From the Shelf
"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a razor and mirror lay crossed." The opening of James Joyce's Ulysses (Vintage, $22) would normally be read aloud all over the world today, June 16: at New York City's Symphony Space, on walking tours in Dublin, on Delancey Place in Philadelphia, just steps from the Rosenbach Museum, where Joyce's original manuscript resides. The Rosenbach may offer the closest approximation during shelter-in-place: they've been hosting a series of readings on YouTube called Ulysses Every Day.
Today is affectionately called Bloomsday, to commemorate June 16, 1904, when readers follow Ulysses hero Leopold Bloom all day through the streets of Dublin. The story began as an entry in Joyce's Dubliners (Penguin Classics, $11)--best known for "The Dead," also the subject of John Huston's final film, starring daughter Anjelica Huston--but quickly outgrew the collection; Ulysses weighs in at nearly 600 pages. Stephen Dedalus appears as a supporting player, after his starring role in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Penguin Classics, $18).
Christophe Cerf, son of Bennett Cerf (founder of Random House), once told me that of all the things his father had done in his career, he was proudest of bringing Ulysses to the United States--through no small effort!
It was first published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, the destination of expat writers such as Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. Beach was once a resident of Princeton, N.J., and her logbooks of her lending library are now archived at Princeton University: "In 1941, she preemptively closed Shakespeare and Company after refusing to sell her last copy of Joyce's Finnegans Wake to a Nazi officer."
Independent bookstores have long shaped the way we view the world. Happy Bloomsday! --Jennifer M. Brown
In this Issue...
by Molly McCully Brown
An accomplished young woman turns introspective as she writes about her life with cerebral palsy in this evocative and captivating essay collection.
by Alexandra Petri
Readers who've wondered if the Onion is still fiction will enjoy this collection of satirical essays highlighting the absurdity and cruelty of modern politics.
by Jennifer Worley
A former stripper at an iconic San Francisco peep show elucidates how feminist anarchy and empowerment underlie the stigmatized sex industry.
Review by Subjects:
Racism: A New Dictionary Definition
Merriam-Webster will revise its definition of racism after 22-year-old Drake University graduate Kennedy Mitchum's campaign to update the definition, the Guardian reported.
"Five books from the 19th century that will help you understand modern America better" were recommended by the Conversation.
Gamesmanship: Atlas Obscura explored the "utilitarian pleasures of playing board games by yourself." And Entertainment Weekly reported that Game of Thrones stars "will reunite to play Dungeons & Dragons."
Open Culture featured "documentary portraits of Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton & other American poets (1965)."
Russia Beyond toured "8 most beautiful Russian libraries."
Rediscover: James Harvey
James Harvey, whose "meticulous, capacious books on silver-screen love, romantic comedy and the mysteries of star quality are required reading for cinephiles," died May 15, the New York Times reported. He was 90. Harvey "wasn't a popular film critic with a cozy berth at a major publication, or an academic theorist presiding over a formidable film studies department," but his three books were each "more than a decade in the making and meticulously yet gorgeously written." His first title, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges (1987), made his reputation. The book was a celebration and analysis of what Harvey called "Hollywood's essential genius," the screwball comedy.
On NPR in 2008, novelist Anthony Giardina called Harvey "the Samuel Johnson of film writing," and said Movie Love in the Fifties (2001) was the best film book he had ever read. Harvey's third book, Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen From Garbo to Balthazar (2014), "examined the ineffable, transcendent qualities of leading movie actors," the Times wrote. Foster Hirsch, a film historian at Brooklyn College, said, "Even if you thought you knew a film, he taught you something more about it." Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar is available in paperback from Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($18).
The Writer's Life
Reading with... Tom Gauld
Tom Gauld is a cartoonist and illustrator. He does weekly comic strips for the Guardian and New Scientist, and his comics have been published in the New York Times, the Believer and on the cover of the New Yorker. He's also designed many book covers. Gauld's previous books include the collections Baking with Kafka and You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack as well as the graphic novels Goliath and Mooncop. Gauld lives and works in London. His new collection, Department of Mind-Blowing Theories, was recently published by Drawn & Quarterly.
