Review of One Step Further, by Katherine Johnson, illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow

One Step Further

My Story of Math, the Moon, and a Lifelong Mission

by Katherine Johnson
with her daughters Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore
illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow

National Geographic Kids, 2021. 48 pages.
Review written January 5, 2022, from my own copy
Starred Review

Here’s a wonderful picture book biography that tells about the groundbreaking life of Katherine Johnson and weaves in the experiences of her three daughters growing up with her example.

The book uses photographs and artifacts from Katherine’s life to give wonderful visuals, giving a taste of the times. The daughters are pictured with speech bubbles giving commentary on the artifacts and the main text, effectively pulling the reader into the story with child guides.

Segregation affected Katherine’s life, and it also affected her daughters’ lives. When she moved in order to find a job that used her talents, her children experienced segregation. But I also like that when she became a human computer for NACA, there were many other college-educated African-American women working there (segregated from the white computers). The kids are pictured saying about that:

Our neighborhood was full of smart and stylish Black women mathematicians. At church, at school pickups, at summer cookouts, in our kitchen.

They took such pride in their jobs and looked so perfect every day. We didn’t know quite what they did, but we wanted to be like them.

The theme of “one step further” is carried through the book, as Katherine continued to push to go one step further. Her daughter Kathy also went one step further by participating in sit-ins to protest racial segregation.

The book progresses through to Katherine’s important work on the moon launch and how John Glenn asked Katherine to check the math of the mechanical computer before he was willing to take off.

I like the page at the back that tells how NASA named a building and then an entire facility after Katherine. It also tells how her daughters followed in her footsteps, with one working for NASA and the other two working as teachers.

There are ten pages of detailed historical notes after the main story, so older kids intrigued by this can learn how they can find out more. This biography is put together in a wonderfully inviting package.

natgeo.com

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Review of Lamb of the Free, by Andrew Remington Rillera

Lamb of the Free

Recovering the Varied Sacrificial Understandings of Jesus’s Death

by Andrew Remington Rillera

Cascade Books, 2024. 325 pages.
Review written May 31, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com.
Starred Review

I purchased – and actually read – this book because of strong recommendations from progressive Christians I follow on Twitter. I was not sorry. This book is amazing, giving an in-depth look at the sacrificial system set up in the Torah and how those sacrifices are used to talk about Jesus in the New Testament. Along the way, we learn that there’s nothing in the sacrificial system that’s penal – about punishment – and nothing that’s substitutionary – about taking something in place of someone else so they don’t have to. No, we see that Jesus’s death is shown to be participatory – Jesus identified with humanity in our curse to the point of death, and now we participate with Jesus in his death and resurrection.

That’s all in there, and it’s amazing and good. But let me warn my readers: This is an academic book written for professional theologians. I very much want to see a layperson’s summary of this book written. In fact, I’d love to take that project on myself — if I were sure I understood this book well enough.

There are long footnotes on almost every page and Scripture references noted throughout the text. The arguments of other scholars are noted and referred to. (And I had purchased one of the books he refutes. That one is also academic, so now I can put it away without trying to slog through it. Whew!) But this is a good thing! Before a layperson’s summary can be written, this book is needed to establish the firm biblical foundation of these ideas.

So although it was hard to wade through, it made my heart happy as I read. Something Andrew Rillera made clear is that the Bible does not teach that God is mad at us and requires a horrible death before God could ever forgive us.

Now, I’m a person who since childhood has read through the Bible over and over again. And, well, I’ve memorized the entire New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and half of Jeremiah (a chapter at a time, anyway). But when I read through Leviticus, let’s just say that often my mind wanders. I’m very aware that there are many different kinds of sacrifices, offered in many different ways.

So I just loved that this author explained the different types of sacrifices, how they relate to Jesus, and how New Testament writers apply them to Jesus. Although I’d still like a chart of the types of sacrifices, next time I read Leviticus, I’m going to have a better understanding of what I’m reading and how the various sacrifices are distinguished between one another.

