Jenny's Library

cover image for Court of FivesCourt of Fives by Kate Elliot

Jes and her three sisters couldn’t be more different, and they fight and squabble as siblings do. Yet when it comes down to it, they’ve got each others backs.  Which is fortunate, as she needs their help to do what she loves best: training for the Fives, a sport that requires quick thinking, agility, stamina, and strength.  But when Jes’ father returns from war, her plans to finally compete – something he would never approve of – are thrown in disarray.  Soon the rest of her life is as well, and Jes will need to use all of the skills that make her a great athlete to keep her family safe.

full disclosure, before I get into WHY THIS BOOK IS SO AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD READ IT:acknowledgements page from Court of Fives

(yeah, I really just put that there bc: OMG)

I adore Kate Elliot’s books, and Court of Fives is no exception.  I’ve been eager to see how/what she does with YA, and now that I have I’m so very glad she did.  I love the way that Elliot handles Jes as an athlete, and her relationships with her sisters.  And I especially love that she made Jes’ social standing so complex, that it’s not as simple as her family being rich and her father having status, nor simply that Jes and her sisters are biracial in an extremely racist society.

And I really, really, really, would love to go into more detail about WHY this book is so awesome, but it’s not coming out for another half a year, and I may want to pitch a longer/actual review.  SO YOU WILL ALL JUST HAVE TO WAIT.

Sorry! I know you all hate me now. I promise I will rave about this book in much more detail this summer, closer to when it comes out.

cover image for The Agency: A Spy in the HouseThe Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

Twelve year old Mary Quinn was supposed to hang for her crime.  Instead she was given a chance to start a new life as a pupil at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.   Now, five years later, seventeen year old Mary Quinn knows that she should be grateful for everything she has been given – and she is – yet the idea of spending her life as a tutor at the school or as a maid in someone else’s house fills Mary with dread rather than hope.  She’s not afraid of work, but she can’t help wishing that there were other options out there for an young lady with education but no family or fortune.  Then, for the second time in her life, she’s given a once in a lifetime opportunity – this time, to be trained as a spy.  But can Mary keep not only the Agency’s secrets safe, but also the Agency from learning the truth about her own heritage?

This book has so many awesome moments. It also, unfortunately, has a bit too much boyfriend and not enough roller derby for my tastes.*  Still, it’s a lovely book that manages to be delightfully surprising in many ways.  It also does a wonderful job of handling Mary’s secret, which happens to be that [she’s biracial, passing for white. Also, that her mother sometimes earned her way as a sex worker.]   Mary’s status, situation, and relationships make this book a refreshing contrast to the more typical young adult novels set in Victorian London, which tend to be about young ladies of a certain social class, and treat the few non-white characters in them as oddities and visitors rather than Londoners.

*the phrase is from lj user buymeaclue.  I’d link, but the journal is now friendslocked. :p

cover image for Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As GhostsDragonbreath: No Such Thing as Ghosts by Ursula Vernon

It’s Halloween night and Danny and Wendell – and the skeptical, scientific minded Christiana Vanderpool – have just encountered something far more dangerous than any monster: Big Eddy the bully. When Big Eddy dares Danny to go inside a house that everyone says is haunted, Danny isn’t worried about being seen as a coward, but he figures the house can’t possibly be any worse than having to deal with Big Eddy, no matter how scary it looks.  But is Christiana right? Are there really no such things as ghosts? Or is there really something not quite living lurking inside?

The comfort of series is that we know what we are getting. Which can sound boring and immature, but often that depends on the reader and author.  When you are 8 and still learning to read, familiarity is actually a useful trait to find in a book.  And there’s nothing boring about knowing that what you are going to get is an excellent story.  For even five books in, Vernon’s Dragonbreath series is still brilliant and funny and clever and fresh.

There’s lots to adore about this series, as I’ve talked about before, but what struck me most while reading this installment is how well-rounded the female characters are.  Quite often books that feature boys and/or are meant “for boys” (by people who divide books up in that sort of way) have female characters that are caricatures, but not so here. Dragonbreath may focus on boy characters, but the girls and women (or, rather, female lizards and such) all have personality and opinions.  And even when their opinions are incorrect (according to the boys, or the narrative) they are never framed as unreasonable or silly or lesser.  They remind me a bit of Sayer’s books in that sense, despite the obvious other differences.

cover image for Lulu and the Dog From the SeaLulu and the Dog From the Sea by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont

When Lulu, her parents, and her cousin, Mellie, spend a week in a cottage by the sea they discover an unexpected guest – the kind that walks on four legs.