On your nightstand now:
I've just finished The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks. With the world in such a difficult place right now, it's been very nice to escape into a completely different universe of spaceships and new planets. I've also been reading Angela Carter's book of fairy tales The Bloody Chamber, which is exquisitely dark and beautifully written.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I loved The Hobbit when I was a boy. The story enchanted me, but I especially loved all the extras: the cover, the map, the illustrations, the passages written in runes. I'm still a sucker for a book with a map at the front.
Your top five authors:
It's an impossible choice really, but today I shall plump for: Kurt Vonnegut, P.G. Wodehouse, Hilary Mantel, Chris Ware, Anthony Powell.
Book you've faked reading:
In my job making literary cartoons for the Guardian, I made at least three cartoons about Jane Austen's books, despite never having read a word of her writing. I'd riff off the idea of a Jane Austen novel that most of us have. But I began to feel guilty and decided to read Pride and Prejudice, which turned out to be brilliant and won me over to her work completely. I still occasionally make cartoons referencing Joyce's Ulysses, but I haven't read that either.
Book you're an evangelist for:
There's an underrated comic book called I Killed Adolf Hitler by the brilliant cartoonist Jason. It seems like it's going to be a silly, pulpy, action story but unexpectedly turns into an understated meditation on passing time.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I got into reading McSweeney's because I was attracted by the eccentric design of the books as objects, which looked like nothing else in bookshops at the time. I bought every issue and discovered some great writing in it.
I've possibly more often done the opposite: not buying a book because of an unattractive cover, or because it's an unnecessarily huge, ugly hardback.
Book you hid from your parents:
My parents were very encouraging and open about all reading, so I don't think I actually had to hide anything. They used to take us to the local library every week, and my brother and I were left to choose whatever we wanted. I do remember discovering J.G. Ballard's books there and thinking I was reading something transgressive.
Book that changed your life:
Around the same time, in the same library, I chanced upon Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut. I'd never heard anything about him and was probably attracted by the cover and the fact that he's done some charmingly crude illustrations and diagrams throughout the book. Slapstick taught me that funny and thoughtful aren't opposites and books for adults don't have to be hard work to read.
Favorite line from a book:
Kurt Vonnegut has lots of great lines, but what sticks with me most are three paragraphs in Slaughterhouse-Five where the protagonist sees a war movie in reverse. It's simple, almost joke-like conceit, but Vonnegut makes it beautiful, strange and sad. I've been trying to pick a line from it to quote here, but nothing really works when separated from the whole, which is perhaps a sign of its greatness. You can find it online pretty easily and I'm always telling people to look it up. The rest of the book's not bad either.
Five books you'll never part with:
I love books, but I'm not a fetishist about first editions. Though I made an exception for The Vinegar Works by Edward Gorey. It collects three of his best illustrated books in a beautifully designed slipcase. I've been inspired by Gorey's work since I first discovered it at college, so I'd have to keep these. I'd also like to hold on to The Inheritors by William Golding and Teratoid Heights by Mat Brinkman.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I've read P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves books many times, but it would be wonderful to do it again for the first time. The joyfully playful language and generous warmth of his stories always improves my mood.
by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
In Sleepovers, debut author Ashleigh Bryant Phillips provides 24 stunning, unsparing portraits of small-town Southern life. The collection begins with a bang as "Shania" recounts a girl's childhood memories of an estranged friend after she runs into her at a grocery store. In "7-Up Cake," a young student is disillusioned with her idealized teacher Miss Katie. "Sleepovers" recounts a charged friendship between two girls broken apart by financial circumstances. Finally, in one of the collection's last and most brutal offerings, "Snowball Jr.," a battered young woman's consciousness gives way to pastoral fantasy in the last moments of her life.
