Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Charlie Vega lives in the shadow of her thin, beautiful best friend, Amelia. Charlie is used to guys flirting with Amelia while ignoring her. Even her own mother pays more attention to Amelia than to Charlie. After a humiliating incident at a school dance, Charlie falls for Brian, a sweet guy from her art class. Romance blooms, which prompts unexpected jealousy from Amelia and disapproval from Charlie’s mom, who thinks Charlie should set her sights on a thinner guy. During a heated argument, Amelia’s hurtful comments drive a wedge between the friends and make Charlie question her feelings for Brian. Through Charlie’s conversational first-person narration, Crystal Maldonado explores the pressure placed on overweight people to conform in a society that equates beauty with being thin and the way this pressure intersects with Charlie’s race and gender. While Charlie embraces her identities, she’s far from immune to feelings of insecurity about her body or the desire to be thin. Charlie’s mother, who lost a dramatic amount of weight after Charlie’s father died, causes some of those feelings. When she buys a scale and insists that Charlie weight herself daily, Charlie refuses and is subsequently grounded. Maldonado’s depiction of the way that beauty expectations can come not just from peers but also from family rings true. Charlie’s relationship with Brian is sweet and tender, but like many first loves, it’s also full of awkwardness, self-doubt and jealousy. As Charlie and Brian become closer, she and Amelia begin to drift apart, forcing the girls to have tough conversations about their friendship. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an accomplished debut, and its nuanced depictions of first love, a complex mother-daughter relationship and the concept of acceptance make it stand out.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Rachel is an assistant at a Los Angeles talent management firm who is disordered about food. She considers a clove cigarette and a cup of diet hot chocolate a meal. But beyond her restrictive relationship with food, she also has an unresolved appetite for love. Not coincidentally, she meets her love interest at the counter of her favorite frozen yogurt shop, Yo!Good. Miriam, the Yo!Good server, is an Orthodox Jew, a “zaftig girl” who “surpassed plump, eclipsed heavy.” Their romance begins with the seduction of a frozen yogurt hot fudge sundae, sprints past Sabbath dinner and then slow-dances into kisses, third base and much more. To Rachel, Miriam is either a golem or a gift. Being a “Chanel bag Jew” rather than a “Torah Jew,” Rachel accepts the gift, and while she once admitted that “God isn’t, like, texting me Hi or anything,” she learns to appreciate God as well. “I’m down with it,” she says. Rom-coms are never without their complications, and as Rachel begins to consume obsessively, her actions are not without fallout. Deep down, Rachel longs not to love but to be loved, a consequence of issues with her withholding mother. “Why did it feel so much safer to be wanted or needed than to be the one who wanted or needed?” Rachel says. For those who enjoyed Broder’s The Pisces, much of Milk Fed will be welcome in its familiarity. But this is an even better book that’s enhanced by its ripeness and its dreams.
Nicky & Vera by Peter Sis (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 6-8): Acclaimed author and illustrator Peter Sis movingly celebrates Nicholas Winton, a “quiet hero of the Holocaust” in Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued. After briefly depicting Winton’s childhood in England, Sis turns to his years as a young man in Europe, swiftly setting the stage and laying out the stakes: Germany, under Nazi rule, is beginning to flex its military might. Instead of going on a ski vacation in the winter of 1938, “Nicky” accepts a friend’s invitation to come to Prague and changes the course of history. Next, Sis introduces 10-year-old Vera Diamantova, an ardent cat lover in Czechoslovakia in 1938. When the German army marches into the Sudetenland, a region on the Czech-German border, Diamantova’s parents decide to put her on a train to England. Her mother has heard about an Englishman who helps children escape the Nazis. “The Englishman,” Sis emphasizes, using a larger font for this sentence, “was Nicky.” Winton ultimately saved a total of 669 children. Sis relates these events with expert pacing as he juggles Winton’s extraordinary feat; Diamantova’s departure from her home and subsequent new life in England, as well as the loss of her family to Nazi concentration camps; a timeline of the war itself; and the quiet lives both led after the war ended. Winton “never told anyone about the children,” Sis writes. Nicky & Vera concludes with an appearance Winton made on the popular BBC television program “That’s Life” in the late 1980s that saw him reunite with some of the now grown children he saved. Detailed, intricate illustrations on a muted palette of earth tones capture it all. Sis frequently and movingly incorporates smaller drawings inside of larger images. In the blueish spread in which Diamantova arrives at the train station in London, Sis shows a silhouette of her figure from behind; he fills the silhouette with colorful scenes of the family and home she left behind, a beloved cat and horse and the landscape of her home country. In a closing note that provides more detail about Winton and Diamantova, Sis writes that he always revered more celebrated individuals, but “had not paid enough attention to the reluctant and quiet heroes.” This tenderly crafted, visually layered and deeply reverent book will help young readers do just that.