A cute story that is designed to appeal to the large number of newer readers that love animals.  Each of the characters has personality, and while the plot may be unlikely, the day to day discoveries and frustrations and interactions ring true.

It’s not the most spectacular writing, but it’s far from stilted, which is all too common in when books for this age group.

cover image for When I Grow Up: Sally RideWhen I Grow Up: Sally Ride by AnnMarie Anderson, illustrated by Gerald Kelley

A biography of Sally Ride, written at about third grade level.

Unfortunately, this particular easy reader does all kinds of things that are common to easy readers that I hate, especially nonfiction easy readers.

The first is that it’s just not very well done. The sentences make sense, but they aren’t memorable either.  The illustrations lack elegance and just don’t flow. Worse, the practice of using photographs, and then drawing images of Sally Ride into them rather undermines the idea that this is a real person.  It’s also written in the first person, as if Ride herself was talking to us, despite the fact that Sally Ride was a real person who died recently and wrote words of her own that could be quoted.

It’s not so awful that I wouldn’t buy it for the library, especially considering the topic, but it’s the kind of book that makes me wish we had higher standards for beginning readers.

cover image for Shin-chi's CanoeShin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Kim LaFave

When Shi-shi-etko and her younger brother, Shin-chi, are sent to a residential school, they have to leave not only their parents behind, but also the names their parents gave them as well.  The siblings are sent to separate dormitories and not allowed to speak to each other, or in their native language.  But before they are forced to part, Shi-Shi-etko gives Shin-chi a small toy canoe, to remind him of the family who loves him, and that one day will all be together again.

This is not a happy book, but it is a beautiful book. A lovely, sad story about colonialization and destruction, and strength and importance of family.  All told with gorgeous text and illustrations.

cover image for Stanley the FarmerStanley the Farmer by William Bee

Stanley the Hamster spends a busy day on his farm.  With help from friends, he manages to get everything done.

(ok, for the record, unbound galleys of picture books are weird. now, moving on…)

A simple, cute story, that condenses the time needed to grow and harvest, but has bright pictures and the right amount of detail for small children.

cover image for Blue on BlueBlue on Blue by Dianne White, illustrated by Beth Krommes

Cotton clouds.
Morning light.
Blue on blue.
White on white.

A peaceful, sunny day is interrupted by rain and thunder and lightning, but before the day is done, the sun comes back to say goodbye and goodnight.

It’s a very nice book, and decent enough poem, and I love Krommes’ style (with the exception of some of the peoples’ facial expressions).

cover image for Are You My Mommy?Are You My Mommy? by Joyce Wan

“Mommy! Mommy! Where is my mommy?” a little bunny cries, as they ask all the animals they encounter if they are their mother.

SQUEE! A new Joyce Wan book!

No, this is not a new premise, but Wan’s take on it is excellent and fresh and adorable, as always.  Wan turns the common trope into a guessing game, as each adult animal responds to the bunny by saying “No, I am a [chicken/pig/horse] and my baby is a…” with the answer on the next page, giving little ones a chance to guess and show off. Each answer is also revealed with the use of a clever cut out, creating visual and tactile interest.  Plus, for such a small, short book, it does a wonderful job of introducing vocabulary – many board books use words like “chicken” but fewer use “foal.”

cover image for In My MeadowIn My Meadow by Sara Glillingham & Lorena Siminovich

I’ve reviewed another in this series and everything I said about In My Forest is true of this book as well.  The sense of place is not quite as well defined here, but that’s only because this book focuses more on sustenance (clover, strawberries, and cool water) than on surroundings.  And since that’s a decision that makes sense for a series of board books, and creates a richer experience over the course of the series, I can’t fault it or the creators for doing so.

cover image for Creature ColorsCreature Colors by Andrew Zuckerman

Yes, I know that your library probably has more books about colors than you know what to do with, but you’ll want to make room for this one, I promise.  Zuckerman’s brilliant, bright, and detailed photographs really make this book stand out, even if it does sometimes feel like half the animals are birds of one type or another.