In story after story, Phillips conveys the vivid complexity of a claustrophobic world and its uncategorizable inhabitants. The prose is quick-witted and jagged-edged, never failing to pack a punch. From chewed pen caps to splintered porch railings, chipped nail polish to slick sunscreen oil, Sleepovers is populated but never totally defined by its mundane and yet ungraspable details. Like her character Lorene, who spots the emotion in a moth fluttering just beyond a screen door, Phillips has an uncanny skill for seeing and capturing the details that give a moment its texture and reflect an invisible atmosphere of feeling. In her hands, these images, which before had not been visible--or had been seen so much that they were no longer noticed--are given new life. Phillips's haunting, relentless attention to detail asks readers to see such moments and the people they enchant with renewed vigor, empathy and compassion. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor
Discover: Raw and irreverent, these short stories puncture small-town quietude with evocative candor.
by Dorothy Strachey
An oft-forgotten classic from 1949, Dorothy Strachey's Olivia is a groundbreaking story of homosexual desire and self-awakening. At 16 years old, Olivia is shipped off by her proper, English parents to an all-girls Parisian boarding school. Almost instantly, Olivia becomes a favorite of the intelligent, charming headmistress, Mademoiselle Julie. As their student-mentor relationship deepens and takes on erotic undertones, Olivia becomes aware of dark secrets among the school's students and faculty members. Tensions and passions mount as the school year draws to a close, and Olivia senses, despite her hopes and desires, that her first passionate love is destined to end in disappointment.
With a new introduction by André Aciman, Olivia's first-person narration begins with a line as true now as when Olivia was written: "The world, I know, is changing." Like its protagonist, caught between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, the novel stands poised mid-transformation, summoning in the same stroke a series of contrasts: materialism and spirituality, the traditional and modern, denial and confession. Olivia attempts to put words to the "anomalous lack" that defines her ravenous desires, and her passion is palpable in the novel's prose, which invokes all the ecstasies and devastations of adolescence and want. Richly textured by the politics of the female boarding school world, the novel captures the jealousies, obsessions, rages, and tenderness that complexly define its characters. The beauty of Strachey's novel ultimately lies in the effortless illustration of what it means to feel another person, of lying in bed in the dark, sensing someone standing just on the other side of the door. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor
Discover: The inspiration for André Aciman's Call Me by Your Name, Dorothy Strachey's novel is a poignant and tender tale of first loves, unquenchable desires and the trembling force of loss.
by Lucie Britsch
Narrated by a comedically brash protagonist, Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch is a smart and biting debut novel about sadness, control, womanhood, prescription drugs and belonging.
Everyone is taking pills for something except Janet. She's sad, but doesn't want to change. After her family stages an intervention, Janet considers disowning them. But with Christmas nearing, she accepts a prescription for a new drug that promises she can "surrender to the season" and afterward "return to [her] normal disposition."
Janet's story unfolds through acerbic observations as she waits for the festive spirit to overwhelm her. Her bleak thoughts about love ("a weight you carry"; "a string of misunderstandings"), antidepressants ("take the edge off... like edges are bad") and boys ("I really want things to not be about boys for once.... Or worse, men"), encapsulate a simultaneously hopeless and astute outlook. They're symptomatic of the sexist, judgmental world from which she feels apart--one populated by people like her uncle, who says, "I read somewhere that women need to speak now"; her mother, keen on Janet "pumping out babies"; and doctors unwilling to listen, imploring she be a "good girl and take the pills."
Beneath Janet's melancholic armor is a drive to be different. She identifies with the abandoned dogs at the shelter where she works, wishing a family would adopt her, too. Intrinsic to her narrative are her eccentric coworkers: always smiling Melissa, whose glossiness sometimes rubs off on Janet, and angry feminist Debs, who keeps Janet's cynicism in check. A searing, comedic and accessible take on depression and personality, Sad Janet delivers a comforting message about the value of individuality. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
Discover: In this penetrating, often humorous novel, a depressed woman vacillates over taking a miracle pill when sadness seems inseparable from her identity.
I Was Told It Would Get Easier
by Abbi Waxman
Abbi Waxman's warm, quippy novels explore familial dynamics with sarcastic wit and plenty of heart. Even the title of her fourth novel, I Was Told It Would Get Easier, will make some readers snort-laugh in recognition. The book follows single-mom lawyer Jessica Burnstein and her teenage daughter, Emily, as they embark on a weeklong bus tour of East Coast colleges. Jessica is hoping to reconnect with Emily, maybe even restore their once-tight bond. Emily isn't even sure she wants to go to college, and alternates between being grateful for her mom's care and annoyed at her interference.