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 9-12): Reha, an Indian American girl, narrates Rajani LaRocca’s Red, White, and Whole in first-person free verse as she navigates what she describes as “two lives. / One that is Indian, / one that is not.” It’s 1983 and Reha, an only child, is in middle school. The differences between her two cultures–the American culture she experiences at school and the Indian culture that surrounds her at home–make her feel like she’s being pulled in opposite directions with more force than ever. But Reha adores her parents and doesn’t want to disappoint them. She studies hard and tries not to complain about feeling different. She intends to be a doctor when she grows up, even though she is afraid of blood. When her mother, Amma, gets sick with leukemia, Reha begins to feel guilty about her secret desire to not be so different from her classmates. She bargains with God and tries to be perfect so that her mother will get better. The poems in Red, White, and Whole are vibrant and lyrical, clear and smooth. In her first novel in verse, LaRocca showcases the best of what verse can do, telling a story that is spare, direct and true, every word and idea placed with intentional care. Reha’s narration shines with honest emotion, and its tenderness calls out to readers and invites them to feel what she feels at every turn. LaRocca brilliantly incorporates references to 1980s American pop culture and traditional Indian culture. Despite how difficult it is for Reha to feel like she fully belongs anywhere, she is richer because of her access to multiple sources of wisdom and stronger because she has learned to navigate a variety of cultural norms. Reha’s friendship with Rachel, whose Jewish faith plays a similar role in her life, is a smart parallel. Packed with evocative details of tween life in the ’80s, Red, White, and Whole is a sensitive coming-of-age story with all the makings of a new middle grade classic.
Highland Treasure by Lynsay Sands (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Adult Historical Romance): Lady Elysande de Valance finds love in the arms of a Highlander in Lynsay Sands’ suspenseful 14th-century romance, Highland Treasure. Elysande is the intelligent and beloved daughter of a wealthy family loyal to King Edward III. Though she’s lived in England all her life, Elysande’s Scottish-born mother, Lady Mairghread de Valance, Baroness of Kynardersley, has long maintained close ties with friends and families in the land of her birth. So when unexpected political intrigue lands the family in grave danger, Elysande places her hope in the most trustworthy men she knows. Rory Buchanan is a renowned healer and the seventh son of the illustrious Buchanan clan. Although he’s generally loathe to spend any time in England, he makes an exception to cure ailing British aristocrats. The extravagant pay funds the work he does back home and helps him build the independent fortune he will need to secure his own way in the world as a younger son. When trouble strikes Elysande’s family, he has just finished treating an English baron and is well positioned to assist. Along with his brother Alick and several of their men from home, he commits to getting Lady Elysande and the critical cargo she carries to her Scottish kin. But the mission is not as simple as it sounds. Intrigue swirls around them. Betrayal stalks them. It’s not always clear who’s a friend and who’s a foe, and Lady Elysande has been beaten so badly that when she and Rory first meet, she’s being carried in the back of a cart and wearing a full veil to obscure the damage done to her face. While the brutality of what she’s been through is disturbing, it’s also crucial to the story Sands is telling. Much like the infamous Red Wedding or Bran being thrown from the tower in “Game of Thrones,” what happens at Kynardersley (the de Valence’s family seat) animates everything that comes after. Elysande’s condition complicates an already physically grueling journey, and for a long time, no one, including Rory, can see what she really looks like. This also allows the connection between Elysande and Rory to grow in a unique way. They’re attracted to each other through conversation and collaboration. They forge a mutually respectful alliance and, eventually, a strong emotional connection without the barrier or benefit of her looks. Elysande may start out as a damsel in distress, but she inspires admiration rather than pity from those around her. That said, some readers may be uncomfortable with how Elysande is fairly explicitly framed as “not like other girls,” and with the fact that her trauma is repeatedly referenced and discussed. Overall, though, Highland Treasure is a page-turning, propulsive and, at times, bloody historical romance.
