Tag Archives: new releases

Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

Book Notes: The Fault in Our Stars

This book came from a friend with this warning: Don’t read it in public (unless you like crying in front of strangers).

I expected a book about kids with terminal cancer to be sad. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be so irreverent, truthful, hilarious, smart, and universal.

Hazel is dying, and she knows it. Although a miraculous cancer drug (imagined by the author) keeps her cancer under control, she lives each day with the knowledge that this drug merely extends her life. The fact that her cancer is incurable informs everything that she does. Or does not do. Hazel is waiting to die, and while she does, she is trying to minimize her contact with the living.

Hazel and Augusts meet at a cancer support group. Living in the moment takes on a very literal meaning. They get through the physical and emotional pain in their lives by fiercely loving the people, books, sunshine, trees, and laughter that life also offers. Hazel and Augustus quote from their favorite book: “Pain demands to be felt.” John Green’s book shows us that love demands to be felt, too. Hazel and Augustus could deny themselves the pleasure of the other’s company, but they could no sooner turn off their feelings for each other than they could choose to make the sun set at will. Many things in this life are out of our control, and must be accepted. Green’s characters live with that vivid reality more so than most of the rest of us do.

“The world is not a wish-granting factory,” Hazel and Augustus remind each other throughout the book, a joke referring to the “cancer perks” that kids with cancer receive. No number of perks can take the sting out of the injustice in their situation. Hazel and Augustus have experienced a life’s worth of grief and disappointment in their short time, and it has made them honest in ways that I can only describe as brave, even though Hazel and Augustus would both roll their eyes at my use of the “b” word.

The title of the book comes from a Shakespearian line: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.” No, argues the fictional author Peter Van Houten in a letter to Augustus, “there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.” Our stars are flawed, our stars are beautiful, and these two qualities are very much dependent on the other. Life – whether it is a minute or a century long – demands that we experience both. And that we learn to trust in our own strength, and in the strength of those we love, to get us all through.

Through his empathy and imagination, John Green understands what it might be like to face one’s own death before having had the chance to experience so much of what the rest of the world thinks of as life. The truly genius thing about this hopeful and surprising story is that Green shows how we each have the opportunity – each day, each moment – to live. Hazel and Augustus don’t so much inspire as instruct us to start now.

This post was first published on the Girls Leadership Insitute blog.

Book Notes: Bitterblue

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore has beautiful woodblock-style illustrations, maps, and decorations throughout.

Queen Bitterblue is no ordinary girl. She is, after all, the ruler of Monsea. Yet, compared to the protagonists of Kristin Cashore’s previous novels she’s practically run-of-the-mill. Unlike Fire and Katsa, Bitterblue has no superpowers. Of course her life and her role are uniquely privileged and burdened with responsibility, but Bitterblue is a real girl, someone to whom I can truly relate.

In Bitterblue, we find ourselves eight years after the end of Graceling. Bitterblue has become the queen of Monsea, a kingdom broken and suffering from the legacy of her father Leck’s cruelty. Barely more than a girl and still suffering herself, Bitterblue struggles to understand her people’s problems while her advisors keep her out of the city and all evidence of the city out of the palace. When, finally, she decides to educate herself about the land she governs, she finds an alarming state of violence and deception. She also begins to find the strength that she needs to pull her people through this state.

Bitterblue is amazing in part because of the threads that Cashore expertly picks up from her previous two books. Somehow the characters that we revisit such as Katsa, Po, Giddon, and Fire all seem true to their original selves while at the same time we learn more about them because now we see them through Bitterblue’s perspective. For example, while she loves Katsa and Po dearly, she occasionally feels excluded when she’s around them because of the intensity of their connection. This doesn’t make me dislike Katsa and Po, it only makes them more faceted. Bitterblue is so recognizable in these moments. Like all of us, she sometimes feels self-conscious and lost in the world, sometimes longs for the bond that others have and doubts whether someone could love her that way.

