Posts Tagged ‘Cheryl T.’s Picks’

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

October 15, 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava LavenderAva spins a tale of how she, who was “just a girl,” happened to be born with a huge set of wings. To truly tell the story, she has to go back three generations to her great-grandmother, Maman, who moved from France to “Manhatine” to follow her husband’s dream, and then to the story of her grandmother, Emilienne, and her mother, Vivianne. All of these women were cursed in romance. It seemed that they fell in love quite often, but rarely with the right man, and even then, once they had a child, their lover would either die or run away. So the women depended on one another and raised their children alone—at least on this plane of existence.

Ava and her foremothers eke out a living, running a bakery and living together in a lonely house with a bizarre history. Ava stays indoors almost all the time, just so that she can avoid other people’s sometimes startling reaction to her wings. While she is afraid that some people may hurt her because of her difference, others may be obsessed with her for more sinister reasons. All she wants to be is a regular girl.

Walton writes a story filled with magical realism. One of Emilienne’s sisters was utterly besotted with a musician who barely knew that she existed. Her love transformed her into a canary, hopeful that her beloved would be enraptured by her music, but now he noticed her even less. Relatives who have died tend to return in strange forms, and the living often have powers that most people would call superstition. The lines between living and dead, reality and illusion, are gossamer-thin. The writing is exquisitely beautiful, but some of the situations are too mature for most teenagers. However, adults and older teens who love Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Isabelle Allende’s House of the Spirits will be enthralled with Ava Lavender. Highly recommended.

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The Wave by Todd Strasser

September 11, 2014

Ben Ross was an enthusiastic young teacher, always leading his high-school history students toward deeper understanding, rather than just memorizing battle dates and lists of kings. The older teachers tolerated his style, figuring that it would wear off soon enough. When Ben showed his students a film about the Nazi concentration camps, some of his kids woke up from their bored lethargy, but they raised questions about how this could have happened. A few of them openly stated that they did not believe that ordinary people would stand by and let their neighbors be treated this way. Ben needed a strategy to convince them that the Holocaust really did happen— and could happen again.

The next day, class was conducted differently. Ben wrote on the board: “Strength Through Discipline.” He made the kids stand beside their desks and start all of their answers with, “Mr. Ross!” There was no discussion, just questions and rapid-fire answers. To Ben’s surprise, the students ate it up! The class showed a cohesion that he had never seen before, and later they opined that they all felt equal for the first time. As the days went by, they created a salute and a motto, and the movement spread beyond Ben’s class. Even the football team began to incorporate the disciplined group mentality that began as Ben’s experiment. Students who had always been shunned as outsiders were some of the most enthusiastic adherents, as they fit into a group for the first time. Chillingly, however, Ben’s students began to persecute those who were not part of the group, and at least one young man landed in the hospital. How could Ben bring this experiment to an end?

Although The Wave is a novel, it is based on the true story of a classroom experiment in Palo Alto, California, in 1969, and is often assigned in high schools. The writing is simple and straightforward, but the message is frightening. Pair this with the spectacular novel The Book Thief (also based on a true story) or the movie based on this title, which I highly recommend. Sometimes it feels as if we are awash in Holocaust stories, but their importance goes far beyond the history of what happened in Germany seventy years ago. It is the revelation of the evil that lies within each of our souls that needs to be kept out in the open, warning us that this was not just a German phenomenon; it is a human phenomenon. Even at our best, we rush to self-preservation against the slightest danger, but at our worst, we can perpetrate terrible cruelties toward our very own neighbors if the opportunity presents itself—and opportunities are always presenting themselves. If you are looking for ways to discuss these issues with your teens, or even among an adult book group, this story is a great springboard. Weighing in at 138 small pages, everyone should be able to get in on the conversation.

This review was adapted from the original on EatReadSleep.


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People You Gotta Meet Before You Grow Up by Joe Rhatigan

June 12, 2014

People You Gotta Meet Before You Grow UpThis colorful volume teaches kids—in fun, bite-sized lessons—how to look the CEO in the eye, shake her hand, and carry on a meaningful conversation. The subtitle is: Get to Know the Movers and Shakers, Heroes and Hotshots in Your Home Town. It could be: Get Away from the Video Games and Meet Some Real People, for Heaven’s Sake.

