Posts by booksoverlookedblog

Part time writer, full time bad-ass who enjoys dissecting pop culture and flying planes with no engines.

52 Children’s Books in 52(ish) weeks, part 1

This next series of posts have been a year in the making. In January 2021, I announced that I would attempt to read one book a week off the New York Times‘s children’s best seller lists.* Admittedly, I didn’t quite manage to read a book a week, but I did manage to read all 52 books in 52 weeks…and then some. In my original post about this project, I set up a few rules for myself. First, I wouldn’t re-read books I’ve already read before, and would cycle through the separate lists for picture books, middle-grade hardcovers, and middle-grade series. As the year went on, I had to make another rule about not repeating authors or franchises. Mostly this was to ensure that I was getting a better sample of what kids are reading today, but also because I can only stand so much Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its spin-off books. My rule about not reading The Ickabog (and it was on the list for months!) had to be changed into not reading anything by JK Rowling. It wasn’t a problem for most of the year, but towards the end, her middle-grade book The Christmas Pig topped the list. I also decided that I would not be reading any cookbooks. It’s not just because I’m bad at cooking, but because I was looking for books with narrative.

Why did I chose to embark on this project? My husband asked me this when I was griping about a book I didn’t like. I didn’t do it just for the blog (though that was definitely a consideration). I like kids’ books, but mainly, I did it because at the time, my goal was to become a children’s librarian. (Mission accomplished!) While I had a good idea of what’s going on in the world of YA lit, I wasn’t sure what was popular among kids twelve and under today. I figured that I could use the best seller list as a guide to get a taste of what kids are reading.

I had quite a few different observations going through this project, which I’ll writing about in other posts. To start this off, though, I have some microreviews on the books I read for the past year.

Week 1 (Jan 3.): Five More Sleeps Til Christmas, by Jimmy Fallon. Illustrated by Rich Deas.

Cute, nice illustrations, and Jimmy Fallon had a fun virtual story time reading.

Week 2 (Jan. 11): Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Adventure by Jeff Kinney.

I never liked Greg Heffley much, but I was 100% here for Rowley’s wholesome adventure. Only someone with Kinney’s clout would even be able to publish a book like this. I’m kinda jealous.

Week 3 (Jan. 17): Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy by Tui T. Sutherland.

I was surprised at how dark this book got, but I would have loved this series as a kid. I was definitely curious to see what happens later in the series. If I had more time, I’d read the whole main series just to see what happens next. I might still try the graphic novels.

Week 4 (Jan. 24): Little Blue Truck’s Valentine’s by Alice Shertle. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry.

Super cute, but I would have liked it better if the illustrations depicted the winter season rather than fall. Valentine’s Day is a winter holiday, after all!

Week 5 (Jan. 31): Little Leaders, by Vashti Harrison.

I really liked this collection of biographies, and learned about important Black women that I hadn’t heard of before. I do wish the illustrations had been a bit more dynamic; most figures were like paper dolls with the same face, with only their clothes and hair to distinguish them from one another.

Week 6 (Feb. 7): Dog Man, by Dav Pilkey.

I have the same “clout” suspicion as I did with Jeff Kinney, but Dog Man was a silly, fun comic book. Of course, I may be biased, since I was a fan of Captain Underpants as a kid. My favorite parts, though, were the notes warning Harold and George about how disruptive their comics were. And it doesn’t matter if kids are reading something simple, as long as they’re reading!

Week 7 (Feb. 14):  Ambitious Girl, by Meena Harris. Illustrated by Marissa Valdez.

I loved this book! It shows empowered women and characters of color, and its message is important for every kid to hear. 

Week 8 (Feb. 21): Ground Zero, by Alan Gratz.

I could write an entire post about this book. Harrowing, gripping, and emotional, without the “America, fuck yeah!” attitude I had expected. I think Reshmina’s eloquence and insightfulness on the war in Afghanistan stretched the believability a little thin for me, but she made excellent points. A novel that would definitely help kids understand the horrors of 9/11 and its aftermath better.

Week 9 (Feb. 28): Baby Sitter’s Club Graphix, by Ann M. Martin. Illustrated by Reina Telgemeir.

I never read The Baby-Sitter’s Club books as a kid, and reading the graphic novel didn’t make me feel as though I’d missed out on anything special. I do like Raina Telgemeier’s work, and it was kind of cool to see these books get updated for a new generation of readers. 

Week 10 (Mar 7.): Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle.

Very cute, and good for the whole year, not just Valentine’s Day. Needed more holes.  Rest well, Eric Carle.

Week 11 (Mar. 14):  Living the Confidence Code, by Katty Kay, Clare Shipman, and JillEllyn Riley.

This book is full of real-life stories of girls becoming leaders around the world. It was easy to read and uplifting. I found it inspiring, and recommended it to a friend with a tween daughter.

Week 12: (Mar. 21): Crave, by Tracy Wolff.

I didn’t understand the appeal of Twilight then, and I don’t understand the appeal of Crave now. I will say that the book was very funny, but I don’t think that was the author’s intention.

Week 13 (Mar. 28): How To Catch a Leprechaun, by Adam Wallace. Illustrated by Andy Elerkton.

Simple, cute, and fun! It reminded me of St. Patrick’s Day when I was still in elementary school.

Week 14 (Apr. 4): Becoming: Adapted for Young Readers, by Michelle Obama.

It looks like not a lot changed from the original version to the adapted edition. Unfortunately, I found most of the book pretty boring, but I’ve never been a huge fan of biographies. Even so, I can see someone other than me finding this memoir meaningful and inspiring.

Week 15 (Apr. 11): The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan.

I’ve always been interested in Greek mythology, but I didn’t love this book. Even so, it’s a quick-paced adventure that I’m sure middle-grade fantasy lovers will enjoy.

Week 16 (Apr. 18): Pete the Cat: Big Easter Adventure, by James Dean and Kim Dean.

Admittedly, I’ve been a fan of Pete the Cat for awhile now. Cute and colorful, and I love Pete’s grumpy face. 

Week 17 (Apr.  25): Wonder, by R.J. Palacio.

Heartwarming without being overly-cheesy. If you have a disability, or love someone who has a disability, this will hit very close to home. I liked it so much I even started reading one of the side stories.

Week 18 (May 2):  Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo.

I was pretty underwhelmed considering the hype around this book, but I liked it enough to check out the sequel. Even if I didn’t make it that far in the sequel before giving up.

Week 19 (May 9) We Are Water Protectors, by Carol Lindstrom and Michaela Goade.

Beautiful and moving artwork, and an important book for every audience. 

Week 20 (May 16): The One and Only Bob, by Katherine Applegate and Patricia Casteleo.

I haven’t read the first book in the series (or watched the movie based on it), but Bob was a distinct, vibrant character and the story didn’t go the way I expected. Enjoyable.

Week 21 (May 23): Five Nights at Freddy’s: Fazbear Frights by Scott Cawthon.

A collection of stories about the titular pizza place. Fans may love it, but I’d put it into the category of, “Well, at least they’re reading.” 

Week 22 (May 30):   Peace Train, by Cat Stevens and Peter H. Reynolds

The illustrations were simple, but I liked the bright colors. I think it works better as a song than a picture book, but it was nice enough.

Week 23 (Jun. 6): Stamped (For Kids), by Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi, and Sonja Cherry-Paul.

I wish this was the sort of education I had on race as a kid, not just “Martin Luther King, Jr. solved everything.” Even the kids’ version can be uncomfortable to read, but it’s important to understand how deeply rooted racism is in America. Teaching kids about race and racism early gives me hope for the next generation of leaders. If kids are empathetic and receptive to this kind of learning, I hope our future leaders can make great strides against racism in the U.S.