Bitterblue’s story is not a romance in the way that Katsa’s and Fire’s stories are. There is a romantic element, but the relationships that matter most to Bitterblue – that ultimately support and save her – are her friendships. Bitterblue has not had much trust in her life, and we see the damage that this has done to her as clearly as we see the broken down buildings that Cashore describes throughout the city. Bitterblue could not trust her father, and even developed intricate mental exercises to protect her mind from his influence. Bitterblue learns that she can not trust the people who are supposed to be her advisers. Even the tentative friendships that she forms with a group of rebels in the city are founded on deceit. As Bitterblue begins to shape her rule in earnest, trust and friendship are the are the balms that mend her wounds, and those of her city.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says that  a writer must “spend it all.” Cashore spends it all in Bitterblue, as she does in her previous novels. Reading it, I got no sense that she held anything back – not the beauty of her language nor the twists of the plot, both of which make Bitterblue a compelling story both as an emotional journey for the characters and as an exciting adventure. All of the characters and plot turns unfold in their fullness and feel powerfully, satisfyingly complete at the book’s end. This is what I truly appreciate about Cashore’s writing. She doesn’t manipulate or tease her reader, leaving cliff hangers or unnecessary complications designed to make us hunger for a sequel (something that more and more writers are doing these days). Instead, she trusts her work to recommend itself. Which it does. Just as Bitterblue finds trust to be essential in her relationships, readers find a mutual trust with Cashore. She will continue to write heartfelt, complex, exciting stories. And we, of course, will continue to read them.

Book Notes: Chains

There are historical fiction books that feel like glorified textbooks, with the story functioning as the carrot to get you to learn your history. And then there are engrossing stories with historical settings that always feel like the backdrop; they never quite become three-dimensional.

And, then, there are stories like this.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Chains is a page-turner of a story. The main character Isabel and her sister Ruth are slaves, sold to wealthy Loyalists in New York City just as the American Revolution is starting to generate heat. Having experienced the death of both her parents, Isabel has already shed any semblance of a childhood. She plays the role of mother and protector to Ruth, and tries to shield her from the critical glare of Mrs. Lockton, who is always looking for an excuse to insult or abuse the two girls.

Other characters – both Patriots and Loyalists – show some kindnesses to Isabel and Ruth, in particular Mr. Lockton’s aunt Lady Seymour, who tells Isabel that she’d wanted to buy her from her nephew’s household. Through Isabel’s eyes these clumsy kindnesses are disappointing. “I tried to be grateful but could not,” she says. “A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind.” The only friend that Isabel has is Curzon, a slave who is convinced that fighting side by side with the Patriots will secure his own freedom. Isabel is less wiling to tie her chances for freedom or survival to anyone else.

The characters are rich and compelling, and the story is fast-paced. But, Halse Anderson does not skimp on historical details. She creates a richly detailed and fascinating world, and brings its nuances alive through the politics, geography, events, and people of the time. Even the cadences of the characters’ speech rang true in my mind’s ear. The historical setting and characteristics have a rich interplay with Isabel and her story, with the events of the war and the city affecting Isabel’s prospects deeply. For example, the fire that ravages much of the city gives Isabel the chance to save Lady Seymour’s life, a fact which prompts the woman to protect the slave later in the story. However, it also forces Isabel back into the Lockton’s home, where she is again subjected to Mrs. Lockton’s cruelty. When the British take Fort Washington and force the rebel prisoners into a downtown prison, it brings Curzon back into the city, desperately in need of help. Isabel’s decision to come to his aid not only strengthens their bond, but also brings out Isabel’s boldness. She learns how to break the rules, a skill that comes in handy for her much later.

As the Americans fight to liberate themselves, so does Isabel. Her battle mirrors theirs in many ways, with its urgency, its low odds of success, and its grave setbacks.  After reading her story, I felt more intrigued by this time in our country’s history than ever before. Halse Anderson’s beautiful writing and Isabel’s urgent story are a compelling combination.

