Mac B. Kid Spy by Mac Barnett and The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Sometimes you just want to read a good mystery. In fact, I would say that a significant percentage of the “What should I read next?” types of questions from upper elementary students fall into the mystery genre. (Roughly 50% are “I finished every Dav Pilkey book, and now I don’t know what to read!” If this is you, come see us.)

Luckily, I have two excellent mysteries to recommend. In another stroke of luck, my first recommended title is both a mystery and a Captain Underpants/Dog Man read-alike If you are a parent of a child under 10, you have likely read or seen a book by MAC BARNETT. He is children’s literature royalty at this point. If you haven’t yet read any of his picture books, I would recommend every single one. Really.

The mystery/Dav Pilkey read-alike in question is his chapter book series, “MAC B., KID SPY.” The series is loosely based (but not if you ask the author …) on his childhood growing up with a single mother in Northern California in the 1980s. The book starts on a boring Saturday afternoon; Mac has already read, played his Gameboy and watched TV, and only 40 minutes have passed. Suddenly, he receives a call from the queen of England (as one does) ordering him to come to England promptly to track down the missing crown jewels. The plot only gets more outlandish as he flies across the Atlantic and dodges KGB spies, meets the French president and attempts to steal from the Louvre. “Mac B., Kid Spy” is laugh-out-loud funny and completely ridiculous in the best way.

The story is perfectly enhanced by Mike Lowery’s thin, pen-sketch drawings peppering each page. The specific combination of detail and simplicity in his illustrations lends to the slapstick comedy effect of the plot; for example, the chapter 15 cover image shows a straight-faced, outlined Mac B with his wobbly arm around Freddie the corgi. A straight mouth belies his nerves but overall, it’s just a simple drawing of a kid and a dog. In contrast, the illustration’s framing is fanciful and resembles a coat of arms and reads: “Chapter 15: KGB HQ.” Lowery draws primarily in black pen, with orange and blue details, and he is able to express a multitude of emotions with simple lines and geometric shapes. (If you need a recommendation for a good Mike Lowery picture book, the library has those as well.)

If this all sounds appealing, consider signing up for the Children’s Department’s Chapter Book Club. Sign-ups launched back on September 7. We’ll read chapters from the book, pass on confidential files for top secret missions, and end with a kung-fu party. Of course, for now, this will all take place on the internet because it’s what the queen wants. Queen’s orders, after all. Call the library for more information and check out the “Mac B.” series (there are five in all) at the library or on Libby.

Find Mac B. in the catalog

I am going to switch gears entirely to share the second mystery, BRANDY COLBERT’s middle grade debut, “THE ONLY BLACK GIRLS IN TOWN.” This middle grade novel follows Alberta, a 12-year-old surfer in a coastal California town who, for the first 12 years of her life, was the only Black girl in town. She has had the same best friend for years, but lately, Laramie seems more interested in boys and being popular than watching Alberta surf or visiting the comic book shop together. So when Alberta discovers that the Black family moving into the bed and breakfast across the street includes a girl her age named Edie, she is thrilled. They click quickly, and Alberta begins spending weekends at her huge, old house while her parents work. It is during one of these said weekends that Alberta and Edie discover a box full of old journals in the attic. The journals are penned by a woman named Constance who moved to San Francisco in the 1950s. They become determined to find out who Constance is, especially because no one on their street seems to recall a woman named Constance who, if the journals are correct, was harboring a secret about her identity.

Colbert is well-known for her young adult novels, and it is clear that her ability to write for and about teenagers is not exclusive to the more mature end of the spectrum. “The Only Black Girls in Town” is a book about growing up, forging and maintaining friendships, and figuring out who you are in the midst of it all. I sped through this book, and thought about it for days afterward. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a consuming novel about friendships, identity and a touch of history. You can find “The Only Black Girls in Town” and Colbert’s young adult titles at Joplin Public Library.

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The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson

History runs through St. Louis like a current.
It’s downtown as tourists spill around the Old Federal Courthouse—where the infamous Dred Scott case began—on their way to the glinting Gateway Arch, the national monument to Western Expansion, to empire. It flows westward to Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair, and through the architectural grandeur of surrounding houses. Wending northward yields a scarred history with dilapidated red brick houses and embattled residents. The transition is striking, leaving even the most casual of observers to ask: What happened to St. Louis?
Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, has some answers. From the book’s subtitle, it doesn’t take much to conjecture that his answers are far from any feel-good musings over a once halcyon St. Louis. If you want a narrative that waxes poetic about, say, the St. Louis Cardinals as it relates to the city’s history, look elsewhere. What Johnson, a Harvard professor and native Missourian, does provide is a deep look at St. Louis’s racial and political economy history. A book with resounding vitality, it is, in a word, incendiary.
St. Louis was the early republic’s long reach westward. It became the outpost where William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), serving as superintendent of Indian Affairs, oversaw treaties that ceded over 419 million acres to the United States. Still, this did not stop white settlers from calling him a “race traitor” after he ordered the removal of several hundred settlers along the Arkansas River to avoid conflict on Indian land. They refused the order and he was swiftly removed from office.
Such settlers found an ally in Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a man who sounded “like an angry god in love with his own voice.” Johnson brands Benton as one of the many “second-chance strivers” who made their way to Missouri because they missed making their fortunes either back East or down South. Total Indian removal to make way for white expansion was the order of the day. (Or, as Johnson puts it, “Genocide was the vanguard of empire.”) And St. Louis housed the key garrison. The legendary names we know from the Civil War (Grant, Lee, Longstreet, Sherman) spent their early military careers as Indian fighters stationed out of St. Louis.
This new influx of white inhabitants also had little use for slaveholders as they owned a potential impediment to white labor: slaves. St. Louis became fiercely anti-black and the site of the nation’s first recorded lynching. In 1836, just hours after disembarking a steamship, a free black man was accused of murder and then burned alive behind the Federal Courthouse. This view that blacks were essentially disposable was solidified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Taney writing that blacks (whether free or enslaved) “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
To be sure, St. Louis had its paradoxes. There was a relatively small slave population. Yet it had one of largest slave markets in the country. There was a white population that didn’t particularly care whether one owned a slave or not so long as said slave (and slave owner) didn’t impede their quest for property. The mid-1800s were complicated further with the arrival of Germans fleeing the Revolutions of 1848. And since many of them were Marxists, they believed private property should not exist at all, certainly not human chattel. As such, when the time came, quite a few Germans joined the Union Army. There’s a twenty-foot statue of Franz Sigel in Forest Park today. Sigel was a German-born St. Louisan who became a distinguished Union general. He was also, Johnson mordantly states, “a stone-cold communist.”
Following the war, Walt Whitman and William Tecumseh Sherman advocated moving the nation’s capital to St. Louis. And there was a brief period of unity between white and black laborers during the St. Louis General Strike of 1877, the first such strike in the nation. However, such solidarity had long since evaporated when, a few decades later, St. Louis passed its first segregation ordinance. Still, downtown St. Louis was full of verve and was nationally known as a “sporting city” (full innuendo). At the turn of the century, ragtime music, invented by black musicians, thundered out of St. Louis, the nation’s fourth most populous city.
But you wouldn’t find ragtime at the 1904 World’s Fair. (It was banned.) You would, however, find a spectacle that’s hard to fathom. In Forest Park, visitors could pay a nickel and pose for a photo with Geronimo. There was a “human zoo,” where Filipinos and Pygmies lived. During colder days, white ticket holders would throw rocks at their huts so that they would come out and perform. A young T.S. Eliot often bought daily tickets to the fair. A visitor might glimpse Mark Twain sitting down to dinner with Henry James.
Much of the twentieth century, according to Johnson, was a calculated effort to engineer a city that encouraged white flight to the suburbs (back when it was thought that the city would merge administratively with St. Louis County). The land where the Arch stands today was once seen by many as the “Greenwich Village of the West.” This mattered little to city officials, as it presented a “redevelopment” plan for the area. The 1935 bond issue passed overwhelmingly and 40 square blocks were bulldozed. (Yet it was soon revealed that the plan was a speculative real estate venture.) Interstates were expanded to encourage white mobility and racial restrictive covenants were common.
As with so many present-day municipalities, St. Louis struggles with viable ways to raise revenue. So enters the now ubiquitous TIF districts, where municipalities essentially have to “give it away.” Even if an area is blighted and developed, the resulting sales tax revenue comes at the expense of stagnant property tax levies. The result: perpetually underfunded schools.
Some may push back at Johnson’s stressing racial enmity as a constant thread running through St. Louis’s history. However, after reading of the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre, it seems that the onus shifts to having to explain how race was not a driving historical force. Officially, the death count is around 40. But historians believe the number is in the hundreds. (It also left 6,000 blacks homeless.) After the massacre, a congressional report concluded that the companies operating in East St. Louis cared nothing for the civic life of the area.
Johnson thoroughly unpacks the Ferguson of 2014 within the context of the Michael Brown shooting. There are reams of reports detailing how the city, via the police, went revenue-farming on poor black residents. But Johnson’s ire is focused on what was not included: the structural racism found in the area. (He notes that such racism is not unique to St. Louis; as we have seen, it’s fixed in many other cities as well.) This book is his response.
The St. Louis of today is one where a poor black child born in the North will have a life expectancy that is eighteen years shorter than a white child born in a nearby suburb. Such grim realities, Johnson notes, have an impact, and grassroots are forming. The challenges are legionnaire, but still they try. Johnson stops by a high school and watches a track meet. Even after the track coach’s son was shot dead by a police officer in 2017, she’s still there, trying. The kids are still out there running, some of them literally for their lives.