Week 24 (Jun. 13): What Was/What Is… series. I read What Was Hurricane Katrina, by Robin Koontz.

Informative in a way that’s easy for kids to digest without ever talking down to them. It didn’t try to hide unpleasant truths about living conditions during and after the hurricane, and tied it back to current events and the danger of climate change. I was pleasantly surprised.

Week 25 (June 25):  Strange Planet: The Sneaking, Hiding Vibrating Creature by Nathan W. Pyle. 

This is such a strange idea for a picture book, especially if you’re not already familiar with the Strange Planet comics. Like the comic, this book is all about using context clues to figure out what the characters are saying. For some kids this could be a fun way to learn new words, but for others, especially younger ones, I think the vocabulary would be too hard.

Week 26 (Jun 27): The Game Master: Summer Schooled by Matt and Rebecca Zamolo.

There are much worse YouTuber books, but this one doesn’t have much to recommend to it unless you’re already a fan of the channel.  It changes perspective without any rhyme or reason, and the readers aren’t given enough information about the puzzles to solve them along with the characters.

Week 27 (Jul. 4): The Last Kids on Earth, by Max Brailler.

The monster apocalypse is terrifying, but it’s also kind of a kid’s paradise. This fun, funny romp through the end of the world has the feel of a comic book. It would be perfect for a reluctant reader, or anyone with a zombie apocalypse plan.

Week 28 (Jul. 11): The Bench, by Meghan Markel. Illustrated by Christian Robinson.

This is a very sweet book, though the narration addresses an adult rather than a child. The illustrations were simple, but I liked how they showed a lot of diversity.

Week 29 (Jul. 18): Ali Cross: Like Father, Like Son by James Patterson.

I thought some of its handling of current events was clumsy or heavy-handed, but I liked this fast-paced mystery well enough. Not enough to check out the other book in the series, but enjoyable for what it was.

Week 30 (Jul. 25): Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell.

There’s so much backstory to get through, especially in the first part of the book, that it feels like you’re coming in part way through the series instead of the first book. I liked the magic system, but the novel got bogged down by all the exposition. Even so, it was a fun read, and I’d recommend it to any Harry Potter fans who are mad at JK Rowling.

Week 31 (Aug 1): The Pigeon Has To Go to School by Mo Willems

Is there any children’s librarian who DOESN’T like Mo Willems? The pigeon books talk directly to the reader and makes it interactive. Plus, who hasn’t been nervous before their first day of school?

Week 32 (Aug 8): Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston. Illustrations by

I had a hard time getting into this one. I think I’m just burnt-out with youth fantasy series, especially ones that feature some sort of trial/rite of passage. There were a lot of information dumps, especially in the beginning, and sometimes it felt like I was just waiting for the real action to start.

Week 33 (Aug. 15): Serpent & Dove, by Shelby Mahurin

I liked this book way more than I thought I would. It’s marketed as a supernatural YA romance, but there’s action, intrigue, and some really great characters. I didn’t love the third act, or the ending, but I’m sure I’ll be reading the sequel.

Week 34 (Aug. 22): Three Little Engines, by Bob McKinnon

I was a little wary when I saw that one of my favorite books as a child had gotten a sequel, but this one did a fine job. Instead of the importance of determination, this book focused on teaching empathy, and how sometimes people need a little help. The message that sometimes saying “I think I can” isn’t enough detracts from the original <em>Little Engine That Could</em> a little bit, but overall I think it’s a worthy follow-up.

Week 35 (Aug. 29):  Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood</em>, edited by Kwame Mbalia.

In a word: warmhearted. This is an anthology of short stories all starring Black boys by talented authors. There’s a variety of genres, too. Along with contemporary stories, there’s also science-fiction, fantasy, and poetry. “Extinct” by Dean Atta was my favorite, but each story will leave you smiling.

Week 36 (Sep. 5): The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black

I went back and forth on this book. I was excited to read this series, but also a little apprehensive. It eventually hooked me, but it didn’t stay. About 3/4s of the way through I realized I didn’t like any of the characters and didn’t care what happened to any of them. While I am curious about how the rest of the series plays out, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more books in it.

Week 37 (Sep. 12): We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! by Ryan T. Higgins

I loved this book! It’s funny, Penelope is an adorable T-Rex, and it teaches about empathy in a memorable, humorous way.

(And empathy is delicious.)

Week 38 (Sep. 19): We Are Family, by LeBron James and Andrea Williams

This was much better than I expected it to be for a celebrity book, though I have a feeling LeBron James didn’t do the bulk of the writing. I thought some of the plot lines needed more development, but it’s an easy read that will appeal to basketball fans and student athletes.

Week 39 (Sep. 26): A Twisted Tale series, by Liz Braswell. I read Part of Your World. 

I had a pretty good time with this book. The story did meander a bit in the middle without much progress, but overall I liked it. I’d pick up another book in the series for a light, fun read.

Week 40 (Oct. 3): Gustavo, the Shy Ghost, by Flavia Z. Drago

I never thought I would relate to an illustrated ghost so much. I definitely felt like Gustavo as a kid (and sometimes still do!) so I loved seeing him take a risk and make friends.

Week 41 (Oct. 10): Beasts and Beauty, by Soman Chainani. Illustrated by Julia Iredale.

This was such a cool book! Creative twists on classic fairy tales in ways that I couldn’t guess were coming. (including feminist morals, a gay Sleeping Beauty, a Black Snow White). 

Week 42 (Oct. 17): A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson.

I’ve never been a fan of mysteries, but I devoured this one. I think including things like the main character’s capstone journal and other visual aids helped me get into it. By the time the book switched over to conventional narration entirely, I was totally hooked. I thought the characters could be developed more, but the story was so gripping I couldn’t put it down. 

Week 43 (Oct. 24): The Bad Seed Presents: The Good, the Bad, and the Spooky, by Jory John. Illustrated by Pete Oswald. 

I’ve read a couple of The Bad Seed books and I really like the art style. I thought this one was a bit wordier than the ones I’ve read in the past, though I might not be remembering properly. I didn’t like this one as much as the other ones I’ve read, but it’s a cute Halloween story with tricks and treats.

Week 46 (Nov. 14): Change Sings by Amanda Gorman. Illustrated by Loren Long.

Amanda Gorman is a talented poet, but the illustrations are where this book truly shines. They show a group of diverse kids doing things to help their community and one another, making a big difference when they’re all together. I especially liked the end, where the reader is dared to join in and help make change.

Week 44 (Oct. 31): The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamilo. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

The set up is a bit generic for an adult who’s read fantasy novels for most of her life, but I liked the characters, especially Beatryce and Answelica. A sweet, short story that would be great for kids getting into fantasy.

Week 45 (Nov. 7): I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis. I read I Survived Gettysburg. 

I’ve seen these books around, and I’ve always been curious about them. I Survived Gettysburg is a fast-paced story starring a brave boy who escaped from slavery with his younger sister. It’s not the most in-depth historical fiction for youth that I’ve read, but the author has a helpful FAQ and other reading recommendations for kids who are interested in learning more about the Civil War.


Week 47 (Nov. 21): Black Ballerinas by Misty Copeland. Illustrated by Salena Barnes.

Here’s my confession: I am an uncultured swine who doesn’t care about ballet. The illustrations are beautiful, but the biographies didn’t really hold my interest. However, I understand that it’s important to highlight Black women in this predominantly White dance form. I hope children of color will be able to see themselves in this book, and know that they can break barriers like the ballerinas in the book…and Misty Copeland.


