My Year in Books

Since 2001 (holy crap–that’s 15 years!), I’ve kept a reading journal.  2001 was the year I graduated college, so it flows through that last year at Hendrix, into grad school, early working years, furlough years and now the executive director years.  Most likely, I’ll never again hit the highs of 2001 (116 books), aided in large part by a paper I wrote on the Dear America series. For many years, the written journal has been supplemented by Goodreads, where I also keep a pretty daunting To Read list.  You can find my complete list for 2016 here.

As I looked back at the books I ranked 5 stars, several things stood out. In what should be fairly obvious, almost all my favorites had some connection to history. There are two exceptions to that. Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, was a pick for my Forever Young Adult book club. I loved the characters and the very real consequences of awkward high school things in the age of social media. Another YA novel I loved was P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han–it’s far from perfect, but deeply satisfying. Sometimes, you just need a fluffy romance!

This year, I discovered a new author to keep my eye on. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson came out a few years ago, but I just got to it this year. Was so pleasantly surprised by this book! In 2016, she released The Summer Before the War, which is one of those books that hits all my buttons. World War I, independent woman, England. It’s really one of the best of that genre, and I’d put it right up against one of my all time favorites, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (though no WWI fiction will ever beat Rilla!)

The most gut-wrenching book I read this year was Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Listening to the audio book during a road trip seemed like a good idea at the time, but sobbing while on I-35 on a weekend makes driving difficult. I wrote about this book earlier this year.

After visiting Detroit in January last year for a program committee meeting for AASLH, I decided to follow up on two book recommendations before my return for the conference in September. Both landed on my 5 star list. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is a family saga of 20th century urban, African American Detroit. The family home is way upside down on the mortgage, and the large family deals with that reality in very different ways. I almost wish I had read this after The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroiby Thomas Sugrue, a non-fiction work that takes a look at how Detroit got to where it is today. Reading it through the lens of what’s happening in Dallas right now (and my own increasing knowledge about affordable housing) made it extra fascinating. Highly recommend reading these two books together–they’re ultimately telling the same story, but in very different ways.

Rounding out my Five Star list are The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks by James Anderson (a 1930s whodunit that is simply fun and clever), Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose (fascinating look at how Anne Frank became the phenomenon it still is today), The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (a DHV book club pick that is an excellent coming of age, early 20th century history), and Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls (a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother).

Not a bad year at all–filled with plenty of strong women and a lot of history. Hope you also had an excellent year in books!

Making the hidden visible: World War II Fiction

There are certain periods in history that seem to get all the attention.  The pioneer experience. The Civil War. World War II. I’ve always enjoyed the less exposed parts of history more. My “preferred” war is World War 1, and the quantity of material centered around it pales in comparison to WWII.  Though I know there are many, many great stories about WWII, I’m rarely drawn to them.  However, I’ve read two WWII books in recent months that I adored.  Of course, both of them concern less visible parts of that well known story.

Because I’m friends with some of the organizers at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, I got roped into moderating two sessions.  One featured history.  Ruta Sepetys is an author that has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but knowing that she was a featured speaker at the luncheon as well as a likely candidate to be on my panel, pushed her to the top.

25614492I was able to get her most recent book, Salt to the Sea, on audio and listened to it during a long drive to Corpus Christi. All I really knew going in was that it was about the largest maritime disaster in history, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gusltoff.  It follows 4 young adults, struggling to outrun the advancing Russian army. The Wilhelm Gustloff offers a promise of freedom and a new life.  It’s a gripping, intense novel, and I had to think carefully about when to listen to it during my drive.  For the record: listening to the final chapters while heading north on I-35 in Sunday afternoon traffic is not recommended.

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This afternoon, I finished an older novel, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, about her family’s exile to Siberia during WWII. Though the story of them suddenly being rounded up and piled into cattle cars was very familiar, the story of exile in Siberia was very different. When they were finally allowed to go back to Poland, Esther didn’t want to go–she had made a home in Siberia. And of course, home was now very different–almost their entire family that had stayed in Poland had died in concentration camps.

One of my questions for Ruta was about the piles of research that was necessary to write a book such as Salt to the Sea. Her answer surprised me: she wrote as she researched.  She was able to interview some survivors, and the story unfolded as she researched. I am baffled and amazed that she is able to do this.

Esther wrote her book based on her own memories, but published more than 20 years after the war.  One of my favorite tidbits in the book comes in the afterward. . .

The important thing about books such as these is they help make the hidden visible. You can’t tell every story in a classroom or a museum. But a book for every story?  That, perhaps, we can do.

 

Picture book history

Lots of authors write memoirs and autobiographies.  Some of these are even aimed at children–Beverly Cleary’s A Girl From Yamhill comes to mind.  But how many authors write a picture book memoir?

Earlier this summer, I ran across a mention of William Steig’s When Everybody Wore a Hat on Melissa Wiley’s blog.  Steig is best known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Shrek.  Steig was born the same year as my own grandmother (1907), and this book is about his life when he was 8.  I love the jacket flap copy:

This is the story of

when I was a boy,

almost 100 years ago,

when fire engines were

pulled by horses,

boys did not play with girls,

kids went to libraries for books,

there was no TV,

you could see a movie for a nickel,

and everybody wore a hat.

When I read through it the first time, I liked it, but I didn’t love it.  And then I read it again and fell in love.  Steig is definitely comparing his life to the life of kids in 2003, when this book was published, but he doesn’t waste time on explaining every little tidbit that he tosses out.  He leaves plenty of room for questions and conversation about the past with little ones.  But, these open questions aren’t ones that parents would find it difficult to answer.  For example, he does a great page about the value of a nickel:

For a nickel you could get a lot: a hot dog sandwich from a stand.  A pound of fruit.  A movie.  And two movies if you sat in the same seat.  A movie was even called a “Nickelette.”

A nickel was money.

On your birthday you might get a nickel.

In those simple paragraphs are about 5 state standards for social studies and some main concepts we’re trying to teach in the General Store exhibit at the museum (and working on for the Bank exhibit).  Brilliant!

Of course, the illustrations are pretty fabulous too.  He includes a photo of himself in 1916 at the very beginning, and a photo of himself in 2003 at the very end.  His illustrations are in his usual style, but they’re not in the usual style of history-centered picture books.  So often, the illustrations in books like this are sweet, charming, nostaligic.  Though Steig definitely has some fun illustrations (I love this one with the crazy hat!)

But there are also illustrations of his parents arguing, his father threatening the radiator with a hammer, and his brother sick in bed.  There’s a reality and a harshness to these illustrations that I adore.  It makes his story seem more real.

I wish there were more picture books like this.  And perhaps there are–I will confess I’m not as familiar with history-centered picture books as I am with the chapter books.  But for now, I’m thrilled to add this one to my arsenal of kidlit history.