Waxman (The Bookish Life of Nina Hill) whisks readers through the tour at breakneck speed, introducing entertaining secondary characters: the perky tour guide, the snarky queen bee, the grade- and status-obsessed parents. Less expected are several old friends of Jessica, who give Emily a new perspective on her mother as a person. The dual narration, often commenting on the same incidents from both Jessica's and Emily's points of view, serves to highlight the many missed connections (and a few special moments) between mother and daughter. Adding to the tension are a work crisis for Jessica and a brewing scandal at Emily's school, which each of them attempt to manage alone.
Being a teenager--or parenting one--is tricky territory, but Waxman steers her characters through it with compassion, snappy dialogue and the right dose of zany humor. Things may (or may not) get easier for the Burnstein women, but the ride, literal and otherwise, is highly enjoyable. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Abbi Waxman's warm, witty fourth novel follows a mother and her teenage daughter on a weeklong college tour.
Bluebeard's First Wife
by Ha Seong-nan , trans. by Janet Hong
Menace often comes from ordinary situations in the stories found in Bluebeard's First Wife by Ha Seong-nan (Flowers of Mold). How well do people know each other, and what can happen when they are carried away by obsessions? Couples who decide to marry while still strangers to each other figure in several selections, such as "Joy to the World" and the title story. In some cases, the engagement is quick, in others after the relationship "started to feel a little boring," but always one person's secrets intrude to overturn the other's world, raising the question of how well two people can ever know each other.
In stories such as "Pinky Finger," a quotidian risk like taking a taxi alone at night proves dangerous in ways beyond the expected. Lives end or are merely upended. A sense of unease pervades every story, whether it traces the slow breakdown of a relationship or abruptly startles readers with an opening line such as, "The fisherman is trying to drag me to the riverbank."
In stark, unflinching prose, Seong-nan plumbs feelings of isolation in a modern world in which characters often find themselves bent under the force of traditional expectations, with new dangers looming every day. This is a uniformly captivating collection of stories that could be incidents from a local paper, but which are no less haunting for it. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library
Discover: Horrors lurk beneath the surface of daily life in this precisely written collection of stories.
Mystery & Thriller
Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre
by Max Brooks
The horror novel Devolution by World War Z author Max Brooks gazes unflinchingly at who people are when pressed to their absolute limits--and what they can become in the process. The book focuses on the journal entries of Kate Holland, a new resident of the eco-friendly, wealthy and very isolated Washington town Greenloop. An introverted and anxious person in a troubled marriage, Kate is looking for a new start in a small community that seems incredible on the surface. But in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, the village is completely cut off from the outside world (and badly needed supplies). Now the small Greenloop population has to band together to survive. Especially because others are out there. Animals thought impossible to exist are watching their every move and planning their own.
Devolution is at first a clever satire of privileged lifestyles, and it shifts (once the Sasquatch are introduced) with no hesitation into a devastating survival narrative. Brooks cleverly uses dramatic structure to get readers there, allowing the plot to reveal the true depths of his characters; their gradual change over the course of the entries is always surprising and moving. The final climactic third of the book then hits breakneck speed with brilliant plotting, before it comes to a chilling conclusion about what people can transform into when they have to survive. Devolution is spectacular, tailor-made for fans of Bigfoot, with an ending that'll give goosebumps to the most jaded horror veteran. --C.M. Crockford, freelance reviewer
Discover: Devolution is a devastating eco-thriller that draws from reality to deliver a nightmarish scenario of survival.
Biography & Memoir
Places I've Taken My Body: Essays
by Molly McCully Brown
Poet Molly McCully Brown's second book, Places I've Taken My Body, covers topics of body, mind and soul in evocative prose as she explores her experience as a woman with cerebral palsy.
Brown (The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded) is tired of talking about disability. And yet even while living abroad on a fellowship--"A year of funded time, when my only obligation is to travel, push toward a second book and get a wider window on the world"--she is driven increasingly inward by a reality that continues to become less accessible. "Every inch I can no longer walk, the world shrinks just a little.... There are places I will never go. There are places I will never go again."
Brown is an astute cartographer of her own identity, even as her body's "slow erosion" demands attention. The book's 17 essays cover a lot of ground: her conversion to Catholicism; the connection she feels to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; an incessant need to move to new places; visualizations of her twin sister, who died in infancy; and feeling "left out of every conversation about feminism," each nevertheless calling back to her relationship with cerebral palsy. "However ethereal my thoughts become... the truth of my body is literal and absolute, like an anchor pulling me back to the world." Brimming with both grief for what is lost and determination for the present and future, Brown's beautiful language and haunting imagery shine as she dissects her life experiences with striking candor and self-awareness. --Jennifer Oleinik, freelance writer and editor
Discover: An accomplished young woman turns introspective as she writes about her life with cerebral palsy in this evocative and captivating essay collection.
