The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park and Robert Sae-Heng (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Middle Grade): In The One Thing You’d Save, a teacher named Ms. Chang invites her students to participate in a thought exercise. If their house caught fire, what one thing would they choose to save? Each child, along with Ms. Chang, considers, chooses and then explains their selection. The responses vary widely, ranging from the practical (a wallet, an expensive laptop) to the sentimental (a beloved hand-knit sweater, the program from a New York Mets game) to the lifesaving (an insulin kit). Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park presents the story through the narrative poems made up of first-person internal monologue and spoken dialogue. The students’ interactions range from playful to serious, lighthearted to profound, as they consider which objects are most important to them. Rich with youthful attitude, Park’s verses provide a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of the preoccupations, loves, losses and aspirations of a diverse group of children and their teacher. Debut illustrator Robert Sae-Heng’s grayscale images envision the objects the students describe, as well as scenes of their homes, the classroom, the night sky, the city and more, through the scenes never include the speakers themselves. Occasional full-spread illustrations offer wordless moments that encourage the reader to rest and contemplate before moving on. As the characters discuss, share and interpret their ideas, The One Thing You’d Save forms a delightful portrait of a group of learners in community with one another. In a brief note, Park explains that her verses are variations on a Korean poetry form called sijo, which consists of three lines of 13 to 17 syllables. She writes, “Using old forms in new ways is how poetry continually renews itself, and the world.” It’s impossible not to feel a sense of renewal from this thoughtful book.
Red Island House by Andrea Lee (physical book available at library; Literary Fiction): Andrea Lee’s lush and lyrical Red Island House is an episodic novel of race and culture that flirts with fabulism as it portrays a couple at odds with each other and their island home. It’s set in Madagascar, an island nation that floats between Africa and India both culturally and geographically. “Though defined by cartographers as part of Africa, Madagascar really belongs only to itself,” Lee writes. The novel is a bit like that as well. The protagonist, Shay, is a refined academic and an expatriate American. Senna is a big and brash Italian man. They meet at a wedding in Como, Italy, and fall inexorably in love. He’s older and wealthy, and it’s a second marriage for them both. When Senna builds his dream vacation home in the rough northwestern reaches of Madagascar, on the tiny island of Naratrany, he tells Shay that it’s for her, like an elaborate wedding gift. But she knows better. The house is a fantasy of Senna’s that long precedes her arrival, and it proceeds regardless of her wishes or comfort. Their visits to Naratrany expose and exacerbate the space between them, and each time they touch down there, Senna becomes a terrain that Shay doesn’t recognize and can’t navigate. With time, tiny cracks become cleavages. In Madagascar, Shay is thrust into a role she doesn’t want, as mistress of the Red House, a vast neocolonial manse that requires nearly a dozen staff members to maintain. The fact that Shay is Black complicates things in ways she can’t quite come to terms with. The Red House is not a plantation, the people who work there aren’t enslaved, and yet there is something deeply discomfiting in its hierarchical social arrangements. What can Shay make of the man and the marriage that puts her in this position? “Through years of her Naratrany holidays, she never shakes the sensation that her leisure is built on old crimes,” she thinks. The tableau haunts and unsettles her. At first Shay believes she can wall off these problems at the Red House, but the rot cannot be contained. The ebb and flow of Shay’s marriage is just part of the story, as Red Island House contains vignettes about a fascinating array of characters and entanglements in the Naratrany society that surrounds through never quite embraces the couple. From the feuding female entrepreneurs whom Shay calls “Sirens” to the local eminence grise who may or may not have spiritual powers, it’s a complex and seductive tapestry. Shay’s volatile, uneasy relationship with the island, a place she and Senna can occupy but never possess, parallels the one she has with her husband. She knows her relationship with her second home “is incomplete, deliberately detached, based in guilt and fear–unworthy of the people and place.” What’s more interesting is that she also admits that her attitude is “in no way superior to that of Senna, who, for his part, has always viewed the country as his personal playground; as if it were indeed Libertalia, the fictional pirate colony that has captivated Western imagination since it was first born from Daniel Defoe’s pen.” This description captures both Shay’s ambivalence and Lee’s style, which is rife with cultural allusions of all sorts. Lee’s striking writing is layered and thick with evocative descriptions of people, landscapes, feelings and foreboding. Sociological and psychological, it’s prose with the abstract feel of poetry. The stories of Red Island House are vibrant and enchanting despite the current of dread that runs through the novel from the start.