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The Annotated American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Recently, an item appeared on my cataloging shelves that I needed to read immediately: THE ANNOTATED AMERICAN GODS by NEIL GAIMAN; edited with notes by LESLIE S. KLINGER. I did not know this book even existed before it appeared on my shelf, but I was very familiar with AMERICAN GODS – Gaiman’s epic novel that blends classical mythology into contemporary America.

The novel follows Shadow Moon, a recent ex-convict who has just received news that his wife has died in a traffic accident – along with his best friend. Finding himself with nothing to go home to, and no connections worth pursuing, he reluctantly accepts a job offer from Mr. Wednesday, a man who Shadow just met, but who seems to know a lot about him.

Mr. Wednesday hires Shadow to be his personal driver and bodyguard. This job takes him all over the country. Wednesday introduces Shadow to an eclectic group of strange, otherworldly people. As he gets deeper into Mr. Wednesday’s world, he discovers that these people are gods, brought to America by humans centuries ago.

When humans immigrated into the country, they brought with them the stories and belief in these old gods, this faith permeated the country, and made it a place where the gods could thrive. In this modern age, belief in these gods has begun to fade. Humans have turned to new deities – Technology, Media, and others – who are taking the belief and getting stronger while the old gods become weak.

Mr. Wednesday is organizing the old gods against their new counterparts – trying to form an army and wage war against them, to destroy them and restore the old gods’ power.

The old gods come from all over the world, from Norse, African, Irish, Egyptian, Slavic, and Hindu mythologies, and many, many others. Gaiman has managed to bring them all together seamlessly in a rich, dense story full of unforgettable scenes.

This novel is truly an epic tale, like one of classical mythology. The summary above, while encompassing the novel, only covers one of the story threads that Gaiman has woven together to make this masterwork. In the course of the novel, Shadow also finds himself at the center of a murder-mystery in a small town in Minnesota, where young girls go missing with suspicious frequency. Not to mention that Shadow is being watched by a specter from his past for much of the story.

AMERICAN GODS is simultaneously an epic fantasy and an American road trip novel. Gaiman has a deep love for nostalgic Americana, and it shows. The book begins in Oklahoma, but Shadow and Wednesday travel all over the country, from Florida to Chicago – San Francisco to Kansas.

Gaiman has an understanding of the importance of road trips in American culture, of the feeling of driving down a long, empty stretch of road surrounded by fields. And the sad emptiness of the abandoned tourist destinations that have been passed over by the creation of highways.

Mr. Wednesday refuses to take the highways.

AMERICAN GODS has gone through a few editions since it was first published in 2001. Most notably, the wide release of the author’s preferred text – in the tenth anniversary edition in 2011. It has also been adapted into a comic series by Dark Horse Comics, and a Starz television series. This edition, published in 2019, is the author’s preferred text, with footnotes denoting when the text varies from the first edition.

The footnotes also give context to all of the gods and creatures that appear in the novel, which makes them a wonderful resource. Gaiman rarely explains what mythology he is referencing, leaving it up to the reader to investigate or ignore the history of the character. Klinger’s footnotes add a depth of understanding that I really appreciated.

THE ANNOTATED AMERICAN GODS is gigantic and beautiful. In addition to the footnotes, artwork depicting the gods and stills from the television show are also presented alongside the text. Having all of this together in one volume is a fan’s dream. I would encourage you to read this edition if you have read the book before – I assure you that you have never experienced the story like this.

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The Sum of the People: How the Census has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age by Andrew Whitby

