Review of I Am Dance, by Hal Banfield

May 10th, 2021

I Am Dance

Words and Images of the Black Dancer

by Hal Banfield

The Literary Revolutionary, 2019. 94 pages.
Review written August 27, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I Am Dance is a gorgeous art photography book featuring twenty black dancers. Here’s a paragraph from the creator’s introduction:

Much like the old proverb about children, it is believed that dancers should be seen and not heard since it is widely understood that dancers speak with their bodies. It was important to me that this I Am Dance project be a platform for the black dancer to express themselves beyond just using their bodies. I wanted this project to be a place for them to also have a voice. Finding a good cross section of talented and trained dancers with interesting and dynamic stories to share was the first order of business and proved to be quite a task. Through months of trial and error, I would eventually identify and assemble a core group of talented and disciplined dancers who latched onto the concept of this project and were willing to be photographed and share their personal stories. What started out as an idea for a photo gallery exhibition would eventually blossom into a collection of diverse stories and images that now fit into the pages of this book.

Each of the twenty dancers is featured in two spreads full of beautiful action photos. Looking at those photos alone gives plenty of opportunity for wonder. They are also given a short page of text each, in their own voices, talking about what dancing means to them.

After many “I Am…” statements, such as “I Am Powerful.”; “I Am Joyful.”; “I Am a Fighter.” and “I Am Connected,” the book ends with a page heading: “We. Are. Dance.”

Because we danced today, the voices of tomorrow will shout louder, every hip will sway wider and every finger will snap sharper in time. Like the roar and crash of the ocean waves, the next generation of dancers of color will hear the undulating taps and echoes of our toes urging them to pick up the beat and keep the rhythm.

I am not a dancer, and I am not black, but I was still inspired by reading and gazing at this beautiful book.

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Review of Dear Justyce, by Nic Stone

May 9th, 2021

Dear Justyce

by Nic Stone

Crown, 2020. 266 pages.
Review written November 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a powerful novel about an ordinary black teen caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. This is billed as a “companion novel” to the author’s earlier award-winning book Dear Martin. I haven’t read the first book (though I’m planning to fix that), and I quickly got completely absorbed in this one, so I think they’re correct in not calling it a “sequel.”

The book is told from the perspective of a boy named Quan who’s in prison waiting for a trial date. We don’t find out why he’s locked up until about halfway through the book. He’s writing letters to a friend named Justyce. Justyce is the one who wrote the letters in the earlier book, Dear Martin.

In between the letters, we get the story of Quan’s life and how it almost felt inevitable that he ended up getting locked up. We learn about his difficult family situation but how he found family with a gang.

I’ll tell you right up front that this book ends with a hopeful outcome. It would be heart crushing if it didn’t. The really awful part is that almost feels unrealistic. The author herself confronts this in a note at the back:

It is also unlikely (unfortunately) that Quan would have such a solid team of people – friend, caseworker, therapist, teacher, and attorney – rallying around him.

Which was the hardest thing of all about telling this story: knowing the most fictional part is the support Quan receives.

But I think we can change that, dear reader. No matter how young or old you are, we all have the power to positively impact the people around us before they get to the point Quan did. Sometimes all it takes to bring about a shift in direction is knowing there’s someone out there who believes you’re valuable. That you have something positive to offer the world.

It was poignant for me reading this book on Election Day 2020 and writing this review before the results have been determined. But this book itself is a small way to make progress in treating more young people like valuable human beings, no matter the color of their skin. I want to encourage everyone to read this book. Oh, and did I mention? It’s a great story, too.

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Review of One Grain of Rice, by Demi

May 8th, 2021

One Grain of Rice

A Mathematical Folktale

by Demi

Scholastic Press, 1997. 36 pages.
Review written May 7, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
Mathical Hall of Fame

One Grain of Rice was recently chosen for the Mathical Books Hall of Fame, so I thought I should catch up – I missed this one when it was published. Yes, I’ve heard the tale in different versions, so I knew what to expect: a lowly person outwitting an autocrat with the power of exponential growth, asking for one grain of rice the first day, twice as much the next day, and doubling each day for thirty days.

This version has Demi’s exquisite artwork. The lowly person in this story is a clever peasant girl named Rani who devises a plan to feed hungry people. I also like the way the tyrant hoarding rice reforms and everybody’s happy at the end. It’s a picture book, after all.