Let me just give some things that struck me:

The sacrifices were not about death.

Although this one is hard for me to explain, the author’s pages of explanation show that sacrifice is about accessing the offering’s life, found in the blood.

The sacrifices were not about suffering.

The offering was to be killed quickly and humanely. And this is interesting:

This is significant because we can now see that when it comes to sacrificial understandings of Jesus’s death in the NT, these never occur in the context of Jesus’s sufferings and passion. Put another way: when Jesus’s sufferings and/or death qua death are the topic, then sacrificial metaphors are avoided.

Sacrifices were often about ritual purification. And often about remembrance. Or establishing a covenant. (I’d like to see a great big chart, honestly. But it’s all detailed here.)

Something I did grasp is that there were two types of sacrifices: Atoning and non-atoning sacrifices. The person offering the sacrifice never eats of an atoning sacrifice.

So when Jesus established the Lord’s Supper, he was relating his death to non-atoning sacrifices — the well-being sacrifices and the covenant-establishment sacrifices of the Passover. They are about remembering and about participating in.

But he also makes the point that some offenses were never intended to be dealt with by the sacrificial system.

Forgiveness has always been wider and deeper than the sacrificial system. God’s forgiveness was always available via extra-sacrificial means (e.g., Pss 32; 51; 103; Isa 38:17), so the prophets are confident that God will have mercy and forgive Israel and restore them just because that is the kind of God that God is and this is the kind of thing God can do (e.g., Isa 43:25; 44:22; 55:7; Jer 50:20; Mic 7:18-19; Hos 14:2-7; cf. Zeph 3:15).

I also love the part where the author explains the way the Romans used altars commemorating a conqueror’s mercy – “votive gifts” – and how that gives us insight into what Paul is saying in Romans 5 through 8.

Paul is essentially saying:

Look at Jesus! God is not your enemy! You are the ones at enmity with God. God is justifying you even though you are ungodly. God has put forth Jesus as a conciliatory votive gift of peace and reconciliation to demonstrate this. Be reconciled to God! God loves you! If God did not spare God’s own Son, then nothing can separate you from the love of God revealed and manifested in Jesus Christ. Jesus eternally stands in the presence of God (like votive gifts stand in temples) interceding for us all.

That’s all a really poor summary of what’s going on in this book. If you can handle academic writing at all, and to anyone who’s ever been to seminary, I highly, highly recommend this book. Of course, he goes into great detail about every type of sacrifice in the Torah and every mention of Jesus associated with sacrifice in the New Testament. Hebrews and 1 John do associate Jesus with atoning sacrifices, and do not mention the Lord’s Supper, and he looks at the implications of that, while also paying close attention to the more frequent mentions relating to non-atoning sacrifices.

Here’s a paragraph from the Introduction that helps us see where the book is going:

Jesus’s death is a participatory phenomenon; it is something all are called to share in experientially. The logic is not: Jesus died so we don’t have to. Rather it is: Jesus died so that we, together, can follow in his steps and die with him and like him, having full fellowship with his sufferings so that we might share in the likeness of his resurrection (e.g., Phil 3:10-11; Gal 2:20; 6:14; Rom 6:3-8; 1 Pet 2:21; Mark 8:34-35 with 10:38-39; 1 John 2:6; 3:16-18; etc.).

And here are some paragraphs from the end, summing up the journey he’s led us on:

Therefore, understanding the concepts of sacrifice and kipper properly is part of understanding the story of salvation the NT is telling. For instance, if we think sacrifice is all about punishment and retributive justice, then we will fundamentally misconstrue the sacrificial images applied to Jesus. This means we will misconstrue what “salvation” and “justice” mean because these terms will be informed and defined by alternative stories and frameworks. But getting the concepts and story right are crucial, not only for an individual Christian’s formation, but also our collective formation as part of a common and shared tapestry faithfully witnessing to the salvation of God in Jesus Christ as his body, the church….

