Notes from the End of Summer

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It’s two days before I go back to school which makes me simultaneously happy and also a bit melancholy about the end of summer. It’s that feeling that you’re about to enter a very busy – but wonderful – tunnel and, although there are a few breaks in there, it will take awhile to emerge!

Here’s a list of things I’ve enjoyed over the past few weeks – and a note about the blog:

– An article from this past Sunday’s New York Times about libraries as tourist attractions is really good. I always try to visit libraries when we are traveling. They are portals to the community and many of the them are just beautiful places to visit:

– Speaking of visiting libraries, we were in Maine a couple of weeks ago, and I was in a “picture book-perfect” library in Southwest Harbor, near Acadia. The picture at the top of this post is the stained glass panel over the central desk.

We also visited a few bookstores in Maine, including Bella Books in Belfast. They win the “cozy vibe” award:

It’s always fun to see a sign like this in front of a bookstore:

– I just finished reading The Spaces Between Us by Stacia Tolman.

It’s a young adult novel that caught my eye during a visit to New Hampshire where the author lives. The front cover blurb, from Kirkus’ starred review, calls it a “girl-centered Catcher in the Rye for the 21st century,” a perfect description of this story of two high school seniors trying to figure out what’s next.  This is a thoughtful book about two young women who feel trapped in their small town, but it is truly a “young adult” novel – the concerns are those of young people dealing with class, freedom, and big questions about their lives and relationships. I would recommend The Spaces Between Us for readers ages 15 and over.

– I also read The Revolution of the Moon by the Italian writer, Andrea Camilleri. This was a total impulse buy and read – not on my list of summer (or any other season). The author was familiar to me because of his popular mystery series about Inspector Montalbano, and Camilleri, was more “top of mind” because of his death last month. But truthfully, it was the cover that inspired my purchase:

I kind of enjoyed the abrupt decision to read a book I knew nothing about. The back cover told me that the novel is based on a true story about a Dona Eleonora who ruled Sicily for 27 days in 1677 before she was recalled to Spain. I loved it. drama in the Holy Royal Council, a plan to stage a coup, and some unpleasant reminders of how men thought of women during the 1600s (echoes of which exist today).

And one final note –

WordPress reports that this is my 1000th post.  Crazy, but I trust the WordPress math skills. So off we go: a new school year, new books, new students, and new bookstores to visit as we head toward 2000 posts!

Happy Reading!

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MacDowell Medal Day….

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Thanks to the good planning of a friend, I was able to attend a wonderful ceremony celebrating this year’s recipient of the MacDowell Medal, an annual award given to an artist who has “made an outstanding contribution to our culture.” Among the past winners are Leonard Bernstein, I.M. Pei, Toni Morrison, and Merce Cunningham. This year’s recipient is Charles Gaines, a conceptual artist who had not heard of before this past Sunday, but I was happy to learn about this interesting and influential person.

The award is a program of the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I’ve read books in which characters spend time in places like MacDowell or Yadoo in Saratoga. The colony provides a quiet cottage where creative people can have time and a beautiful space to work without the distractions of everyday life. I remember a novel (but not the title!) where the character is working in one of these studios and lunch magically appears on their porch. On Sunday, as soon as I could, I asked one of the artists if that actually happens – and it does!

One of the highlights of the day was meeting Sigrid Nunez, one of this year’s MacDowell’s Fellows and the author of the 2018 National Book Award-winning novel, The Friend.  My friends and I walked into her studio first, and I was kind of starstruck when I saw Nunez standing in a little room talking with her visitors.

The studios look like fairy tale illustrations that have come to life:

And if you are visiting the cottage of a visual artist, you might see something like this:

Each studio has a porch that looks like a setting from another time. It felt like if I sat down in this chair for a little while, it may be possible to forget (for a few minutes) all of the horrible news from the past few weeks….

