Monday, June 30, 2008

Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins

Author: Marion Dane Bauer

First line: I still remember the exact color of the sky the day I saw Dorinda for the first time.

Why you should read this book: In a series of five connected short stories and one stream of brutally honest prose, perennial outsider Claire Davis stumbles through adolescence trying to uncover the truth about race, religion, death, and sexuality. Bauer mixes seemingly equal parts fiction with real-life recollection from her own uncertain childhood. Tight, powerful, explosive, raw, and tangible, this book plunges into the intricacies of right and wrong with adolescent abandon and swims with broad strokes toward adulthood.

Why you shouldn't read this book: God already told you what was right and what was wrong.


Author: Nick Abadzis

First line: I am a man of destiny...I will not die...I am a man of destiny...I will not die...

Why you should read this book: Remarkably researched, this fast-paced graphic novel reveals the story of Sputnik II, focusing on the satellite's occupant, a lovable little mutt with a curly tail, destined to be the first Earthling in space. Although some elements are fictionalized, the overall writing does an excellent job of illuminating the culture of the Soviet space program in the 50s, the personalities involved, and the way Laika inspired the world. Smart, heartfelt, informational, and gripping, this is a wonderful story about human and animal determination, the mistakes of the past and the hope for the future.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You are too busy breaking into cosmetic labs to free bunny rabbits with your PETA pals.

Efrain of the Sonoran Desert: A Lizard's Life among the Seri Indians

Author: Amalia Astorga as told to Gary Paul Nabhan

First line: As I pulled my kayak up onto the beach below the Seri village--before any of the girls and boys ran up to greet me--I spotted a zebra-tailed lizard lounging in the sun.

Why you should read this book: A brilliant lens on an endangered indigenous culture, this book is broken into three rough parts: Nabhan's two experiences as a visitor to the Seri people; Astorga's story about the intelligent sand-dwelling lizard who became her friend; and supplemental information about the Seri, other endangered cultures, Sonoran lizards, and conservation. Each section is delightful, but the central story about Efraim, who is as faithful to Astorga "as any husband could be," is a true gem. This book functions on many levels and is appropriate for very young children (provided they are capable of surviving the death of a beloved creature in a story) as well as older children and adults.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't get the big deal about some endangered reptiles dying in the desert.

M.C. Higgins, the Great

Author: Virginia Hamilton

First line: Mayo Cornelius Higgins raised his arms high to the sky and spread them wide.

Why you should read this book: M.C. Higgins, famed for swimming, pole climbing, and tracking, knows two things for certain: that Sarah's Mountain, his family's land since his great-grandmother escaped there from slavery, is his birthright, where he will live out the rest of his life; and also, that he must move his family far from the path of the huge spoil heap left behind when the machines cut off thirty feet of mountain for ten feel of coal before the dreadful pile of rock and earth cascades down the hillside and crushes them all to death. That summer, two strangers come to Sarah's Mountain, a dude with a tape recorder who could make his mother into a famous singer, and a girl traveling on her own with a hunting knife. This exceptional story shows M.C. learning to use his strength, brains, and heritage to forge his own path into adulthood.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Just not into great literature.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge

Author: Jeremy Narby

First line: The first time an Ashaninca man told me that he had learned the medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew, I thought he was joking.

Why you should read this book: After drinking the hallucinogenic ayahuasca as a young grad student learning from indigenous peoples in South America in the 80s, Narby spent years coming to grips with the meaning of his visions, and more importantly, with the shamanic tradition providing detailed, effective medico-biologic knowledge that can't be explained by Western thought, although it can be exploited by Western pharmaceutical companies. A long-term inquiry into the roots of anthropology, biology, neurology, mythology, and other diverse fields leads him to the intuitive jump that DNA, the source of all life, is capable of both sending and receiving information, and certain chemicals occurring naturally within the brain as well as within the forest, allow the human mind to perceive these communications and view reality without the distorting focal lens of science. Narby's journey is both personal and well-documented (for 162 pages of text, 60 pages of footnotes and 20 pages of bibliography) and, while he acknowledges that objective science can neither confirm nor deny his hypothesis, his book is a wonderful drawing together of ancient and modern world traditions seeking to demonstrate the cosmic connections among all life and environments on this world or any other.

Why you shouldn't read this book: If it transcends quantitative analysis, you don't see how it can have meaning, value, or validity.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Wind in the Door

Author: Madeleine L'Engle

First line: "There are dragons in the twins' vegetable garden."

