National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds‘ galvanizing remix of professor and historian Ibram X. Kendi‘s book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America , is a propulsive examination of race and racism in America, written for a teen audience, but really for everyone. Reynolds moves through American history at full tilt, using humor periodically as a sharp edged sword, to question everything we’ve been taught about famous Americans, from Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglas, to Abraham Lincoln and Angela Davis. By utilizing a framework defined by Kendi (“The antiracists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.”) Reynolds shakes up traditional and stereotypical views of our American icons and shows readers the source of racist ideas and how to challenge them. Reynolds pauses on the page when the sheer onslaught of racist ideas and oppression becomes too much, and pushes readers forward when they try to relax back into their more comfortable and familiar versions of presidents and change makers. It’s a book that is almost more experienced than “read,” especially in our turbulent here and now. It’s also a perfect starting place for self-education around race and racism, as the extensive reading list is one of the best I’ve seen for teen people. Ready to take action, or need inspiration to keep going? START HERE.
Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator who was the first person to cross the Atlantic in an airplane in 1927, is often considered an American hero. Biographer Candace Fleming delves into his questionable and contradictory character, revealing a single-minded loner who, despite his bravery and mechanical genius, often found himself on the wrong side of history because of his outlier politics.
A self taught pilot and engineer, Lindbergh rose to fame after he successfully flew from New York to Paris in a single engine, canvas and wood constructed airplane called The Spirit of St. Louis (so named because the nine investors who provided the money for the plane were St. Louis- based businessmen.) That flight turned him into a huge celebrity. Along with the cash prizes and lucrative consulting contacts, it also set Lindbergh up for life financially. His fame and money were what undoubtedly led to his first child being kidnapped and held for ransom, a sad and shocking chapter of his life that ended in tragedy. As he aged, Lindbergh became enthralled by and involved in movements that are now seen as dangerous and deeply wrong, including eugenics and Nazism. His less extreme but still polarizing anti-immigrant rhetoric and “America First” beliefs are shared by many mainstream political organizations today. Although Lindbergh became a staunch environmentalist towards the end of his life, helping to save endangered species and eco-systems, he never quite admitted that many of his earlier stances were elitist and inhumane. Fleming saves the most shocking revelations of Lindberg’s life for last, telling a story of family secrets so melodramatic, it almost seems made up.
Fleming’s account is balanced, based on piles of research and Lindbergh and his wife Anne’s own diaries. She makes no judgements but just shares the facts, written in her clean, approachable prose and organized into short, fast paced chapters. I didn’t particularly like Lindbergh while I was reading about him, but I was fascinated by the larger-than-life events that shaped him. Though his politics were very problematic, there is no denying his life was unusual enough to grab any biographer’s interest. I’m just glad it snagged Candace Fleming’s! Coming to a library or bookstore near you February 2020.
It’s no small task to take an iconic piece of prose, break it down into a graphic format and also manage to say something new. But that’s exactly what Ari Folman and David Polonsky did in this utterly arresting transformation of one of the world’s most beloved texts, The Diary of Anne Frank. As many of you already know, Anne Frank was a Jewish teenage girl who kept a diary from 1942 to 1944 while living in hiding from the Nazis with her family in Amsterdam. The original diary is full of wry observations, silly asides and bursts of teenage angst, rage and sadness. Folman and Polonsky condensed and edited down Anne’s well-known words, instead using highly expressive character faces and richly designed two page spreads to further convey her thoughts, fears and dreams. The results are vivid, moving and in some ways, even more intimate than Anne’s prose entries. Seeing Anne’s jealousy of her perfect sister Margot depicted on a single page of devil/angel poses or the two sets of bickering parents drawn as fire breathing dragons adds a fascinating new dimension to a classic many know by heart. Both a compelling true story and stunning work of art, Anne Frank’s Diary is a book you’ll want to own so you can pore over the full color pages again and again.
