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What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book review by Beth Snow

 

Coming of age stories are the bread and butter of books written for teen audiences.  They appear in a wide variety of formats, both fiction and non-fiction. Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes–which makes it more likely that readers will find a story that fits.  For teens trying to find their place in the world, it can make all the difference. Today’s title is more than just historical fiction or an object lesson; it describes a painful path to identity.

In What the Night Sings, author Vesper Stamper raises and answers the question, “When all is stripped away, who am I?”  Through her main character, Gerta Richter, she shows (in words and images) what remains of identity after a harrowing journey.  Teenage Gerta lived a life sheltered in beautiful music and in her father’s love until the Nazis came one night and put them in a cattle car bound for a concentration camp.  Only when her father’s story unfolded on the train ride, did Gerta learn she was Jewish and living under a false name. From that point on, she’s immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust surviving through luck and her skill with her father’s viola.  Barely alive at the end of the war, Gerta begins the long road to recovery at a refugee camp where she meets other survivors–each with their own physical and emotional scars, each facing decisions about the future. At 16, she must learn who she is and carve a path for herself in a world utterly, irrevocably changed.

Let’s stop there, because plot summary doesn’t begin to tell the story.  Stamper unfolds Gerta’s tale of pain and discovery using carefully crafted prose–just enough detail to be effective without offering more than what is needed.  She crafts an outline on which readers can hang their imaginations, filling in Gerta’s experience: “The train screeches, slows, whines. The clacking tempo decreases until we stop.  A rush of wind blows through the two small windows. It smells of a sweetish smoke. It is not wood smoke.” Although Stamper uses few words (the entire book including multiple supplemental sections reaches only 266 pages), it’s enough to create rich, believable characters.  It’s also enough to convey the research behind this well-written historical fiction. Gerta’s emotions feel authentic, immediate, a realistic response to the specific nightmares of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

There’s a sparse beauty in Stamper’s text and in the black-and-white, ink wash illustrations found throughout.  Whether a small, corner work or a full, two-page spread, her art is both ethereal and very much grounded in reality.  (Pages 198-99 are a fantastic example!) Images and story mesh perfectly, bringing Gerta’s journey to life and deepening the reader’s experience.

What sets this book apart from the greater body of Holocaust fiction is its timeline.  The main narrative doesn’t end with the Nazi defeat. Instead, it tackles the immense question of “What happens afterward?”  As was the case for millions after World War II, Gerta’s life does not immediately return to prosperity or joy because bombs stopped dropping and concentration camps were liberated.  Stamper unflinchingly describes the situation faced by survivors–disease, malnutrition, poverty, housing shortages, physical and emotional scars, the search for loved ones, rampant anti-Semitism, reclamation of identity.  Perhaps it’s possible that hope can return to Gerta, that she can truly live instead of merely survive: “Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.”

Be sure to read What the Night Sings cover to cover.  The supplemental materials after the story round out the book and offer richer reading.  The author provides hand-drawn maps of the book’s settings along with a glossary, pronunciation guide, and brief list of related resources.  To get a true feeling of how music intertwined with the characters, try listening to the selections mentioned in the book; a list is included with the other resources.  Most importantly, read the “Author’s Note” for a powerful view of Vesta Stamper’s moving, challenging journey of discovery as she created this story.

This memorable work was a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2019 William C. Morris YA Debut Award which honors a book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrates impressive new voices in young adult literature.  This is an amazing book, award or no. Read it because it’s beautiful, powerful, important, and Velveteen Rabbit real. It’s great for teens (and adults) who are ready for Holocaust and coming of age material; be prepared for discussion opportunities on a variety of topics.  I greatly enjoyed this title and hope you do, too.