Why you should read this book: Meg Murphy and her interesting brother Charles Wallace, are back in Part 2 of the Time Quartet, and this time it is Charles Wallace's life that is in mortal, and cosmic, danger. While her parents explore the theoretical aspect of mitochondria, Meg, her friend Calvin, and a cherubim called Proginoskes must battle the forces of war and emptiness within the galaxy of cells that is Charles Wallace's body. In a story that illustrates the interconnectedness of all things, L'Engle proves the power of love and the strength of life.

Why you shouldn't read this book: If someone invited you to visit another galaxy, you wouldn't want to go.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Baa! The Most Interesting Book You'll Ever Read about Genes and Cloning

Author: Cynthia Pratt Nelson

Why you should read this book: To be fair, it's definitely not the most interesting book I've ever read about genes and cloning, and furthermore, it's not really about cloning, which is only discussed in the last chapter, but it is a nice introduction to genetics for young children who may not be particularly science-minded. With wacky cartoon illustrations, plenty of real-world examples, and sidebars on every page, it's a good reference for grade school kids. From Gregor Mendel to Dolly the sheep, the author covers the whole spectrum of modern understanding of genetics, and she does it all in forty pages.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You believe cloning is an evil way to tamper with god's plan.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Breaking Up

Author: Aimee Friedman

First line: There's a fine line between a friend and an enemy.

Why you should read this book: Chloe, Mackenzie, Erika, and Isabel have been friends forever, but junior year, everything seems to change. Mackenzie becomes a social climber, while Chloe falls for the dorkiest guy at their status-conscious art magnet school. A realistic story about friendship, betrayal, and forgiveness.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You'd do anything to be popular.

The Plain Janes

Authors: Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

First line: Metro City. Last spring. When it happened, I fell.

Why you should read this book: Following another terrorist attack in the big City, Jane's parents ship her out to the suburbs, where there's no culture, but Jane, who was injured in the attack herself, has decided to live. Inspired by the notebook of John Doe, a comatose man she rescued after the explosion, and recruiting the help of the school's biggest rejects--Jane, Jayne, and Polly Jane--she forms a girl art gang, P.L.A.I.N, or People Loving Art In Neighborhoods, and commits stealth acts of random beauty throughout the town. Art Saves, Jane realizes, and soon enough the other kids do too, but the adults brand their acts as terrorist attacks, and everyone must decide for themselves what it means to live.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You believe curfews were made to be respected and art belongs in museums.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Twelve Impossible Things before Breakfast

Author: Jane Yolen

First line: The pig fell down the rabbit-hole, turning snout over tail and squealing as it went.

Why you should read this book: Forget its designation as a children's book; this is a simply perfect collection of speculative fiction, touching on several subgenres and hitting a perfect mark with every story. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything in between comprise the territory where a haunted house can save a babysitter's life, love conquers vampires, and dried berries and a rubber band form the decisive weapon in the war between fairies and ants. Every story is a gem in its own right, and the novella, "Lost Girls," a pro-labor, feminist revisiting of Neverland in which the girls go on strike for equal rights to adventures, is of special note.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You prefer the reality-based world of Sweet Valley, which depicts real people living real lives.

If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries

Author: Judith Viorst

First line: If I were in charge of the world, I'd cancel oatmeal, Monday mornings, Allergy shots, and also Sara Steinberg.

Why you should read this book: It's smart and funny, tackling topics such as young love, childhood fears, fairy tales, and friendship. Viorst's rapport with young readers is evident in her subject matter and her delivery, and her offbeat rhymes invite reading and rereading aloud. Great for bedtimes, and Lynne Cherry's pen and ink illustrations are a bonus.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't believe kids feel strong emotions.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

I Had Seen Castles

Author: Cynthia Rylant

First line: Pittsburgh was darkness.

Why you should read this book: Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, seventeen-year-old John Dante falls off a bus and in love with Ginny Burton, who objects to war on principle, while John knows that enlisting is the only way to prove that he is a man, rather than a coward. His father is sent to California to work on what eventually becomes the atomic bomb, his mother becomes Rosy the Riveter, his sister becomes a soldier's girl and ends up shipped off to Ohio to have a soldier's child, and John and Ginny must fumble with their love and their differences in the face of a war that sees one part of the country sacrificing their lives, while another part grows rich off the profits. What John learns in the theater of war will teach him to love Ginny all the more, even as it erects a barrier between John and the rest of America.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You think war is great for the economy.