There is no internet access inside the studios. But the beautiful library is open 24 hours a day, and so if the inspiration hits you at 2:00 in the morning, you can go online while looking out the glass windows into the woods:

Dinner is served each evening in the main house, so the Fellows can walk up wooded paths to the main house for dinner…

One of the fun things to do on MacDowell Medal Day is to read the “tombstone” in each studio. This is a wooden plaque on which every artist who has stayed in that cottage writes their name and the year they were at MacDowell.  Many of the names are obscure, but there was at least one name on each tombstone that I recognized. On this one, there are two names I recognized!

One of the most striking things about MacDowell is the range of ages and disciplines of the residents. Over the course of a few hours, we met writers and poets, architects and visual artists. There must be interesting conversations at dinner…

After leaving Peterborough, we drove through a few other nearby towns, including Harrisville where there is one of the sweetest public libraries I’ve ever seen:

It was a wonderful and inspiring day – and it made me wish MacDowell offered a Fellowship for someone who would like to sit on the porch and read all summer!

 

 

 

 

Making Way…

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A couple of weeks ago I participated in one of my favorite events, the Simmons Center for the Study of Children’s Literature Summer Institute. This year’s theme was: Make Way. When I first read the conference title I immediately thought of Robert McCloskey’s picture book, Make Way for Ducklings. But there are many ways to make way – for new ideas, new friends, new directions, and sometimes, as the conference description said: “in order to Make Way, we might need to get out of the way.”

Among the conference speakers were: Duncan Tonatiuh, Jessica Love, Padma Venkatraman, Carole Boston Weatherford, Mitali Perkins, Oge Mora, Elisha Cooper, Jarrett Krosozkia, Eric Gansworth, and Linda Sue Park. Grace Lin and M.T. Anderson were also on the roster, but I was unable to attend those sessions.

Here are some of the highlights:

Duncan Tonatiuh spoke about the ways in which he draws on his Mexican heritage in his distinctive artwork. He demonstrated the process he uses to create his illustrations and talked about the influence of pre-Columbian Mixtec culture on his work. Soldier for Equality, based on the diary of a Mexican American soldier during WWI, will be published on September 3.

Elisha Cooper focused his session on the creation of Big Cat, Little Cat, his 2018 Caldecott Honor picture book about friendship and the life cycle. It is a quiet book that Cooper says he wanted to be “wood-blocky and serious.” One of the interesting things he shared was the original cover sketch for Big Cat, Little Cat:

Cooper described it as looking “too much like a puffy blanket,” and knew it didn’t work.

His new book, River, is totally different from much of his other work. This one, Cooper said, “slowed me down.”  It’s about a woman taking a solo journey on the Hudson River. I haven’t seen it yet, but the pictures Cooper showed look beautiful.

I was really excited to hear Oge Mora speak.Thank You, Omu!, Mora’s debut picture book, is a 2019 Caldecott Honor Book. She told us that her mother was the inspiration for the story of Omu and her delicious stew. The first time I saw Mora’s colorful cut paper illustrations in Thank You, Omu!, I thought – this artist is someone to watch. Fortunately, Mora has two new books:

Saturday, a story about a mother and a daughter’s Saturday routine, will be published in October and

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (illustrated by Oge Mora) is due out in January.

Mitali Perkins was an especially inspiring speaker. The hour seemed to fly by in about ten minutes – and I think everyone in the room felt the same way. Perkins writes books for middle grade and young adult readers, but her first picture book, Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story From the Border, will be published on September 10.

The only book I had read by Perkins before the conference is Rickshaw Girl, her well-known story about a Bangladeshi girl who disguises herself as a boy so that she can drive her family’s rickshaw, but after hearing her speak, I bought an armful of her books.

Part of the reason I found her presentation so moving was its theme: crossing borders.  “All stories cross borders; fiction is about someone else or it’s a memoir,” she said. Perkins also spoke about the importance of kids finding their own mirrors and windows. As a child growing up in India, Perkins read many novels that may not seem to be obvious mirrors for her, but she connected with many of the characters feelings and hopes, if not their specific situations.

A conference bonus was Make Way for Dumplings: 20 Years of the Art of Grace Lin. Her work is lovely in books, and in person it is even more magical.

Happy Reading…..

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading….

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Hot days. Cool coffee shops. I’ve finally had a good reading stretch and don’t want to be reminded that August begins this week!

