Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

I have been absolutely smitten with Lucy Knisley since reading her graphic travel memoir French Milk right before I went to Paris for the first time. That’s why I was thrilled to get my oven mitts on her new foodie autobio, Relish. In it, Knisley shares the luscious narratives of her upbringing (complete with to-die-for illustrated recipes) in a gritty 1970’s & 80’s New York City and rustic upstate Rhinebeck. Her stories of eating oysters at her uncle’s knee, running away from vindictive geese and chowing down French fries on the sly so as not to offend her gourmet parents are hilarious and delicious. But my two hands down favorite stories are when she chronicles eating her way through Mexico with her mom and best guy friend Drew while getting her first period at the most awkward of times, and the day when she helped her mom cater an event at DIA Beacon as a college student and came face to face with Richard Serra’s massive iron sculptures. By herself with the sculpture while the party goes on in another room, Knisley feels surprisingly blessed to be a waiter. “I could be alone, touching the cool metal of a famous and affecting work of art, a gift gained through circumstance. I thought of all the builders and guards and custodians who have had similar moments, and felt lucky to be a server.” (I’ve seen and been inside those sculptures and they are indeed awe inspiring.) And then there are the RECIPES. For perfect chocolate chip cookies, homemade pesto and my personal favorite, sautéed mushrooms. And those are just a very few mouthwatering examples. While it’s hard to know where to shelve Relish (living room bookcase or kitchen cupboard?) it’s not hard to enjoy each and every one of Knisley’s tasty anecdotes. Whether you’re a foodie or just a sucker for a good coming of age story, you’re going to savor every page of this yummy graphic memoir.

The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin

benedict arnold
Just the name of history’s original bad boy conjures up connotations of double-crossing and betrayal. Say “Benedict Arnold” to any group of school kids in the country and while they may not be able to come up with his birth and death dates, they can tell you that he was a traitor. In September of 1780, Arnold’s plans to turn over the American fort of West Point to the British were discovered through a series of fascinating mishaps and coincidences, meticulously chronicled in this captivating biography. Though his plot was discovered in time to avoid the capture of West Point, Arnold was forever branded a turncoat. The irony is that Arnold should have gone down in history as a hero. After all, he was known for his courage on the battlefield, his clever attack plans, and his winsome ways with the ladies. But politics, anger and a little thing called ego got in his way. How did one of the bravest champions of the American Revolution end up becoming one of history’s most reviled villains? Rev. War buff and author Steve Sheinkin explains in this detailed, entertaining biography that plots out both the events of Arnold’s life and the life of Major John Andre, the British soldier who also ended up taking the fall for Arnold’s actions. Benedict Arnold: rascally rogue or misunderstood victim? You be the judge after finishing this intriguing biography.

To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story by Casey Scieszka & illustrated by Steven Weinberg

Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg perfectly capture what it’s like to travel the world while simultaneously navigating your first grown-up relationship in this lavishly illustrated travel memoir. Casey, a writer, and Steven, an artist, are in love and can’t wait to start experiencing life post-college. “So here we are, adults. We are no longer required to do anything. It’s liberating! It’s…full of pressure. Because now that we can do whatever we want, we’re constantly asking ourselves: Is this what we want to be doing?” So together they cobble together a year long, grant-funded plan to travel from China, through Southeast Asia and end up in Timbuktu, Mali. On their way, they will work on their art and try to decide what direction their adult lives will take. Of course, it isn’t easy. Casey is plagued by intestinal troubles while Steven is plagued by doubts about his chosen career as an artist. In addition, their travel fortitude is sorely tested by China’s interminable winter, Mali’s exhausting heat, and by trying to stay patient with each other in all temperatures. Still, it’s exhilarating when their Chinese students begin to understand and speak English, or when their neighbors in Bamako, Mali accept them as their own even though they can barely understand each other’s language. But they never stop questioning themselves about their motivations even as they immerse themselves in the culture of the country they’re in. “Oh, the constant paradox of trying to “go native.” How much do you want to live locally? How much do you want to be the foreigner who—look!—does such a good job of living locally?” When they finally get to Timbuktu, you will feel like you traveled right along with them and know them as well as any of your friends. I just loved this book–it’s heart, it’s humor, and especially all the funny little nuggets of information that Casey shares along the way—like how to speak Bamanankan, what to keep in your fanny pack, and where to find the best hand-pulled noodles. A just right summer read even if the furthest place you’ll be going this July is camp.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

Yes, we think we know everything there is to know about Amelia Earhart, especially if you saw that movie with Hilary Swank. But since I skipped that film, I was actually surprised by how much I didn’t know about this first lady of flight. For example, did you know that:

She looked uncannily like this man, another early pioneer of flight?