So when we get the sacrificial concepts right by understanding the larger story of which they are a part, then we can find our place within that story, and as Paul says, become sharers and partakers of the body and blood of Jesus (1 Cor 10:16-17). And by so doing we become a living well-being sacrifice ourselves (Rom 12:1), narrating the death of Jesus in our bodies for the life and reconciliation of the world (2 Cor 4:10-12; 5:14-21).

So, let me challenge you. If you’re up for a deep dive into the details of the sacrificial system and what Jesus’s death means — you will be richly rewarded. I admit it will take some work and thought, but will yield a beautiful result.

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Review of Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

Huda F Are You?

by Huda Fahmy

Dial Books (Penguin Random House), 2021. 188 pages.
Review written December 30, 2021, from a library book

This is a graphic novel loosely based on the author’s high school years. She started high school in a new city (Dearborn, Michigan) and a new school, where she was no longer the only one wearing a hijab.

So if she no longer stood out as the one hijabi at the school, who was she? Where did she fit in?

The highly relatable search for identity in high school makes a fun graphic novel. Of course there are missteps making friends and plenty of awkward attempts at fitting in. Teens will relate, whether they are Muslim or not, and those who are not will gain some insight and empathy along with the laughter.

PenguinTeen.com

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Review of Unseelie, by Ivelisse Housman

Unseelie

by Ivelisse Housman

Inkyard Press, 2023. 423 pages.
Review written March 4, 2023, from a book sent to me by the publisher.

This is a debut novel I read in consideration for the 2024 Morris Award, with a review written before any discussion with the committee.

This book begins with this inscription before the story:

Stories tell of children stolen away by faeries, replaced by inhuman look-alikes.

These look-alikes, they say, could be identified by their strange speech or silence. They cried without reason or never showed any emotion at all, and struggled to relate to a world that seemed foreign to them. Folklorists theorize that these stories were early descriptions of autistic children – proof that autistic people have always been here.

But once, they called us changelings.

Unseelie is a story told by a changeling. But she lives with the twin sister the faeries tried to steal – because their mother went to the Seelie Court, and when offered a choice, refused to give up the baby she already had and brought up both girls as her own.

But now at seventeen the girls are on their own, living by their wits, with twin Isolde having developed into a clever thief and pickpocket. On the night of Revelnox, she has a plan to break into the local manor and steal the treasure hidden behind locked doors.

When they go after it – this particular lock needs two people to pick it – it turns out they’re not the only ones who had that idea. The treasure turns out to be a compass. For Isolde and for the other two would-be thieves, the compass only brings a vision of a faerie guardian. But when Seelie touches it, it magically goes into her skin and now shows on her palm. What nobody else realizes is that the faerie guardian also gets inside her head.

The book is about their quest to follow the compass to an unknown treasure. It’s not long before they’re forced to join forces with the others who tried to steal it, who have a personal history with the lady of the manor. But they’re also being chased by the manor’s security forces.

Seelie has trouble with crowds. And textures. And other things. She’s used to Isolde looking out for her. But now her magic has been stirred up, and when she gets angry, it flares out in dangerous ways. Can she learn to control her magic? And what about the faerie guardian of the compass?

They travel in an enchanted coach with a cat that’s really a brownie. (I loved that part.) Their journey seems a little random, but after all, they’re following an enchanted compass while trying to avoid pursuit.

I enjoyed the book and especially the portrayal of an “autistic” (without using that word) heroine, who’s different, and discriminated against for being a changeling. I did think how the magic in that world works was pretty murky – though, to be fair, Seelie is just figuring it out. I absolutely hated their reasons for living on their own in the first place, and didn’t completely understand the coincidence of four people going after the “treasure” at the same time, nor any of their motivations to try so hard to get it. I also didn’t appreciate that, although there was a map at the front, I had no idea where they were on the map except at the very beginning. (Was I just not reading carefully enough?)