Business & Economics
Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli
by Steve Alpert
Not many people have the chance to see inside a storied company such as Studio Ghibli, nor become so acquainted with its inner machinations. In his business memoir, Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man, Steve Alpert describes 15 years as the "resident foreigner" at the film studio, for Ghibli fans, Miyazaki stans, animation aficionados and those with a love of looking at intercultural communication from the outside.
The insights into how filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki works, the animation process and especially what it takes for Studio Ghibli films to be dubbed in English for U.S. markets are fascinating. Perhaps more interesting still is Alpert's ability to take readers into the boardrooms, the negotiations and the processes behind the creation and distribution of international favorites such as Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky and Spirited Away. Readers will enjoy glimpses of interactions with Disney executives, and revel in awards won. Most of all, the joy of this book is joining Alpert on his daily cultural and language challenges as an American executive in Japan, as well as his memories of moments with some of modern Japan's most influential men.
Some of Studio Ghibli's nuanced storytelling artistry clearly rubbed off on Alpert; Yasuyoshi Tokuma, Toshio Suzuki and, of course, Miyazaki are artistically rendered in his recollections. The modern-day Japanese answer to Disney, this company could not be further from the American animation studio model, and Alpert reveals part of why Ghibli's reputation for cinematic excellence is well-deserved, in a memoir that's equal part anecdote and cultural primer. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer
Discover: Take a peek behind the curtain at Studio Ghibli through the eyes of Steve Alpert, the animation studio's long-term "resident foreigner."
Neon Girls: A Stripper's Education in Protest and Power
by Jennifer Worley
A sharp exploration of gender and power dynamics, this unflinching insider's memoir illuminates the world of radical feminism in the sex industry.
While earning her master's and Ph.D., Jennifer Worley worked at the Lusty Lady, a peep show in San Francisco's Broadway red-light district. "The idea of stripping seemed anathema" to her "nascent feminism," but on stage, her alter ego, Polly, subverted "the stereotypical drag of female heterosexuality." She controlled how men behaved by withholding or allowing visual pleasures. In reversals of the male gaze, she and her comrades shamed a colleague's abuser using the theater's mirrors and PA system; in the street, they mocked an unnamed film director inside the glass of his "urban palace." Polly grew inextricable from Worley, creeping into her daily life as a liberating confidence, like when she infantilized a man publicly exposing himself ("It might still grow"). When management refused to schedule black women for "Private Pleasures" or to remove one-way windows letting customers secretly film performances, Worley and her "naked sisterhood" unionized and later became a worker co-op.
Worley's authoritative narrative combines memoir with discourse; she describes men masturbating in booths equipped with tissue dispensers alongside discussions of the economics of hustling sexual entertainment and the balancing act played by worker-owned businesses. By citing the forgotten history of unionization among strippers--the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria riot led by transgender sex workers and Margo St. James's efforts to decriminalize prostitution, among others--she honors a legacy of resistance, particularly in the QUILTBAG community. Neon Girls is a fantastic ensemble of diverse women fiercely asserting their humanity and raging against exploitation, misogyny and sexism. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
Discover: A former stripper at an iconic San Francisco peep show elucidates how feminist anarchy and empowerment underlie the stigmatized sex industry.
Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why
by Alexandra Petri
Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri's darkly humorous second book, Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why, not-so-gently guides readers through years of upheaval under the Trump administration and during the campaign period in the months prior. Biting and irreverent, Petri's collected columns poke morbid fun at topics as serious as Supreme Court hearings and as banal but symbolic as White House Christmas decorations.
Essays such as "A Humanizing Profile of Your Local Neo-Nazi" and "Play the 'Woman Card' and Reap These Rewards" are best consumed in multiple sittings, lest readers lose their sense of time or reality, especially as the essays are not in chronological order, but Petri (A Field Guide to Awkward Silences) is in on the joke.