The short introduction gives basic information about the best way to conduct an interview, from the social rules above to methods of creating videos and effective ways to ask questions. After mastering these techniques, kids and teens can move on to choose from the many professions and walks of life listed in the table of contents. These are not just the usual suspects! Here is just a small sampling:

  • Farmer
  • Judge
  • Chef
  • Librarian
  • Actor
  • Historical Reenactor
  • Journalist
  • Architect
  • Cartoonist
  • Firefighter

For each of these types of people, there are three or four pages giving the reader a bit of an explanation of the vocation, a short strategy for the interview, sample appropriate questions for this person, a few famous people in this category, websites (there have to be screens) for more information, and a summary or extra fun facts.

The target audience for this friendly guide is upper elementary to early high school.  If kids were to conduct even a few of these interviews, they would be sure to gain poise and confidence in their interactions with adults. Think of the advantage they would have in college and career interviews in the future. Furthermore, their eyes would be opened to the many interesting and vibrant people all around them in their communities. Who knows? Your son may discover that what he really wants to be is a cartoonist, after all!

[This review was previously published at]

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The Returned by Jason Mott

February 17, 2014

Imagine if that person you loved so dearly who died years ago suddenly showed up on your doorstep, looking just exactly as they did when they were alive and well. Imagine if that started happening all over the world, day after day.

Harold and Lucille Hargrave were an elderly couple living in the small town of Arcadia, North Carolina. Since their only child, Jacob, had drowned on his eighth birthday decades ago, Harold and Lucille’s relationship had become a sharp pebble in a shoe: it was painful, but they just kept walking. Harold constantly battled his desire for cigarettes while he complained about everything, especially anything important to Lucille. She kept her world together by improving her vocabulary—much to Harold’s derision—and maintaining a prim exterior. She clung to a type of small-town religion, fiercely championing her own opinions by prefacing them with “the Bible says….” When Agent Martin Bellamy knocks on the door with little Jacob beside him, this fossilized couple is thrust back into the role of being the parents of a young boy.

It’s happening everywhere. A Japanese man runs into a convenience store, screaming “I surrender!” No one knows what he’s surrendering for. A famous French artist comes back to life, but has no interest in enjoying his posthumous fame, only in worshipping the woman he loved, who is now well past caring. Others wait for their beloved dead, but they never appear. There are so many of the Returned. Are they really human? Where can we house them all? Should they be allowed to mix with the True Living?

In the Author’s Note, debut North Carolina author Jason Mott reveals that part of his reason for writing The Returned was to allow himself another chance to live through his own mother’s death, to try to love her more worthily this time. He walks through his own novel as one of the characters, and the reader can watch his heartfelt desire for closure. Both a fascinating study of human nature and a deeply personal journey, The Returned uses fantastical catastrophes to reveal the sometimes surprising depths of the human soul. This review appeared previously at

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Best New Books of 2013: Cheryl T’s Picks

December 4, 2013

Although I read all sorts of books, from adult historical and literary fiction to narrative nonfiction and books on nutrition, I am the children’s and teens’ selector, so I keep up with those books, too! This short list contains titles from some of the best YA writers out there, including atmospheric mysteries, mind-bending science fiction, surprising fantasy, and contemporary coming-of-age novels. These are some of my favorite new titles of 2013. Enjoy!

All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry
When eighteen-year-old Judith returns to her Puritan village two years after she disappeared, even her mother considers her a ruined young woman. After hearing Judith struggle unsuccessfully to tell her tale with the half a tongue that her captor left to her, her mother is so repulsed that she forbids her to ever speak again. Judith knows that the boy she has loved since they were both children is lost to her forever, even though she can never tell him why. Her captor was his father. Thus begins a terrifying and desperate story of guilt and innocence, love and hatred, and above all, sad misunderstandings. See my full post here.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
Josie Moraine is the daughter of a brothel prostitute in 1950s New Orleans. She’s smart, pretty, resourceful, and yearning to escape her seedy life in the Old Quarter. Her mother has taken up with a dangerous man who repeatedly threatens Josie’s life. Josie longs to join society-girl Charlotte at Smith College, but it seems like just a dream. Life gets even more complicated when she finds a deceased wealthy man’s watch under her mother’s bed, which entangles Josie in a murder investigation. The anguish in the novel is excruciating at times, as Josie lands in one terrifying situation after another, and the author does not sweeten them up for a minute. A richly portrayed novel of ambition, betrayal, and honor.