My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee: In Chang-rae Lee’s wildly inventive comic novel, My Year Abroad, Tiller Boardman spends the summer in his New Jersey hometown waiting to start his college junior year abroad in Italy. His mother left the family years ago. His father is sweet and supportive but entirely hands-off. Tiller thinks of himself as an orphan. He is more unformed than his years, rudderless, waiting for something to jump-start his life. That something turns out to be Pong Lou, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant, a chemist and a serial entrepreneur. Tiller meets him while working as a fill-in caddy at a local golf course. Pong and his golfing buddies are an unruly bunch of immigrants who are not quite the right fit for this traditional club. Pong is one of the most intriguing figures in recent fiction. He is generous, curious and full of energy and ideas, a kind of life force. We learn later, in one of the book’s most moving chapters, that Pong’s parents were prominent Chinese artists and university professors whose lives were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Pong, whose takeaway from the hardships of his childhood is to seek from life “a quantum of sweetness,” convinces Tiller to skip the grand tour of Europe and go with him to Asia. Tiller’s travels with Pong are filled with wild, eye-opening, often hilarious adventures. In a wonderful scene in a karaoke bar, Pong urges the tuneless Tiller to sing, and Tiller discovers the singing voice he didn’t know he had. Not everything works out quite as he’d hoped, but for Tiller it is a life-altering journey of self-discovery. A second strand of the novel follows Tiller in his life a year later, as he struggles to take to heart all he has learned about himself and assume responsibility for his own life and for those close to him. He has ended up in a drab, middle-American town, hiding out with a troubled 30-something woman and her difficult 8-year-old son, both of whom are in the witness protection program because her former husband is a gangster. Tiller’s wild year abroad is the memory of a lifetime, but during this following year is when he creates his real life with this makeshift family. In My Year Abroad, Chang-rae Lee has written a surprising, spirited, keenly observed novel, full of the crazy and the profound.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah: Like a wise and imaginative teacher, Kristin Hannah imbues past events with relevance and significance in her novel The Four Winds. In 1921, as a sickly, homebound teen, Elsa dreams big. One night she sneaks away from the protective eyes of her family and thrills at the attention paid to her by Rafe Martinelli, a dashing Italian immigrant. When she becomes pregnant by Rafe, Elsa is disowned by her parents, and Rafe’s family takes in the young couple. Soon Elsa becomes an indispensable member of the Martinelli farm. But when Rafe abandons his family and dust storms begin to ravage the land, Elsa and her children journey to California in search of a better life. What they find is devastation, not of the landscape but of human souls, ground down by mistreatment. Elsa finally realizes her big dream, becoming a warrior matriarch who fights for justice. The story builds to epic proportions over its four distinct parts. The spare writing in the 1921-set first section imparts the starkness of Elsa’s childhood and the barrenness of the landscape, like a Dorothea Lange photograph come alive. The second part, set in 1934, depicts family tensions as Elsa’s rootedness chafes against Rafe’s desire to leave the floundering farm. Their daughter, Loreda, exacerbates their differences through her tenacious yet rebellious spirit. In the third part, set in 1935, the drama of deprivation gives way to the thrill of the open road on the way to California. Mother-daughter sparring allows their relationship to grow, and they’re supported by fellow women in the migrant camp. But the greatest adventure awaits in the final part, amid violent protests against cotton growers in 1936. Anger over failed crops, failed marriages and failed dreams finds a worthy outlet in the migrant workers’ collective resistance against injustice. At a migrant worker school in California, feisty and eager 13-year-old Loreda is too preoccupied with the troubles of the present to endure boring history lessons, and it’s not long before she becomes an activist for change, following in her mother’s footsteps. With biting dialogue that holds nothing back, The Four Winds is classic in its artistry. Overtones of America’s present political struggles echo throughout the novel’s events. These indomitable female characters foreshadow the nation’s sweeping change through their fierce commitment to each other and to a common, timeless goal.