Week 48 (Nov. 28): Warriors: The Broken Code by Erin Hunter

This book is a good introduction if you’re not already familiar with the Warriors series. I wasn’t enthralled by it, but if I were ten, I’m sure it would have been one of my favorite books.


Week 49 (Dec. 5): Aaron Slater, Illustrator, by Andrea Beaty. Illustrated by Douglas Roberts.

I already really liked this picture book series, and this is another solid entry, featuring a child with dyslexia who learns to tell stories his own way.


Week 50 (Dec. 12): Out of My Heart by Sharon Draper

The plot is pretty thin: Melody, a girl with severe cerebral palsy, goes to summer camp. But Melody is such a good character and the book is so warm-hearted, reading it was like sliding into a bubble bath.


Week 51 (Dec. 10): Magic Tree House Series by Mary Osborne Pope. I read Knights at Dawn.

There’s plenty to capture kids’ imaginations in this fast-paced adventure, while also educating readers on some historical facts.


Week 52 (Dec. 26): Construction Site on Christmas Night by Sherri Duskey Rinker. Illustrated by Ag Ford.

I liked this cute, rhyming book, but I have just one gripe: why are all these construction vehicles boys? I loved construction vehicles when I was young, and I’m sure a lot of little girls do, too.

*Fun fact: Harry Potter is the reason the New York Times began a separate list for children’s best sellers. People were so tired of the Harry Potter books taking up slots on the regular best seller list, a separate best seller list had to be created.

New Year, New Me! January Book Recommendations

Welcome to my first monthly book list! Each month, I’ll be bringing you a fresh list of books all based on a different theme. If you have an idea for a themed list, please let me know!

Before we get in, there’s a few things you should know. First, I am a youth librarian, which means I’m most familiar with books written for young people. This means you’ll see a lot of YA and juvenile books on these lists. If you’re an adult looking for something good to read, don’t feel bad or embarrassed about reading youth books. Juvenile and YA books deal with themes and ideas that are applicable to all ages, even if the text isn’t as challenging as books written for adults. And there’s no age limit on good stories.

I’ll also be listing non-fiction and fiction, because there’s a lot of great non-fiction out there that needs some love, too.

I also want to remind everyone that not every book will appeal to every reader. You may hate a book that I love, and that’s okay. Not liking a book doesn’t mean that the book is bad, it just means that you don’t like it. I’ll try to appeal to a wide range of interests, but I don’t expect for you to love or even be interested in everything on this list. There’s a reader for every book, and every book has a reader. I’d love to help readers and books find each other!

New Year, New Me

Nonfiction

ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life by Judith Kolberg and Dr. Kathleen Nadeau

Thanks to the way my brain is wired, I live in a kind of an entropic mess mixed in the occasional bursts of cleaning and organizing, then promising myself “I’ll never let it get that bad again.” It always turns out to be a lie, but I try.

So when I recommend a book on organizing that actually works for me, I mean it actually works. ADD Friendly Ways… teaches you how to work with your ADD, rather than against it, to get organized. This book is written in short, helpful chapters and formatted specifically to help people with ADHD be able to sit and read it. It gives practical tips on organizing your life which are easy to follow, and offers suggestions for how to find more support if needed and to take control of your life. It’s the best organization self-help book I’ve ever used, and the only one I’ve seen that specifically addresses the role that ADHD plays in the struggle of keeping your life together.

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

Making stuff is hard. Whether it’s writing, drawing, dancing, or sculpting, no creative endeavor comes easily. Pressfield calls the universal force that acts against our creativity “resistance,” and it can come in many forms. It could be fear, pressure to perform, irritations in your daily life, or the fact that the new Pokemon game just dropped and how can you be expected to write when you can’t get Sprigatito out of your head? Pressfield brilliantly describes resistance, how to overcome it, and the sacred act of creating. Each short chapter is a micro pep talk for anyone experiencing resistance. It’s a small, thin book and shouldn’t take you long to read. I read it cover to cover years about five years ago and still take it off my shelf when I’m feeling stuck.

The Confidence Code/The Confidence Code for Girls and Living the Confidence Code by Clair Shipman and Katty Kay

Self-doubt. Imposter syndrome. Lack of confidence. We’ve all experienced it, especially girls and women who have internalized messages that they will never be enough. The Confidence Code is a best-selling guide to empower women to become self-assured and confident in their lives, using scientific research and proven methods of behavioral research. Following the success of The Confidence Code, the young reader’s edition, The Confidence Code for Girls aims to reach teen and tween girls struggling with inner doubt.

Living the Confidence Code is true stories of girls, ranging from grade school to teenagers, who are changing the world. These inspiring stories show how everyday girls can have a major impact on their homes, the lives of others, and the world. The word “inspiring” gets tossed around a lot, but I really mean it. After reading this book I was ready to start writing letters to the editor and began researching ways to help with period poverty in my area. If these kids can change their hometowns, I can too!

Draw Stronger: Self Care for Cartoonists and Other Visual Artists by Kriota Willberg

Whether you draw, paint, or write, creating art takes a physical toll on your body. Draw Stronger is a comic book that shows how chronic pain and injuries can occur, and provides tips to prevent and treat injuries. Fun and informative, this is a must-read for anyone who spends good chunks of time sitting at a desk drawing, writing, or typing. While this is geared mainly at visual artists, I’ve found it helpful for dealing with a repetitive strain injury caused by a lockdown’s worth of handwriting.

Fiction:

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

Alex is one of the many who was left behind after the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of women transformed into dragons, wrecked a path of fiery destruction, and took to the skies. She is left with questions: did they choose to become dragons? Why did her beloved Aunt Marla change, but not her mother? Propriety forbids Alex from ever asking. Instead, she must deal with her overprotective mother, her distant father, and a younger sister obsessed with dragons. Most troubling of all, there’s the insistence that her aunt never actually existed. In a world where women are forced into small, confined roles, what happens when they (literally) rise up? Kelly Barnhill is already known for some excellent fantasy for youth, but this novel for adults does not disappoint.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Two hundred years ago on the moon of Panga, all robots gained consciousness. They left human society peacefully, and were given half the moon to do with as they pleased — which was to leave it untouched and observe the natural world around them. Two centuries later, Sibling Dex is a tea monk who travels the roads of Panga, offering tea, a listening ear, and small comforts to anyone who needs it. Feeling restless in their life, Dex seeks a new journey in a remote corner of the human world. Incredibly, they meet Mosscap on their way. Mosscap and Dex share the first human-robot contact in two hundred years. Mosscap comes in peace, but also bearing a question for Dex: what do humans need? Elegantly written, imaginative, and relaxing, this is one of my favorite books I’ve read recently. I want to live in this world. Thankfully, there’s a sequel as well, so you can return to Panga again.

Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero by E. Forester and Manuel Preitano

Willow Zimmerman is busy. She’s a teen activist who spends her weekends protesting at city hall to help her rundown Gotham neighborhood. Her nights are spent working at the local animal shelter to help pay her mother’s medical bills. When E. Nigma, an old friend of her mother’s, shows up in Willow’s life, he makes her a job offer she can’t refuse. Soon Willow is organizing his high-rolling (and not entirely legal) poker games for E. Nigma and his ludicrously wealthy friends. After an encounter with one of Gotham’s many notorious villains, Willow discovers she has superpowers, including telepathy with dogs. She also learns who her employer really is. The high life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and Willow must decide where her values truly lie, and the cost of following her convictions. The story is more about Willow growing as a person, rather than her as a superhero, but she’s such a great character you’ll be wanting to read more of her adventures.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Palante is a self-described “closeted Puerto-Rican baby-dyke from the Bronx.” Even though her coming out didn’t go as planned, she’s still got a lot to look forward to. Juliet

has just landed her dream internship working for Harlowe Brisbane in Portland, Oregon. Harlowe is a feminist lesbian author, and the strong, empowered woman that Juliet wants to be. But life on the West Coast isn’t what Juliet had expected. She’s not sure about the New Age culture that surrounds her, or even if Harlowe’s (who is White) brand of feminism is right for her. This is a coming-of-age story that examines gaps in the mainstream feminist movement and intersectionality, all while Juliet realistically explores her own identity, and maybe even falls in love. In short: a novel to provoke thought and discussions that will ultimately leave you breathless.