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Resources for Teen Drivers and Their Parents

Working in the library’s Teen Department, I frequently hear from teens (and their parents) about the quest to obtain a driver’s permit.  It can be an exciting and anxiety-ridden time for everyone involved. Unfortunately, formal, school-based driver education programs are virtually non-existent these days.  Fear not–helpful resources are at hand! Even if there isn’t a formal driver education program near you, there are some options for parents and guardians to get teens off to a good start behind the wheel.

Crash-Proof Your Kids: Make Your Teen A Safer, Smarter Driver by Timothy C. Smith is a solid, no-frills tool for adults teaching teens to drive.  Smith arranges the book using the same philosophy as the graduated driver license, each section introducing new skills building on previous mastery and experience.  All of the basics are covered–car care, safety of all sorts, fundamental driving skills, awareness, emergencies, road conditions, residential and highway driving, etc.  The text is clear, concrete, and friendly as is the approach. Smith also addresses parental driving habits and outlines a contract between new drivers and their adults. There are no illustrations, so use this book with other resources for complete instruction.  Whether used in whole or in part, this is a useful option.

Rules of the Road offers, in DVD format, valuable information for teen drivers and their parents.  The factual content is spot on–clear directions and explanations, helpful footage and illustrations, sound reasoning–directly and concisely communicated.  However, the presentation is pure cheesiness–a super duper block of it, in fact. This DVD is an excellent resource though. How then to use it without the trappings overwhelming the message?

One way is to focus on the DVD’s “Special Features” content instead of the main portion of the video.  This supplemental section consolidates key information with clear camera work minus the banter. The chapters “Basic Maintenance”, “In Case of Emergency”, “Signs Index”, and “3D Illustrations” are particularly useful.  “3D Illustrations” is excellent as it offers computer-animated instruction with some multi-angle viewing options. The “Special Features” alone make Rules of the Road a valuable resource.

Another option is to embrace the cheese.  Watch the full DVD together with a lighthearted approach, tongue-in-cheek; it’s a great opportunity to show a sense of humor and to start a conversation.  The main content provides important instruction in basic vehicle operation, city and highway driving, safety under normal and hazardous road conditions, and expectations for the driver’s license exam.  There is also an thorough discussion of the dangers of impaired driving. Throughout, there are opportunities to jump to related topics in “Special Features” and to take practice quizzes.

A point to consider regarding both the book and the DVD…these tools, while valuable and sound, are a decade old and do not offer the in-depth coverage needed of cell phones as a cause of distracted driving.  Be sure to supplement information on this important topic.

Need to study for Missouri’s written driver permit/license exam?  We have a resource for that, too! Driving-Tests.org is a one-stop study spot.  Among its many treasures is the latest version of the Missouri Driver Guide: A Guide to Understanding Missouri Motor Vehicle Laws and Licensing Requirements, the official handbook for driver license information.  Available in PDF, it can be read online or downloaded to an electronic device.  The site’s FAQs are well organized, concise, easy to read, and address the basic questions expected.  But, the practice tests are what make this tool amazing. Questions are arranged in batches according to difficulty and cover material on the actual exam with a separate section for road sign identification.  You can access this tool from the library’s website or directly at https://joplinpl.driving-tests.org/missouri/.

In addition to the previous resources, the library’s Teen Department has partnered with safety organization First Impact to provide a free program for the Joplin area.  First Impact is a statewide initiative of Think First Missouri, part of the University of Missouri School of Medicine, working with trainers from across the state to equip parents and guardians of teens taking the wheel.  First Impact’s presentation is designed to “teach parents about Missouri’s Graduated Driver License (GDL) law” and to “provide them with the tools they need to monitor, coach, and support their new teen driver”. Although the information is tailored for adults, teens are welcome to come along.

First Impact’s presentation will be held at the Joplin Public Library on Tuesday, November 27, from 6:00-7:30 pm.  Speakers will be Sgt. John Lueckenhoff of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Deana Tucker Dothage, Director of First Impact.  There is no charge to attend, but registration is required.  Register by calling First Impact at (573) 884-3463 or online at https://firstimpact.missouri.edu/events/first-impact-traffic-safety-parent-program-at-joplin-public-library/  For more information, email firstimpact@health.missouri.edu  The event is free, no library card needed.  Register soon to save a seat!