Her follow-up to this book Forge will be on sale next month, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

I finished reading Common Sense the night before the ball. The bookseller was right; the words were dangerous, every one of them. I ought throw it in the fire but could not bring myself to do it. Mr. Paine knew how to stir up the pot; he went right after the King and attacked the crown on his head…

‘Twas a wonder the book did not explode into flames in my hands.

-Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Five Must-Read Blogs


Young Adult Fiction – YA, to those of us in the know – is all the rage right now. With Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay recently released and following in the age group-transcending footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, everyone seems to agree that it’s okay for a grown-up to read a kid’s book. Even the New York Times Book Review concedes that adults – even smart, literary adults – need have no shame about enjoying YA.

What a relief.

As someone who has been reading YA books for quite a while (I started when I was about ten and I haven’t stopped yet), I’m glad that my reading habits are finally on trend. I’m very much enjoying watching some of the most talented storytellers in the publishing business get the rockstar treatment.

Sometimes, I can’t get enough of my favorite authors between the covers of their books. Fortunately, many authors write wonderful blogs. Here are five of my favorite blogs by YA authors. These are a must-read if you are interested in YA fiction, want to learn more about how to be a fiction writer, or simply love reading the musings of interesting folks.

  1. Kristin Cashore, author of the best-sellers Graceling and Fire (Graceling), blogs about everything from the fun – trapeze lessons – to the political – gay rights – at This Is My Secret. Her blog is always thought-provoking and has, I’ll admit, sometimes even moved me to tears.
  2. Maggie Steifvater’s newest book Linger (the follow-up to the wonderful Shiver) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List this summer. Read her blog The World According to Maggie for funny, inspiring, and PRACTICAL advice on how to draft, revise, write a query letter, and, most importantly, make the time to be creative.
  3. Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is powerful and haunting – from her YA fiction like Wintergirls
    to her historical thrillers like Fever 1793. And her blog Mad Woman in the Forest is pure inspiration. It is a community of writers with Anderson herself at the helm, equal parts teacher and cheerleader. In August, Anderson encouraged her readers to join her in a month-long challenge to write for fifteen minutes each day. If you have a writing project that’s stalled or you’d like to jump start your creativity, I highly recommend partaking. The challenge can happen any time at all – just start with Day 1.
  4. You know Sarah Dessen for her best-selling books such as The Truth About Forever and Along for the Ride. But do you know Sarah Dessen? Her blog is a personal and funny account of motherhood, writing, and life. She doesn’t sugar coat or pretend that she doesn’t watch TV. In fact, she’s a very vocal fan of Friday Night Lights. Like I said, she’s real. And I love her for that.
  5. John Green is the author of several books including Looking for Alaska and the co-author (with David Levithan) of the recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson And he happens to have the funniest and smartest vlog (that’s video blog to you) in the world. John and his brother Hank – the “nerd fighters” – roam the world making stream of consciousness videos “to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck.” They also post videos to their  vlogbrothers YouTube channel.

It is important to have heroes and mentors, and the writers listed above are a few of mine. I hope you all know – or know of – people who are doing something that you aspire to do, perhaps a few steps (or, in my case, a few hundred steps) ahead of you. Seek out people who inspire you to be better at whatever you aim to do – whether it’s writing a book, running a faster race, baking a cake, or standing up for your beliefs.

Book Notes: Looking for Alaska

After finishing John Green’s book Looking for Alaska, that’s still what I’m doing. Alaska promises to be a deeply interesting character, but the reader never gets to be in her experience enough to know her. The idea of her – and of finding out her secrets and truths – kept me turning pages but, in the end, she is the mystery that can not be solved. Not by the reader, and not by the characters who are similarly intrigued by her.

In the first pages of the book, narrator Miles leaves his home for boarding school. He seeks “the great perhaps,” and is determined to leave behind the boredom of his life and re-invent himself. Then, almost as if he wishes them into existence, the first people he encounters are his roommate Chip (nicknamed the Colonel) and his friend Alaska Young. Alaska and the Colonel are both unlike any of the boring and rule-abiding kids Miles knew back home. They are brilliant, articulate, irreverent, impulsive, and borderline dangerous. They induct Miles into a life of forbidden cigarettes, drinking, and pranks. Miles holds on tight and rides along on their reckless adventures. Never the instigator, always the willing and curious participant, Miles is ever aware that he is acting a part, willing himself to be the person – confident, articulate, experienced – that he always wanted to be.