The Removed by Brandon Hobson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): Once in a while, you come across a book that seems to exist in its own bubble of space-time. It may be set in the present, but its roots reach deep into the past. The location may be a real place, like Oklahoma, but as you read, you’re not really sure if it’s set anywhere in particular. A word for such a story might be numinous, which ably describes Brandon Hobson’s splendid The Removed. The story revolves around the Echota family of Quah, Oklahoma, as they prepare for a bonfire to commemorate the death of their son Ray-Ray. Many years before, the teenage Ray-Ray was the victim of what’s called a “bad shoot” in police lingo. The remaining family consists of mother Maria; her husband, Ernest; their daughter, Sonja; and surviving son, Edgar. Maria is patient and caring as Ernest sinks deeper into what everyone believes is Alzheimer’s disease. Sonja is a restless loner, hooking up with and discarding younger men. Edgar, just as unsettled, is an addict. The family is mired in profound grief and trauma, including trauma from the forced removal of their Cherokee ancestors to Oklahoma in the 19th century. It’s not surprising, and may not even be a coincidence, that the anniversary of Ray-Ray’s death is also the anniversary of the beginning of the Trail of Tears. Things start to change when Maria fosters a teenager named Wyatt. Exuberant, smart and talented, Wyatt can’t help but remind her of Ray-Ray. To Ernest, Wyatt is Ray-Ray reincarnated. And why couldn’t he be? In this novel, the ghosts of ancestors narrate entire chapters, animals may be familiars, Edgar stumbles into what seems like a smog-filled purgatory, and the very wind and water seem to be sentient. Hobson, a National Book Award finalist for his novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, weaves strands of the past and present so skillfully that events that would be improbable in the hands of another author are inevitable in The Removed. More than anything, in the case of the beleaguered Echota family, Hobson understands William Faulkner’s adage, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson: It takes tremendous talent to seamlessly combine social commentary with a powder keg of a plot, and Nancy Johnson accomplishes just that in her gripping debut novel, The Kindest Lie, addressing issues of race, class, privilege and upward mobility. Ganton, Indiana, is a town whose “very soul was a trapdoor, a gateway to nothingness that few people climbed out of.” One of the lucky few who managed to escape this dying factory town is Ruth Tuttle, a Black woman who headed to Yale, became a successful chemical engineer and now lives in Chicago with her equally successful, charismatic husband, Xavier. The world seems their oyster as they celebrate Barack Obama’s election in 2008, but that bubble bursts when Xavier mentions he is ready to start a family. Ruth has a secret that she finally reveals to Xavier: At age 17, before graduating high school, she gave birth to a son who was whisked away and given up for adoption by her grandmother, who raised her. When Ruth returns to Ganton to search for her son, she encounters an 11-year-old white boy, nicknamed Midnight, the grandson of Lena, a close family friend. Ruth and Midnight trade narration between chapters as their lives become increasingly intertwined. Midnight’s mother died in childbirth–as did his sister–and Midnight and Ruth are lonely, heartbroken souls struggling to find their way forward. With beautifully crafted prose and a gift for dialog, Johnson takes readers on an action-packed ride toward a dramatic, revelatory conclusion. As Ruth’s grandmother warns, “You keep turning up the dirt, you bound to run into a snake one day. And it’s going to bite you. Real hard.” A fictional callback to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, The Kindest Lie also brings to mind Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, in which another young Black woman returns to her hometown to try to reconcile her past, present and future. Don’t miss this powerful debut.
Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 4-8): Author and illustrator Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, who received both Newbery and Caldecott recognition for their 2015 collaboration, Last Stop on Market Street, team up for a third time on Milo Imagines the World, a nuanced tale about the fallacies of first impressions. Milo and his older sister take long monthly subway rides together, though their destination isn’t revealed until the end of the book. With notebook and pencil in hand, Milo draws the lives he imagines for the people he sees on the train. These include a “whiskered man” whom Milo sketches returning home alone to a messy apartment, a primly dressed boy and his father depicted as living in a castle and a woman in a wedding dress who celebrates a festive wedding to a man. When he arrives at the detention facility to visit his mother, Milo sees the boy he drew on the train and realizes that “maybe you can’t really know anyone just by looking at their face.” He begins to envision different lives for the strangers than those he drew on the subway. Perhaps the woman in the wedding dress married another woman or that whiskered man went home to his loving family. De la Peña’s prose is precise and evocative (Milo is “a shook-up soda” of nerves), full of pleasant verbs (the train “bucks back into motion”). His story respects young readers by incorporating their complex interior worlds and the observant ways they attend to issues of class. When “a crew of breakers” exits the train, for example, and “faces still follow their every move,” Milo imagines that the breakers will be subjected to racist microaggressions when they step outside the subway. Robinson’s signature collage illustrations bring Milo and his sister’s distinct personalities to life. Milo is bespectacled and wears an eye-catching lime-colored knit hat, and his sister is deeply distracted by her phone. Milo’s own simple drawings capture his childlike sense of wonder without ever patronizing. A thoughtfully crafted addition to the small canon of books about children with an incarcerated parent, this sweet but never saccharine story is a classic in the making.
Made in China by Amelia Pang: Many Western consumers know that the cheap items we buy are made by people who are paid poorly. But fewer consumers know about the worshippers, political dissidents and others in China who are forced to make these items against their will. In the fall of 2012, an Oregon mom was going through some Halloween decorations when something fell out of her package of styrofoam gravestones. It was a letter. She opened it up to find an anonymous plea asking the reader to report to a human rights organization about the Chinese forced labor camp where the decorations were made. Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang is the story of that forced labor camp and the man who wrote the letter. His name was Sun Yi. He was once an employed and happily married man, but because he was a Falun Gong practitioner (a meditation practice that the Chinese government considers a cult), he was sent to a forced labor camp called Mashanjia. China calls these camps laogai–“reeducation through labor” or “reform through labor.” In laogai, prisoners are forced to make goods that are sold around the world. Yi was kept at Mashanjia for several years, making decorations for nearly 20 hours every single day. Readers should be aware that horrific violence occurs throughout the book. Pang’s reporting provides an unflinching glimpse into the human costs behind our cheap products, and those costs include sexual assault, torture, maiming and death. These are descriptions of the extensive torture Yi endured in the camp, as well as a chapter that deals with forced organ donation. Prior knowledge about China is not needed to understand Made in China. The book is an excellent entry-level explanation of Chinese religious and political history, and how human rights abuses intersect with billion-dollar businesses. Pang connects the dots between globalization, Western consumption and sustainability to create a clear, cohesive picture of the problem, as well as of potential solutions.