After recently becoming completely enamored of Penelope Bagieu‘s Brazen, I was delighted to discover the author had also written this longer form, graphic biography of the indomitable Cass Elliot. Elliot was best known for her role in the Mamas and the Papas, a folk rock band that was famous in the 1960’s. Much has been written about her and the band, especially their dramatic arguments and Cass’s tragic death at age 32. But Bagieu focuses here on the early life of the ground breaking singer, back when she was just Ellen Cohen from Baltimore who was her father’s favorite and loved to sing. With small panels that can barely hold Cass’s big expressive eyes, Bagieu traces her path to fame, from leaving home at nineteen to falling in love with men who didn’t always appreciate her talent, but somehow ended up leading her to new and better singing opportunities. Each chapter is narrated by a person from Cass’s life, from her little sister and her vocal coach, to her father and first (brief) husband. And pretty much everyone in between, including the other members of the Mamas and the Papas. It’s like getting a meet and greet with all the major musicians of that time! While this is some ways a classic music bio, it’s also a terrific story of a woman refusing to squeeze herself into the mold society expected her to fit. Bigger than life and twice as bold, Cass Elliot made her own rules, and this graphic bio will inspire anyone looking for the courage to buck the system and forge their own path.
Do you know who the powerful Chinese empress Wu Zetian was? Have you ever heard of the three rebel Dominican sisters (Las Mariposas) who defied the dictator Trujillo? Or how about super sexy singer/songwriter Betty Davis? Or passionate Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh? ME EITHER, until I read graphic artist Penelope Bagieu‘s candid, colorful, cartoon collection of girl-power-mini-bios. This unputdownable volume of glorious girls and wondrous women, both notable and not-so, is easily one of my favorite books of the year. In just a few short pages, Bagieu chooses the most compelling tids and juiciest bits of each woman’s life and then illustrates them in tiny, perfect panels that completely captures them in all their funny, fierce femininity. Then she closes each story with a stunning full-color, two-page spread that often left me gasping in awe. I loved DISCOVERING volcanologist Katia Kraft, bearded lady Clementine Delait, and Apache warrior Lozen. And I loved learning MORE about astronaut Mae Jemison (did you know she studied medicine before space?) writer Nellie Bly (who basically invented investigative journalism) and collector Peggy Guggenheim (who discovered and financed practically every major twentieth century artist). The historical list of haut and hip goes on and on, and each page is a visual and intellectual delight. Don’t miss amazin’ Brazen!
Nicole Georges first met Beija at an animal shelter when she was sixteen. Beija was a Shar-pei/Dachshund mix with “inflatable” ears and a fear of men and toddlers. Nicole was a punk rocker coming out of a feral childhood with a fear of chaos. They fell in love immediately. For the next fifteen years, girl and dog were inseparable. Nicole survived car accidents, navigated a half dozen romantic breakups and makeups, worked at farm sanctuary, and even dabbled as a pet psychic. Through it all, Beija was there, dependably growling at babies, peeing on the carpet, and always being completely, thoroughly herself. Though Nicole sometimes questioned her sexuality and her calling as an artist, the one thing she never questioned was the loyalty of her quirky, protective, big-headed dog. “Forgiving and earnest, heartbreakingly faithful, Beija loved me even when I lapsed in loving myself. Neither of us had ever been chosen, but we chose each other.” This touching graphic memoir is so much more than just another doggy love story. While Beija features prominently, this is really the story of Georges’ young adulthood and transformation into an artist, writer and self-actualized human. Her detailed, intimate artwork poignantly conveys the message that while her experiences may have been specific, Georges’ feelings of fear, confusion and insecurity are universal. FETCH is for anyone who ever found love and acceptance with people after a fur person showed them the way.
