Best Books of 2015

I read 112 books in 2015, a lot of them children’s books. The order of this list is chronological: the order that I read them. I’m mixing children’s books (MG), young adult books (YA), and adult (A) books. Don’t limit yourself. They are all worth reading!

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (MG/YA)

This won the 2014 Newbery Award and deservedly so. My first response to the book is here. The Crossover is a novel-in-verse about two African American teen brothers who play basketball and have to get through some tough times.

The Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage (MG)

I wish Sage got as much attention for Septimus Heap as Rowling does for Harry Potter. This series in a magical world stars a lot of female characters and stays appropriate for elementary-aged readers. Exciting stories, good characters, impressive world-building, fun POV changes. I blogged about it earlier.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (A)

A Christian missionary to a distant planet copes with the strange new world and with the difficulty of maintaining a relationship with his despairing wife back home.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (A)

A crew leaves earth to make contact with inhabitants on another planet. The story unfolds in two time periods: as the exploration unfolds, and later, as the only surviving member stands trial on earth.

Here is a longer blog entry about both of these science-fiction novels.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (A)

An Australian geneticist decides to get married and creates a survey to help him winnow out unsuitable partners. In the process, he meets Rosie (completely unsuitable) and agrees to help her find the identity of her father. The way Don sees and interacts with the world is hysterical. Especially funny if you work with or are married to or are a male scientist/mathematician/engineer.

One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (A)

This is about a farming family. The patriarch has three daughters and is getting older, so decisions must be made about the family farm. Smiley is an incredible writer. Her characters are layered and real, and their development unfolds in ways totally unexpected. A captivating and painful read. Smiley won a well-deserved Pulitzer for this novel.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green (YA)

David and John wrote this story in alternating chapters about two teenage boys named Will Grayson. As I understand it, before they started writing, they picked the name the two characters would share (Will Grayson), David picked a time of year (February/March) and John picked a location where they would meet (Frenchy’s in Chicago). Other than that, nothing in the novel was planned. One would write a chapter, send it to the other, who would write the next chapter, send it to the other, and so on. How fun! I’d love to do something like this. Strangely, the starring role in the novel is neither Will Grayson, but a gay teen character named Tiny Cooper. He’s the best friend of the straight Will Grayson and eventually falls in love with the gay Will Grayson (not really a spoiler: Tiny Cooper is always falling in love). This book is funny and insightful and well worth the read.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth (A)

The Brothers Grimm did not travel the German countryside collecting fairy tales. Most of their fairy tales came from Dortchen Wild, a girl who lived next door to them and would eventually marry one of the brothers. As a lover of fairy tales and historical fiction, I wanted to read this novel from the moment I heard of it, but Forsyth is Australian, and the novel wasn’t immediately released in the US. I got it as soon as it was and wasn’t disappointed. Forsyth does a great job of bringing to life her characters, mixing in the themes and details of the fairy tales, while keeping true to history. Loved it!

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (MG/YA)

After the death of her mother, Joan works the farm with her father and brothers, feeling uncared for and unappreciated, with her intelligence wasted, and her dream of becoming a teacher dwindling. When her father burns her books, she runs away and is hired as a servant by a wealthy Jewish family in Baltimore. The story is told by Joan who keeps a journal. She is a delightful character, naïve and caring, adventurous and hard-working, and above all curious and smart. Her mix of intelligence and innocence is beautiful drawn.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (MG)

Ada was born with a clubfoot, and her mother has never allowed her out of their one-room London flat. When she learns from her little brother that children are being evacuated to the countryside, she makes her escape. She and her brother are placed with a depressed woman who does not really want them. A beautiful story about love and death, acceptance and family, set amid World War II. A Newbery contender.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (MG)

Suzy can’t believe her former best friend could have drowned because Franny was such a strong swimmer–but she could have been stung by a jellyfish. Suzy copes with Franny’s death by learning about jellyfish and no longer talking. Although never stated, Suzy appears to be mildly autistic. Franny and Suzy had stopped being friends, something Suzy also struggles with. Painful, beautiful, insightful, and I learned so much about jellyfish! My vote for the Newbery Award. (Note: I don’t actually have a vote.)

