"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

08 December 2016

Top Ten Books of 2016

It's that time of year again! In no particular order, here are my top ten books of 2016:

  1. Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
  2. Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown
  3. Afterward by Jennifer Matthieu
  4. The Girl who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  5. My Life with the Liars by Caela Carter
  6. Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray (the audiobook version of this is excellent!)
  7. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman (the audiobook version of this is also excellent!)
  8. Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian
  9. Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein 
  10. The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read by Curtis Manley
What about you? What is your favorite book from this year?

06 December 2016

Getting Judgy

In a former life, before I became a librarian, I was an English teacher. One year I came up with the idea that our students should have a Young Authors Contest at school where all junior and senior high students would submit a piece to be judged, and prizes would be awarded to the best works.

Then I realized someone would have to read all of these stories in order to choose the best one, and I nearly lost it because no English teacher on earth has time to spare for bonus reading like that. Thus I came up with a system that has served me well when I've had to find the "best of" or candidates for the "best of" in a pile of stories, books, artwork, etc.

I call it Judging via Sturgeon. Sturgeon's Law posits that "ninety percent of everything is crap," which seems to hold true, for the most part. There are very few stand out movies, books, etc. That's why the good ones stand out. I keep Sturgeon in mind when evaluating for awards because even if I have five hundred entries, only one (or two or whatever) will actually win.

When I was teaching, I was given an entire grade level's worth of stories to read. I was supposed to pick the top three or the top five or something like that, and someone else would read those and choose the best one. This means that 95% of what I was reading was not going to win. So I quickly eliminated stories that used poor grammar or had multiple misspellings or did not grab me in the first paragraph. This doesn't necessarily mean they weren't good stories, but they weren't the BEST, and I was supposed to find the best.

Now as a librarian I have served on ALA's Stonewall Book Award Committee. I am also a judge for the 2016 CYBIL awards. In both cases I have been handed a giant stack of books and asked to choose the best ones, and in both cases I have used Sturgeon's Law once again.

When it comes to books, I give them a fifty-page test. If the first fifty pages compel me to keep reading, that's good. If not, then they go into the "definitely no" or "probably no" pile. The "probably no" pile gets an additional fifty pages. If an average book, which is probably around 400 pages, can't keep my attention or compel me to read after the first 25%, it's unlikely that will change later on, and I'd hate to say to people, "This book is really great, but you have to get to page 243 before it gets there."

Since I'm reading to judge for awards and not for personal pleasure, a book has got to be pretty good to pass the one hundred page mark. For each of these awards I've read over one hundred books, and there's simply no time for me to completely read every single one of those books, but there will be some standout books that will require slow reading or rereading or perusing of reviews and opinions of others. Those few books end up on a shortlist, which I use to make my recommendations. This helps maintain my sanity and prevents my eyeballs from falling out of my head from overuse.

How about you? Do you have any tips for quickly eliminating books from a list? Let me know in the comments!

01 December 2016

Holding Up the Universe

Niven, Jennifer. Holding Up the Universe. Knopf BYR, 2016.

Libby was once called "America's Fattest Teen" and had to be removed from her house via crane because she couldn't fit through the door. That was several years and over 300 pounds ago, and now she's going back to high school. Jack is a stereotypically popular jerk of a guy who cannot remember people's faces and has managed to keep this hidden from those around him. Jack and Libby fall in love.

I agree with others that it's pretty much impossible to believe that Jack has hidden his prosopagnosia from his family, especially since he believes it began due to head trauma when he was young. The bullying and teasing and whatnot is believably typical. Other than that, this does seem to be a story where the two teens have problems just to make their romance more fantastic. Libby is not well-rounded enough, and Jack is too much of a jerk. It's a book where nothing happens and then nothing happens and then insta-love happens. My teens will love it, but I'm not impressed.

Recommended for: teens
Red Flags: bullying, fat shaming, underage alcohol and drug use
Overall Rating: 2/5 stars

Read-Alikes: All the Bright Places, Butter, 45 Pounds

28 November 2016

Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity

Clark, Kristin. Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux BYR, 2016.

Jess's father is getting married in Chicago, and at the last minute Jess decides to drive across the country with her best friend Chuck to be at the wedding. The only thing is, Jess's father thinks she's not coming. Also, her father thinks Jess is a boy, not a girl.

This was an unusual story involving a trans* character, in that the book wasn't focused on the trans* character realizing she was trans* or beginning her transition, etc. etc. Jess was already out to the important people in her life - her mom, her dad, her best friend - and she had graduated from high school and was in the process of transitioning so she could begin college as a girl. The story, instead, is about Jess coming to terms with her parents' divorce, her father's remarriage, and the fact that maybe, just maybe, she might have feelings for her best friend.

I am glad for a book that features a trans* character that is about things other than her transition. Also, I have driven the I-80 route from the Bay Area to Chicago three times already, and the author got the details perfect, from the stop in Elko (why does everyone stop there?), to the random tree installation in the middle of Utah to the fake fort in North Platte. I'm also glad the characters aren't perfect. Jess is *a little* self-centered, and Chuck calls her on it, and I'm glad he does, because she starts to realize it by the end of the book, which is a good thing. I'm also glad we didn't get the Disney-esque ending of "I met up with my dad and he totally accepted me and everything is roses now!" because that isn't reality for most people.

Recommended for: teens
Red Flags: teens talk of "hooking up" even though nothing happens in the book; one character smokes; Jess and Chuck are offered (and accept) beer to drink at one point
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Read-Alikes: Drag Teen (for the road trip), The Porcupine of Truth, Sparks: The Epic, Completely True Blue, (Almost) Holy Quest of Debbie

I received a complimentary copy of this book through NetGalley for the purposes of review.

24 November 2016

Still Life with Tornado

King, A.S. Still Life with Tornado. Dutton BFYR, 2016.

Sarah is 16 and she's quitting school. She stops going one day and refuses to go back, using her time instead to wander the city. Then she runs into her 10-year old self and her 24-year old self. The other Sarahs help 16-year old Sarah to face some hard truths about her life.

The chapters in this book alternate between flashbacks to when Sarah's family took a trip to Mexico when she was 10 and now, when Sarah is 16. Sarah's father is physically abusive to her mother and her brother, but Sarah wasn't ready to face that until now. She also needs to deal with a bullying situation at her school as well as what to do with herself now that she is not attending school at all. I liked this book much more than previous A.S. King titles and found it easier to follow. I would recommend it to teens who like sad books or books about kids facing hard things in their lives.

Recommended for: teens
Red Flags: bullying, domestic abuse, language, alcohol use by minors
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Read-Alikes: Speak, Girls Like Us, Split