As for the math – there’s a chart at the back that shows how many grains of rice Rani gets on each of the thirty days, so kids can see the exponential growth. I like the way the story doesn’t pretend that someone counts out each grain (couldn’t be done in a day!), but shows progressively bigger baskets transporting the rice. On the final day, two hundred and fifty-six elephants show up on a giant fold-out page bringing the contents of four royal storehouses.

I’m afraid during a pandemic is an especially good time for kids to have a basic understanding of how exponential growth works. It starts out very small, but can grow to very big if you keep on doubling. This classic book makes the ideas memorable, understandable, and beautiful.

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

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Review of The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn

May 8th, 2021

The Jane Austen Project

by Kathleen A. Flynn
performed by Saskia Maarleveld

HarperAudio, 2017. 11 hours on 9 CDs.
Review written May 3, 2021, from a library audiobook.
Starred Review

Here’s another book featuring time travel to Jane Austen’s time. My time listening to this audiobook in the car happened to overlap with listening to the eaudiobook Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. But this one meticulously explained how the purposeful and planned time travel happened – much more satisfying to the science fiction reader in me.

You see, in the future, after the “die-off,” time travel has been developed. Rachel Katzman, a doctor who has done work with disaster relief and happens to love Jane Austen novels, applied and was accepted to the Jane Austen Project, an undertaking of the Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics.

Her mission, together with Liam Finuca, an Austen scholar, is to go back in time to 1815, not long before Jane Austen’s death. They are posing as a brother and sister, Dr. William Ravenswood and his sister Mary. They arrive in 1815 with counterfeit money strapped to their bodies. They plan to ingratiate their way into the society of Jane’s brother Henry, and from there make the acquaintance of Jane. And they want to be good enough acquaintances to somehow get a copy of the complete version of The Watsons as well as find the missing letters, before those letters get burned by Jane’s sister Cassandra, and maybe diagnose the disease that killed Jane.

Can they do all this? They’ve got a letter of introduction from an Austen relative in Jamaica, so it would be difficult to check. But can they win Henry over, and then Jane? It helps when Henry gets sick and Liam becomes an attentive doctor friend checking on him. Henry doesn’t know that it’s “Mary” who’s the real doctor, telling her “brother” what questions to ask.

There begin to be signs that they’ve disturbed the “probability field,” so they have worries about what they’re changing by all their actions in their own past.

This book was delightful. I loved the way they had to know all about Jane Austen’s life and about customs of the time, so that gets conveyed to the reader (unlike the poor clueless heroine in Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict). The book pulls you in and helps the reader see all the difficulties one would face if you tried to be accepted into the society of 1815 without detection.

This book is like Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict in that part of the difficulty – and some of the humor – is a woman with more modern attitudes regarding sex trying to fit in during that time, when attitudes are very different. Fair warning to Jane Austen fans: This book has more sex scenes and sexual situations than Jane Austen’s books do.

I’m not completely satisfied with the ending, when it’s revealed, that yes, their time travel changed some things. (I think it’s not a spoiler if I don’t say what was changed, parts of which made me happy.) But then, I always have trouble with time travel paradoxes. I did appreciate that they attempted to explain the repercussions.

And the book is so much fun! You forget it’s fiction and feel like you’ve been immersed in Jane Austen’s time and Jane Austen’s society. A real treat for Jane Austen fans.

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Review of The Little Red Fort, by Brenda Maier, pictures by Sonia Sánchez

May 7th, 2021

The Little Red Fort

by Brenda Maier
pictures by Sonia Sánchez

Scholastic Press, 2018. 40 pages.
Review written March 15, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

I recently read and loved the new picture book The Little Blue Bridge, which is loosely based on the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. So when I discovered the author and illustrator pair had an earlier picture book out about the same irrepressible little girl with three big brothers, I immediately put it on hold.

The Little Red Fort is a picture book based on “The Little Red Hen.” Instead of animals, we’ve got a feisty little girl called Ruby, who has three big brothers. Instead of making bread, she wants to make a fort.

Both books begin the same way: “Ruby’s mind was always full of ideas.”

In this book, Ruby found some old boards and asks her brothers for help to build something.

