This brilliant debut novel by Yaa Gyasi tells the story of two Ghanian families connected by half sisters who never new one another. Their tales stretch from the 1700s on the Gold Coast of Ghana, spanning generations to present day America. No matter their age, their geography, their gender, or their status, each generation faces new hardships and oppression that shows how slavery has persisted on both continents. Because of the complexity of the relationships, this book is best read in a short time period (and with frequent references to the family tree at the beginning!).
The new middle grade novel 14 HOLLOW ROAD is a story of loss, grieving and friendship. It explores normal middle grade relationship drama and early romance, all while tackling the larger issue of recovery and loss related to a natural disaster. Author Jenn Bishop has written an extremely readable novel that I’m certain will have many tween readers on the edge of their seats. In addition to being forced to live down the hall from her crush (eek!), Maddie struggles with evolving relationships and friendship drama that will feel familiar to many readers. Read our full review here.
Wishtree is narrated by a 216-year-old red oak tree. Red has seen many generations of immigrants come through the neighborhood, but the tree notices that people are treating the new family on the block differently. Some people are unfriendly to, scared of, and even hostile toward these new neighbors. Red and its many critter friends come together to figure out if a Wishtree can help remind people of their humanity. All levels of middle grade readers will be able to handle the writing and themes in WISHTREE, which focus on diversity, inclusion, kindness, and love. Exactly the themes our kids should be thinking and talking more about these days. Read our full review here.
The girls and I listened to LEMONS on audiobook this month. We had CDs from the library, so the girls were extra excited to drive everywhere until we finished. We all LOVED this book. It’s another good one about grief. LEMONS tackles much deeper grief issues than 14 HOLLOW ROAD does, but in a way that keeps younger readers interested and engaged. When Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mother dies, she moves to a Northern California town to live with her grandfather in a town that is obsessed with finding Big Foot. Her only friend is Tobin, the founder of Big Foot Detectives, Inc. Liberty soon learns that busying herself finding Big Foot helps to stave off the sadness—and that everyone who surrounds her has also experienced deep loss. Her new family teaches her how to go on making lemonade out of life’s lemons.
It was a big reading month over here at Lu and Bean Read! Thanks to this blog, I’m reading more than ever and wondering what has been keeping me from it all these years (probably that whole part about having two babies within two years got in the way a bit). Here’s a quick snapshot of what I read this month.
Listen to last week’s podcast to hear our chat with Heather Bouwman, author of A Crack in the Sea. I enjoyed this novel, which mixes several layers of historical fiction with a fantasy world full of magic, sea monsters, and a floating community. This is for mature middle grade readers, who will be able to handle difficult material related to the horrific treatment of stolen African people on a European slave ship and Vietnamese refugees fleeing the war. Both situations are dealt with gently, but honestly.
The Lotterys Plus One was a family read-aloud and it took us months to get through. It started out with a strong premise: two same-sex couples win the lottery and decide to start an unconventional family. They all move in together in a Toronto mansion, have a slew biological and adopted kids, and do everything a committed liberal would do if they had the resources. They live happily that way until one of the family’s bigoted grandfathers falls ill and comes live with the family. That could have been interesting, but unfortunately Donoghue got distracted by character development. The 300 pages float from anecdote to anecdote without doing much to move the plot forward. The over-attention to the quirkiness of the family, combined with the slow-moving storyline, made this a difficult read.
The girls are great fans of Shannon Hale’s Princess in Black books (there’s a new one, if you missed it!), so we were excited to get our hands on the author’s new middle grade graphic novel Real Friends. The novel is about Hale’s experience navigating tenuous friendships and finding her people in elementary school. This has become standard graphic novel fare (“Mom, why are all kids so mean in graphic novels? Will I be mean, too?”). One differentiating factor with Real Friends is that that it is an upper elementary school setting, making the book more accessible to 7–9-year-old readers than other graphic novels we’ve read.
We interviewed Kurtis Scaletta for the podcast—look for his episode in the coming weeks. His new middle grade novel Rooting for Rafael Rosales features two 12-year-olds from different eras. One, a baseball player growing up in the Dominican Republic and dreaming of making it in the American big leagues. Another, a young female activist named Maya growing up in Minneapolis, passionate about saving the ailing bee population. Their two stories intertwine when Rafael is called up to play for the Minnesota Twins. Maya is drawn to cheer for the underdog player and creates a role for herself in the local sports scene when she writes a blog post that goes viral. Slowly, their stories unravel to unveil a mystery about Rafael’s past. This is a fun read for all kids—the girls loved that it’s about sports and featured both girls and boys as lead characters.