Even before the events that have changed our lives over the last few months, 2020 was going to be an eventful year. It is a presidential election year and a census year.
The U.S. Constitution mandates that every 10 years the population be counted. The count is very important as it determines electoral districts and how many representatives each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is also used to allocate federal funding for fire departments, Medicaid, Head Start, and lots of other programs. Businesses use these population totals to help with decisions such as where to expand or the best place to recruit employees. Also 72 years after the census is completed all that information is released to the delight of genealogists everywhere.
If you haven’t filled out the census form this year, please do so. If you want to do it online, go to https://2020census.gov/en.html or come to the library. We have the page bookmarked on computers with no sign in necessary.
Of course the census is not just a U.S. endeavor. Countries all over the world have been counting people for centuries. Andrew Whitby has chronicled the history of census taking and how it has been used for good and evil in The Sum of the People: How the Census has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age.
Whitby begins his history of the census in the West Bank on the Nativity Trail. He is walking the same route Mary and Joseph travelled as they went to Bethlehem to be counted for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus. As he navigates the trail in this volatile region, the author explores the way the census is used to define countries and build nations.
From there, how the census was taken throughout history offers some interesting discoveries. Not all censuses were written down and not all counted people. England’s Doomsday book, the census of 1086, counted not just people but churches, mills, plough teams, livestock, and much more. Also using census data to make political decisions (political arithmetic) was not introduced until the 1620’s. The idea spread across Europe and across the Atlantic to be embedded in the constitution of the newly formed United States.
Tabulating a census is a daunting task and the list of things being tracked had grown so big that by 1880, the U.S. ran out of time and money for the census. A contest was held to find a faster and cheaper way to tabulate the forms and the numbers. The story of the contest is in the chapter, A Punch Photograph.
Gathering so much information not only made tabulating it hard but made it possible for governments to use that information to target certain groups. The United States used it to force sterilization of mental patients. Nazi Germany used it to annihilate Jewish populations in their own country and the countries they invaded.
Whitby’s passion and research (his resource list for this book is 60 pages long) shows in the depth and detail he provides. He explains how some social and political constructs evolved and how the census was conducted and used to further those ideas. For example, the author talks about the concept of eugenics before he details the use of the census to persecute the Jewish population.
A history of getting a world population count, over-population and the uncounted receive the same detailed treatment. Not counting certain people was practiced in the U.S., Australia, and South Africa among other countries. The U.S. used to exclude Native Americans, Australia didn’t count Aboriginals, and as late as 1998 South Africa failed to count 3 million rural black citizens.
Whitby also addresses the mistrust that some feel toward the gathering of information by a government and the cost involved in conducting a census. The challenges of taking a modern-day census are many. Mobile societies, modern communication, and ensuring the privacy of citizens are discussed. Other ways countries are using to get population counts and estimates may lead to a change in how the census is done.
The future of the traditional census is uncertain but as Whitby concludes “we will not stop counting people. With each new birth, the human journey continues”.

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Becoming by Michelle Obama

Before reading “BECOMING,” I knew little about MICHELLE OBAMA.

I knew she was married to President Barack Obama, that she had two daughters and that she always presented a professional, polished image. Embarrassingly, that was the extent.

I did not realize her parents were happily married until her father died from multiple sclerosis at the age of 55, she holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard, and shockingly for me, her first introduction to her husband was as his mentor at the law firm in Chicago where she was first employed after law school.

Thank goodness I checked out this memoir. In reading it, I learned so much about Michelle Obama’s life and how she became who she is today.

Obama’s writing is clear, accessible and descriptive. She does an excellent job of developing a timeline and explaining details. It was a treat to get to read about the campaigns and elections from her viewpoint. Her love and support of her husband shines through in the book but not in the typical ways most wives support their politician husbands. Committing to being married to a politician was not an easy decision for her and one she struggled with many times during his career — and still struggles with today.

Her parents raised a strong, independent person, and her ability to have her own goals and passions were vital to her happiness. She found her own path, and while sometimes it was not easy, she persevered and not only had a fulfilling career but parented two beautiful, smart and passionate daughters and supported her husband.

Her love for children is often mentioned, and she was able to incorporate that into her platform as first lady, focusing on nutrition, physical activity and healthy eating. Building a garden on the White House lawn as a way to involve youth groups and show how to make healthy food choices was no easy feat, but it turned out as a beautiful addition and provided thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the White House. Her messages about hope and “you matter,” focused primarily toward young women, are powerful statements about her beliefs and dreams.

Hearing about the Secret Service was interesting and insightful. Obama has a deep respect for the men and women who protect her family, and she also talks about the other White House staff members and how they became more than staff to her family. Her description of how sad she felt leaving the White House on the final day of her husband’s presidency showcases the connections the Obama family made with their caretakers.

Her story comes together by letting the people be the focus. She is good at seeing people and reading them. She demonstrates grace throughout the narrative, and this combined with her inner beauty make it easy to see why so many people adore her.

Also, I loved the insight that I got about Barack from this memoir. It was a beautiful thing to see our 44th president through the eyes of his wife and partner. She shares special things that many people would not know about him — he used to smoke, he works best shut away in a messy “hole” of an office and he seems to grow calmer as the chaos rises. So many great stories are included in the narrative.