"You entered the week comparatively young and spry and now you are a withered and wretched crone, demanding ointment, and things that you could swear happened yesterday were simultaneously three hundred years ago and never. This is normal. This is how time works now. Friday is both twice a week and not at all. Each Friday lasts six years. Tuesdays are only sometimes."
Standouts like "Waiting for Pivot," a parody of Waiting for Godot, remind readers of how the lines drawn by countless public figures have shifted, faded or disappeared completely. Meanwhile, essays such as "Why Won't This Career Die" are more personal, using satire not to amuse but to commiserate.
Touching on wide-ranging topics including gun violence, immigration and journalism itself, Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why will have readers laughing, grinding their teeth or crying. Possibly all three at once. --Suzanne Krohn, editor, Love in Panels
Discover: Readers who've wondered if the Onion is still fiction will enjoy this collection of satirical essays highlighting the absurdity and cruelty of modern politics.
Children's & Young Adult
I'm Afraid Your Teddy Is in the Principal's Office
by Jancee Dunn , illust. by Scott Nash
In this delightful picture book by Jancee Dunn (How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids), illustrated by Scott Nash (Flat Stanley), when an unnamed child gets called into the principal's office it's not the child who's in trouble--instead, the child's teddy bear is the naughty one.
"Somehow" Teddy has called on "a number of his stuffed animal pals" to jump into their children's backpacks and infiltrate the elementary school. Teddy, an elephant, a giraffe and all manner of stuffed animals wait in the cubbies until their children leave the room. "That's when the party began." Stopping by the cafeteria, the gym and the music room, Teddy and company have a field day. Finally, the animals wind up in the art room where they make a glue trap for the art teacher, roll in finger paint and twist pipe cleaners into a rope so they can escape out the window. Now, the principal insists, this wayward group "must face the consequences." Fortunately for all, this principal once had a teddy, too.
This follow-up to the duo's 2017 I'm Afraid Your Teddy Is in Trouble Today continues the terrific conceit, staging a scolding young readers can thoroughly enjoy. The text, told entirely from the principal's point of view, takes on a gravity belied by her colleague's obvious amusement, conveyed in his facial expressions. Nash's bold and colorful digital illustrations skillfully convey all of the fun in this absurd situation, his dark outline showing active motion and his changing perspectives depicting a teddy's-eye view. Any child who's ever been in trouble will adore the turnaround, agreeing with the principal that "there are no naughty bears--only naughty behavior." Hugs all around! --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Discover: When a child's teddy bear makes mischief at school, it's not the child who's in trouble this time--it's the bear.
Nana Akua Goes to School
by Tricia Elam Walker , illust. by April Harrison
As Nana Akua Goes to School begins, Zura's teacher tells the kids about the upcoming Grandparents' Day celebration: "Each of you will bring your grandparents to school so they can share what makes them special." Lucky for readers and for Zura, her grandmother has a fascinating cultural tradition that, in her first book for kids, Tricia Elam Walker presents with extraordinary grace and nimbleness.
Nana Akua is plenty special: she grew up in West Africa and gives Zura fantastic hugs. But Nana Akua is also special in a way that makes Zura nervous. When the old woman was a child in Ghana, her parents permanently marked her face so that she would match her tribal family. Zura knows that the marks "represent beauty and confidence," but one day at the park she saw a child point to Nana Akua and say, "That lady looks scary." After Zura invites Nana Akua to the celebration, she admits her concern: "What if someone at school laughs at you or acts mean?" Nana Akua has an idea. She suggests that they bring along the quilt she made for Zura's bed, which features traditional Ghanaian symbols--"Even though they are not exactly the same as the marks on my face, they can help explain them."
The text of Nana Akua Goes to School has a treacly moment or two, but this is offset by the clear-sighted storytelling. Walker anticipates young readers' questions with Mr. Rogers-like perceptiveness. The story's quilt motif carries over into April Harrison's (What Is Given from the Heart) mixed-media collages. Leaning heavily on chartreuse, lavender and robin's-egg blue, she cobbles together elements that have their own distinct patterns and textures, giving each page a patchwork look. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
Discover: In this eye-opening picture book, a girl has mixed feelings about bringing her Ghanaian-born grandmother, whose face bears tribal marks, to school for a Grandparents' Day celebration.