Sasha was an agender, white, private schooled teenager who loved invented languages, web comics and wearing skirts with vests. Richard was a straight, black, public schooled teenager who loved pulling pranks, hanging out with his friends and working with little kids. One afternoon in November 2013, they were both riding the 57 bus in Oakland, California, complete strangers who had never met before. Sasha had drifted off, and Richard was goofing around with his friends. When he was dared by his friend Jamal to touch a cigarette lighter against the sleeping Sasha’s skirt, Richard was horrified when the fabric he expected to smolder and go out, instead burst into a deadly fireball. Sasha was burned on 22% of their body, and Richard was arrested. What happened next is a fascinating true story of pain, forgiveness, race, gender and socio-economic class that will inspire and enlighten anyone who reads it. Dashka Slater‘s crisp, journalistic prose paints a fully rounded picture of both teens and where they came from, allowing readers to see the incident in a full 360 degree view. Slater took a sensationalistic headline and turned it into an utterly engrossing, deeply human story that will challenge perceptions and change hearts.
In the late teens and early 1920’s, many young American women were thrilled to find paying work outside the home in factories that sprang up in the wake of WWI. Two of these factories, Radium Luminous Materials in Newark, New Jersey and the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, manufactured glow-in-the-dark wristwatches. The factories employed young women, many of them starting when they were teenagers, to delicately hand paint the watch faces with incandescent paint made with radium powder. Though scientists knew that the radioactive element could destroy human tissue and it was used in the fight against cancer, it was also considered a wonder drug that could cure anything from “hay fever…to constipation.” While the girls were elated just to be in the presence of the expensive substance (which sold for $120,000 a gram), it didn’t hurt that the jobs also paid handsomely. Because the radium powder was so expensive, the girls were admonished to use it sparingly. But the powder scattered everywhere when they tried to mix it with the paint, settling on their skin, clothes and hair, which all glowed in the dark when they got home. They also got paint in their mouths from licking the thin brushes in order to make them fine-tipped enough to paint the tiny numbers. It was fun when their clothes and teeth shone in the dark, and with all the money they were making, they could afford the latest stylish clothes, go to parties after work and enjoy being young. Until, one by one, they all began to sicken…and die, many before they reached thirty.
This is the true story of several of the women who fatally suffered from radium poisoning the 1920’s and their efforts to sue the companies that not only made them sick but refused to admit that radium was poisonous. Kate Moore‘s poignant, sympathetic work reads like a legal medical thriller as she dives deep into the lives and families of the women who were affected and chronicles their heart breaking attempts to hold the companies accountable. Shockingly, one of the companies didn’t even consider testing the ill women until the first MALE scientist died as a result of radium poisoning. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, another tragedy where workplace safety was compromised when it came to female laborers. Radium Girls is for anyone interested in women’s history, medical mysteries, labor laws or courtroom dramas, because this story has it ALL!
Not being a big fan of weddings in general, it took me awhile to pick up Lucy Knisley‘s charming graphic memoir about her own wedding experience. What I should have remembered is that Knisley has a knack for drawing me in to whatever she’s drawing (pun intended)–whether it’s food, travel or family, and Something New was no exception. In her usual small, tidy trademark style, Knisley lovingly chronicles the year leading up to her wedding in upstate New York, warts and all. She details arguments with her mom, worries about the budget and ambivalence towards the whole idea of a traditional wedding. She also describes her shining love for her fiancé, John, the thrill of finally finding the right, simple dress and the joy of making your own decorations. What I liked best about this book was Knisley’s honest examination of conventional wedding components and her pleasure in subverting each one. In the end, Knisley created an heartfelt account of her unique experience that also managed to feel universally human. Teen peeps, while you may not be at the point of planning a wedding yourself, you can still enjoy Knisely’s quirky adventures in dress shopping, family drama and DIY reception crafting. And it also makes a great gift to bring to all those weddings you’re going to be dragged to this summer!