Teen Non-Fiction Conversation Starters–Raggin’, Jazzin’, Rockin’: A History of American Musical Instrument Makers by Susan VanHecke and Tokyo Geek’s Guide: Manga, Anime, Gaming, Cosplay, Toys, Idols & More by Gianni Simone

Raggin’, Jazzin’, Rockin’: A History of American Musical Instrument Makers by Susan VanHecke

Tokyo Geek’s Guide: Manga, Anime, Gaming, Cosplay, Toys, Idols & More by Gianni Simone

It’s August?  I can’t believe it’s here already!  Summer reading just ended–it can’t be time for school to start.  I’m in utter denial. I have yet to flip my office wall calendar; Pusheen will just have to eat ice cream in July for a while.  At least there’s been time to sneak in a read or two before things are in full swing.

These titles have been interesting reading.  They’re a duo of teen(ish) non-fiction full of opportunities for starting conversations between teens and adults–something different than familiar, heavy duty topics of life choices.  Whether you’re a teen or a teen-adjacent adult, there’s something here for you.

If you’re a fan of anime or manga or have wondered what all the fuss was about, then try Tokyo Geek’s Guide: Manga, Anime, Gaming, Cosplay, Toys, Idols & More by Gianni Simone.  Although housed in adult non-fiction, this title has plenty of teen appeal.  It’s also a fascinating glimpse into aspects of Japanese pop culture with a massive U.S. teen fan base.  First and foremost, the book is a travel guide to hotbeds of otaku (superfans of anime, manga, and related subjects) culture in and around Tokyo.  Even if you’re unlikely to travel to Tokyo, this is a great vehicle for daydreaming or planning a virtual trip. Tokyo Geek’s Guide offers vibrant colors and fun-yet-pleasing fonts across an engaging layout.  It’s chock full of interesting information with plenty of maps and photos. It includes explanation of the different aspects of otaku culture for those who want it–more familiar readers can jump right into the book which is arranged by neighborhood.  Various features highlight how to use the book, special activities and locations, and travel tips. There is a helpful glossary for newbies. Full of engaging content and aesthetic appeal, give this title to teens with an interest in anime, manga, cosplay, or Japan as well as to adults curious about otaku culture or with an interest in travel.  Whether you’re navigating a teen fandom or introducing your parents to your obsession, there’s plenty to chat about.

At first glance, Raggin’, Jazzin’, Rockin’: A History of American Musical Instrument Makers by Susan VanHecke is not an obvious choice for a teen audience.  Yet, it surprises readers with a lively, colorful approach to a potentially dry subject.  Both the text and layout are geared for middle school readers, but the book can still offer something to high schoolers.  You can discover the stories of a handful of famous instrument makers and their creations from Steinway pianos and Hammond organs to Fender and Martin guitars.  Band students will recognize Conn trumpets and Ludwig drums and Zildjian cymbals. Lots of engaging, creative illustrations catch the eye–photos of the makers and of musicians, historic ads, cutaways and patent drawings of the instruments.  There is plenty to see here as well as read. The well-researched text won’t set the world on fire, but it’s solid and could spark an interest. Above all, this title is a great tool for connecting adults and teens. Grab the book and head to YouTube to explore the instruments, the makers, and the music.  (We fell down a Moog synthesizer rabbit hole at a recent teen activity and wound up making electronic music with Garage Band.) Or, share cuts from your respective music collections. It’s fantastic for fostering those wonderful, rambling conversations–conversations seemingly about nothing yet really about everything important.  Give this book to middle schoolers or reluctant readers with an interest in music or history or to adults looking for a quick read on the topic.