Those are all nitpicky things. I was reading in a nitpicky way because I was reading for the Morris Award. As a first novel, this was delightful and the author shows lots of promise. (And needing to understand the magic and the location is an affliction that not all fantasy readers have anyway.) I enjoyed my time spent with Seelie and Isolde.

The most frustrating part, though, is that the story is not finished yet. This is the first book in a duology, and I will be watching for the concluding volume. (Looks like it’s scheduled for September 2025 – a long wait.)

IvelisseHousman.com
InkyardPress.com

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Review of Root Magic, by Eden Royce, read by Imani Parks

Root Magic

by Eden Royce
read by Imani Parks

HarperAudio, 2021. 10 hours on 8 compact discs.
Review written February 18, 2022, from a library audiobook.
2022 Walter Award Honor Book

Root Magic is set on a South Carolina island in 1963 among people with Gullah Geechee heritage. Jez is facing big changes after the death of her Gran. She’s been moved ahead a year in school, so for the first time, she won’t be in a class with her twin brother, Jay. But after school, their uncle, Doc, has decided they’re finally old enough to begin learning Root Magic.

Root Magic has been passed down in their family, and Gran was powerful enough to leave Jez a doll with some amazing powers. Doc tells them that Root work is mainly about protection — but their family needs protection. Their Daddy has been missing for years, there are haints in the marsh, girls at school are mean, and a white police officer is known for harassing root workers.

This book had some big surprises as Jez begins to learn to use her power. She shows compassion and plants seeds that will help her in time of need.

I have to say that I wasn’t crazy about the way the narrator read this book, and I think I might have enjoyed it more in print. But I’m glad I kept listening. I grew up hearing stories about “witch doctors” in Africa, and this presentation of root work as family heritage done with love and compassion shook up some of those ideas. Though many of the things that happened were firmly in the realm of fantasy, I appreciated the honor the book gave to family, friendship, and tradition. And I enjoyed the surprising twists and turns in the plot.

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Review of My Incredible India, by Jasbinder Bilan, illustrated by Nina Chakrabarti

My Incredible India

by Jasbinder Bilan
illustrated by Nina Chakrabarti

Candlewick Press, 2023. First published in the United Kingdom in 2022. 72 pages.
Review written May 20, 2024, from a library book.

This book reminds me of Africa, Amazing Africa, by Atinuke and Mouni Feddag. This one, too, is a big, beautiful, oversized picture book offering an in-depth look at a region of the world I hadn’t known a lot about. It, too, offers a look at personal things people love about India.

This book is framed as a visit of a child with her grandmother, who shows her wonderful things from India out of a large wooden chest. And each thing is associated with a different place in India. There’s a map at the front locating all the places talked about. Each place is located as to which of India’s twenty-eight states or eight union territories it’s found in. In between some of the spreads, which are all covered with illustrations as well as facts, there are spreads about more general topics such as wildlife, religious festivals, food, sports, crafts, and the like. A timeline of the history of India is at the back, along with an index and a list of websites to find out more.

I took it slowly when I read it, a few spreads at a time, and learned fascinating things about India.

Friday nights are exciting nights: that’s when I sleep over at Nanijee’s. She makes me spiced milky chai sprinkled with cinnamon. I take a small sip and snuggle into the folds of her chunni. She smiles and creaks open the trunk. It smells sweet, like the heart of a tree.

She takes out one object and tells me all about it — which state it’s from, why she loves it so much, and what makes it unique.

Let this author and artist share their love of India with you.

jasbinderbilan.co.uk

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Review of A Complicated Love Story Set in Space, by Shaun David Hutchinson

A Complicated Love Story Set in Space

by Shaun David Hutchinson
narrated by Kevin R. Free with Gibson Frazier and Candace Thaxton

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021. 11 hours, 2 minutes.
Review written December 24, 2021, from a library eaudio

Well, the title of this book tells the truth. This is a very complicated love story, and it’s set in space.