Just as I Am by Cicely Tyson and Robin Miles (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Memoir): The late Cicely Tyson was more than an actor; she was a titan who inspired, prodded and enthralled her audience. From her breakout role in the 1972 film Sounder to her Emmy-nominated turn in “How to Get Away With Murder,” Tyson played her characters with integrity, endowing each with humanity and dignity. But she was also a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, an activist and an artist, and the story of her life is as complex as it is compelling. In her memoir, Just as I Am (16 hours), Tyson lays out the whole of her life–including her turbulent relationship with her mother and her fraught marriage to musician Miles Davis–with unflinching honesty and hard-earned wisdom. In the foreword, actor Viola Davis describes her first meeting with Tyson with humor and love, and the relationship between the two groundbreaking artists is a joy to imagine. Award-winning audiobook narrator Robin Miles performs the majority of the book, bringing the same warmth and depth of characterization that she brought to the audiobooks for Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste. But Tyson herself steals the show with her generous, funny and wise introduction, the many years apparent in her voice but the fire in her spirit still burning brightly. Listing to Just as I Am is a profound delight.
Breathing Underwater by Sarah Allen (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Middle Grade): When 13-year-old Olivia climbs aboard her aunt and uncle’s RV with her prized camera and her 16-year-old sister, Ruth, she’s both excited and trepidatious. She has two big plans for this trip: first, to dig up a time capsule that she and Ruth buried in California before moving away three years ago; and second, to surprise Ruth by revisiting the places where they took photos together during their cross-country move to Tennessee, photos of them having a blast and doing the silly things sisters do, before Ruth started sliding into what Olivia has dubbed “The Pit,” a difficult and ongoing experience with depression. Although Ruth has changed since their last trip together, Olivia is still optimistic about her plans. After all, “who wouldn’t be excited about a cross-country road trip in an RV? Digging up buried treasure? And exploring pirate ships?” Ruth, for one. She’s acting distant, hooked up to her old iPod at all times, her energy and enthusiasm lagging. Olivia feels responsible for her older sister, and she tries everything to pull Ruth out of “The Pit.” As they travel across the country, Olivia struggles to understand that she can’t take responsibility for her sister’s mental health or happiness. Author Sarah Allen’s second book, Breathing Underwater, uses accessible yet lyrical language to depict Olivia’s attempts to recapture the joyful memories she and Ruth shared in the past. Olivia’s first-person perspective sheds light on the swirling mix of love, guilt and responsibility that she feels for her sister. It also allows Allen to sensitively describe what depression looks like when it’s experienced by a young person, as well as the impact it can have on their family. Notably, Allen offers no quick fixes and no saccharine, orchestrated happy ending. Olivia cannot heal her sister, but the girls do find a way forward together in a way that feels authentic and true to who they have each become. Breathing Underwater is a lovely, important book that will be an especially welcome balm for any young reader who loves someone with mental illness. Olivia’s love for her sister shines through on every page and reinforces what a powerful thing it is to simply be there for someone.
Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Children’s Picture Book): Author Andrea Wang’s childhood memory of picking watercress by the side of the road serves as the inspiration for this emotional powerhouse of a picture book, which she describes in an author’s note as “both an apology and a love letter” to her parents. Riding with her family in an old Pontiac, a Chinese American girl describes the embarrassing moment when her parents stop the car to enthusiastically pick bunches of watercress growing in a ditch near the road. Dinner that night includes the watercress, served with garlic, but the girl refuses to eat. When her mother reminds her the meal is free, the girl withdraws further: “Free is hand-me-down clothes and roadside trash-heap furniture and now, dinner from a ditch.” Her mother responds by leaving the table to find a childhood photo and sharing, for the first time, the story of her own brother, who died as a boy during a famine in China. After hearing this story, the girl feels remorse for being ashamed of her family, a moment that Wang captures with care and subtlety. Wang’s writing is tender and detailed, describing the watercress as “delicate and slightly bitter, like Mom’s memories of home.” With raw honesty, the book’s first-person narration allows readers to see through the girl’s eyes. We experience both the sting of her shame and her newfound understanding alongside her. Caldecott Honor illustrator Jason Chin’s soft, expressive watercolors lean on sepia tones, an appropriate choice for a tale that serves as a recollection of memory. Along with depicting the self-conscious girl with a photorealistic eloquence, Chin incorporates occasional images of the mother’s memoires of her life in China. The spread in which she shares her memoires of the famine is especially haunting. On one page, the mother describes how they ate anything they could find, and her family listens from the dinner table with expressions of sadness; on the opposite page, her brother’s chair at the table is empty. Watercress is a delicate and deeply felt exploration of memory, trauma and family.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour and Zeno Robinson (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Satirical Fiction): Debut author Mateo Askaripour frames his novel, Black Buck (11 hours), as a “how-to” manual for fellow Black workers that reveals the secrets of the narrator’s success. This framing device is particularly well suited to the audiobook format, as its similarity to motivational tapes subtly adds to the novel’s rich satirization of the bizarre and toxic realm of white startup culture. Narrator Zeno Robinson strikes just the right balance in his performance of protagonist Darren Vender’s first-person narrative, hitting both his swaggering cockiness and subsequent regret with equal sensitivity. Robinson also exhibits commanding range with other characters, including Darren’s mom and girlfriend and his white colleagues at the startup. Fast-paced, funny and dark, Askaripour’s stellar debut doesn’t let up in its takedown of corporate racism.