She also highlights key moments during the eight years they were in the White House — finding and killing Osama Bin Laden, the massacre in Newtown and the legalization of gay marriage — and uses these stories to showcase there was always a crisis to contend with, and while it was apparent things like this would continue, the response she and Barack gave were important. People were looking to them to lead, and they did their best to do a good job.

This well-crafted, powerful read should not be missed. The pacing is spot on, and the imagery the author is able to create with her words will make the reader feel part of the story. The warmth she feels for people radiates outward, and her use of story and the power that it yields is phenomenal. She uses her story to provide hope, inspiration and spotlight a message of love.

Jeana Gockley is the director of the Joplin Public Library.

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Resources for Teen Drivers and Their Parents–2020 Update

The Driving Book: Everything New Drivers Need to Know but Don’t Know to Ask by Karen Gravelle

Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving by Tim Hollister and Pam Shadel Fischer

Driving-Tests.org, https://joplinpl.driving-tests.org/missouri/ electronic resource available via Joplin Public Library

I’ve reviewed print and electronic resources for teen drivers once before.  There has been a lot of interest in the topic this summer at the Teen Department, so I thought it would be a great time to look at additional titles for the driver’s ed. journey.

The Driving Book: Everything New Drivers Need to Know but Don’t Know to Ask is aimed at teen drivers (and drivers-to-be).  The Library offers a print version in Teen Nonfiction and an e-book through OverDrive and its Libby app.  In it, author Karen Gravelle takes on the concept of “you don’t know what you don’t know” as it applies to learning to drive.

Gravelle divides a wide, varied swath of information on the topic into manageable, bite-sized pieces for teens’ consumption.  She addresses auto maintenance, liability, emergencies, fender benders, driving hazards, peer pressure, and interacting with police–everything from checking a car’s fluids to being a responsible passenger.  Each topic is introduced with a clear description in bold type and surrounded with enough blank space to make reading quicker and easier.  Amusing, mildly cheesy black-and-white drawings lighten the tone–much appreciated with the serious subject.  Gravelle writes with a calm, soothing voice–also appreciated given the potential for anxiety with new drivers–moving from informing to warning to encouraging with ease.  Most importantly, she doesn’t just tell teen drivers “no” but provides enough explanation to outline the potential consequences without going overboard on details.  A really helpful feature are the real-life stories from new drivers, many of them cautionary tales, scattered throughout the book.  Far less helpful, the author only mentions the danger of texting and driving twice.

Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving, is an informative, no-nonsense resource for parents of new drivers.  It’s available in print in Adult Nonfiction and as an e-book through the Library’s Ebsco service.  Authors Tim Hollister and Pam Shadel Fischer, experiencing a gap in preparation of new drivers, have crafted a pathway for parents before their teens get behind the wheel.  Both authors have credible-yet-tragic backgrounds in this area.  Hollister’s son, Reid, died in a single-car crash less than a year after he got his driver’s license.  Despite being a nationally-known traffic safety advocate, Fischer watched her son, Zach, be involved in two crashes, nine days apart, less than six months after receiving his license.

Hollister and Fischer, naturally, focus on prevention and safety.  They advocate for parental structure and boundary setting, teen accountability, and mutual communication.  Understanding adolescent brain development and believing that parents know their children best, they urge parents not to solely rely on driver’s education or the state license bureau to provide all the information needed for new drivers.  Instead, they offer credible facts to support their argument for driving preparation customized to teens and their situations.  They give well-reasoned support to parents along with the tools to give their teens a good start.  The supplementary resources–a list of websites for teen drivers and a sample “Parent-Teen Driving Agreement”–alone are worth picking up the book.

Driving-Tests.org is a one-stop study spot for the written driver’s test.  One of its helpful offerings 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.  It’s the practice tests that make this tool amazing.  Questions cover material on the actual exam and are grouped according to difficulty.  Some of the tests randomize their questions.  Plus, there’s an entire section just for road sign identification.  You can access this electronic study aid from the library’s website or directly at https://joplinpl.driving-tests.org/missouri/.

Stop by the Teen Desk for free, “grab and go” resources.  We have paper copies of the Missouri Driver Guide and a handy bookmark outlining the steps of Missouri’s graduated license requirements.  We also offer “Road Wise: Parent/Teen Safe Driving Guide”, published by the Missouri Department of Transportation, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety.  “Road Wise” introduces the basics of driving–regulations, safety, maintenance, technique–in a more palatable, engaging format than other official publications.  It’s a great place to start for teens and parents.

In addition, the library’s Teen Department has partnered with safety organization THINKFIRST Missouri to offer a free parent education program, First Impact, for the Joplin area.  First Impact is a statewide initiative of ThinkFirst Missouri, part of the University of Missouri School of Medicine, Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, working with facilitators and law enforcement officers 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.