Speaking of music, it was this year’s summer reading theme and great fun.  Teens and adults have one last opportunity to rock the library and wrap up summer reading for grades 6 and up.  Join us this Tuesday, August 7, at 7:30 pm in the Joplin Public Library Community Room for a wizard rock concert with nationally-known band Tonks and the Aurors with Lauren Fairweather, founder of the Moaning Myrtles.  Wizard rock consists of rock music with lyrics set in the Harry Potter universe. There will also be a writing workshop with Wizards in Space literary magazine an hour before the concert. These programs are free and open to teens and adults.  Neither registration nor summer reading participation is required. Questions? Call the library’s Teen Office at 417-623-7953, ext. 1027, or email teen@joplinpubliclibrary.org   See you at the concert!

Find in catalog–here and here.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman; As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden

Today’s featured titles come courtesy of the library’s High School Book Club.  At their last meeting, these awesome folks opted to read books which had been made into movies.  Their inspiration led me to a book which spawned a modern classic film then right to a book about the making of the film itself.

Chances are extremely high that you’ve seen Rob Reiner’s movie, The Princess Bride or, if you have not, that you have heard (or have quoted) a line from it.  (You haven’t?  Inconceivable!  Find a DVD and watch it now.  Enjoy amazing storytelling.  Borrow a copy from the library, a friend, a neighbor.  No excuses.)

But, have you read the book?  Yes, it’s a real book—not merely a narrative frame featuring Peter Falk.  Penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, the book version of The Princess Bride presumes its source material from the “great Florinese writer”, S. Morgenstern, teller of captivating tales.  “What’s it about?” you ask.  What’s in it?  “Fencing.  Fighting.  Torture.  Poison.  True Love.  Hate.  Revenge.  Giants.  Hunters.  Bad men. Good men.  Beautifulest Ladies.  Snakes.  Spiders.  Beasts of all natures and descriptions.  Pain.  Death.  Brave men.  Coward men.  Strongest men.  Chases.  Escapes.  Lies.  Truths.  Passion.  Miracles.”  Swashbuckling romance at its finest!

This is both a love letter to and a charming poke at classic tales of lands far away where true love blossoms amid the fight between Good and Evil.  Let’s not take valuable time with additional plot details.  Instead, think on this.  Whatever charm, wit, adventure, delight, satire, romance, truths, and great lines you may have found in the movie, you will find multiplied beyond compare in the book.  Goldman is a master storyteller on screen and in print.

In short, read it for goodness’ sake!  Or listen to it.  Lots of editions to choose from—for extra fun, try one with the introductions to the 25th anniversary and the 30th anniversary editions.  The library has a lovely illustrated version with all manner of maps and drawings.  The audiobook narrated by Rob Reiner is entertaining, rather like being read a bedtime story by your New York-accented dad.

Reiner and William Goldman created magic both on the page and on the movie set according to actor Cary Elwes in his book, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of the Princess Bride.  Elwes, who played Westley in the film, offers an entertaining, behind-the-scenes glimpse of movie making from audition to premiere.  In some ways a typical Hollywood memoir, he moves beyond potential pitfalls and captures with delight the camaraderie that brought Goldman’s script to life.

Elwes’ self-effacing charm permeates the book.  His witty, respectful storytelling is generous and interesting.  Throughout As You Wish, he has sprinkled sidebars from other big names with the film—memories, stories, impressions from their points of view which round out the tale.  Give the book a try.  Better yet, listen to the audiobook.  Cary Elwes reads it, and his smooth, conversational delivery sounds like a friendly chat.  He is also an accomplished mimic, reading quotes from Reiner and the late Andre the Giant in voices you would swear were theirs.  Fans of The Princess Bride and movie buffs alike will enjoy either format.

The library’s Teen Department sponsors two book clubs which meet most months of the year.  Both groups are teen-driven; participants decide on a theme for the month then choose their own title that fits the theme.  Everyone may read a different book, but that’s what makes it fun!  At book club, we rant and rave and chat about our selections in addition to enjoying a dessert.  Both groups are free; neither require registration.