More Than This by Patrick Ness
Seth drowns in the very preface of the novel, but he does not move toward a gentle light, nor is this book one big flashback. The reader works to discover the truth along with Seth in this sci-fi thriller, and events unfold ever more quickly, running toward a breathless conclusion. Along the way, Seth grapples with the nature of reality, wondering if his present circumstances justify the feeling he has always had, that there must be more than this. If this is the “more,” is it what he expected? Or perhaps the “more” was always in front of him before, but he didn’t see it.

Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal
Jeremy Johnson Johnson lives with his dad in the town of Never Better, but things could be much better for them. His grandfather bequeathed Jeremy the bookstore where they live, but his father took out a huge loan on the store, and of course, he can’t pay it back. Along comes the fetching Ginger Boltinghouse, who convinces Jeremy to participate in a harmless prank that goes terribly wrong. The ghost of Jacob Grimm, one of the famous brothers who wrote those dark fairy tales, is trying to protect Jeremy from the Finder of Occasions, a person who will use any event to visit evil upon his unsuspecting victims. The shocking twist proves that this is a Grimm tale, after all.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Bonded together more than ever after their mother leaves, twins Cather and Wren spend their time taking care of their sweet but unstable father and writing fanfiction about the incredibly popular Simon Snow series. When they go to college, Cather imagines that life will continue as usual, fitting in her schoolwork around her fanfiction writing, but Wren becomes a party girl overnight. Cather is dealing with a hostile roommate with a nosy boyfriend, a writing partner who steals her material, and a professor who informs Cather that fanfiction is not original writing. While Cath dithers about raising her failing grade in her most important class and Wren continues to implode, Cath’s romantic life becomes very complicated and their father chooses that moment to have a breakdown. A complex and delightful coming-of-age novel in which every character needs to come of age: the main characters, the roommates, the boyfriends, and even the parents.

The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin

November 7, 2013

No one is a more iconic spokesperson for autism research than Temple Grandin. Even at the age of sixty-six, Dr. Grandin is still expanding her knowledge and understanding of autism, and as an autism activist, she is always finding ways to bring this understanding to the larger public, particularly to those of us who are neurotypical. In her latest book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, Grandin presents new ideas for scientific research and even revisits some of her own opinions.
Dr. Grandin would like to see symptom-specific research, rather than just comparing autistic brains to neurotypical brains. She explains that there is much more diversity among the autistic community—hence the term “spectrum”—than has been acknowledged in the past, and opines that performing brain scans on two people who have OCD, for example, one autistic, one neurotypical, may render much more information than just comparing brain scans of random groups. If two people are math geniuses, and one is autistic and the other is not, what part of the brain makes them different from people who are not good at math, and how is that part of their brains different or similar to one another? How about two artists? And so on. The results of such concentrated research could be groundbreaking.
Another fascinating section of the book concerns Dr. Grandin’s revision of her earlier statements that neurotypical humans think in words, while autistic people think in pictures. This understanding came from her personal experience and early research. Her thinking on this topic began to change, amazingly, when she read the comments on her earlier work, Thinking in Pictures, on Amazon! Some readers wrote that they thought in patterns, not in words or pictures, and this idea set Grandin off in a new direction. She began researching pattern thinking in both autistic and neurotypical people and immediately agreed that this made so much more sense of phenomena she had studied in the past. Math geniuses often think in patterns, both word thinkers (algebra) and visual thinkers (geometry), and artists may also think in patterns. One of the great differences between neurotypical and autistic thinkers in any category is the emotional element. Dr. Grandin herself said that although she could “see” like an artist, she didn’t “feel” like an artist. The chapters on pattern thinking will bring the reader exciting new insights into her or her children’s modes of learning and expression.
Toward the end of the book, Dr. Grandin considers how autistic children and young adults can choose educational and career options that will maximize their strengths, not just compensate for their challenges. Taking into account the variety of personalities and capabilities across the spectrum, she offers resources and no-nonsense advice for mainstreaming students and steering young adults into appropriate fields. She ends with lists of careers for the various types of thinkers.
This book is highly recommended for any adult with autism, parents of autistic children, or anyone interested in the continuing and hopeful research into a brain disorder that affects an ever-larger segment of our communities.
Note: This review is excerpted from a previous article on

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All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry

October 23, 2013

When eighteen-year-old Judith returns to her Puritan village two years after she disappeared, even her mother considers her a ruined young woman. After hearing Judith struggle unsuccessfully to tell her tale with the half a tongue that her captor left to her, her mother is so repulsed that she forbids her to try to talk. Judith knows that Lucas— the boy she has loved since they were both children— is lost to her forever, even though she can never tell him why. Her captor was his father.