Winter by Marissa Meyer (YA)

The Lunar Chronicles conclusion! When I first started reading this, I was a little embarrassed by the sappy teen romances, and I thought to myself: Why am I so into this series? Then, the plot kicked in and I remembered why. Fast-paced action, fun characters, (sappy romance) and fairy tale tropes. Not only are Meyer’s characters racially diverse, but this title character, Winter, struggles with mental illness. A fine conclusion to a wonderful series.

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton (A)

I got this for Christmas. If you don’t follow Brandon on Facebook or read his blog, you should. It doesn’t take much time, and it will connect you to humanity. Brandon is a photographer who began by taking pictures of people in New York City. Sometimes he included a quote or two from his subjects. Then he began interviewing them and including their stories with their photographs. Then he expanded beyond New York City. This book is just NYC. The photographs and stories are beautiful, painful, joyful, surprising, but most of all, they uncover the diversity of the human experience.

So, there it is. A year of good books. I hope you have found some new titles to add to your reading list.

Happy New Year!

Two Great Books for You to Read!

Within the last two weeks, I read two books about Christian missionaries traveling to alien worlds. I recommend them both. Both are works of fantasy, yet both are grounded in reality, providing wonderful character studies and handling deep philosophical questions.

book of strange new thingsIn The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Peter, an English pastor, is chosen by a powerful multi-national corporation to act as a missionary to the Oasans, people on a planet newly colonized by earth. Peter must leave his beloved wife, Bea, and their cat, Jacob. Bea introduced Peter to Christianity and their marriage has been one of deep love and total companionship. The difficulty of their separation and what it does to their relationship is one of the main focuses of the novel. The “aliens” that Peter ministers to are thirsty for knowledge of Christ, and we wonder why. We also wonder about the powerful muti-national corporation and its motivation for sending Peter. And what about the previous pastor who disappeared? And the linguist who taught the natives English and also disappeared? While the novel is suspenseful, it isn’t action-packed. The stress on Peter and Bea’s relationship also causes stress on their faith, and this is where the book excels. Its examination of love and faith in crisis is fascinating.

The Sparrow bookThe Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is also an examination of faith. Father Emilio Sandoz had it and lost it: why? Father Emilio Sandoz is one of a crew of Jesuit missionaries sent toward Alpha Centauri after radio signals demonstrate that intelligent life exists on a planet in that area of space. Sandoz is the only survivor of the mission. The book alternates between “past” and “present.” In present day, Sandoz is being interrogated by the Jesuits to discover what went wrong. He is accused of some horrible crimes. In alternate chapters, we learn about the discovery of the radio signals, the recruitment of the crew (all wonderful characters, that we readers fall in love with; Sandoz being the most wonderful), the trip across space, until the past meets up with Sandoz’s confessions. What went wrong? How did everyone die? How did Sandoz “go bad” ? This book has action, great characterization, and incredible world building. The author, Mary Doria Russell, has a PhD in biological anthropology, and uses her knowledge well. The development of the setting on the new planet–the cultures and languages and interactions of the races–is brilliant and probably my favorite part of the book.

I was disappointed by the endings of both books. However….

After thinking about the ending of The Book of Strange New Things for several days, I changed my mind. It ends exactly how it should. I didn’t “get” it at first, but I do now.

The Sparrow puts so much emphasis on what went wrong, what horrible thing happened, that its discovery was anti-climactic for me. I still recommend the book.

I highly recommend both books. So, get reading!

Septimus Heap and International Children’s Book Day

Me reading to my boys (a few years ago)
Me reading to my boys (who no longer fit on my lap)

When my boys were little, we did a lot of reading aloud, including Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap books, a 7-book, middle-grade fantasy series about the seventh son of a seventh son. We read books 1-3, then got book 4 when it came out. By the time book 5 came out, we were reading them on our own, and I had forgotten so much about the earlier books, that I didn’t know what was going on all the time. I decided I’d wait for books 6 and 7 to come out and then start at the beginning again.

And then the years went by and I forgot….