In fact, the book begins when 16-year-old Noa North wakes up in a spacesuit outside a ship. He remembers going to sleep in his own bed and has no idea how he got in space. He’s not feeling good about it. And when he gets to the airlock ready to go into the safety of the ship, a voice tells him that the ship is about to explode and he needs to patch a hole on the outside of the ship. Which is not an easy thing to do.

And that’s just the beginning of their adventures in space. There are only two other people on the ship – DJ, the owner of the voice that helped him fix the ship, and Jenny, whom they later find locked in a restroom. They are all sixteen years old. But are they the only people on board?

The things that happen to them after that, ranging from finding another person on the ship, fighting an alien monster, and getting stuck in a time loop, all seem oddly episodic. On top of that, their efforts to get back to earth are consistently thwarted. But things really get interesting as they begin to discover why they’re on the ship in the first place and who put them there.

But meanwhile, Noa’s wrestling with a bad experience in his past that makes him afraid to give in to his feelings for DJ. Can they find love in such a complicated setting?

The story, once we know what happened, all seems wild and farfetched, but let’s be honest, it’s still a whole lot of fun. Noa is endearing, and you’ve got to feel for a guy who wakes up in outer space. Don’t read this one for believability, but do read it for a fun romance between two guys caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

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Review of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers, read by Rachel Dulude

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

by Becky Chambers
read by Rachel Dulude

HarperAudio, 2019. 14 hours, 24 minutes.
Review written June 4, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
2019 Hugo Award winner (with following books) for Best Series

I heard about this book from attending a library staff webinar about fantasy and science fiction books, and I was glad I followed the recommendation.

The first character we meet in this book is of a young adult woman named Rosemary traveling to her first job off Mars on a spaceship. She’s paid all her money to change her identity and we don’t know why. The next scene shows the ship’s captain being told off by the algaeist for hiring such an inexperienced person. And in that interaction we learn that Ashby is a patient man who wants what’s best for his ship, that Corbin is abrasive to people, but good at his job, and that Rosemary is a highly qualified clerk who speaks multiple languages, but she’s young.

This book reminded me of a season of Star Trek or maybe Firefly, since it’s a ragtag bunch and the captain is in business for himself, not part of a government fleet. The ship, Wayfarer, is cobbled together from mostly secondhand parts, but it’s sturdy, and it gets the job done — the job being to create wormholes that other ships can travel through.

In the beginning of the book, the interplanetary alliance they’re part of has decided to add a group of aliens who are still at war among themselves — at least one faction of them. So Ashby jumps at the chance to get the lucrative job of constructing the wormhole to connect that planet with the rest of the alliance.

But of course since the wormhole doesn’t yet exist, it will take them almost a full standard year to get there to put the other end of the wormhole in place. This book takes us with the crew on that journey.

This is a story about world-building and about community among extremely diverse cultures. There are three non-human sapients as part of the crew, as well as an A.I. entity monitoring the ship. Every crew member gets some time as viewpoint character, so it’s very much episodic. The different episodes show the characters’ interrelationships. This includes stories of intimate relationships, some not with the same species, but there’s not an overarching love story, so those descriptions have us a little at a distance.

But if you like world-building in a science fiction novel, this one has it in spades. Arising naturally out of the story, we get a detailed picture of what life might be like living in space and interacting with multiple species that evolved differently from us. Humans aren’t particularly admired among the other cultures, having been let into the alliance almost out of pity. The book shows the implications of many different things that might come up in such a society.

My one quibble — call me stone-hearted, but I can never bring myself to believe that A.I. entities can experience pleasure or pain — or love. I just don’t have a lot of compassion in my heart for machines so when an author tries to pluck my heartstrings with something happening to a machine — no matter how lifelike it seems — it’s going to fail. I try to care for the sake of the story and at least relate to how the humans around them would miss the A.I. they’re used to if something bad happens — but I don’t think it has the poignancy the author’s going for.