First Impact’s presentation will be held virtually over Zoom on Tuesday, September 1, 2020, from 6:00-7:30 pm.  There is no charge to attend, but registration is required to receive the Zoom link.  Register by calling First Impact at (573) 884-3463 or online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-impact-new-driver-parent-teen-education-program-on-zoom-tickets-113853099686. The event is free, no library card needed.

“You Matter” by Christian Robinson and “Everyone’s Awake” by Colin Meloy

I am bursting with picture book recommendations! The last few months have been challenging, to put it mildly, but one of the things I have been able to look forward to is the steady stream of excellent picture books.

The first title is one I pre-ordered as early as I could. Award-winning illustrator (and author) Christian Robinson’s YOU MATTER was released on June 2nd alongside glowing reviews, and is the second that he has done solo. YOU MATTER tells two stories: the first is a reminder, as it states in the acknowledgements, “to anyone who isn’t sure if they matter. You do.” Each full-page spread reiterates this message to those in situations in which they may feel less than: when you’re slow, when you make a mistake, when no one listens to you, when someone you love is far away, and “even if you are really gassy.” Robinson’s trademark collage illustrations, which include a combination of handmade illustrations and papercut drawings, add levity to a message that could be saccharine if done differently.

Through these illustrations, Robinson cleverly weaves a second story in with the first. This second story begins on a grand scale, telling the history of the earth from the first living bacteria to the first living creature on land, touching on the extinction of the dinosaurs and the various phases of Earth’s evolution along the way.

Christian Robinson has been one of my favorite illustrators for a long time. His illustrations just feel special, and his attention to detail feels like a labor of love. Here, Robinson’s attention to detail is amplified. The astronaut overlooking Earth holds a picture of a young child; on the next page, that child is seen looking forlornly out of an apartment building window while holding a brightly colored rocket ship in one hand. This is just one instance where, If the reader looks closely, they can follow one character through several pages and perspectives.

Robinson has a knack for bringing to light the overlooked and underappreciated aspects of life; with YOU MATTER, he excels at doing both visually and textually. The characters in this book are diverse in ethnicity and ability, thus extending the message to those reading the book who may not often see themselves represented in the media they consume.

My favorite thing about YOU MATTER is that it is adaptable for a variety of ages. If your child is very young, you can read the words and identify the pictures. If they are a bit older, you can discuss the visual story Robinson tells, though the depth of the conversation depends on the child’s age and comprehension level.

Robinson has won many awards for his work; most notably, his 2015 picture book with author Matt de la Pena won the Newbery Medal for Excellence in Children’s Literature.

Find YOU MATTER in our catalog.

For another fun read-aloud, try Colin Meloy and Shawn Harris’ lyrical, outrageous, and hilarious un-bedtime story EVERYONE’S AWAKE. It is no surprise that Meloy’s (of the band The Decemberists) second picture book is witty and fun to read aloud. If you have listened to his music, you have likely felt the same way about his songwriting. The book reads as a litany of outrageous behaviors the largely unseen narrator’s family engages in in lieu of sleeping, and the list gets more ridiculous as it goes on. It begins mildly, with the sister locking herself in the bathroom to braid her hair and the brother reciting lines from a movie. By the book’s middle, the grandmother is playing cards “with long-dead Grandpa Paul” and the cat is giving “poke tattoos and prank calling the cops.” Each rhyming couplet ends with an emphatic, “EVERYONE’S AWAKE” that lends itself well to a mildly amped-up bedtime or an engaging storytime. Grown-ups will enjoy this book as much as younger readers, and they will likely enjoy the sometimes obscure pop culture references throughout (Prince, Frank Sinatra, and a slew of classic children’s books all make an appearance).

Shawn Harris’ illustrations are a perfect fit for Meloy’s musical and wildly enjoyable story. The bright color palette consists of mostly neon or nearly-neon greens, blues, yellows, and oranges and feels just as loud and fun as the house seems to be. The characters are diverse and whimsical and funny, and Harris’ interpretation of the chaos in the large, multistory house is humorous in its own right (see the mouse browsing the internet on a tiny laptop while reclined on the father’s back for one example). I love this book, and I look forward to reading it at storytime. In the meantime, you can borrow it from the library and add an exciting spin on your own family’s bedtime routine. But get some sleep.