Quiet Power is the successor to Susan Cain’s popular adult nonfiction book Quiet, which explored the way introverts are treated in our society and the many underappreciated contributions introverts make in relationships and organizations. This young adult version is written to help introverted teens better understand themselves. It shares stories of powerful teen and adult introverts, and provides strategies for introverted teens to harness their strengths in many areas of their lives. The YA version did not provide as much research and data as the adult version, but I think teenagers will find it to be readable and helpful.
This was my audiobook of the month, recommended by Anne Bogel on a recent What Should I Read Next? podcast episode. The book is considered a classic, and Anne recommended the audiobook for its narration by Colin Firth (which I agree was a huge bonus). The End of the Affair is told from the point of view of a jilted male lover of a well-connected socialite in wartime England. After carrying on a years-long affair, the man’s life is spared when a bomb hits his apartment during one of their rendezvous. The socialite promises God right then and there that she will become a Catholic and repent of her sins in gratitude for saving his life. The remainder of the book, first published in the 1950s, is primarily comprised of the man’s pining for his lost love. In a strange twist, the book ends with the announcement of several miracles, which left me feeling that the author lost his way.
I knew that the Underground Railroad was very, very famous before I cracked the cover, but I didn’t know much about it beyond that. I assumed it was realistic historical fiction based on the title. It’s actually a mixture of painfully realistic depiction of slave life in early America and a fantasy world that brings many phases of American racial injustice anachronistically into the life of Cora, a runaway slave from Georgia. In Whitehead’s world, the Underground Railroad is an actual train running between various southern states via secret stations in farmhouses and barns. As Cora travels between states in search of freedom, she is haunted by her past and tormented by the unforgiving worlds she encounters. A beautifully written and imaginative novel that brings past horrors to light and reminds us we still have so much work to do.
Mindy Kaling is one of the funniest women in America, but I didn’t love her first book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? It felt rushed, like someone forced her to turn in the manuscript a month before it was ready. Why Not Me? is both funnier and smarter. She had me hooked with silly anecdotes, celebrity cameos, and an entirely-too-long-but-somehow-captivating look at what her life would have been like if she had become a high school Latin teacher instead of a TV writer and actress. I laughed out loud a bunch of times and finished the book in a day, which is exactly what I was looking for from Why Not Me?
What are you reading this month? Tell us in the comments.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a young adult novel about teen suicide. It has been very controversial, with some critics claiming that it glorifies teen suicide. I encourage parents to read this for themselves before handing it to your teenagers so you can have a conversation about its themes. I do not recommend this book for anyone younger than high school.
One day, Clay Jensens returns from school to find a shoebox addressed to him on his front step. He could never imagine what it contained: a series of cassette tapes dictated by his high school crush who committed suicide earlier in the month. The tapes are a sort of sinister scavenger hunt, laying out in detail the events that led Hannah to kill herself and the friends, tormenters, and even school administrators who played a role. The recipients are instructed to pass the tapes along to the next person named on the tapes until they all understand the 13 reasons she took her life.
I was fascinated by the first half of the book when Hannah described events that are sadly common for many high school students. Toward the end of the book, I thought the “reasons why” transitioned from being real and relatable to manufactured and contrived.
Years ago, a couple of millenials started a Tumblr celebrating Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Notorious RGB. As many blogs do these days, that Tumblr morphed into book form, with journalist Irin Carmon detailing the history of the feminist judge’s path to the United States Supreme Court and her ongoing commitment to social justice. Readers learn about Ginsburg’s family, her workout routine, and some of the decisions—and famous dissents—that have defined her career.
I was pleased to find that it’s almost a coffee table book, with a larger-than-average format and plenty of photographs and images to bring Ginsburg’s story to life. The book is organized by topic rather than presenting a chronology, which left me wishing for a more straightforward biography. And perhaps I’m too old for the format, but I found the handwritten ledger notes explaining some of Ginsburg’s opinions distracting rather than informative.