Mike Nichols by Mark Harris (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Biography): With his peripatetic creativity, knack for comic improvisation and canny ability to draw out an actor’s best performances, Mike Nichols became one of the most acclaimed theater and film directors of our time. In the sprawling yet intimate Mike Nichols: A Life, Mark Harris captures the ups and downs, the enthralling highs and ragged despair, of the man whom Harris calls “the last of a certain kind of cultural celebrity–someone who could travel between film and theater, who understood art and politics and fashion and history and money, a man of the world and of his century.” Drawing on 250 interviews with Nichols’ friends and family, Harris traces Nichols’ rag-to-riches story, beginning with the immigration of 7-year-old Igor Michael Peschkowsky (Nichols’ birth name) to New York from Berlin. From there the tale follows his father’s death when Nichols was 12, an allergic reaction that resulted in his hairlessness and his eventual move to Chicago, where he took the first steps toward his eventual success. Although he had enrolled as a student at the University of Chicago–where he met and developed lifelong friendships with Susan Sontag and Ed Asner, among others–he ultimately fell in with Paul Sills, who directed Nichols in the improvisation group the Compass Players, the forerunner of Second City. In Chicago, Nichols worked as a DJ at the famed program “The Midnight Special” on WFMT, and he also met Elaine May, with whom he developed a popular comedic partnership. Eventually Nichols left Chicago for New York City, where he would direct in quick succession the plays Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Little Foxes to great acclaim. He then moved into film as the director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Harris artfully tracks Nichols’ deep desire to work and to inspire others to embrace the power of theater and film. “Movies give us a chance to live other lives,” Nichols said, “and we walk on the set every morning thinking, Anything can happen.” Candid, colorful and chock-full of detail, Mike Nichols: A Life is the biography that Nichols well deserves.
Of a Feather by Dayna Lorentz (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 10-13): Rufus the great horned owl is the self-declared “worst owl in the history of owldom.” Next to his fledgling sister, First, 6-month-old Rufus feels like a runt. When Rufus’ mother is captured by humans while First is away from their next, Rufus is left alone, afraid and unprotected against the unknown dangers of the night. Reenie is far from thrilled to go live with her “alleged aunt” Bea, whom she’s never met, while her mother undergoes psychiatric treatment–until she learns that Bea is a falconer. As Bea raises a hawk and begins planning for passage bird season, Reenie is entranced and begins learning all she can about the fascinating sport. Rufus’ and Reenie’s stories intersect when Rufus–cold, injured and sick–is ensnared in Bea’s live trap. Bea and Reenie take Rufus in to rehabilitate him, but Reenie soon develops an attachment to him that cannot last, because the goal of rehabilitation is to release the animal back in its habitat. Besides, Reenie has learned the hard way that attachments are usually temporary. Reenie and Rufus narrate Of a Feather in chapters that alternate between their perspectives. The format is a smart choice by author Dayna Lorentz that easily allows readers to see the parallels in their situations. They’re both lost, missing their mothers and seeking the reassurance and validation they need to be able to soar on their own wings. Reenie longs to make friends, but is afraid of the vulnerability that comes with opening up. Rufus is torn between the ease of living with humans and returning to the wild to find both his mother and his higher purpose. Author Dayna Lorentz is no stranger to writing about animal-human relationships; her previous books include the Dogs of the Crowned City trilogy, written from the perspective of a dog separated from his family in the aftermath of a hurricane. Her deep research into the world of falconry and bird rehabilitation are present on every page as she conveys the exhilarating rush of working with incredible birds of prey. Though readers will pick up quite a bit of information by reading the story itself, significant back matter provides even more fuel for curiosity and discovery. Of a Feather‘s wonderful balance of nature-driven narrative and emotional storytelling will appeal to readers who love the great outdoors as well as those who prefer to stay inside with a good book.