Find EVERYONE’S AWAKE in our catalog.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godrfey-Smith

You and I stand on one of evolution’s most privileged branches. From this high vantage, eye some other branches and identify the animals you consider “smart.” Dolphins? Apes? Your dog and cat? Mostly mammals, I am guessing. (Although we should throw in select birds, especially crows.) Now dive off our branch and go back, down millions of years, well past the dinosaurs, and into the sea some 600 million years ago. You are at the early stages of animal evolution where the viciousness of predation has yet to arrive. While we do not know what our ancestor looks like exactly, nor the depth of water it best thrives, it is probably just a few millimeters long and receives sustenance via filtration.

Now ascend and return to the present. But instead of following the ancestral line whence we came, trail a different line that also emerges from this animal. Moving forward, here come the predators and prey with their various adaptations of assault and defense. One animal develops underwater jet propulsion to both overwhelm and flee. Follow that one. Returning to the present, but just below the water’s surface, look into the eyes of this creature that is intently watching you, an animal Claudius Aelianus in the third century C.E. described as one of “mischief and craft,” our long-lost “smart” cousin: the octopus.

In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godrfey-Smith argues that the octopus is probably the closest we will come to meeting alien life. By appearances alone, we can see his point. The Mars Attacks!-like dome (the mantle). The busy, yet mesmeric, eight arms that are being fed blue-green blood that is pumped through three hearts. With no natural angles, it is a “body of pure possibility.” It can squeeze through an aperture that is only a little larger than one of its eyes. It can change colors and camouflage itself so that one could be just a few feet from you, and you wouldn’t know it.

Because its neural architecture is completely different from vertebrates, Godfrey-Smith maintains that it is, in many ways, more useful to study what an octopus can do than what it is. Prior to reading this book, I was aware that octopuses were great escape artists. To wit: Turn your back on one in a lab and you could quite possibly turn back around to see the last glimpse of an octopus that had scuttled out of its tank, scooted across the floor, and climbed up and into the drain that leads back to the sea. Continuing with this, Godfrey-Smith describes how octopuses are quick to learn things in the lab that are completely new, and in no way natural to them, such as using levers and unscrewing jars, even when the octopus is inside the jar (!). There are so many anecdotes in this book that show off what whizbangs octopuses are I could use the rest of my allotted space sharing them. Still, and because I cannot help myself, here are two.

First, in the ocean, octopuses devour crab. In the lab, their fare is less than five stars, arriving in the form of thawed shrimp or squid. They don’t like it but will eat it out of lack of choice. One day, a researcher was walking down a line of octopus tanks, dropping a bite of squid into each. Reaching the end, she backtracked and noticed that the octopus in the first tank was seemingly awaiting her return and holding up the uneaten squid. Without taking its eyes off hers, the octopus moved across the tank and then flicked the offending piece of squid down the overflow drain.

Second, off the coast of Australia, a diver discovered an area that was densely populated with octopuses. Since octopuses are not very social, this was a unique find. (Godfrey-Smith would later dive this location, an area both he and the diver named Octopolis.) After many dives, one octopus approached him, took his hand, and led him on a ten-minute tour of the area, culminating with the octopus showing the diver its den.

Intriguing as these vignettes are the thrust of Godfrey-Smith’s book moves beyond highlighting octopus razzmatazz. Given that octopuses have a “mental surplus,” what are we to make of them? They have so many neurons throughout their arms, you essentially cannot delineate where the brain begins and ends. The octopus is a brain. What then is the relation between an octopus’s central and local control, meaning how autonomous is one of its arms? Can one arm explore and process here while the others simultaneously do the same elsewhere? (Imagine discovering, right now, that one of your hands had been writing a letter as you read this.)

Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy, quotes William James in the necessity of studying the origins of consciousness, for while we know that humans have it in spades, we most certainly know, too, that it did not just explode into existence with humans. Given that the human brain forms its own subjective reality regarding existence, asking, “What does it feel like to be an octopus?” may seem illusive. But Godrey-Smith investigates these questions from a relatively high altitude (meant as a compliment), balancing the narrative so that it lacks neither readability nor academic bona fides. Throughout the book, the questions are framed for our own independent thoughts. He does make one declarative: If we ignore the health of the oceans, it will be at our peril.

It’s understandable that our high perch results in instinctive stargazing and wonder. What if contact from out there was made? Would there be any hope of us understanding each other? Would they see us as we see the octopus? Would they see our intelligence? Would they find us worth the effort?

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The Big Finish by Brooke Fossey

Eighty-eight-year old Duffy Sinclair is a little bit of a crank, a flirt, a prankster, and scared of losing his home. He and Carl share a room at the Centennial Assisted Living Facility in Brooke Fossey’s novel, The Big Finish.

Sharon, the new owner of Centennial, has plans to remodel and double the fees but can only do it as current residents depart. Departure could mean having to move to the dreaded roach-infested nursing home down the road. Duffy is determined that will not be his and Carl’s fate then Josie literally falls into their lives.