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit – a retelling of Cinderella by the author of Men Explain Things to Me. This one stresses kindness and the true meaning of beauty. As I read, I thought about how much I would have loved this version of Cinderella when I was a young girl and how much I’m looking forward to eading it with students during the school year ahead. It’s exciting to read Cinderella as a young woman with power over her own life and decisions.

Turbulence by David Szalay – I heard Dwight Garner, a book critic for the New York Times, talking about this short novel on the NYT Book Review podcast and it intrigued me enough to buy it that day and read it immediately.  Sometimes it’s good to trust your instincts – and this was one of those times. Szalay’s book plays with the idea of “six degrees of separation” in a really interesting way. Plane flights are what connects these stories together, but most of the “turbulence” is on the ground.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – Sometimes I read interviews with “book people” in which the person is asked to name a book they should have read by now, but haven’t.  Until last week, this would have been my answer. Reynolds’ books received lots of starred reviews. It won awards. I’ve read many of the author’s other titles. I reviewed one of them for School Library Journal – and yet, Long Way Down was still in my “to read” stack. As Kirkus described it in their starred review, the book is truly “astonishing.”  The story centers on Will, a 15-year-old boy who sees his brother killed on the streets. Will decides to seek revenge, but he has to go down the elevator of his apartment building first.

The New Yorker – It’s kind of strange to include this on my list of reading, but I had set aside weeks of articles and finally got through them – until a new issue arrives this week. Particularly notable was Jane Mayer’s article, “The Case of Al Franken” in which the writer thoughtfully explores the accusations against Senator Franken that led to his resignation from the U.S. Senate. It appears in the July 29 issue.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei – A graphic memoir about Takei’s family’s incarceration during the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.  I have never seen one episode of Star Trek, the show that made Takei famous, but I knew about his work as an activist. Takei’s memoir feels urgent. The story he tells of his own experience is moving, but the parallels he draws with the present are powerful reminders that every person deserves to be treated with respect and fairness.

What I finished:

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – This will be the highlight of my reading this year. A demanding and immersive novel that led me to stop between chapters to “youtube” videos about the  Kamchatka peninsula where the book takes place. Phillips’ book is, on one hand, a suspenseful story about two sisters who go missing. But to read it as a mystery is to miss what it is really about: people living in a remote and complex place, community, the lives of women, ethnicity.

And what I’m now reading:

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – I’m not far enough in to talk about this novel, but it moved to the top of my list based on Frank Rich’s glowing front page review in the New York Times Book Review.

Summer is also about bookstores!  And I was recently able to visit one of my favorites: The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

And a new one…

The Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut is a used book store that is more like a theme park for books. It’s set up like a little village and each location is stacked floor to ceiling with used books. Given the amount of stock they manage, the store is remarkably well organized. After we spent an hour (and a few dollars) there, the staff member caring for the goats gave us directions to an ice cream shop!

The Book Barn also wins the prize for the best book shop sign ever!

Happy Reading…

Mid-Summer Update….

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I just returned from a week in Lake Placid, New York – the site of both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics and now the official training center for the Winter Games. I’ve never been on either ice skates or skis, but reading is also a good winter activity so I sought out bookstores, libraries, and museums. Lake Placid is beautiful. Nestled in the Adirondacks, the town is surrounded by Mirror Lake, a lake that looks just like its name.

I was there with my husband, son, and Ohio family which made it especially wonderful. We visited High Falls Gorge, the Adirondack Experience museum, and the Olympic sites. One afternoon they rented a boat for a two hour adventure, and I enjoyed sitting at the end of the pier and read Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. The novel is as good as promised in its many stellar reviews.

Main Street in Lake Placid has a good bookstore with many regional titles:

And a picture-perfect library a few blocks down the street:

Driving out of town, we traveled through Keene and Keene Valley, each with their own public library:

And traveling by Instagram, this poster for the National Book Festival (designed by Marian Bantjes) caught my eye:

Later this week I’ll have my first meeting of the Buttonwood Middle Grade Summer Book Group. I can’t wait to talk about The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin with the kids.