Her “naturally curly hair” wasn’t natural?

Her father was an alcoholic? This caused Amelia to become a caretaker of her family at a young age.

She wasn’t a big fan of marriage? She was engaged in her youth for about four years and then broke it off. Then she fell for a married man. After he was divorced she finally married him, after making him beg her for two years. But only after he agreed to one-year probationary period.

She worked for a while at a settlement house for new immigrants? She taught English and coached a basketball team.

She was a fashion designer? The Amelia Earhart Clothing Company: “Good lines and good materials for women who lead active lives.”

She was the Lady GaGa of her time in terms of self-promotion? There wasn’t a speaking engagement or a parade she wouldn’t attend in order to make more money for flying.

She was best buds with Eleanor Roosevelt?

She wasn’t solo on her final flight? Her co-pilot was Fred Noonan, a former navigation teacher for Pan Am who suffered from alcoholism, but was also considered “a navigational genius.”

Her husband didn’t declare her dead until two years after she disappeared?

I was flabbergasted! (Especially by the hair thing:) Author Candace Fleming also intersperses each chapter with accounts of regular people who claimed to have heard Amelia radioing for help on their home radios, which adds another level of intrigue to this history mystery. Full of great archival pictures, interesting anecdotes, and plenty of speculation about what really happened on that fateful flight, this fascinating biography will be flying into a library, bookstore, or e-reader near you March 2011.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Philip Hoose

Claudette Colvin
On a spring day in 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was dragged from the bus by two adult police officers, called “Thing” and “Whore,” and put in a jail cell. She was scared out of her mind, but she was tired of being told she was less than just because of the color of her skin and the texture of her hair. From her activist-minded teachers, she knew it was her constitutional right to sit where she wanted on the bus, and the entire Montgomery police force couldn’t change that. So she dared to challenge the city’s segregated bus laws that demanded an entire row of African Americans must get up if even just one White person wanted to sit down. This happened nine months before Rosa Parks made her famous protest, and I KNOW you’ve heard of her. So why hasn’t history also made much of Claudette? The answer may surprise you…Author Philip Hoose takes you right to the tumultuous center of the Civil Rights Movement with this true story of a girl who fought back even when no one would fight for her. The most powerful words in the book come from Colvin herself, who shares the pain and fear of her frightening experience and its aftermath firsthand. “The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped…I didn’t know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there…” This is one of the best bios for YA’s around, and don’t just take my word for it—the National Book Award Foundation just named it the 2009 winner in the Young People’s Literature category.

Stitches by David Small

If you think your parents are awful, they are probably peaches compared to the folks that raised Caldecott award winner artist David Small. This gut wrenching graphic memoir of selected events from Small’s Detroit-based childhood and adolescence chronicle his survival of his parents’ loveless marriage, a botched surgery on his throat that left him scarred and voiceless, and the burning of all his favorite books by his vindictive mother. Through it all, Small maintained hope through his artwork. His sketchbook became a welcome escape from his chilly home life and silent school days, a portal to another world–just like Alice’s rabbit hole. Small was very influenced by Alice in Wonderland, and even portrays the therapist who ended up saving his life when he was a teen as the benevolent White Rabbit. In spare prose and stark panels, employing images that are startling, dream-like and reminiscent of classic cinema, Small takes you on an insightful and poignant journey through his own personal hell and eventual redemption. In the end Small perseveres, becoming an artist against all odds and with no support from his family. While this book is for everybody, it is especially for the somebody whose family has made them feel insignificant. Because as the inspiring author and illustrator demonstrates in this terrible, wonderful GN, even if you’re Small, you can still walk TALL. If you end up loving this gripping graphic memoir as much as I do, try the equally engrossing Blankets by Craig Thompson.  Until then, enjoy this awesome book trailer narrated by the author himself.