Carl is the best friend Duffy never had and Duffy thought he knew everything about him. But both men have secrets and Carl’s just opened the window and crawled/fell into their room. Barefoot and sporting a shiner Josie has come to visit her grandfather, Carl Thomas Upton.
Duffy is ready to call the staff as he knows Carl and his late wife did not have children. But Carl acknowledges Josie’s claim and the first order of business is to hide her as Nurse Nora is at the door. Then the debate begins.

Josie wants to stay a week but Duffy is not ready to risk his spot at Centennial hosting an unauthorized guest. Carl reveals the circumstances of Josie’s mother birth and mourns that her recent death means he’ll never get the redemption he sought. Josie is his second chance.

Disappointed in Carl and scared of what eviction would mean Duffy is adamant that Josie leave. But then Josie enters the facility in a more conventional manner. The other residents and staff are charmed by Carl’s granddaughter. With Josie invited to join them on a planned trip to Walmart Duffy is determined to keep an eye on her.

What he sees is that Josie may have a more serious problem than needing a place to stay. Duffy is 13 years sober and in Josie he recognizes the same physical symptoms he suffered when alcohol ruled his life. His big secret – alcoholism and the life he wasted.

Despite his misgivings Duffy decides that Josie needs an intervention. But first he has to convince her she needs help and to complicate things further Bates shows up looking for Josie. Bates claims to be her boyfriend but he appears none to friendly and probably the cause of her black eye. He brings a whole new set of problems for the octogenarian determined to get Josie’s life back on track.

Each day Centennial has a schedule of the events for the day. The story starts with Saturday August 26 and the last day is Wednesday August 30. In those 5 short days can Duffy turn Josie’s life around? Will he find that Josie can be his redemption?

This novel is at times funny, touching, harrowing, and sad. The challenges of aging and what it means to be family are explored in this entertaining first novel by Fossey. The author has a knack for good dialogue and characters and I had no trouble picturing Duffy, Carl and Josie in my mind as I read.

Read-alikes for this title are The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. If you enjoyed those novels, you’ll find Duffy’s tale to your liking.

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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

You know that feeling, when you have been putting off reading a book that a friend recommended to you – and then you read it, and you also need to tell everyone about it?

Well, let me tell you about “AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING” by HANK GREEN.

April May is a twenty-three-year-old graphic designer living in New York City. Walking home from a very, very late work night she discovers a ten-foot-tall, completely stationary robot dressed in samurai armor.

Her first instinct is to call up one of her friends from art school – Andy – who wants to be internet-famous, and owns video equipment. Together, they make a short video, spoofing a news report, talking about the giant robot (April calls him Carl).  When April wakes up the next morning, her entire world has changed.

The video that she and Andy made has gone viral, every news agency in the country – and many in other countries – has been airing it. She has hundreds of emails from people asking her questions about Carl, wanting to know more about what she saw. Because her Carl is not the only one; there are sixty-four Carls in cities all over the globe.

Each Carl appeared at exactly the same moment, huge and immovable, without anyone seeing how they got there or where they came from, and April was the first person to capture one on video. April makes appearances on news programs and late night talk shows. She and Andy make more videos. And April gets very into Twitter. Soon she is the most recognizable person on the planet.

With this fame comes power; and as April becomes increasingly famous, she discovers a growing desire in herself to keep this audience. She will do anything to continue to be the authority on Carl.

People around the world have been studying the Carls, and the cryptic clues left on any surveillance footage from the exact moment they arrived. To stay relevant, April needs to keep providing answers. She assembles a crew of fellow twenty-somethings, who can help her decipher the mysteries of the Carls.

Using social media, and April’s influence, they are able to crowd-source the answers to many of the questions surrounding the Carls, but every answer seems to lead to more questions. Where did they come from? And what do they want from humanity?

“AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING” is intensely readable. The book is told in first-person perspective; April is telling you the story as if you (the reader) remember the events she is describing – as if you might have seen a Carl firsthand.

April is speaking as a person who remembers these events, and has had time to process them – and time to think better of many of her choices.  She makes many terrible decisions throughout the course of the book. I found myself liking the book, but not liking April.

This is Hank Green’s debut novel, published in 2018. It illustrates how humanity reacts to the unknown – whether with fear or wonder. It also delves into the virtues and perils of social media with regard to both our culture and ourselves – as a YouTube personality himself, Green understands this better than most. If you enjoy “AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING,” I will mention that next month it is getting a sequel: “A BEAUTIFULLY FOOLISH ENDEAVOR” comes out July 7th!

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