Sherwood by Megan Spooner

Robin of Loxley is dead, killed in the Crusades far from the shores of England and his beloved Lady Marian. Robin was not only Marian’s betrothed, but also her best friend and closest confidant. With Robin gone and Guy of Gisbourn aiming to take his place, the poor of Nottingham have no one to speak for them. Despite the deep grief Marian carries with her, she cannot ignore the suffering of the people of Nottingham. When her friends are threatened by the dogged Gisbourn and the Sheriff of Nottingham, she will take up Robin’s mantle and become her own hero. Well-written, this is an action-packed and enjoyable re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend.

Blog Revival Part Whatever

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s me reviving this blog for the third? Fourth time? Yes, it’s been awhile. It seems like the last time I stopped here I set out on a quest to read 52 youth books in as many weeks, and then disappeared. Did my quest consume me? Well, a little bit, among other things.

Since I last posted here, waaaay back in June 2021, I’ve done a lot. I’ve had some good times and bad times, and some days that are a weird mix of both. I finally graduated with my Master’s in Library and Information Science in August 2021! I landed a job as a children’s librarian in at a public library in February 2022. It’s a great job and there are still times when I can’t believe I get paid to do this. I’m learning so much and having an absolute blast. Why did I ever want to be anything other than a children’s librarian?

Another kind of incredible thing that happened to me: my short story, “Someday Promise” was published by The First Line Literary Journal. This is my first time getting published, and I’ve got more short stories and a novel in the works. It won’t be easy, but I hope someday those stories will see the light of day this next year, too.

And so, it has come time (again), to bring this poor, neglected blog back to life once more. And, like the previous revivals, things are going to look a little different around here.

First, I did finish reading those 52 children’s books, though it took quite a bit longer than 52 weeks. I also have several posts that I wrote but haven’t edited or published yet, mostly “Books I Didn’t Pick.” Those will finally see the light of day in 2023.

There’s also going to be new stuff! Each month, I’ll be posting a list of book recommendations based around a theme. January’s is – what else? – New Year, New Me.

All of these will be mixed in with observations (I hesitate to call them “essays”) on various subjects that interest me as a reader, writer, or and/or librarian. The blog officially restarts for, like the 4th time, on January 6. I’m looking forward to reading back and sharing some great books with you.

Trans Discrimination in School Sports

This blog has long since talked about social issues, typically as they relate to books. While it is unlike me to use this blog for such blatant soapboxing as this, I’ve recently had an uptick in my traffic here. I want to use this as an opportunity to talk about something important to me: the wave of anti-trans legislation, coming to a school near you.

On June 1st, the first day of Pride Month, Florida Governor Ran DeSantis signed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act”, which bars any trans girls from playing on public schools girl teams. This is only the latest is a series of similar laws have been signed in Idaho, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, with many other states proposing similar legislation.
I just want to mention that in Florida there have only been 11 trans students who applied for screening to participate in sports since 2013.

Eleven. Out of the whole state. This isn’t urgent legislation; trans athletes are not threatening anyone or taking away their chances. This is just hateful politicians trying to appease their base by creating discriminatory laws by targeting an already vulnerable group.

The Trevor Project
National Center for Transgender Equality
PFLAG
Human Rights Campaign

I know that not everyone sees these laws as inherently discriminatory, and I understand why. Sports and gender is not a new issue. Just ask Dutee Chand. Lawmakers use misinformation and fear, not scientific knowledge, to justify barring trans girls from school sports. In essence, they believe that trans girls will have an advantage over cisgender girls in competition, with the implication that trans females are not female.

Except that’s not true. This interview sums it up fairly well*. Let me give you a quick recap:

[Estrogen use by trans women] will reduce their muscle mass and red blood cells, which carry the oxygen necessary for better performance. And that will also reduce the speed, the strength and the endurance. [. . .] [A]t a high school level, many trans youth do delay their puberty, which means that even if they are not taking these gender-affirming hormones, their natural puberty in their biological sex is not happening, therefore resulting in a delay and an absence of an effect on muscle mass, at least for the male-to-female situation. So the supposed advantage of muscle mass and red blood cells because of testosterone becomes moot in middle and often high school competitions when there have been puberty blockers involved.

Dr. Eric Vilain, M.D., PhD


Luckily, the NCAA and International Olympics Committee are a little more up on the science than certain politicians. Both have put forth policies (linked here) regarding inclusion of trans athletes in college sports and the Olympics, respectively. In short, provided the athletes can meet the requirements in these guidelines, there is no reason they should be barred from competition.

Contact your representatives and tell them you support inclusive school sports for trans athletes. If you are able, please consider donating to one of the above organizations to help support trans students, and fight against harmful and unjust laws.

#TransWomenAreWomen

#TransMenAreMen

#TransRightsAreHumanRights

*For more science, in greater detail:

Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies
Trans Girls Belong on Sports Teams
Laws banning trans athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s sports not grounded in science, say experts
Radiolab Presents: Gonads

Stop talking about testosterone, there’s no such thing as ‘true sex’
Laws banning trans athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s sports not ground in science, experts say

Don’t fuck with me man, I’m a librarian.

Pandemic Fatigue and Mental Health

I haven’t been keeping up with the posting schedule that I set for myself. In fact, I haven’t been doing much of anything for the past few weeks. I’ve been pretty down, and quite lethargic. I had thought that I’d adapted well to living through a pandemic – I even got married during it – but as time goes on, COVID has worn on me more and more. I want to go to a restaurant and watch a movie in theaters. I want to sip hot chocolate at my favorite café and have friends visit. But I can’t do any of those things.

I, like a lot of people, have been experiencing pandemic fatigue. Some days I fight against depression, or my already high levels of anxiety are peaked. As the pandemic continues with no clear end in sight, I can feel my life and my emotional health erode around me. I feel so isolated and frustrated.

I know I’m not alone in this. Instead of my usual book-related post, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to help share some mental health tips and resources with you here.

Before I do, I want to say that I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, but I am not a licensed therapist, doctor, or medical professional of any kind. I have done my best to vet the information and resources here, but I cannot provide actual medical advice. There will also be links throughout this post, but none of them are sponsored. Lastly, most of my resources will be based in the United States, as that’s where I live and have the most information about.

I’ll be putting many links from the section about finding therapy in the resources page. That way you won’t need to scroll through a long post if there’s something you’d like to check out later on.

Now, let’s try to work some of the pandemic blues away. I’ll talk about therapy a little later on, but here are some methods you can try on your own.

Acknowledge what you’re feeling, and feel it. When I last talked to my therapist (more on that later), we talked about pandemic fatigue, and how it was affecting me. She spoke about the pandemic fatigue that she’s seen in other people, and told me that everyone’s experience was unique to them. There’s no singular way people are reacting to the pandemic, and everyone’s mental health needs will be different. My advice is: give yourself a break. You can’t command yourself to stop being sad, or anxious, or however you’re feeling. But don’t beat yourself up, or feel guilty. We are living through hard times, which none of us would have ever imagined two years ago. Give yourself a little time to just feel whatever it is you need to – anger, sorrow, fear – and keep going forward.