Miles’ infatuation with his new life springs, at heart, from his immediate and consuming infatuation with Alaska herself. Beautiful and articulate, mysterious and mercurial, Alaska embodies the epitome of teenage angst. She’s a storm pulling everyone into her center. Miles – and, it seems, every other boy in their acquaintance – can’t help but be obsessed by her. But, Alaska is more than just an object to be fantasized about. The bravado and recklessness are a carefully constructed facade, hiding grief, fear, guilt, and sadness. Alaska’s life is bookended by tragedies, and as the book unfolds so, too, do the details about the depth of her depression.

Well, some of the details, anyway. It’s clear that Alaska never allows even the people who love her most to know and understand her. Perhaps her secretiveness is a function of her depression or guilt, or perhaps she intuits that the mystery is what keeps them – these lovesick boys – attending to her, enabling and justifying the risks she takes with such abandon. Green’s observations seem to deal with the intrinsic nature of love – that loving is not the same as understanding – and about the complexity of a teenager’s inner world. Or, perhaps, he is simply saying that he, too, understands the allure of mystery. He certainly weaves it well, covers it with cigarette smoke and hormonal overtures, and then withholds the satisfaction of an answer. When the mystery, itself, is the object of infatuation, the answer can never bring satisfaction, anyway, just disappointment.

Trolling the book reviews, I often hear about a new book that I want to read and, sometimes, upon further investigation, I find that the author has written previous books that I also want to read. If those previous books are already in paperback, or are available at the library, or for any number of other reasons are easier to get my hands on, I read those first. And so, I often read an older work of an author’s even though the present work is the work that is getting the buzz (or acclaim, or warm fuzzies, or whatever you want to call the general book love that some books receive when they get out in the world). For example, I read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies before reading Leviathan, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 before Wintergirls. On the one hand, this means that I get to read the books in chronological order, which I enjoy for the sake of seeing the through-lines in a body of work. I also like to see how authors change and grow. The downside is that I also like to read a book as it’s hot off the press, so that I can be part of conversations about the book as they evolve. If I put off reading a new book, chances are that I won’t get to it while it’s still new. By the time I’m ready to talk about it, the rest of the book folks have moved on.

I came to Looking for Alaska along a similar route. I was – and still am – eager to read John Green’s new book Will Grayson, Will Grayson (co-written with David Levithan, of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist fame). But when my friend Sara suggested we read Looking for Alaska together, of course I agreed. (I’m a sucker for a book club, even it only has two people.) Green wrote Looking for Alaska two years ago. Now I’m even more eager to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, though I have to admit that my eagerness has as much to do with enjoying Green’s writing as it does with my continued fascination with Alaska. I’m hoping that reading Green’s later work will help me understand what Alaska meant to say, if indeed she had anything to say at all.

An Early Birthday Present for Moi!

This fall is going to be an exciting time for bookish little me. When I think about it, I get so worked up that I have a hard time typing (or perhaps it’s the sugary chai latte I just drank).

Check it out. Four *highly anticipated* books are being released in September/October. It’s like an early birthday present to me from four talented authors! How did they know what I wanted?!

Two of the books are follow-ups to YA books that I adored, one is the SEVENTH book in a series that I find positively consuming, and the fourth is a graphic novel by a guy I’d never heard of before I read about the book. In order of release date…

Catching Fire by Suzanne CollinsFirst of all, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins came out on September 1st. Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t already read the first book, called The Hunger Games, read it now. But only if you have about twenty-four hours to kill. That’s about how long it will take you, and YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO DO ANYTHING ELSE.