Until I found book 7 in a store two weeks ago and re-started the series. Wow! It is even better than I remembered. Angie Sage’s world building is fabulous. She has many, many characters and they are well developed and interesting. The plot moves like an out-of-control roller coaster. The writing is clever and funny.

But the best thing. The most notable thing about this series: The number of female characters. The number of female characters either matches or is greater than the number of male characters. The female characters have important roles too.

The first in the series
The first in the series

This kingdom is a matriarchy, with power passing from Queen to Princess. Ten-year-old Princess Jenna is a main character, as “main” as the title character of Septimus. There are male and female wizards, but the top wizard, the Extra-Ordinary Wizard, is a woman. There is a coven of witches (all female) and a female boat builder. A series about a boy named Septimus Heap, who is the seventh son of a seventh son, is going to have a lot of boys in it. And it does. But not more boys than girls.

It is so rare to find as many female characters as male characters in a fantasy novel that this book seems female-heavy. Yet, when you sit down and count, the numbers of male and female characters are even. Just like real life.

Is this important? I think so.

Harry Potter has Hermione and Professor McGonagall and Bellatrix, but each of them stands in the shadow of a more important male character: Harry, Dumbledore, Voldemort. All the key characters are male.

I don’t blame JK Rowling. Would her books have gotten the same attention if Harry had been Henrietta, the girl who lived? I doubt it.

Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series (I must have loaned out book 2)
Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series (I must have loaned out book 2)

So, please, on this International Children’s Book Day, buy (or borrow) the Septimus Heap series (Magyk, Flyte, Physik, Queste, Syren, Darke, and Fyre) and read them to your favorite children.

You will be struck by the number of female characters. But guess what? Your children won’t.

Rain Reign and Crossover

For the past several years, my ladies book club has decide to spend the months of December and January reading children’s novels that have a chance at the Newbery Medal. We do a bit of research, come up with about 15 to 20 titles, then share the books. We meet in January and talk about our favorites. The Newbery Medal is  announced at the end of January.

RainReignThis year, the book I liked most was Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin. The story is about an autistic girl and her dog. It is a beautiful, beautiful book.  I was extremely disappointed when the Newbery Medal was awarded to Kwame Alexander’s Crossover, a book I hadn’t even heard of.

crossoverWell, I just finished reading Crossover, and I am delighted that it won the award. It is a wonderful novel-in-verse about two African American brothers who love basketball.  I’m not male, I’m not African American, and I don’t much like basketball.  It doesn’t matter! The story is brilliant and the writing inspired. Alexander’s poetry jumps off the page and sings in your head.  Some poetry you have to read aloud to hear it as poetry, but I could hear the cadence and the rhymes in my head even in silent reading.

Crossover is not only a book for people who love to read, it is a book that will appeal to those who hardly ever read.  So, hats off to Kwame Alexander and the Newbery Award committee. Great book. Great choice.

Reading Challenge 2015: Update #1

A Facebook friend of mine is doing a reading challenge, and I agreed to do it with her. I’m not sure where she found the list, but I printed it (when I decided to do the challenge) and through a google search (just now) found an online copy on the blog of children’s author Julie Stroebel Barichello.

Two months into the year and I’ve read eighteen books. Here’s how they fit into some of the challenge categories:
A book with more than 500 pages: One Summer by Bill Bryson
A book published this year: The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee Hieber
A book with a number in the title: Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
A book with nonhuman characters: The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck
A book by a female author: Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
A book with a one-word title: Firegirl by Tony Abbott
A book set in a different country: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
A book by an author you love that you have not read yet: The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis
A book a friend recommended: Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
A book more than 100 years old: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A book from your childhood: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
A book set in the future: The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
A book that made you cry: Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
A book with magic: First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
A book by an author you’ve never read before: As Love Blooms by Lorna Seilstad

As the year progresses, I’ll match more books with more categories and post updates here. It isn’t too late to join the challenge!

Author Interview: Kashmira Sheth

kashmiraToday I’m welcoming Kashmira Sheth to my series of author interviews. Kashmira is the author of many children’s books. Her picture books include the recent Tiger in My Soup, as well as My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon. For middle grade readers, Kashmira has written The No Dogs Allowed Rule, Boys Without Names, and Blue Jasmine. Kashmira also has two young adult novels: Keeping Corner and Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet.