Anonymouse by Vikki VanSickle and Anna Pirolli (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 3-7): You might think that, if a mouse were to become a graffiti artist, they would use creamy yellow paint in tribute to delicious cheese. But the prolific and eponymous(e) spray-painter in Anonymouse favors a bright berry pink that pops against the brown and beige city buildings and streets where they live and work. As digitally drawn by Italian illustrator Anna Pirolli, Anonymouse’s striking and funny acts of guerilla art offer encouragement to other urban-dwelling animals who are surrounded by high-rises and concrete, rather than trees and grass. In the painter’s tiny paws, satellite dishes become big-headed flowers, trompe l’oeil technique turns a dumpster into a chic raccoon cafe, and a well-placed image of a pink-winged bat alerts a traveling colony of the flying mammals that a nearby warehouse is a prime hangout spot. Anonymouse paints high in the sky and deep down underground, sending out cheeky signals to ants, birds and dogs alike. Animals and humans frolic in the faux shade of painted trees, enjoying the literal and figurative color added to their lives by the stealthy artist. But alas, Anonymouse must eventually move on. As the bright pink paint fades to a soft rose glow, the animals know their lives have been forever changed, and even more exciting, they begin to create art themselves. Regardless of whether Candian author Vikki VanSickle drew inspiration from the activist-artist Banksy or the Swedish artist collective Anonymouse, she has created a charming and clever rodent revel whose work, she writes, “always made the animals of the city think.” Anonymouse is a poetic and visually witty paean to the power of creativity and the ability of art to inspire and unite us. Readers will enjoy wondering what Anonymouse could be up to right now and will surely consider their own surroundings in a new, imaginative light.
The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): One might wonder if anything new can be written about Paris, but Janet Skeslien Charles reminds us of the city’s evergreen appeal and unbounded potential for stories with The Paris Library, which tells of the very real, very beloved American Library in Paris and the role it played during World War II. The year is 1939, and Odile Souchet is nervously reciting the Dewey Decimal System as she prepares for a job interview at the American Library. It’s not common for young ladies of her class to get jobs, but Odile is in love with books as if they were walking, breathing bodies, and she wants nothing more than to be a librarian at a place she has loved since her childhood. It’s no surprise to the reader when she lands the job. The comfort and whimsy that young Odile once experienced at the American Library are still very much alive. However, everything changes when the Germans occupy Paris and threaten to destroy everything she holds dear. Together with the rest of the staff, Odile joins the resistance, delivering books to Jewish readers banned from entering the library. When the war eventually ends, instead of rejoicing, Odile learns of betrayals that make it impossible for her to remain in the city she loves or to work in a place she had come to know as her sanctuary. The book skips ahead to 1983 Montana, where we find Odile living alone. In all these years of calling a small American town her home, she hasn’t manage to shake off the mystery surrounding her. When a school assignment connects a lonely and curious teenage girl named Lily with Odile, a friendship is forged, and the two slowly confront the consequences of present and past choices. What makes The Paris Library such a tender read is Charles’ firsthand experience at the American Library, where she was the programs manager. This is where she first discovered the stories of the brave librarians who fought the Germans with nothing more than books. Her meticulous research brings these figures to life with Odile as their narrator. Furthermore, Charles’ Montana roots help shine light on the small-town life that Lily can’t wait to escape. Together the two storylines provide wonderful insight into relationships and friendships that transcend time and place.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card): In her engrossing and darkly lyrical debut novel, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Bajan author Cherie Jones unspools a discomfiting allegory of race, class and intergenerational trauma in a far from idyllic fictional Caribbean community. It begins with a bloody fable about an act of rebellion gone wrong: A disobedient girl loses her arm to a monster because she didn’t heed her mother’s warnings about the dangers of the tunnel, that it has “monsters that live down in there, how any little girls go in there they never come back out.” This allegory becomes a touchstone–and the rest of the novel an elaboration on that cautionary tale–as headstrong Lala finds her life quickly unraveling after she marries a man that her grandmother characterizes as “a louse.” By leaving her grandmother’s house for a man whose slickness is easily mistaken for charm, Lala chooses a life she thinks will mean freedom but only brings pain and even more restrictions, setting in motion a series of tragedies with wide-reaching ramifications. Several related events–Lala’s act of defiance, her husband’s botched and deadly burglary of a wealthy British visitor and the traumatic death of their baby–occur in quick succession, but their consequences and interconnectedness are revealed at a slower pace. However, one thing is clear from the start: Life in this place they call “Paradise” is nasty, brutish and fragile, if not always short. Even as tragedies and indignities pile up, the murkiness surrounding the novel’s events will compel readers to continue reading. Questions arise about how a simple robbery went so wrong and how Baby died–but most importantly, why? What are the roots of these characters’ discontent and recklessness? A bleak and complex picture emerges through this ensemble story, with chapters that alternate between generations and time periods as well as individual points of view. When Lala’s grandmother Wilma tries to make sense of it all, her answer is all too familiar: Willful women who tempt men, who don’t listen, sow the seeds of their own destruction. In the fable, the monster might have stolen the girl’s arm, but she was “slack-from-she-born” and “force-ripe” and above all, “own-way” (disobedient). She brought it on herself; bad girls reap what they sow. On this topic, both Wilma and Lala’s husband agree. Even the police officer tasked with investigating Baby’s death identifies with Wilma’s worldview. Like the fearsome Wilma, author Cherie Jones is a powerful storyteller. Like the policeman, many readers will feel compelled to follow her into the dark even though there’s precious little joy or light to be found there.