Vincent and Theo, Theo and Vincent. More than friends, more than brothers, these steadfast siblings kept each other alive through their devotion to art and to each other. Theo was the prosperous younger brother, becoming a profitable art dealer at a young age due to his savvy business sense and sharp eye. Vincent was the tempestuous older brother, moody and unpredictable, discarding a number of odd jobs before settling on painting as a profession. Then as now, pursuing a career in the arts wasn’t the most lucrative pursuit, but Vincent was able to perfect his signature impasto technique because of his brother’s steady financial support. Theo longed for romantic love, while Vincent craved commercial success so he could repay Theo, but neither brother ever put anything before their relationship with each other. While most people have heard of famous painter Vincent Van Gogh, few understand how completely vital Theo’s support was to Vincent’s success. In this intimate biography, rich with direct quotes from the brothers’ letters, author Deb Heiligman chronicles the ups and downs of the siblings as they navigated success, failure, loss of friends and family, love and marriage. My favorite passage concerns a parcel that Vincent was determined to carry himself. How Heiligman uses that story as a metaphor and weaves it through the entire biography as way of illustrating the brothers’ relationship is beautifully and subtly done, and provides readers with an insight as to which brother was emotionally carrying the other at different points in their lives. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2017.
Never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Welcome to the club. Luckily for those of us not in the know, National Book Award finalist Patty McCormick has penned a fascinating biography of the little known German Lutheran minister who was a big part of an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a traditionally trained and educated theologian, philosopher and pastor who came of age just as Germany was gearing up for WWII. After his beloved brother was killed during WWI, Bonhoeffer dedicated his life to God and the pursuit of peace. He traveled around the world, including the United States, where his beliefs were challenged and influenced by other religious cultural practices. He read and was inspired by the writings of Gandhi and by Frank Fisher, a contemporay of Martin Luther King, and soon become convinced that “the church wasn’t a historical institution; it was a living community that could transcend national, ethnic, class and even religious boundaries. The ‘church’ was not a building or an organization; it was a force for good, alive all around the world.” As Hitler rose to power in Bonhoeffer’s native Germany, and Bonhoeffer’s Jewish friends began to suffer, Bonhoeffer knew that despite his avowed pacifism, he had to do everything in his power to bring about the end of this evil man. So he joined together with his brother-in-laws in a secret conspiracy to rid Germany of the Fuhrer. Bonhoeffer’s part was to sneak damning evidence of Nazi atrocities out of Germany to other European nations to convince them to overthrow the dictator. In fact, Bonhoeffer was the first person to send documented proof from Germany to Geneva, Switzerland about Hitler’s plan to exterminate the German Jews. How successful was Bonhoeffer in his efforts and how close did the men come to realizing Hitler’s murder? That is the compelling, page turning true story McCormick tells in this slim volume that you could probably finish in a weekend (like I did!).
Sometimes you come across a book on your bookshelf that you read so much ABOUT that you’re convinced you also READ the book. I read so many reviews and accolades for Deborah Heiligman’s award-winning book about the life and marriage of Charles and Emma Darwin (first published in 2009) that somehow I believed I had also read the book itself. But in looking over it again, I realized I had never actually cracked the spine, which I rectified immediately and was delirious with delight when I did. You might think that the story of a 1800’s marriage between a full on science nerd and his whip smart brainiac cousin might be a little, well, boring. YOU WOULD BE WRONG. Charles and Emma’s relationship, while a loving one, was replete with comedy, tragedy and the on-going debate that fueled their marital discourse their whole lives: science vs. religion. Charles was the famous scientist who wrote Origin of Species, while Emma was a renowned novel reader who steadfastly believed in a Christian afterlife. How these two found common ground is the basis for this intriguing biography, which provides readers with an intimate portrait of a couple that on paper (Charles even made a pro/con list for marriage) shouldn’t have worked but did, and did so marvelously. That didn’t mean that there weren’t hardships along the way. They suffered through the deaths of more than one child, and Charles worried constantly about how his controversial theory was going to be received by a largely God-fearing public. But through it all they sustained each other, and their marriage is one of the greatest love stories you never even heard of. So don’t be like me! Get this fascinating non-fic post-haste from your nearest library, bookstore, or e-reader.
