of Stars

by Marion Dane Bauer
illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Candlewick Press, 2018. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 25, 2018, from a library book
2019 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 General Picture Books

The Stuff of Stars is a gorgeous and glorious book.

The book is an extra large square, so it’s got a weighty presence. All the pages use marbled papers in swirly patterns. The front cover has the title in gold-sparkled lettering like star clusters.

Here’s how the book begins, on black paper with other dark swirled colors and one white dot:

In the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
a speck floated,
invisible as thought,
weighty as God.
There was yet no time,
there was yet no space.
No up,
no down,
no edge,
no center.

It goes on to poetically talk about the Big Bang on the third spread. And slowly how the stars and worlds formed. Christians, there’s plenty of room to explain to your child that God’s responsible for that Big Bang.

I like when it talks about what isn’t there yet:

And throughout the cosmos
stars caught fire.
Trillions of stars,
but still no planets
to attend those stars.
And if no planets,
then no oceans,
no mountains,
no hippopotami.
No violets blooming
in a shady wood,
no crickets singing
to the night.
No day,
no night.

Next, planets are formed, and even Earth, “one lucky planet, a fragile blue ball.” And it talks about the creatures that were formed on earth, from mitochondria to sharks, daisies, and galloping horses.

And then there’s a shift of gears:

Then one day . . .
in the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
another speck floated,
invisible as dreams,
special as Love.

Until at last,
YOU burst into the world.

And it builds to the cozy image of two people cuddling together, the same as on the cover.

The random list of earth’s creatures combined with the glorious swirling images is a perfect pairing.

and the velvet moss,
the caterpillars,
the lions.

You and the singing whales,
the larks,
the frogs.

and me
loving you.
All of us
the stuff of stars.

A marvelous and wondrous book.

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Review of The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season

The Broken Earth, Book One

by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit Books, 2015. 471 pages.
Starred Review
Winner of the 2016 Hugo Award

After the Newbery, I was ready to read something completely different. Both my adult children highly recommended the Broken Earth trilogy. They told me N. K. Jemisin was the first black woman to win the Hugo – and then the first person to win the Hugo three years in a row – with the books of this trilogy.

Tonight I finished The Fifth Season, and I had to go back to the beginning to see if I understood now what was going on at the start of the book. I think maybe, sort of? I am hoping things will be a bit less murky after book two. Which I am going to read.

This book, like much science fiction, is more cerebral than emotional. The world-building is amazing. We’ve got three plot threads going on, one of them addressing the reader as “you.” You do learn how the three threads are connected before the book ends – but it does end up having you do some rethinking.

The world here is a world that may be ending. They’ve long had “Fifth Seasons” – where ash from a volcano or some other disruption means there is a prolonged winter and little to harvest. They’ve got stonelore to tell them what to do, how to prepare. A new one is beginning, and this may be the worst ever.

This world has orogenes – people who can sense and manipulate the earth. They can raise volcanoes and still earthquakes. Earthquakes that are constantly happening in this world. Orogenes can also kill you by icing you – sucking all the energy out of an area around them and instantly freezing you to death. So they are deeply feared – and kept away from society, trained at the Fulcrum.

There are also Stone Eaters. They seem to be made of stone and can eat stone and move through stone And then there are Guardians, who can neutralize the power of orogenes. Their job is to watch over them. But if you don’t follow the rules, you’re in trouble.

The book follows a woman who was hiding her orogeny and has lost her son, a young girl being taken to the Fulcrum to be trained, and an orogene well along in her training, given a job under a new mentor – where something happens that she can’t explain and changes everything.

I’m still not sure I completely understand all that happened in this book. I need to read on…. How lovely that for once I’m reading a trilogy that’s already completely written!

Go to this book for intricate world-building and mind-blowing ideas. I have a feeling I’ll like it more as I begin to understand more of what’s going on! But I’ve definitely gotten hooked.

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

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Review of The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, by Leslie Connor

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle

by Leslie Connor

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2018. 326 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 4, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher.
2018 National Book Award Finalist
2019 Schneider Family Award Winner
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#1 Contemporary Children’s Fiction

Okay, I love this book, and I love Mason Buttle! I’m writing this at the beginning of my Newbery reading year. I may read many more books I love this year, and I may be the only person on the committee who loves this book – but I am so encouraged that such a wonderful book exists.