The Hunger Games almost surpasses description – it’s that exciting to read – except that invariably when I describe it to people they tell me it reminds them of various other plots. It’s a science fiction story set in a future in which America is divided into twelve districts, all controlled by a greedy, oppressive government known as the Capital. Every year, the Capital stages an event called the Hunger Games – two teenagers from each district enter an arena filled with video cameras, and stay there until only one person remains. The main character Katniss is a survivor if there ever was one, and she knows she can win. But, as the game goes on, she wonders if there might be a way to survive without playing by the Capital’s rules. I was breathless at the conclusion of this book, and Catching Fire picks up right where the first left off. The only reason I haven’t read it yet is because I know it’s going to be over so fast and then I’ll have to bide my time before the third and final installment!

Stitches by David SmallAnother early September release, Stitches came out on the 5th. Stitches is a memoir by David Small, told in a black and white graphic novel. I first read about the book on the wonderful book blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The review reminded me of Craig Thompson’s Blankets. I don’t know if they truly are similar, but both books are memoirs about growing up, written for adults rather than children, despite the illustrated format. And both books chronicle the birth, development, and perseverance of the artist. I’m fascinated by the fact that, for some people, making art has nothing to do with their parents signing them up for a local sketching class. Making art can be as necessary to survival as breathing. Both Small and Thompson use their art to survive – and transcend – difficult circumstances.

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon
A few years ago, my friend Tara said, “There’s this book called Outlander that you’ve just got to read.” “What’s it about?” I reasonably asked her. When she told me that the main character is a woman who mysteriously travels in time through a ring of ancient stones and lands in 18th Century Scotland, I politely declined. When she repeatedly failed to convince me, Tara simply put a copy of the book in my hands and commanded me to read. Well, after the first fifty pages, I couldn’t have put it down if I wanted to. I would try to put it down at the end of the night, but then lay in bed thinking, “What are Jamie and Claire doing now??” As if they were somehow continuing with their lives while I wasted time sleeping. This book was the first in a long while that I stayed up all night to read (but it’s not the last). I took me two days to devour all 600+ pages. Each subsequent book is even longer, and just as addictive. It’s been about a year and a half since I finished the sixth book, and I was simultaneously thrilled and dismayed when I saw that Diana Gabaldon planned to publish a seventh, called An Echo in the Bone. I couldn’t believe what a long time I had to wait! But, September 22nd is almost here! If you haven’t read Outlander yet, I’m jealous that you have it all ahead of you.

Fire by Kristin Cashore
Kristin Cashore’s first book Graceling received about as much praise and recognition as a first novel can. My wonderful sister and reading partner Parry gave it me last Christmas, and promised that I would not be disappointed. I wasn’t. It’s a fantasy adventure book set in a world in which rare people are born with special abilities called “graces.” Those with graces, especially very useful ones, are forced into service for their kings. The main character Katsa is such a person; her fighting and killing grace makes her an invaluable weapon in her king’s arsenal. Katsa manages to be a warrior while also being a smart and sympathetic character. Cashore manages to write an adventure story while also dealing with issues of friendship and love, asking whether one gives up our self-reliance in order to have them, and whether it is worth it. Fire is not a sequel to Graceling. It takes place in the same fantasy world, but before Katsa’s story. It is not a true prequel either, though – from what I understand, Katsa and Po appear in the book but are not the main characters. I can’t wait to lose myself in Cashore’s exciting and fantastical world again. (But have to wait until October 5th!)

Kristin Cashore also has a wonderful blog – a mix of life, musings, and the writing business. If you’re interested in Young Adult Fiction, it’s a must-read. And, to promote the release of Fire, Cashore is going on a “blog tour!” Every day she’ll be visiting a different literary blog and blogging about the characters from Fire. Each blog she visits will also get a signed copy of the book to give away! Click here for the tour schedule.

Lastly, I found this link to the first chapter of Fire. Happy reading!

P.S. Just when it seems that life can’t get any better, and that I’ll be entertained at least until Thanksgiving by all this wordy picture-y goodness, I remember that two movies for which I have been oh-so-patiently-yet-eagerly waiting will soon open: Whip it! and Where the Wild Things Are. Oh my! An embarrassment of riches! Thank you, universe!