Employing a similar technique in nonfiction that Nick Hornby used in fiction, motivational speaker and Paralympic skier Josh Sunquist goes back to question the girls of his youth to discover why no one ever wanted to be his girlfriend. The results are both painfully true and truly funny. When it came to dating, Josh already had a few strikes against him. First of all, he was homeschooled in a strict Christian family that didn’t allow him to even consider dating girls until he was sixteen. Secondly, his mother was a proud thrift store shopper, so Josh only rarely scored some cool threads to impress girls with. And finally, after a horrific bout with childhood cancer, Josh’s left leg had to be amputated, leaving him feeling understandably hesitant when it came to talking to the opposite sex. He also set some pretty tough rules for himself after the amputation: “1. Never be a burden. 2. Never be different.” So under most circumstances, Josh was so busy trying to blend in that he had a hard time standing out. After documenting his failure to establish romantic relationships at the middle school, high school and college level, Josh finally realizes that his problem wasn’t with all the girls who turned him down, it was with the guy in the mirror who, despite all the obstacles he’d overcome, just didn’t believe in himself. And then, Ashley came along…This breezy, humorous memoir reads like a what NOT to do manual on dating. After finishing, readers will learn that honesty is often the best policy, Miss America is probably just as insecure about her body as you are and Close Fast Dancing is actually a thing. Want to read a sample before committing? Click here.
Most of us have heard of or read the story of the last royal family to rule Russia, about their immense wealth, sheltered lives and horrific end. But Candace Fleming tells the familiar history in a compulsively readable way, by including parallel narratives of real peasants and revolutionaries whose brutally poor lives provide a stark contrast to the opulence of the royal Romanovs. While the difference between the imperial family and the people they ruled seems cruel and extreme to us today, Fleming does an thorough job of showing that the Romanovs were products of their time period, who truly believed that the peasants were happy farmers who lived robust country lives. But this convenient belief couldn’t be “…further from the truth. Most peasants had never slept in a proper bed, owned a pair of leather shoes, eaten off of a china plate, or been examined by a doctor.” In fact, Fleming notes, “Many peasants were so poor, even the cockroaches abandoned their huts.” But Nicholas Romanov was willfully ignorant of the fate of his people because he had been raised to understand that his family had been divinely chosen to rule, an understanding that eventually led to the fall of czar-ruled Russia. I was surprisingly riveted by a story where the end is never in doubt. But Fleming’s detailed descriptions of the royal children (son Alexie was a holy terror in the school room, daughter Anastasia was nicknamed “dumpling”) and their luxurious surroundings juxtaposed against the rise of the disenfranchised revolutionaries made for obsessive reading. You also won’t want to miss the fascinating portrait of one of the most radical rock stars of history, the famous charlatan Rasputin, who wormed his way into the royal family and almost refused to die. I finished the entire book in two days, and I bet you will too when you nab your own copy from the nearest library, bookstore or e-reader.
I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s–raised and fisted
or Martin’s–open and asking
or James’s–curled around a pen.
With a beginning that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ DAVID COPPERFIELD, acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson guides readers through her early life using lyrical prose poems that evocatively describe the people and places that influenced her illustrious writing career. As her family moves from Ohio to South Carolina and eventually Brooklyn, New York, young Jackie never loses sight of the one thing she wants more than anything else: to become a writer. Every heads-up penny found/and daydream and night dream/and even when people say it’s a pipe dream…!/I want to be a writer. Even when reading doesn’t come as easily to her as it does to big sister Dell, Jackie doesn’t give up and is encouraged by the picture books by John Steptoe she takes out from the library. I’d never have believed/that someone who looked like me/could be in the pages of a book/that someone who looked like me/had a story. When she can’t make the words work, (Words from the books curl around each other/make little sense/until/I read them again, the story/settling into memory.) Jackie memorizes stories and quickly moves on to creating her own. Her first book is a stapled collection of butterfly poems, but we already know it will not be her last. Even though Brown Girl Dreaming covers Woodson’s childhood, I don’t know if I buy that this book is only a children’s title. Her clean, lyrical poems have a classic feel that can easily be enjoyed by readers of all ages. And anyone who’s ever yearned to be a writer will especially appreciate the longing that comes through on every page. This achingly wistful, heartfelt tome is a both a personal story and a universal one. It is the origin story of one writer and all writers. And it pairs beautifully with Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry.
I keep writing, knowing now/that I was a long time coming.