Exercise. Get up off the couch! Study after study has proven benefits of exercise for both physical and mental health. It’s shown to be effective in mitigating symptoms of depression and anxiety, and lowering stress levels. In the immortal words of Elle Woods: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” For a more professional take, here are a few articles with more detailed information:

Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms – Mayo Clinic
The exercise effect – American Psychological Association
The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise – HelpGuide

Journal. I’m not saying this only because I’m a writer, but because there are many proven mental health benefits to writing, and journaling in particular. Maybe you have days where it feels like the world is spinning around you, and you can’t quite get a grip on anything. Or maybe you’re anxious or sad or angry, but you’re not really sure why. When you journal, you turn the chaos around you into a narrative, helping to make sense of seemingly random events. As you write, you may also find you have better clarity over what’s causing you to be stressed out or upset. Or maybe you just need to vent somewhere; a journal is the perfect place to do that.

If starting a journal sounds intimidating, remember you don’t need to share what you write in there with anyone else. Don’t worry if it’s not pretty or well-written. Write whatever comes to mind, say whatever it is you need to say. You’re writing for yourself, not anyone else. There are also many guided journals available, which provide you with prompts to reflect on and write about.

Journaling for Mental Health – University of Rochester
Take Note – Northwestern Medicine
Reasons Why You Should Start Journaling – BBC
Writing Tips that Can Reduce Symptoms – NAMI

Get yourself some therapy.

This is it. This is the big one. Therapy and mental health are still, unfortunately, stigmatized by many people. Mental health isn’t always easy or comfortable to talk about, and it can be hard to find help because of that. It can also be hard to admit that you might need therapy. Speaking from my own personal experience, sometimes going into therapy felt like I had failed myself. I worked so hard to keep my mental health issues under control and under wraps, and was frustrated and dejected because that control was slipping. In most of those cases, though, external factors were threatening to overwhelm me, and strained my mental well-being. Realizing this, therapy became a mental “tune-up” for me, in the same way your car might need a tune up from time to time.

Here’s how I try to look at it now: if you get injured – maybe you’ve torn a muscle or broken a leg – you would go see a doctor. Your doctor has the expertise that you lack to help patch you up and help you recover. If you think of your mind as a muscle, it only makes sense that you would see another professional to help you heal from whatever illness or injuries might be ailing you.

If you think it’s time to try therapy, it can be hard to know where to start looking for a therapist. One of the most common ways that people find therapists is through word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends or family. If you’re willing, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations.

If you’re a student, most high schools and universities have counselors and counseling centers, where you can go to seek help for mental health. Check your school’s website or student handbook for more information.

If you’re employed in the U.S., many companies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which provides free short-term counseling to employees (and typically their families as well). The details of using an EAP will vary between companies, but in general, they provide 2-3 counseling sessions. If that’s all you need, great! If not, many will provide referrals for continuing therapy.

With few exceptions (I’ll talk more about confidentiality in a bit), whatever you say in your counseling sessions is private. In most cases, your boss doesn’t ever need to know that you’re using an EAP. Your counselor cannot disclose any information to anyone else without written consent from you, unless they are court ordered to do so, or to protect yourself or another person from harm.

EAPs do work a bit differently in terms of confidentiality when the employee is mandated to attend counseling by an employer. The employer may receive information about the employee’s attendance, compliance, recommendations from the counselor, and notice of completing treatment. In this case, the employee still must give written permission to share this information, but the employer will be receiving feedback.

Your insurance provider can be another way to find a therapist. Look to see if there are any therapists “in-network” that you can get an appointment with.

I also want to acknowledge that there’s an extra layer of challenge in finding a therapist if you’re a person of color and/or if you’re a LGBTQAI+ individual. This article from Healthline lists several resources for BIPOC and LGBTQAI+ people to find therapists, as support networks, and organizations for financial assistance for therapy.

How To Find And Fund Therapy as a BIPOC – Healthline

This takes us into another common reason why people don’t seek therapy: the cost.

Therapy can get expensive, and even if your insurance does cover it, they might not cover all the costs entirely. There are other options, though, that can make therapy more affordable.

First, there’s the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: https://www.nami.org/help (1-800-950-NAMI). The Helpline is not therapy, but can provide support, coping strategies, and referrals and resources for mental health needs.

You can also look for mental health services provided by your local government. Check your county’s website, or your county’s health department’s website. You can usually find a link to the county’s mental health center, which should offer some form of counseling or therapy.

If you live near a university, you can also see if the university offers a clinic you could take advantage of. Universities which offer advanced degrees in clinical psychology typically run mental health clinics for the public. Student psychologists, under the supervision their instructors, work in these clinics to gain experience working as therapists. These services are typically provided for low or no cost.

Online therapy may also be an option. The prices range between services, they are often cheaper than traditional in-person therapy (even though that’s being done remotely now, too).

I also found a few articles that list a few other options I haven’t mentioned here.

Mental Health Services: How to Get Treatment if You Can’t Afford It – NBC
Therapy for Every Budget: How to Access It – Healthline
Low Cost Treatment – Anxiety & Depression Association of America
Strategies to Afford Mental Health Treatment – NAMI

If you’re just starting therapy, or are thinking about therapy and are a little apprehensive about it all, there’s just a few I want you to know, to hopefully make your journey smoother.

Confidentiality is key when it comes to therapy. There are only a few special circumstances when a therapist will break confidentiality.

These special circumstances are:

  • The client is an imminent danger to themselves and/or others
  • The therapist suspects abuse
  • The therapist has received a subpoena to share information on the client
  • The client gives the therapist permission to share information.

Everything else stays between you and your therapist. You can say whatever you need to.

When you start therapy, you might have to do something called an “intake interview”. Your therapist will ask about your background, why you’re starting therapy, and probably more questions based on your reason for being there. These questions aren’t meant to make you feel judged, but to help tailor therapy to your needs.

To be totally honest: the intake interview is uncomfortable. It can feel awkward and be really hard to get through. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: most therapists hate conducting them, too. They find it just as awkward as you do.

There’s another thing you need to know about therapy: it takes time. Therapy is not a magic pill that you can swallow and make things better after you finish a session. It’s work, and you may not feel the positive effects right away. In fact, it’s not uncommon to feel more down immediately following a therapy session than when you started. In therapy, there’s usually a lot of raw emotion that you have to deal with, and your therapist is there to guide you and help you process it in a healthy way. It can get pretty intense and be hard. But if you keep working on your mental health, you will have better coping skills and thinking patterns, and you will feel better.

Okay, so what if you’ve found your therapist, you’ve sat through the intake, but you and your therapist just aren’t meshing? Rapport does take time to build, but maybe your personalities are just too different, or maybe you need help in an area that your therapist doesn’t have much experience in. In this case, you may be referred to another therapist. Being referred to another therapist doesn’t mean that you were a bad client. It just means that there is someone else who would be better able to help you. At my college’s health center, I did one session with a male counselor. After that session, we both agreed that I would make more progress if I talked to one of the female counselors instead. I didn’t dislike the male counselor, but we both understood that it would be better for me to talk to another woman. Referrals are okay, and you don’t need to be worried if you’re referred to someone else.

We’ve all been very concerned with physical health for the past year, but please, don’t neglect your mental health. I hope you found something useful in this post. Remember that you are valued and loved. Take care of and be kind to yourself. You deserve it.