Mason Buttle is the biggest and tallest kid in seventh grade. And he has a disorder, so he sweats. A lot. And he has dyslexia, so he’s not very good at reading or writing.

As you may guess, a kid like that with a last name like “Buttle,” will get teased a lot, and bullied. But Mason takes it matter-of-factly.

His family’s gone through a lot lately. Mason’s grandpa died. Then his mother was killed in an accident, so only his grandma, Uncle Drum, and Mason are left. And then Mason’s best friend Benny died.

Benny died after he fell from their tree fort when the top rung of the ladder broke. The sheriff keeps wanting to talk with Mason about it. But he interrupts Mason, and it’s hard for Mason to get his words out. Mason has told the sheriff everything he knows.

But there’s a wonderful teacher at school named Mrs. Blinny. (Mrs. Blinny, too, is quirky and wonderfully described.) She’s got a new machine that Mason can talk into – and it will write down his words for him. Now at last, Mason can write his story.

Meanwhile, Mason makes a new friend, Calvin Chumsky. Calvin gets bullied, too. But the two together start a project together and become friends.

That’s only the bare bones of how the book begins. There’s a lot more going on – things with Mason’s family, things at school, the bully’s nice mother and the bully’s nice dog that Mason dog-sits, the family orchard that Uncle Drum has been selling off, and of course the mystery of what really happened when Benny died and why do so many people in town give Mason a sad-to-see-you look?

But Mason isn’t the type to feel sorry for himself. I challenge anyone to read this book and not just love this kid. Here he is in the very first chapter after he misspelled stopped as STOOPID in a spelling bee and someone put a t-shirt with the word STOOPID in his locker.

Matt Drinker loves when something like that happens. That’s why I’m guessing he put this STOOPID shirt inside my locker. He must have picked my lock to do it. Funny thing is I knew what the shirt said because of the two Os in the middle. I knew in two blinks.

Matt doesn’t know it but he did me a big favor. I always take two shirts to school. Unless I forget. I change just before lunch. This is because of how I sweat. It is a lot. Can’t stop it. Can’t hide it. I need to be dry at the lunch table. Otherwise I’m a total gross-out of a kid.

Well, today was a day that I forgot my extra shirt. So I’m wearing this one that says STOOPID on it. It’s big and it fits me. It’s clean and dry. I’m going to keep moving. Maybe nobody will see what it says.

And if they do, well, tell you what. Plenty worse has happened.

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Review of Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough

Blood Water Paint

by Joy McCullough

Dutton Books, 2018. 304 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 16, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher.
2019 Morris Award Finalist
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#1 General Teen Fiction

Wow. This book is amazing.

Now, the central event of the book is a rape – so I, personally, don’t think that’s “presentation for a child audience” [though that is only my personal opinion and I haven’t discussed it with anyone else on the Newbery committee]. But by the time I figured that out, there was absolutely no way I was going to stop reading.

This is a verse novel, which usually I don’t have a lot of patience with. But this verse spoke with a compelling voice that pulled me in immediately.

We have the perspective of Artemisia Gentileschi, who was seventeen years old in 1611 in Rome. Her mother died when she was twelve. She worked for her father, an artist, grinding pigments, preparing paint – and creating paintings for him, even though they bore his name.

In that world, women were used by men. Her mother had told her stories of the ancient heroines Susanna and Judith – they stood up to men and were vindicated, though it was not easy for them. Those stories, woven through the book, are the only parts that are not written in poetry. Yet they quickly make you feel what it must have been like for those ancient women – in a way that men who have never felt powerless cannot understand.

And then a young man hired to teach Artemisia perspective rapes her. And she tells the world what he did – but the resulting trial comes at great cost to Artemisia.

The powerless woman, used by men, stands up to the powerful, like Susanna and Judith before her. Though none of them spoke up without cost.

And the amazing part is that Artemisia is an actual woman, an artist, and her trial in 1611 actually happened.

Being verse, this book is not long. But its effect is long-lasting indeed.

They tell me I know
about perspective now.
Too well.
They say I’m standing
at the start of a long road,
looking out into the distance.
What do I see?

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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.

What did you think of this book?