One day, three ships show up in the harbor, and the village is under attack from the “Homelanders.” They have almost no ammunition, but every able-bodied man and boy prepares to defend the women and children who are sent to hide in the woods for at least temporary safety. Judith watches Lucas and her younger brother, Darrel, gather weapons, and when she sees the crates of gunpowder, she has a sudden memory of such boxes in the cabin where she was kept as a prisoner for so long. It becomes clear to her that Lucas’ father—who has been presumed dead for years— is the person responsible for stealing the town’s arsenal. Since she has no way to communicate her knowledge to others, she realizes with dread that she will have to risk her freedom and return to him to beg him to save the village, at least for the sake of his son.

Thus begins a terrifying and anguishing story of guilt and innocence, love and hatred, and above all, sad misunderstandings. Told in second person, Judith relates this tale directly to Lucas in her mind, hoping desperately that he will see beyond the conclusions that the town aldermen draw about her. Each time events seem to lead to a just conclusion, something else happens to bring the innocent into danger again.

One doesn’t usually think of a Puritan village as the setting of a thriller, but Julie Berry crafts this story brilliantly, slowly peeling back the truth and showing us that we, too, have made assumptions about Judith, her captor, and several other characters that turn out to be false. I came to care so deeply for Judith that at times I held my breath to see what would happen to her.
Highly recommended for both teens and adults. You won’t be able to put it down. This review was originally posted on the blog

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The Boy on the Wooden Box, by Leib Leyson

October 9, 2013

Leib Leyson was eight years old when his family moved from his parents’ ancestral village of Narewka, Poland, to the then-capital city of Krakow, where his father had taken a job that would help his family to live more prosperously than they could in a small town. His mother missed her family, but Leib was entranced by the beauty of a city he had only seen in pictures and heard about in stories. He went to school, played with friends, and lived securely with his loving, Jewish family. Jews made up about a quarter of Krakow’s residents, and everyone lived and worked together amiably.
Toward the end of the 1930s, the Polish people began to hear rumors that Germany’s Führer, Adolph Hitler, wanted to amass more land for Germany, and that he had begun blaming the Jews for everything that was wrong with the country since their humiliating defeat after World War I. Gradually, Leib’s friends began to shun him, and his teachers called him names. In 1939, his brother, Herschel, joined a group of Jews running east to escape the German soldiers. They never saw him again. The Nazis arrived in Krakow, closed Jewish businesses, and broke into Jewish homes. Orthodox Jewish men were beaten on the streets. Nazis took over the formerly Jewish companies, and Leib’s father was allowed to keep his job only because he spoke German. Soon, Jewish children were forbidden to attend school, and Leib’s formal education ended at the age of ten.
One day, Leib’s father was asked to perform a menial task for a Nazi-owned business. When he was done, the owner offered him a job. Since his family needed food, he accepted, however distasteful his decision may have been. Little did he know that that moment saved his family’s lives, since the owner of the business was Oskar Schindler. Although the Leyson family suffered cruelly in ghettos and work camps throughout the duration of the war, Schindler put all of their names on his list of expert machinists and metalworkers, ensuring that they would not be sent to Auschwitz or any of the other Nazi death camps. Even Leib, who was tiny for his age because of extreme malnutrition, worked at a machinist’s post in Schindler’s factory, standing on a wooden box in order to reach the controls.
The author of this moving memoir, who later used the name Leon Leyson, was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, and he did not reveal his past to anyone in his new American home until after Stephen Spielberg’s famous movie, which told the story of the personal sacrifices that Oskar Schindler made for his group of 1,200 Jewish people, posing as one of the Nazi party faithful while shielding helpless people from the horrors he had witnessed at the hands of his own countrymen. Schindler spent all of his fortune on bribes to Nazi guards and food for all of his workers. There were so many opportunities for all of it to collapse, including once when Leon, his father, and his brother were in line to board a train to Auschwitz. The family was separated, reunited, and separated again. At the end of it all, Leon decided to leave Europe entirely and emigrate to the United States, where he continued his education, taught high school, married and had children and grandchildren. He died this past January at the age of 83.
Highly recommended for older children, teens, and adults.
This review is an abridged version of a longer article on