But the characters are delightful. (And don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the character of the A.I.) Even the abrasive one that nobody really likes turns out to be someone we care about when trouble comes his way. And many of them are downright lovable. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these people. It did feel episodic — but that way I got insights into each character’s background and current situation and what they cared about. It was also fun when a couple of the aliens grumble about things humans do – giving a new perspective on what’s “normal.”

This whole delightful story is a grand adventure about a group of wildly different people living and working together and caring about each other.

otherscribbles.com

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Review of Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero, by Saadia Faruqi

Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

by Saadia Faruqi

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 362 pages.
Review written December 17, 2021, from a library book

Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero tells about a Muslim boy who lives in the small town of Frey, Texas. He’s lived there all his life. Now he’s starting middle school, and on the first day gets hateful notes left in his locker, apparently targeting him because he’s Muslim.

His family and his Muslim neighbors are building a mosque in town, working together on weekends. But a new group has moved into town calling themselves the Patriot Sons, and they bring a legal challenge to the construction.

Meanwhile, Yusuf and his friend Danial are excited to be in middle school and old enough to compete in the annual Texas Robotics Competition. The catch is that they need enough people interested in robotics in order to be able to compete.

And all of this is happening in the Fall of 2021 – the twentieth anniversary of when the Twin Towers fell. The town of Frey is planning a big commemoration. Meanwhile, Yusuf’s uncle gives him the diary he wrote when he was in middle school and the towers fell. His uncle’s best friend stopped speaking to him, and back then there was also anti-Muslim hate to contend with.

I love that this book exists, and I hope it will get many kids thinking about the perspective of American kids who are also Muslim. Yusuf is a character you can’t help but root for, trying to do what’s right, but unfairly getting picked on.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the author set it so specifically in 2021 – and assumed the pandemic would be over. I wish! (Though maybe in small-town Texas, they would still do a parade on September 11th?) The book was a little slow-moving and a little on the long side, and the plot seemed a little bit contrived — but it was all with a good heart, and I was definitely rooting for Yusuf before it was over. I do hope a lot of kids will find this book.

saadiafaruqi.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Kaleidoscope, by Brian Selznick

Kaleidoscope

by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, 2021. 192 pages.
Review written January 13, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This is something new for Brian Selznick, but like the rest it contains his detailed and beautiful artwork done in pencil. This is a series of very short stories, and each one has a picture at the front. But before that picture, we see the picture viewed through a kaleidoscope.

And the stories themselves are kaleidoscopic. They all involve the first-person narrator and his friend, a boy named James. But they couldn’t all happen in the same universe. There are many fantasy elements in the stories with trips to the moon and magic apples and meaningful dreams and giants and dragons. I think of them as stories of the same people happening in parallel magical universes.

At the back, he tells that he was working on a book on and off for five years:

… but when I finally was ready to think about the story again, I found myself ripping apart everything I’d already written. It was like the narrative was shattering along with everything else, and out of the shards a new book began to take shape. As I worked, certain themes and images kept reappearing: gardens and butterflies, apples, angels, fires, trees, friendship, islands, keys, shipwrecks, grief, and love. That’s why I decided to call this new version of the book Kaleidoscope, because each of these elements, like bits of colored glass, turn and transform and rearrange themselves into something new. And like looking into a kaleidoscope, the view is always changing and only you can see it.

This book is very reminiscent of works by Chris Van Allsburg and Shaun Tan with a lot of surreal elements and haunting pictures.

I’m not sure the book completely worked for me, but I very much suspect that’s because my logical mind likes to understand a bit better how everything fits together. And I do find many of the stories sticking in my head after I shut the book. I highly recommend giving this book a try and seeing if it works for you.

thebrianselznick.com
scholastic.com

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