Until then, it’s back to the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia where Disappearing Earth takes place. I knew nothing about this part of far eastern Russia before reading Phillips’ novel, but the landscape’s very remoteness adds to the richness of this powerful story.

Happy Reading…

 

 

 

 

Reading on the Road….

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We were on the road for a couple of weeks and since there were lots of moving parts, I packed paperbacks rather than any of the new hardcovers waiting on my nightstand. I tossed three books into my bag thinking I was being way too optimistic about reading time, but as it turned out, I had to purchase a fourth book during our travels. Here’s what I read:

Life of David Hockney by Catherine Cusset

Cusset, a French novelist, wrote this book as both fiction and biography; the facts about the artist David Hockney are all known, but Cusset imagines what Hockney was thinking at various turning points in his life – whether about his art or his romantic relationships. I admire Hockney’s sunny paintings of California and his beautiful landscapes of his native Yorkshire so I was interested in the topic and the blending of storytelling formats. Ultimately, Hockney’s steady optimism about any new adventure was inspiring, and I was happy to understand the roots of the artist’s work more deeply. That being said, the style of the book created too much distance for me. It felt more “article” than novel.

The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald

I pivoted from Hockney’s paintings of swimming pools to a tuberculosis hospital outside of Seattle. In 1937, Betty MacDonald, best known for her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series of children’s books, spent nearly a year in a tb sanatorium. “Getting tuberculosis in the middle of your life,” she writes, “is like starting downtown to do a lot of urgent errands and being hit by a bus. When you regain consciousness you remember nothing about the urgent errands. You can’t even remember where you were going.”  An odd choice of books to read, perhaps, but Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, talked enthusiastically about MacDonalds’ shocking and funny memoir, on the Book Review podcast.  After listening to Paul read an excerpt from The Plague and I, I ordered a copy.

This book was an excellent traveling companion: reliably entertaining and a dramatic reminder of how lucky many of us are to receive the medical care we have today. MacDonald writes about the other patients and the sanatorium staff with wit and sharp observations. On nearly every page, I was either laughing at one of MacDonald’s stories or squirming at the realities of medical care in the mid-1930s.

The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Kawakami’s new novel appears on several “books to read this summer” lists so into my bag it went. I’m intrigued by contemporary Japanese novels. I’d like to explain that in a really thoughtful way, but I don’t have the right words. Basically, the tone is just dramatically different from American novels (at least the ones I read). The characters feel alienated from their societies, sometimes their families, and definitely the institutions in their lives. The novels feel a bit sad which is not a ringing endorsement, I know, but it’s interesting. The Ten Loves of Nishino was no exception. It’s told in ten voices, all women who loved the same unknowable man. He’s mysterious, but the women seem to know what they want. Maybe the word I’m looking for is anonymity.  I’ve also read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. The protagonist in that novel has no identity outside of the convenience store where she works. These books feel opposite of American identity-driven stories and make me think about the way we construct our lives.

What I enjoyed most about The Ten Loves of Nishino is its scaffolding. It’s like a beautiful Faberge egg that keeps opening to new and unexpected angles.

After finishing Kawakami’s novel, I had a mini-crisis. We were in a part of France with very few English books available. Luckily, we found a store with a limited selection, but I could feel myself breathing again! I purchased a historical novel called Wake by Anna Hope. This passage from the New York Times review led me to the purchase desk:

“Hope’s unblinking prose is reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s classic memoir Testament of Youth in its depiction of the social and emotional fallout, particularly on women, of the Great War. . . . Hope reaches beyond the higher echelons of society to women of different social classes, all linked by their reluctance to bid goodbye to the world the conflict has shattered.”

400 pages – and I finished it as our plane landed back in Boston. A powerful and moving story, but really quite sad. Hope doesn’t shy away from the heartbreak of war, not only for the people fighting it, but for all those left behind.

One last thing. We saw this ad on CNN International during our trip. It is so good — I promise it will make your day:

Happy Reading!

 

Highlights from our Middle School List….