BIDP: Save Your Breath

For the next round of “Books I Didn’t Pick”, I read Save Your Breath by Melinda Leigh. This is the most recent in Leigh’s Dane series, which revolves around the eponymous attorney, her fiancé, PI Lance Kruger, and his assistant, Lincoln Sharp.

I haven’t read any thriller novels since I was in high school, and I’ve never really liked mystery books. I didn’t think that Save Your Breath would be something that was fun for me to read. But I’m trying to read outside my usual genres, and assured myself that, however bad this got, at least I wasn’t reading another romance novel.

I opened the first page, and finished the entire book in about a two weeks.

I get pegged as a fast reader, but that’s not entirely the truth. I don’t read faster than the average person, I just read a lot. It still can take me several weeks or or a couple months to finish a book. Which is why finishing Save Your Breath within two weeks was a bit of an accomplishment for me, and shows how compelling I found the book.

Though there is one thing I need to point out: when I read Save Your Breath, I was midway through two children’s literature courses. Throughout the semester I would read at least 60 children’s and middle grade books, and it was just so refreshing to read a book intended for an adult audience. Busy as I was with school and work, it would have been easy to let Save Your Breath fall by the wayside. Even so, I kept coming back to it, day after long day.

The writing technique was fine. I know that’s a boring way to put it, but that’s about all I can say. The prose wasn’t anything spectacular, but it wasn’t bad, either. Every sentence said just what it needed to, and got out of the way for the next one. It got the job done – no more, no less.

Though Save Your Breath is part of a series, it worked as a standalone novel. Whenever a main character from the series appeared, they reader got a little bit of background about them. That way, I could understand who everyone was, their role, and their relationship with the other main characters.

I’ve seen this used in other book series, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books, or The Dresden Files. It makes it easy for readers to pick up the newest book without having to know everything that happened in the ones before it. I imagine this could be annoying for readers who have been following the series for a long time, but it was helpful for me.

The downside of novel series where a new reader can jump in at any point is that changes to the status quo often come very slowly. Going back to Janet Evanovich for a moment, the 27th Stephanie Plum novel (not counting side-stories) was released in November 2020. In it, Stephanie Plum is still torn between the same two love interests she’s had since the first book, which came out over twenty years ago.

Not to throw shade on Evanovich or the Stephanie Plum series, of course! I’ve read some of the books and enjoyed them, but this is the only comparable example I have at the moment. Like I said, I don’t read the thriller/mystery genre much.

From Save Your Breath, at least, I did get a feeling that big changes for the characters do happen more frequently. At the beginning, for example, Morgan and Lance are engaged, which is not how they started the series.

I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters very well, especially Lincoln. Morgan, Lance and Lincoln are all intelligent, tenacious people with different skill sets. They care about each other and are protective of the people they love. Looking back on the book now, it’s hard for me to pick out individual character traits beyond that. Morgan is a mother, and Lance is a good step-father to her kids, but I can’t think of any distinct characteristics of them beyond that.

I think the characters would have come across more strongly if I had read the previous books in the series. Save Your Breath also deals with a crime that’s personal to the characters: Lincoln’s girlfriend, Olivia, has been kidnapped. Lincoln is justifiably concerned, and working around the clock to do anything he can to find her. The other characters note that he’s so worried that he’s not acting like himself. This makes sense, but because I haven’t read the other books in the series, I don’t know what he’s really like as a person. So, pros and cons of jumping into a serial series!

Like I said before, I’m not a big fan of mysteries. Even so, I was pretty drawn in by the set-up. True crime writer Olivia Cruz has an ethical dilemma about what information she should put in the book she’s working on. She calls Lincoln to ask him for advice during lunch the next day, and is kidnapped from her home. Morgan, Lance, and Lincoln must learn who took her, why, and most important, how they can bring her home safely.

The more they uncover, the more the mystery deepens. Murder, suicide, and a homegrown militia all come into play. Each moving part offers another clue to the story. If nothing else, this book got me to understand the appeal of mysteries novels better. I liked trying to put the clues together, and I was really interested to see how they all tied together.

This next paragraph is a little spoiler-y, so skip it if you plan on reading this book later.

Unfortunately, the clues did not all tie together. I liked the rouges’ gallery of suspects involved in Olivia’s disappearance, and I was especially intrigued about the para-military survivalist organization that one of them ran. And what was the ethical dilemma that Olivia wasn’t sure if she should put in her book? It was a question that I thought the entire plot hinged on. But it turned out that very little of those details actually mattered. The true culprit and motive for Olivia’s kidnapping had very little to do with those questions. Another reader might have appreciated the subversion of expectations, but it left me feeling disappointed and disgruntled. A lot of interesting plot points had been built up, only to ultimately fall flat. The otherwise exciting events of the book became filler in the wake of the novel’s conclusion.

Despite the above complaints, I liked Save Your Breath for the most part. It was easy to read, and I’d be open to trying out another thriller novel when I need something a bit less dense than what I normally pick out for myself. Maybe during my next semester at school, it’ll be a nice breath of fresh air….

#1000BlackGirlBooks: One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia tells the story of Delphine Gaither and her sisters, Vonetta and Fern. In the summer of 1968, they fly from New York City to Oakland to meet their mother, Cecile. Cecile left the family when Fern was a baby, and the sisters have next to no memories of their mother. She resents the intrusion into her life, and sends them to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers.

I was interested in this book, because for a long time, the only thing I knew about the Black Panthers came from a two-minute scene in Forrest Gump. Most media depicts the Black Panthers in a one-sided way, as a ruthless, militant group. It wasn’t until last year that I even learned about the survival programs the Black Panthers ran. These included the Free Breakfast for Children, community medical clinics, voter registration, and sickle-cell anemia testing. There’s no denying that the Black Panthers were a militant group, and they remain controversial today. But that’s not all they were.

Doing some research on the author herself, I learned that Williams-Garcia’s relatives were members of the Black Panther party. She grew up during the Civil Rights era, and refers to her diaries as her primary sources.

I don’t necessarily dislike historical fiction, but I am very picky about it. I’ve given up reading far more historical novels than I actually finish. So when I say that I couldn’t put this book down, you know that I was hooked. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that characters tend to be what draws me into a story.

All the Gathier women are vibrant and memorable in their own ways. Eleven-year-old Delphine is the eldest, but often must act older than her years. She takes it upon herself to be her younger sisters’ guardian, helping to raise them after Cecile abandoned her family. The middle child, Vonetta, is showy and loves to be at the center of attention. Fern, the youngest, is clear-eyed and an emerging poet.

Cecile is hardly a warm matriarch, and doesn’t want the girls in her life. She’s associated with the Black Panthers and allows them to use her beloved printing press, but she doesn’t share their zeal. Her main concern is her poetry, and she doesn’t act anything like the mother the Gaither sisters imagined for most of the novel.

Another crucial piece of historical fiction is the setting. The time period and location are critical parts of the narrative. In a good historical fiction, the setting is woven together with the story to the point where you can’t separate them.

One Crazy Summer couldn’t be set anywhere but Oakland, CA in the summer of 1968. Along with the other social upheaval and counterculture movements at the time, the murder of Bobby Hutton had occurred only months prior to the beginning of the novel.

When the story begins, Delphine only knows a little about the Black Panthers, and her grandmother, “Big Ma”, only refers to its founders as troublemakers. When they first go to the center for breakfast and the day camp program, they are largely indifferent to the Panthers’ cause. As Vonetta says:

We didn’t come for revolution, we came for breakfast.