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

May 1, 2013

“What does it take to crack open the secrets we hide from ourselves? Dante Quintana ran trustingly toward life, arms and heart wide open and vulnerable. He was the only child of his loving and demonstrative parents, and his father was the only professor of Mexican descent at the university in El Paso. He taught English literature. Dante wondered if it was possible to be authentically Mexican if he couldn’t speak Spanish. He was eager to read and discuss everything.

Aristotle Mendoza lived his life inside himself as much as possible, but suffered from recurring nightmares. Ari’s much-older brother was in prison, and no one would tell him why. Ari had been four years old at the time and had been sent away while the turmoil was going on. Now, Ari nurtured a smoldering anger against his parents for keeping him in the dark about the brother he had idolized, and he buttoned all of his feelings inside so tightly that they burst out in his dreams.

The summer they were fifteen, these very different boys met at the public pool. Dante suspected that Ari couldn’t swim, and he offered to teach him. Thus began a complex and evolving relationship that we follow for the next few critical years of the two young men’s lives. We experience the story through Ari’s perspective, except for the letters that Dante writes when they are apart for a year.

Ari is much more in tune with his Mexican heritage, loves wearing the same Carlos Santana t-shirt day after day, asks for a ’57 Chevy pickup for his birthday, and teases his mother that he will put low-rider hydraulics on it. Dante is like a whole new universe for him. Dante uses words Ari’s never heard before, and he insists that Ari read great books and talk about them. One day, a group of boys shoot a bird for fun, and Dante is devastated. Ari wants to flatten all of the boys, but Dante is shocked by Ari’s eagerness to fight and his total lack of fear. Ari cannot admit to himself that his desire to defend Dante is anything more than friendship.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz gathered up all kinds of awards for this painful and beautiful young adult novel at January’s ALA Children’s Media Awards ceremonies. Besides a Printz Honor medal, it also won the Stonewall Award for the best LGBT book of the year, the Pura Belpré award for best work affirming the Latino culture, and was a Top Ten choice for the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list.  Highly recommended for older teens and adults. This review originally appeared on

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Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

April 19, 2013

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia Temminick drives her proper Victorian mother crazy. What with a household full of children and Sophronia falling out of dumbwaiters into the guests’ trifle, Mumsy packs her off to finishing school. But Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is not quite what one would expect of such an establishment. There are classes on deceit and deception, instructions on how to use hair accessories as lethal weapons against supernaturals, and demonstrations of how to use one’s décolletage to conceal secret documents. Math classes include word problems on how to divide poison so that only the guests that one wishes to poison receive it in their dishes. When someone reports Sophronia’s wandering in restricted areas, she is punished because she: 1) got caught, and 2) admitted her guilt.

The location of the school is also interesting. It is a dirigible constructed of three balloons fastened together, rendering the appearance of a caterpillar in the sky. Sophronia acquires a forbidden mechanimal, a metal, automated dog who runs on coal, just like the engines of the ship. She makes friends with the “sooties,” the boys who shovel coal in the engine room, when she sneaks in to gather bits of coal for Bumbersnoot. She also makes friends with several of the girls, and all of her acquaintances come in handy when she tries to foil a plot. One of the girls (or perhaps even a professor!) is trying to smuggle a new communication device to the flywaymen—or even worse, to the Picklemen! Sophronia and her friends are determined to thwart these enemies in the most fashionable and refined manner possible. If that doesn’t work, they’ll shoot them.

Fans of Gail Carriger’s adult series, “The Parasol Protectorate,” will enjoy this teen-oriented steampunk adventure. They will also recognize younger versions of some of the same characters and get acquainted with the ancestors of others. Carriger continues to casually introduce werewolves and vampires to the story and still displays her absurd, arch sense of humor. Although Sophronia appears to be completely human, she is as much a fearless and lovable heroine as Alexia Tarabotti. Teens and adults will have fun with this one.
If you would like to read Gail Carriger’s adult series, the first title in the series is SoullessEtiquette and Espionage is also available as a downloadable audiobook.  This review was previously posted on

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