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody by Mike Dawson

If your life had a soundtrack, who would be on it? For comic artist Mike Dawson, the answer is simple: “When I think of Queen, I can remember my whole life.” From the moment he sees Freddie Mercury strut his stuff on Top of the Pops as a wee lad, Mike knows he’s found his muse. When his family moves from England to New Jersey, Freddie is there, singing “I Want to Break Free” and “Death on Two Legs.” When everyone in his high school in 1991 is rocking out to Nirvana and all the other “alternative” bands, Mike can turn up his nose in favor of Freddie, who “can actually sing.” When Wayne’s World makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” a mainstream hit, Mike can brag that Queen was “his” band first. As he develops his drawing skills, suffers through his first serious romantic relationship, and tries to discover who he really is, the classic rock music of Queen is always playing in the background. This quiet, slice of life graphic memoir emphasizes the incredibly important role music plays in our lives, especially during our teen years. Dawson’s art is realistic and fearless–he isn’t afraid to depict himself in all his adolescent glory, bad haircut, braces and all. Occasionally, Dawson literally “rocks out” on impressive two page spreads (one of which hilariously depicts him singing an endless rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at a local talent show, while the MC keeps trying to shoo him off the stage) that juice up his gently paced narrative and temper his contemplative tone. If you’re a fan of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, or the late Freddie Mercury, you’re gonna want to give Freddie & Me a go.

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott

twenty chickens The Power of One meets Cheaper by the Dozen in this hilarious, heart-breaking memoir by Robyn Scott. When Robyn was seven, her New Zealand hippie parents moved her and her brother and sister to live in rural Botswana, where her father took a job as a bush doctor. He flew a small engine plane three days a week to different far-flung clinics where he would see more than 100 patients a day, and treat everything from pnemonia (real) to witch doctor’s curses (fake) and soon, the terrifying symptoms of AIDS. Robyn’s mother was into holistic food, medicine and home schooling, and her wacky lessons were like nothing you’ve ever seen in OR outside a classroom. Robyn and her sibs grew up swimming with crocodiles, taming house snakes, and riding bareback on half-broken horses. But they all managed to make it to adulthood with their limbs intact. This well-written and rollicking memoir may be just the ticket next time you’re feeling a little bored with your suburban existence. I guarantee you’ll get at least ten giggles and ten lumps in your throat from reading Twenty Chickens!

John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth by Elizabeth Partridge

John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth If all you know about John Lennon is from your parents’ Beatles collection, then are you going to be surprised about what you find between the pages of Elizabeth Partridge’s stellar biography of the Fab Four’s darkest member! Partridge examines Lennon’s life from childhood, through angry adolescence and Beatle mania, to his quiet househusband days as the partner of avante garde artist Yoko Ono. World traveler, peace advocate, and passionate rocker, John Lennon’s first priority was always his music, which led to many problems in both his personal and professional life. Though there have been hundreds of books written about John Lennon and the Beatles, Partridge pitches her book directly to teens, focusing on the aspects of Lennon’s life that you guys will find most interesting. Whether you are a seasoned fan or a Beatles neophyte, you will find something to love in this gorgeously made book about one of the most complicated popular culture icons of our time.

Our Eleanor: A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Remarkable Life by Candace Fleming

Our Eleanor: A Scrapbook Look at Eleanor Roosevelt's Remarkable Life Maybe all you know of Eleanor Roosevelt is that she was sort of tall, wore a lot of hats, and was first lady to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was one of the more, well, famous presidents. While all those things are true, Eleanor was also a scrappy, tireless advocate for human rights, incredibly loyal to her friends, and one of the most radical president’s wives EVER. Don’t let the pearls and long skirts fool you, Eleanor did things no other first lady had done before her. She held the first ever press conference just for women, wrote her own newspaper column, and resigned from the prestigious DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) when they wouldn’t allow African American opera singer Marian Anderson appear in Constitution Hall. And that’s just in the first few chapters! Flirty, fascinating, and just plain fun, Candace Fleming’s chatty scrapbook approach to this American icon makes Eleanor seem more like a wonderful acquaintance you’d love to get to know better as opposed to a distant political figure. Fleming is careful to address all aspects of Eleanor’s full and often controversial life, including the question of her sexuality, and apathetic attitude concerning Jewish refugees during WWII. Full of personal stories and Eleanor’s witty quotes, this book will pull you into the inspirational life of this phenomenal woman who was way ahead of her time!