As the story progresses, Delphine starts reading the Black Panther’s newspaper, and becomes sympathetic to their cause. She takes pride in her work passing out fliers to encourage people to come to a rally, refusing to shop again at the grocery store that would not allow her to post one. By the end of the novel, she knows taht being associated with the Black Panthers is dangerous, but also understand the value of the party. She comes to better understand the racism and prejudice she and her loved ones face every day, and wants to fight back against it.

There’s a lot more I could talk about this book. I especially loved the importance that was placed on names and identity. However, I don’t want to spoil the events and significant moments in the book for you. I want you to go and read it. You won’t regret it.

One Crazy Summer was a fantastic book from start to finish, and I’ve added its two sequels onto my ever-growing to be read list. The characters and setting are vibrant and authentic, and the novel portrays another side of the Black Panthers that is rarely seen in media.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

This post contains many, many spoilers for A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins.

Just as I thought my days of watching teenagers kill each other for sport were over, I got dragged back in.

I’m not going to lie: I was definitely intrigued when I heard a new Hunger Games book was coming out. I couldn’t read the original trilogy fast enough. Like a lot of people, something about the Hunger Games series hooked me. Even now, I occasionally go back to those books, years after the books were read and the movies had wrapped, every so often, I still go back to the books.

I really like the original series, and I knew that I had to read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

I didn’t like it.

I don’t think that it was an objectively bad book, and if you read it and loved it–great! Just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean that it’s awful. A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was the perfect book for someone…just not me.

This was something I never thought I’d say about a book, but here it is: I think Snow was the wrong choice for the protagonist.

This is one of the hard things about writing prequels. It’s not easy to build tension when we already know how Snow’s story ends. Whatever happens to Snow in this book, whatever dangerous situation he’s put in, he’s going to survive. He’s not just going to live to the end, he’s going to reign over Panem for decades.

Snow’s also hard to sympathize with. In many prequels starring the main series’s villain, we usually get a character who wants to be good and do the right thing. Typically, dire circumstances cause the protagonist to make hard choices, and lead to their inevitable moral downfall. We usually like this prequel protagonist, and feel sad knowing how things are going to end badly for them.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like Snow, even from the very start of the book. From the outset, he’s obsessed with status and regaining his family’s lost wealth, and cares for no one but himself. When he shows kindness to others – most notably his ostracized classmate Serjanus – he only does so because it will benefit him in some way. Snow was a sociopath from the start, and I didn’t find anything likable about him. Even his family’s poverty didn’t make me feel more sympathetic for him. Every time he complained about how he hated eating lima beans or cabbage, I wanted to shout at him that Katniss and her family almost starved to death in District 12, decades after Ballad takes place.

Actually, I just wanted to shout at him a lot throughout the book, but that’s largely because of the writing style.

Suzanne Collins has never been known for her subtlety. One of the main complaints I heard about the original Hunger Games books were that they spoon-fed the audience too much. I think that’s a fair criticism. Since Ballad was written in the third-person, I’d hoped that Collins had gotten away from shoving information down the reader’s throats. Unfortunately, just the opposite of that happened. It got way, way worse. Large portions of Snow’s inner monologues are about the “Three C’s”: chaos, control, and contract. He has deep discussions with one of the antagonists, Dr. Gaul, about human nature and the purpose of the Games.

The didactic nature of the prose ruined the character of Serjanus for me as well. I was certain that I would like him at the beginning of the book: a District-born boy who was raised in the Capitol. But by the end, everything that came out of h is mouth was so preachy, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t cheer for him trying to rebel against the Capitol. Much like Snow, I just wanted him to shut up.

The unwanted philosophy discussions weren’t the only things with the subtlety of a sledge hammer. Collins made sure that her reader would never have to think for a minute to figure out what was going on. Take the folks songs that District 12’s tribute, Lucy Gray, sings. Snow’s inner monologue explains the meaning of each verse while she explains the songs. The lyrics themselves offer insights and clues, but they’re not that hard to figure out.

That’s far from the only time something like that occurs. Shortly before the tributes go into the arena, Snow drops a hint to Lucy Gray about how she might bring a weapon, of sorts, into the arena to help her.

She noticed the empty well where the cake of powder had sat an hour earlier. ‘Did there used to be powder here?’

‘There did, but–‘ began Coriolanus [. . .] ‘I thought you might want to use your own.’ [. . .]

Maybe he’d broken a rule or two by giving her the compact and suggest she fill it with rat poison, who knew?

I did cut out some of the above quote, but in less than two pages, it’s already revealed what the plan is. There’s no chance for the reader to guess at Snow’s hint or figure it out on their own. And for people who wouldn’t catch that hint, they’re robbed of the surprise.

This was just one of many examples, so I was really happy to see a scene where everything that happened in it was left implied. Snow gets caught cheating in the Games to help Lucy Gray, and is then expelled from the Academy and forced to enlist as a Peacekeeper. He gets called to meet with the dean of the Academy, thinking he’s going to be reward. When he gets to the meeting, however, he sees that the evidence of his cheating has been found.

There, arranged on the table like lab specimens, were three items: an Academy napkin stained with grape punch, his mother’s silver compact, and a dingy white handkerchief.

The meeting could not have lasted more than five minutes. Afterword, as agreed, Coriolanus headed directly to the Recruitment Center, where he became Panem’s newest, if not shiniest, Peacekeeper.

There. Perfect. The reader already knows the details of how Snow cheated, and the consequences he would face if he was caught. I was so happy that we were finally given a scene that doesn’t spell everything out for us. Something that finally left something to the reader’s imagination.

In the very next chapter, two and a half pages are dedicated to the details of the meeting between Snow and Dean Highbottom. Nothing left implied, nothing for the reader to wonder about.

The pacing really bothered me. For a series known for its action, this book is slow and plodding. There’s such a long wait before we even get to the Games, which was something that drew a lot of people into the series. A large portion of the book is taken up with pre-Hunger Games prep. While interesting at times, it also felt bloated, and I was chomping at the bit to get to the Games themselves.

When the Hunger Games finally begin, they’re disappointingly boring. Since we’re seeing this through Snow’s eyes, not Lucy Gray’s, we don’t see half of what goes on in the arena, and hear from the tributes even less.

After the Games, Snow becomes a Peacekeeper. He gets assigned to District 12, which is where the last third of the book takes place. It was a totally new setting, and the main conflict was so different from the first two-thirds of the story, it felt like a different book. It was just a slog for me to get through.

There were also the callbacks. For the most part, I didn’t mind them. At least, not the little ones, like lamb stew, or Snow’s grandmother mentioning that a news story will “catch fire”. It was the ones that were beaten over my head that annoyed me. Snow’s utter hatred for mockingjays, for example. Also, the song “The Hanging Tree”. We get to see its inspiration, and Lucy Gray write it. Some fans may have really liked these parts, but for me…well, I’ll just leave the wise words of Patton Oswalt here (NSFW video):

I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!

All that said, I don’t want to end on an entirely negative note. There were plenty of things that I did like about the book. Lucy Gray was a really good, colorful character. There was some ambiguity if her feelings for Snow were actually genuine, and her ultimate fate is left unknown. It gave the reader something to wonder about, even be hopeful for. Whatever happened to her, I’m squarely in her corner.

Despite my complaints about “The Hanging Tree”, I really did like some of the song lyrics. I’ve always been a fan of folk music, even if the narration felt the need to explain every verse to me. The only reason I might watch the inevitable film is to hear how those songs sound, instead having them awkwardly read to me by my audiobook’s narrator.