Elizabeth: Can you tell us about your new picture book, Tiger in My Soup?

Kashmira: Tiger in My Soup came out of my desire to capture the relationship between my brother and me. The narrator of the story, a young boy, is very much like my brother. Growing up, he always wanted me to read to him. Once I took that concept and started writing the story, the imagination of the little boy took over and tiger steamed out of his soup. It was a fun process.

Elizabeth: Can you tell me a little about the illustrations?kashmira tiger book

Kashmira: My publisher wanted to pair this story with an illustrator who could bring the story alive. I can’t imagine anyone better than Jeffery Ebbeler to illustrate this story. Here are his comments about illustrating Tiger in My Soup:

Jeffery Ebbeler:

The main focus of Tiger in my Soup is the interaction between the boy and his sister, and the tiger that only the boy can see. I wanted to keep backgrounds pretty minimal so the focus was on the interaction between the characters.

Most of the book takes place in one room (the kitchen/dining room) inside the house. It can be hard sometimes add variety to a book that only has one setting. Since this book had so much action, that wasn’t a problem.

The first few page of the story don’t specifically mention where the characters are, so I thought I would put them outside to establish a setting for where they live. Since I illustrate books for many different authors, I try to approach each new book with a fresh perspective. I want to imagine as much as I can about the specific world that these characters live in.  Anything that might add additional character or uniqueness, including where the story is set, the type of house they live in, the kind of clothes they wear.

I was working on my rough sketches for Tiger in My Soup while I was on vacation with a friend that I have known since grade school. His extended family owns a small one-acre island, far out in a lake in Canada. The islands in the lake are all bare granite rocks dotted with pine trees. Several years back I had helped build the new cabin on the island that sits high up on the rocks. I was sitting on the cabin’s porch looking down at the old, red-roofed cabin that my friend’s great-grandfather had built in the 30’s, and I thought– why not set the book here? The image of the boy chasing his sister up the stairs with his book was taken from that view from the cabin porch. (I posted pictures of the cabin on my web site http://jeffillustration.com/tiger.html) I did embellish the look of the house to give a more mid-century modern style.

I was also inspired by all the seagulls flying around the island. I wanted to add a background character that followed the boy around through the whole story. The seagull is the only character that can see the tiger chasing the boy around, and I liked the interactions between the two of them, especially the scene on the porch where the two of them are trying to read the book together.

Tiger in My Soup is one of the favorite books that I have illustrated. It’s such a clever and unique story and I’m really pleased with how it all came together.

Kashmira: Thank you, Jeffery, for providing such insightful detail about your illustrations.

kashmira dadima bookElizabeth: I also love the illustrations in My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon. Were they done by the same person?kashmira monsoon book

Kashmira: The illustrations for My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon were both done by Yoshiko Jaeggi. She used watercolor and captured the essence of saris as well as of monsoon perfectly.  She is also illustrating my next picture book which will be available in April 2015.

Elizabeth: What do you find the greatest challenge in writing picture books?

Kashmira: I think revising the text of a picture book is the greatest challenge. When I first put down the story there is a flow to it that I like. When I revise I may take out parts of it, change words or sentences and yet want to make sure the text has a lilt to it. Since pictures books are read aloud and read more than once, it’s important that they have a rhythm.

Elizabeth: You also write for middle-grade readers and young adults. What different ways do you approach each audience?

Kashmira: I write in the first person, so when I create a story I try to become that person and write from his/her point of view. The most important and challenging thing a children’s writer has to do is to dig down, reach back in time, and think about how it felt when she/he was nine, or eleven or sixteen. All my stories depict an Indian protagonist, so even though the situation, locale or culture is unfamiliar to the readers they must be able to connect with the protagonist at a deeper level. I try to communicate a story that has resonance with young readers by providing emotional honesty so they can read the book and say, “yes, I know how that feels.”

kashmira keeping bookElizabeth: As you’ve mentioned, many of your books take place in India. Keeping Corner is the story of a young woman in India during the time of Mohandas Gandhi’s movement for independence. Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet and Boys Without Names take place in modern-day India. Can you tell us about your own childhood in India?