Oscar Lee pretended not to hear her.
Rodrigo gave her a look that could melt Popsicles.
José almost fell off the fence.
“You don’t know how to build anything,” they said.

Ruby shrugged. “Then I’ll learn.”

And she did.

Ruby draws plans and gathers supplies. I was a little alarmed when I saw her carting supplies and spotted a saw in the box. But even though Ruby’s brothers won’t help her cut the boards, we see in the picture that Ruby’s mother is the one doing the actual cutting, while Ruby looks on behind safety goggles. And when it comes to hammering the nails, although Ruby is undoubtedly very helpful and overseeing where to put the nails, we see her grandma holding the hammer.

Yes, like the little red hen, since Ruby built the fort, she decides to play in it by herself. But I like the happy ending, as the brothers win their way in with some improvements and additions, including painting the fort red.

There’s a note at the end that this book celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the first picture book version of The Little Red Hen.

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Review of Talking to Strangers, by Marianne Boucher

May 6th, 2021

Talking to Strangers

A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult

by Marianne Boucher

Doubleday Canada, 2020. 176 pages.
Review written September 8, 2020, from a library book

This is a short and sweet graphic novel memoir about when the author was 18 years old and got sucked into the Moonies.

She was all about ice skating and got an audition in California for the Ice Follies. But while she was there, she met some strangers on the beach. They showered her with love and attention and talked with her about not conforming to expectations.

One thing led to another. First, she was just going to go to a weekend retreat. They added teaching and community and before long she was fully involved.

Her mother back in Canada couldn’t get the California police to intervene, since Marianne was 18 years old. So she found people who specialized in extracting people from cults. They laid plans and got help from a former cult member. Since Marianne didn’t want to leave, they had to get her away from the group in order to convince her, and none of that was easy.

The graphic novel format makes this a quick read, but it’s still a powerful story and a frightening one. At the end, the book does touch on her difficult healing process, and it provides a resource list at the back. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were some similarities with our current political climate. But may we all find healing with Beauty and Truth.

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Review of Three Keys, by Kelly Yang, read by Sunny Lu

May 5th, 2021

Three Keys

by Kelly Yang
read by Sunny Lu

Scholastic Audiobooks, 2020. 6 hours, 11 minutes, on 5 discs.
Review written April 6, 2021, from a library audiobook
Starred review

Three Keys is a sequel to the wonderful Front Desk, continuing the story of Mia Tang, who immigrated with her parents to California in the 1990s and ended up becoming owners of the motel they were managing.

In this segment of the story, now although they don’t have a harsh owner to work for, they still need to manage the motel in ways that will make a profit. The investors give them a hard time if profits are down. Mia learns that her parents have dreams of their own, since her mother was an engineer and her father a medical researcher in China. But now they’re busy cleaning rooms.

Meanwhile, the author takes on social issues again, setting the story in 1994, when Governor Pete Wilson was running for reelection and pushing the passage of Prop 187, which would crack down on undocumented immigrants and not allow their children to go to school or for them to receive any services.

I no longer lived in California in 1994, but my family did, so I had a sinking knowledge as I read the book of who would win the election. The book showed some of the hate crimes and strong anti-immigrant sentiment that came out at that time. Meanwhile, Mia’s best friend Lupe’s parents are undocumented, and her father gets arrested with looming deportation. But Mia is determined to fight it.

Even knowing what would happen with the proposition, this book still managed to be hopeful and show a human face to immigration and make you care about these kids, trying to spread concern for others. They encounter obstacles, but make a difference with many of those obstacles.

Oh, in the author’s note at the back, the author does connect the dots between Pete Wilson’s campaign in 1994 and Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, and how both stirred up hatred and fear against immigrants. She mentions that Prop 187 was struck down by the courts, but her characters would have been worse off in 2020 than they were in the book world in 1994. She does point out this is a timely topic.

Mia’s a character you can’t help but love. I hope there will be more books about her and her struggle to make the world a better place, even if it’s in small ways.

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Review of The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys, read by Maite Járegui

May 4th, 2021

The Fountains of Silence

by Ruta Sepetys
read by Maite Járegui

Listening Library, 2019. 12.5 hours on 10 CDs.
Review written April 23, 2020, from a library audiobook
Starred Review

This is a richly detailed historical novel set in Franco’s Spain after World War II. The Spanish people have learned to be silent about injustices.