While I thought the pacing wasn’t great, it was also interesting to see life in the Capitol through the eyes of its citizens, not just the Hunger Games tributes. It was neat to see how the Games evolved, when tributes were treated like criminals, not superstars.

It even improved on something that really annoyed me in the original Hunger Games series. In the original, Katniss frequently fell unconscious and then was rescued by allies. Once she woke up, her allies would explain what she missed. It came off as a bit of a lazy way to move the plot forward. But that never happens to Snow, even when the situation would have absolutely warranted him being knocked unconscious. I can appreciate that Collins actually wrote the full scenes out for the readers to see, rather than getting information fed to us after.

I didn’t love this book, and it was disappointing for me in many ways. But if you read it and loved it, great! Just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it can’t be the perfect book for you.

52 Children’s Books in 52 Weeks

This isn’t a proper blog post, so much as an accountability booster for a reading project. I’ve never set goals for pleasure reading for myself before, this the only thing I had closely resembling a “goal” was “read all the books!”

I do have a career goal, though, which is to become a youth services librarian. One thing that’s important for me to do is to know what kids are currently into. The books I loved when I was 10 are not necessarily books kids today will love. To that end, my goal is to read 1 book from The New York Times best sellers for children each week.

There’s no one single list for children’s best sellers. Rather, NYT divides them into categories: picture book, children’s middle grade hardcover, children’s series, and young adult hardcover. For this, I’m just sticking to picture books, middle grade, and series.

Some ground rules for this project:

1. I will read from a different list each week. In order: picture book, middle grade hard cover, children’s series. Wash, rinse, repeat.
2. I will read the first* book on each list.
3. If I have already read the first book on the list, I will move to the second, and so forth.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to come back next year and report back with observations, and perhaps micro-reviews of each book.

*Except The Ickabog.

#1000BlackGirlBooks: Amber and the Hidden City

For my next pick from the #1000BlackGirl book list, I chose Amber and the Hidden City by Milton J. Davis. After reading some pretty heavy books, I wanted to get something a bit more light-hearted. I also opted for a middle-grade book so I could read it a bit faster than some of the other novels I’ve covered on here.

And I’m really glad I did! I liked the titular Amber right away, and the writing is solid and easy to get into. Perfect for a middle grade book. There’s also not a ton of waiting around for the plot to start, which I like.

Thirteen-year-old Amber is at a crossroads in her life. After summer break, she’ll be going to a new high school that none of her friends are attending. This is especially daunting because her blunt personality makes it hard for her to make new friends. To top it all off, she just used magic for the first time in her life.

Amber visits her grandma, Corliss, during her summer vacation, hoping to figure out all these changes in her life. Corliss finally tells Amber the secret she’s hidden her whole life: she is from Marai, a magical city that has been hidden from the outside world for thousands of years. The leader of Marai, the Sana, is dying, and nobles are vying for power in attempts to become the next Sana. The villainous Bagule is a strong contender for the title, but his rule would likely spell disaster for the city. He wants to open up Marai to the world, something that other nobles strongly advise against.

You’d be forgiven for making comparisons between the book and Black Panther, even though Amber and the Hidden City was published before the Marvel film. Fortunately, other than both works featuring a mysterious African city, the stories are quite different.

Corliss reveals how she and Amber can stop Bagule’s rise to power. Amber is a seer, and her powers are just beginning to wake. They must travel to Marai, whereAmber can use her gift to select the next Sana, someone who will protect the city and help it prosper. They travel from the United States to Paris to Senegal to Dakar, and finally pass through a magical veil that brings them to Marai. Along the way they are pursued (and sometimes aided) by Aisha, a deadly shape shifter. As they travel, Amber learns to use her powers as a seer to see the inner truth of the people she encounters.

One thing I am always conscious of in fiction is how women are treated as characters. Are they shrinking violets? Are they balanced characters? How much “screen time” do they have when compared to male characters? I know that many male (but not all!) authors have difficulty portraying women in ways that female readers would find authentic.

I was absolutely delighted that female characters played a central role in the story. Amber and Corliss have their moments of doubt and fear, but that’s totally normal in the situations they’ve been thrown into. They also display courage and compassion. Amber also acts like a thirteen-year-old girl actually would. For example, when she has to share her bedroom with a boy, Amber’s pretty freaked out about it. She spends too much time in the bathroom to avoid seeing him and texts her best friend, asking what she should do in this situation.

I also really liked Aisha. She’s definitely a “true neutral” character, who puts her survival ahead of everything else. While others in the book have their own goals — Amber wants to get to Marai, Bagule wants to be Sana — Aisha only wants to do what’s best for herself. Even if this means betrayal. That’s a fine villainous trait to have, but she was just so cool that I could never make myself hate her.

That’s not to leave out the male characters, though! Amber’s great-grandfather is a source of wisdom; his apprentice, Bissau, is crucial to bringing Amber and Corliss to Marai; Bagule is appropriately despicable.

There are a couple things that I didn’t love about this book. The first is that there were still several places with grammatical issues, but nothing that some editing wouldn’t be able to fix.

The second is that we’re told over and over again that opening Marai to the rest of the world is a terrible idea. This is Bagule’s plan, and this is why he cannot be made Sana. Somehow, opening the city will bring ruin to Marai and the world.

We never find out why this is, though. Towards the end of the book, Amber’s great-grandfather implies that Marai is a cage for some dark, evil force. However, no one ever mentions it again, or even says what it is that Marai’s protecting the world from. After waiting so long for an explanation, I was a bit miffed when that was all we got. I imagine it will be expanded on more if there’s a sequel.

At this point, there is one thing left to talk about. You guessed it, it’s race!

I’ve just finished a Multicultural Literature course, and one of the first things we learned in it is basic ways to classify multicultural books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) classifies diverse books in the following ways:

  • By and about – the work is by a member of a specific culture or group, and about someone in that culture or group (ex. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi)
  • By and not about – the work is by a member of a specific group or culture, but not about that specific group or culture. (ex. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats)
  • About but not by – the work is about members of a specific culture or group, but not by a member of that group (ex. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot)

Additionally, books can be classified as “culturally neutral”, “culturally specific”, and “culturally generic”.

I would classify Amber as “by and about” – the same category that I’m trying to read more from. I’d also say that it’s “culturally generic”. It features diverse characters, and the cultures of these characters affect their decisions and reactions to events. Even so, the story is not about African cultures that Amber and Corliss encounter. The story is about their journey to Marai.

One other thing worth noting is that all the characters in the book are Black, even the most minor ones. I thought that was pretty cool. Though I’ve tried to read more diverse books, I’m not sure I’ve ever noted ones that have casts entirely made up of people of color.

When I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Spectacular, one of the interviews I got to watch was a conversation with authors Jason Reynolds and Nic Stone. Along with sharing their writing process, they talked about interacting with kids, Black Lives Matter, and writing diverse books. When talking about doing a reading, Jason Reynolds told this story:

This young kid raised his hand and he said, ‘how come you never write White people in your books?’ …He’s not being sort of provocative, he’s like, ten. This was an earnest question. ‘How come you never write White people in your books?’ And I said, ‘You know, in my world, sometimes I believe it’s okay for Black children to live a life uninterrupted, and that’s fine, you know?’ And then I said, ‘does it bother you?’ And he said, ‘Of course it doesn’t bother me, because they’re not that different from me.’ They’re kids! It’s all the adults who are hung up.

Jason Reynolds, 2020

I’d never thought about it like that, but now that I have, it makes sense. I’m glad I found a book with only Black characters, where they can have their adventure, uninterrupted.