Kashmira: My childhood was happy but disjointed. I lived in Bhavnagar (a city in the Western state of Gujarat) with my grandparents until I was eight, and then moved with my parents to Mumbai. When I was seventeen, I came to this country to attend college. Leaving places has preserved memories very distinctly in my mind. Imagining and dreaming about those places has kept me connected to them and helped me become a writer.

Another theme of my childhood was listening to my grandparents tell stories. Listening to and reading the great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well getting an education in my own native language, Gujarati, have been among the biggest influences of my life.

Elizabeth: What do you want young American readers to learn about India?

Kashmira: I would like young readers to know that India has rich history and tradition that are passed on from one generation to other. Even though the culture is old, it isn’t stagnant; rather, it’s always changing. I just read an article in The Wall Street Journal about how the stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata are now being depicted with gods and angels who have an updated muscular and strong look. This is just one example of how India has always been able to reinvent itself. It does have its share of problems, including poverty and corruption, but it is also the largest democracy and is a dynamic, multicultural, multiethnic, and vibrant country.

Elizabeth: Can you tell us about some of your school visits?

kashmira boys bookKashmira: In March 2014 I went to Mattoon, Illinois, for their Read Across Mattoon book. Every year 50 students from Mattoon read the twenty books selected from the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Book Award. After much lively discussion, they select one book as the winner. Last year they chose Boys Without Names. They order 1,000 copies to use in their schools and to distribute in the community. They keep the book choice a top secret until their holiday assembly when the principal presents the winner and challenges the students and staff to read the book.  Starting in January the Student Reading Committee gives copies of the book to various service organizations.

kashmira frameWhat amazed me was the dedication and passion these young students had for the books and how much work went in to making the entire community aware of the book. Not only I was fortunate to visit the school and give several programs, including an evening one for the entire community, but I also had the opportunity to have lunch with the Student Reading Committee. There were so many things they had created to celebrate the book, including posters, artwork, maps, a mannequin wrapped in a sari, and a wooden frame with beads, just like the one Gopal (the protagonists from Boys Without Names) and the other boys had to make. They gave me the wooden frame as a gift. I have it on my desk and whenever I look at it inspires me. As an author, whenever I do a school visit I am amazed and humbled by young readers, their teachers, parents and community.

In early 2015 I will be traveling to Lacey, Washington for their program called “Lacey Loves to Read.” It is a one-city, one-author program, and I am excited about my visit.

Elizabeth: We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Q: Pizza or salad?

A: Salad most of the time. Pizza when I am super hungry

Q: Ocean or mountain?

A: Ocean

Q: Tree house or doll house?

A: Tree house

Q: Violin or piano?

A: Piano

Q: Comic story or learn-something story?

A: Learn-something story that has humor in it

Q: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?

A: First, Laura Ingalls Wilder, because she came in my life first.

Elizabeth: Kashmira, it has been a pleasure learning about you and your books.

Kashmira: Thank you for inviting me to do the author interview and for asking thoughtful questions. I enjoyed answering them.

Elizabeth: For more information about Kashmira Sheth and her books, visit her website:

http://www.kashmirasheth.com and the bookstores hosting her works:

Indiebound:

http://www.indiebound.org/hybrid?filter0=kashmira+sheth&x=0&y=0

Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=kashmira+sheth

Barnes and Noble

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/kashmira-sheth

Thanks!

My Little Free Library

The first Little Free Library was started in 2009 in Wisconsin.  Since that time, more than 15,000 Little Free Libraries have been built.

I am happy to announce that my family has built a Little Free Library:

lflfar

Our little library is near the end of our driveway (so the snow plow doesn’t knock it over in the winter).  Books are available to anyone who walks by and wants to borrow one.  The Little Free Library works on the honor system.  Readers can borrow and return a book, or swap books.

People ask: Aren’t you worried that someone will steal the books?  The answer is: a free book cannot be stolen!

My little free library is filled with books for both children and adults representing a variety of genres.  My friend Sally helped paint the library and suggested the text above the door.

lflclose

If you are ever in my neighborhood, stop by and borrow a book! To learn more about Little Free Libraries, visit the official website.