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been featuring some of the titles on Inly’s summer reading list, beginning with picture books for young readers. This week – our middle school students. Books for “tweens” have changed a lot over the past ten years. The books still focus primarily on identity and self-discovery because that’s what kids between the ages of 12 and 14 are figuring out. The difference is that contemporary novels grapple with issues on the front burner far more directly than they did when I was in middle school (or junior high as we called it in Ohio). Today’s young adult books tackle, among other issues: gender identity, social media, climate change, refugees, race, social justice issues, and sexual orientation. Young people have a lot to navigate, but there are lots of good books to pave the way.

Here are five of my favorites on Inly’s middle school list:

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“…Alicia D. Williams’s stunning debut novel…explores racism within the black community, creating a fully realized family with a history of complex relationships to one another, and to their own skin colors. The suburban school where Genesis finds herself navigating a diverse cast of friends and foes is no less vivid…But the standout voice in this tender and empowering novel—reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, but appropriate for a much younger audience—belongs to Genesis herself, as she discovers a truth that we adults would do well to remember: Growing up isn’t just about taking responsibility for the happiness and well-being of others. It’s also about learning what you can and should fix, and what you cannot. As Genesis discovers, there is no true reinvention without self-acceptance.” (New York Times Book Review)

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

“Gansworth, himself an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation, explores the boys’ organic relationship with generosity and tenderness and unflinching clarity, sidestepping stereotypes to offer two genuine characters navigating the unlikely intersection of two fully realized worlds…. And although Gansworth manages the weighty themes of racism and poverty with nuance and finesse, at its heart, this is a rare and freehearted portrait of true friendship.” (Booklist, starred review)

Beast Rider by Tony Johnston

Beast Rider is a short book, coming in at 176 quick pages, a good choice for readers toward the younger end of the Y.A. spectrum…Given that the plight of Latinos fleeing to the North is such a big and important subject, it’s impressive how much information Johnston and Fontanot de Rhoads are able to share, so economically: the violence migrants face during their journey to the States, the help from strangers they receive along the way, the danger that can be found at the border, and the challenges that new immigrants face when they’re in the United States. This novel is as sharp as it is brief.” (New York Times Book Review)

Operatic by Kyo Maclear

“Taking on friendships, crushes, cliques, and music culture, Maclear offers an honest, deeply respectful look at what is at the core of belonging and isolation for teenagers. Charlie Noguchi narrates her middle-school existence through the lens of her music teacher’s assignment to “choose a song for this moment in your life and write about it.” She pines for Emile, a quiet aspiring entomologist, and wonders about the mysterious prolonged absence of Luka, a femme boy who sings like an angel and once disturbed kids and adults at school with his unapologetic fabulousness…When Charlie, Emile, Luka, and friends find the courage to express themselves together, their music creates a rainbow. With poetic words and pictures, Maclear and Eggenschwiler create a synesthetic experience that captures all the high and low notes of youth.” (Publishers Weekly)

White Rose by Kip Wilson

“Sophie Scholl was a young German student who wanted to see the end of Hitler and the Nazi regime. She gave her life for that cause. As children, Sophie and her brother Hans were enthusiastic members of Hitler Youth organizations. But as the Nazis’ chokehold increased and the roundups and arrests of dissenters and Jews escalated, they became determined to resist. After conscription into the National Labor Service, Hans, Sophie, and trusted university friends formed the secret White Rose resistance group. Hans began to compose treasonable leaflets, promoting an uprising against Hitler. Sophie helped get the leaflets out to influential people as well as to other university students. Their work attracted the attention of Nazi sympathizers, who informed the Gestapo of suspicious activities—and they were ultimately caught by a university custodian. Intensive interrogation and imprisonment, followed by a sham trial led by a fanatical judge, led to the sentence of death by guillotine. Organized in repeated sections that move forward and backward in time, readers hear Sophie’s thoughts in brief, pointed, free-verse poems in direct, compelling language…..Real events made deeply personal in an intense, bone-chilling reading experience.” (starred review, Kirkus)

School is out for the summer so I’m going to step away from the blog for a few weeks. I have lots of reading to do! And so, apparently, does this baby —

Happy Reading!