I’m not a nice person.

I’m not a good person.

I’m not a kind person.

This isn’t to say that I don’t ever try to be any of these three things.  I do, especially the last two.

It’s more to say that, for me, surviving in this cissexist, racist, ableist, heteronormative, classist, often fucked up world of ours has involved rejecting the idea that “good” and “bad” are static states of being.  I will never be a “good person” because, to me, “good” is not something that you achieve.  It’s an ongoing process that never ends.

It is, in fact, almost impossible not to be doing bad things as well as good when you are human and therefore flawed.  Especially when you are part of a messed up system, as we all are.

This, to me, is why it’s important to call out bad behavior, or hurtful language, or even ways of framing the world that make it easier to ignore harm that is being done to others.

Not because people deserve to be shamed or judged or called out, but because we are all fish who sometimes forget that the water is there, and part of helping each other do better involves pointing out when we didn’t do as well as we could have.

Since the world is complex (and not just in bad ways), the fact that we have the same goals doesn’t mean that we will always agree.  It may not always be possible to determine who was “right” and who was wrong about the choices people make or the words they use.

But this is where my librarian training kicks in and points out that more speech is better than less.  That it’s better to let people know what it is that you think they could have done better, so that they can decide for themselves if they want to change or not, rather than never giving them that option.  It’s also important to be specific about it, so that no one is left second guessing everything they do and say.

To me, it’s a sign of trust, to tell someone when what they did or said hurt you.  That’s not a thing you tell people when you think they won’t care.  Or worse, will use it to hurt you more.

When I tell people that what they said was sexist, or racist, or otherwise hurtful, I don’t do it because I want to hurt them. I don’t do it because I think they are bad people.  I don’t do it because I think they are irredeemably sexist, while I’m a perfect feminist, a model for everyone to follow.  I’m not specific about what they did wrong simply because I want to nitpick, I promise you that I have better things to do with my time.

I do it because this is what I truly believe, and because I have faith in their ability and willingness to do good things.  And most of all because I have faith that they will respect my opinion even if they disagree with it.

So I want to ask everyone out there who is asking all us to “keep YA kind” to remember that, while criticism is hard to take, criticism is not lack of kindness.  It’s often a measure of trust.

Everyone has flaws, everyone messes up.  That includes you, that includes me.  That includes the author you admire, the friend that has always been there for you, the teacher that inspired generations.

That someone is “good people” should never be an excuse for not listening, or used to admonish others for speaking.  Because “good” is something that you make the decision to do every second of every day, not something that you acquire and then use as a shield.

I have so much more to say on so many things that has happened this past week.  And so many links to smart women who you should really listen to more than me.  Hopefully I’ll even manage to make some link lists and get those words out and onto paper – er, pixels.  But I wanted to start with that, because I think it’s the most fundamental.

If you don’t trust that I am trying to do good as well, that my anger is a sign of hurt and not hate, that the opinions I express are genuine and not merely performative, that I am in fact trying to be kind to a great number of people, even when you disagree with me, even when I say things that hurt you or your friends or make you uncomfortable, then this conversation is never going to go anywhere.

Instead, “kindness” will once again become a way to reinforce the status quo, rather than a call to be more compassionate and empathetic.

Instead both “kind” and “good” will be used to avoid examining the problems we most certainly have, a way to once again NOT have the hard and complicated and uncomfortable conversations that are long overdue.

She Commands Me and I Obey by Ann Leckie

It’s a testament to the complexities of the characters and cultures and worlds that Leckie creates that I’ve been sitting here for several minutes trying to figure out how to explain this short story.  (Without giving away the plot, of course.)

It’s a story about intrigue and politics. About athletes and warriors and courage.  And it’s a story about choices and morality and ethics.

Like all good political intrigues, there’s several mysteries here as well.

It’s also the story of a young boy, named Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe, a novice in the Blue Lily Monastery, and why he’s drawn to the only unnamed statue in a stadium of hundreds of statues of deified ballplayers.

Like the other works of Leckie’s that I’ve read (and loved) it’s also a story about change and sacrifice, and how change is always both gradual and sudden at the same time.

It’s truly excellent, and I know I’m not the only one that nominated it for a Hugo.

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