Middle School Book Club is open to grades 6-8.  Its next installment will be held from 6:00-7:00 pm, Monday, April 2, in Community Room East at the library.  Percy Jackson fans get ready because we’re reading books by Rick Riordan!

High School Book Club is open to grades 9-12 and will be held from 6:00-7:00 pm on Thursday, April 5, in Conference Room 1.  This month’s theme is comedy, so come prepared for laughs.

Interested in learning more about these or other Joplin Public Library services for teens?  Contact me at the Teen Department, 417-623-7953, ext. 1027.  Happy reading and have fun storming the castle!

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The Princess Bride
As You Wish

March: Books 1-3 by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell

Of all the treasures in the Smithsonian, the exhibit that sticks with me the most is a pair of petite, scuffed, rundown, women’s loafers worn during the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  I found the shoes in a distant corner on the upper floor of the National Museum of American History, tucked safely in a display case with photographs and posters from the trek.  The case had been relocated due to renovations elsewhere in the museum, and I was lucky to run across it.  Those shoes mesmerized me.  They had been worn for all 54 miles of the march and showed it.  I can only imagine what it had been like to wear them.

I am equally mesmerized by March: Books 1-3, the graphic novel trio by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and art by Nate Powell.  John Lewis, currently a U.S. Representative from Georgia, has spent his life in the civil rights movement.  As a young man, he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key group in the movement.  He organized sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, participated in the Freedom Rides, helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and helped lead the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

March is Lewis’ memoir of his civil rights work in the 1950s-60s.  It’s an insider’s look at the movement from a less well-known perspective.  Lewis lays out the motivation for his actions and decisions as well as those of the movement’s student wing.  He provides insight into the internal politics of the various organizations behind the movement.  His descriptions and Nate Powell’s drawings reflect the brutality of the struggle for equality–humiliation, beatings, incarceration, bombings, torture, death.  March accurately reflects the times it depicts; as a result, it’s not always easy to look at or to read.

Lewis bookends the movement’s history with scenes from the first presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  Book One opens with Lewis preparing for the event; as he stops by his Capitol Hill office, he meets a woman wanting her young sons to understand the significance of the day.  Lewis pauses to relate the history of the civil rights movement to her sons, and the story begins.  Although somewhat awkward as a narrative device–additional scenes with Lewis speaking to the woman appear to serve as transitions at different points in the books–the intensity and immediacy of the art and text make up for it.  Lewis anchors his experiences around the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, hence the title.  All 3 volumes echo the call of “We’ll march!”, building up to the Alabama trek’s successful conclusion at the end of Book Three.

Nate Powell’s drawings may only be in grayscale, but they make as much impact as full color.  He uses a mix of bold strokes and detailed shadings to convey a wide range of emotions.  He incorporates large swaths of black background (sometimes a majority of a two-page spread) to highlight text or fine drawings or grave subject matter.  Powell cleverly incorporates the sizable amount of text in his drawings without sacrificing space or emotional power.  He has a tremendous capacity to capture facial expression and body language, portraying with equal skill reflective thoughtfulness and intense hate demonstrated by both black and white figures.  The books have won multiple Eisner Awards (the graphic novel world’s equivalent of the Oscars) for a reason.

March: Books 1-3 is an intense, fascinating exploration of our nation’s recent history.  It’s a natural choice for graphic novel or memoir fans and history buffs.  It has plenty to offer a wider audience, however.  Give the first volume or all 3 to high school students and adults; the books are equally interesting as part of a broader discussion or enjoyed alone.  Be prepared to provide context for or an introduction to the civil rights movement for middle students who read March as it accurately portrays the events and language of the time.  Like that unassuming pair of shoes in the Smithsonian, Lewis’ memoir holds a powerful message.

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