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Hole in My Life What would you say if someone offered you $10,000 just to help sail a ship from the island of St. Croix to New York City? I’m willing to bet you’d probably say yes even if you never sailed before in your life. That’s some serious pocket change. Now, what if you found out there were drugs aboard? Still keen on deck duty? Reckless teenaged Jack Gantos decided that the risk was worth it. He was tired of dead end jobs and just reading about other people’s exciting lives, he wanted to live his own adventure. This sailing job sounded like just the ticket–for very little work, he’d have enough money to go to college and start his life as a writer…except the unbelievable happened–he got caught. Stuck in a medium-security prison with hardened criminals, Gantos turned to the one thing he knew he could count on to get him through–his writing. This is the story of his arrest and scary time behind bars where surprisingly, he learned the discipline needed to become the amazing author he is today.(and if you’ve never ever read any of his other books, this is a great one to start with) Don’t miss this Hole in One–it’s my favorite book of 2002.

This Land was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge

This Land was Made for You and Me Of course, you’ve been singing the song around campfires and in school assemblies since kindergarten. But did you ever wonder about where those famous words originated from? Folksinger and songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote over 3,000 songs in his lifetime, including that famous one we all know by heart. Did you know that it actually started out as a protest song against “America the Beautiful”? Or that Guthrie was haunted all his life by what he believed to be a “fire curse” that killed several of his loved ones? Did you know that he lived the wandering life of a hobo, was married three times, helped orkers across the country set up unions, and inspired some of the greatest songwriters ever like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan? Or that he died with who knows how many songs left in him at age 55 from Huntington’s Disease? You didn’t? Well, I guess you’d better read Elizabeth Partridge’s amazing biography and discover, like I did, that all of today’s modern musical roads lead back to Woody.

Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho by Jon Katz

GeeksJesse and Eric live in Idaho—a state not exactly known for setting the world on fire with its cutting edge technology. Yet here in the middle of nowhere, Jesse and Eric are consummate Doom-playing, Internet-obsessed, expert computer hackers. They’re geniuses when it comes to hardware—it’s just their software (or social skills) that needs a little work. Pop culture guru Katz follows these two self-proclaimed “geeks” as they try to break out of their dead end, strip-mall-working lives and into the big city doings of Chicago. It’s an enlightening trip full of revelations about computer culture, societal pressure to be “normal” (whatever THAT is!) and how the labels people wear (in this case, GEEK) never really tell the whole story.

Living at the Edge of the World by Tina S. and Jamie Pastor Bolnick

Living at the Edge of the World Life isn’t going too well for Tina S. Her family is living in a welfare hotel, and her mother’s new boyfriend is always giving her the evil eye. So when she meets the beautiful, doomed, drug-addicted April, it’s easy for her to shrug off her old life and join April and the other homeless teens who make Grand Central subway station in NYC their hang-out. Tina adores April, and wants to copy her every move, including April’s addiction to crack cocaine and scamming commuters for money. Soon, Tina can’t remember much of her life before the subway tunnels and crack dealers. Slowly, one painful step at a time, Tina fights her way back from jail, drugs and homelessness to becoming the kind of quality person she knows she is inside. A gritty, four-hanky read.

Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year by Esme Raji Codell

In what has got to be one of the funniest, and at the same time saddest memoirs ever, Esme Codell, (or“Madame Esme” as she likes to be called by her 5th graders) shares what it’s like to be a 24 year old, first-year, white teacher in an inner city, predominantly African American Chicago public school. Despite all her heroic efforts to teach kids in a fun and innovative way by hosting authors, making a fairy tale festival, and letting her worst kids learn how it feels to be her by letting them teach for a day, she is reprimanded, shunned, and generally told to fit the standard teacher mode or else! A book that will make you stand up and cheer, Educating Esme gives you a behind-the-scenes look at what a teaching life is REALLY like.