The book features a cross-cultural attraction. Daniel’s family is visiting Madrid. His father is a rich oil executive from Texas who wants Daniel to take over the family business, but Daniel wants to be a photojournalist. He’s hoping to get photographs in Spain to win a contest and get a scholarship to journalism school.

Anna is a maid at the hotel, assigned to facilitate things for their family. Her family was on the wrong side of Franco, but her sister has always looked after her. Anna is tempted to tell Daniel what things are really like in Spain, and he wants to get photos that look deeper.

Anna’s brother is helping a friend who plans to be a matador, though he has to train in secret. And several family members are on the edge of something going on with dead babies and the orphanage and adoptions.

There’s a slow pace to this book that gives you portraits of many people. I like the slow build of the feelings between Anna and Daniel. I have some quibbles with some big coincidences that happened, but I still enjoyed the story and learned much about life in Spain under Franco.

This was the audiobook I’d been listening to in the car before the library closed for Covid-19. So I brought it into the house, and now I think I’m hooked on listening to an audiobook while making dinner. New times, new habits. This was a good way to begin that new habit.

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

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Review of Eclipse Chaser, by Ilima Loomis

May 3rd, 2021

Eclipse Chaser

Science in the Moon’s Shadow

by Ilima Loomis
with photographs by Amanda Cowan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019. 80 pages.
Review written April 27, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Eclipse Chaser is part of the wonderful Scientists in the Field series, which uses the tagline, Where Science Meets Adventure. These books show actual scientists on actual expeditions. They explain what the scientists are trying to figure out, the importance of their endeavors, and the obstacles, challenges, and successes they meet with.

This book features the scientist Shadia Habbal and her expedition to get vital scientific information during the Great American Total Solar Eclipse of 2017. This makes the book especially pertinent, since many of the readers, like me, will have experienced that eclipse themselves.

It tells about the many other total solar eclipses Shadia has seen, how that gives her an exceptional look at the sun’s corona, and about some of the breakthroughs she has discovered in her previous work. Shaddia is studying solar winds, and to do that, she uses special filtered cameras that show the location of certain elements in the sun’s corona, as well as photos of certain iron ions that give the temperature in the corona where they’re present.

The book is full of photographs. There’s plenty of drama about setting up all the expensive equipment to take photographs in a short period of time. Since I was present for a solar eclipse in Germany in 1999 where clouds covered the sun in the last minute before totality, I was extra appreciative of those worries. We were told about past expeditions where weather wiped out all their plans.

It’s all fascinating information that helped me understand better why solar eclipses are so important for scientists. There are several photos of the sun’s corona taken during eclipses to help you grasp what they can find out and understand what they’re talking about with the term “solar wind.”

A map in the back of paths, dates, and durations of solar eclipses between 2011 and 2060 says there’s going to be another total solar eclipse in America in April 2024. We’ll want to prominently display this book on our library shelves when that event approaches.

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Review of How Big Is Zagnodd? by Sandra Boynton

May 2nd, 2021

How Big Is Zagnodd?

by Sandra Boynton

Little Simon, 2020. 16 pages.
Review written December 4, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This is the very first time I’m reviewing a board book. But it’s a new Sandra Boynton board book!

Honestly? I don’t often even notice the board books that come into the library because you can’t put them on hold so I can’t look them over as they come in. But today I was pulling a bag of board books for a customer (we’ve had them on an ask-for-a-bag basis during the pandemic so they don’t collect drool), and saw this one, read it and was utterly charmed.

Spoiler alert: Zagnodd is SO big!

And then we’re asked more questions about other aliens. “How long is Boknuk?”, “How fuzzy are Fleeb, Fleeeb, & Fleeeeb?”, and “How bright is Igwak?”

But the place where I laugh out loud is, “How dancey are the nimble Klorggix of Planet 9?” And after that, we see one earthling named Steve who is SO lost.

If you delight in reading nonsense words, obviously this is the board book for your family.

Sandra Boynton’s genius is in making books that are short and sweet but delight little ones and adults alike. My own 32-year-old daughter had a set of Boynton board books and I swear her first word was “Fffff!” when reading the book called Doggies that had a WOOF! on each page. How Big Is Zagnodd? is a worthy addition to her offerings.

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