City of the Uncommon Thief by Lynne Bertrand (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): When you see “Relevant Maps” listed as the first item in City of the Uncommon Thief‘s table of contents, you know you’re in for an epic story. What you don’t know until you finish reading, however, is that Lynne Bertrand’s first young adult novel is not only a sprawling work of precise storytelling, but also a literary Rubik’s cube–frustrating at times, but surprisingly fun. You should prepare for two hurdles before you begin reading. First, Bertrand’s prose is dense and tricky; you may find yourself consulting a dictionary as you read. Second, Bertrand has very little interest in exposition, so although she has created a vibrant world and an unusual parlance in which its characters speak, she will not hold your hand as she pushes you headfirst over its precipice. Bertrand’s titular city is unnamed and has been quarantined from the rest of the world for a long time. The city itself is composed of a thousand towers, linked together by a crisscrossing web of zip lines that teenage runners use to travel from roof to roof. We see t his new world through the eyes of Odd Thebes, a wisecracking, self-pitying bard who loves books, girls and being the smartest guy in the room. His cousin Errol Thebes is as swashbuckling as his Hollywood namesake; he’s handsome, arrogant and always ready to play the hero. When the cousins give Jamila Foundling, a mysterious servant, the task of hiding an unusual and potentially powerful stolen object, the three teens become entrenched in a tangled tale of magic, lies and the dark reality of life below the towers. Bertrand dangles revelations around every corner and has twists and turns to spare. The satisfaction of seeing the puzzle pieces of her story come together, of witnessing her trio of heroes learn what’s inside of them and who they really are, proves a satisfying reward for the reader’s hard work. City of the Uncommon Thief is genre-defying fiction at its finest, and Bertrand sticks the landing on a book that knows no fear.
Ancestor Approved by Cynthia Leitich Smith (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Middle Grade): Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids is a lively anthology of interlinked short stories and poems from a wide range of Native American writers, including Christine Day, Eric Gansworth, Traci Sorell and Joseph Bruchac, as well as editor and Heartdrum co-founder Cynthia Leitich Smith. It’s also the first anthology published by Heartdrum, an new imprint within HarperCollins Children’s Publishing dedicated to Native American stories and creators. In a web of stories as intricate as the dancers’ beaded outfits, through voices as varied as the tribes represented at the powwow, the authors create a memorable group of characters who interact and overlap at the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the biggest powwows in the United States. Some characters are already acquainted, while others are meeting for the first time. Some dance on the stage, while others are content to watch, and some are deeply in touch with their heritage and tribal traditions, while others are discovering them for the first time. Their experiences and backgrounds reflect the rich and varied vibrancy of Native communities. Readers will feel invited to celebrate these experiences as they read about the food, art and performances of the powwow. Much of American children’s literature has for too long relegated Indigenous people and their stories to the category of historical fiction. Ancestor Approved shines a long overdue spotlight on a joyful aspect of Native life in America today.