Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Roaring Brook Press: Juniper's Christmas by Eoin Colfer

From My Shelf

A Great Global Novel

Jonathan Franzen is a divisive figure. To some, he's a genius--a Great American Novelist, even. To others, he represents the ultimate embodiment of the privileged white male author. In his newest novel, Purity, Franzen has out-Franzened himself with a massive (576 pages), flawed, ambitious and frequently revelatory work of art. On its surface, Purity represents Franzen doubling down. Instead of a Great American Novel, it aims to be a Great Global Novel, with events bouncing from East Germany in the 1980s to Oakland in the present day and Bolivia in the recent past, to name a few of the diverse settings. While Franzen's cast of characters still lacks racial diversity, Freedom feels cramped and monochromatic by comparison.

Purity's plot is segmented into large chunks almost comparable to stand-alone novellas, with the main character--20-something Pip Tyler, whose perspective bookends and anchors the novel--kicking off the rapidly spiraling events by joining a Wikileaks-esque association and getting to know its charismatic founder. Purity's true pleasures come in its frequent tangents and digressions, however. Franzen fills the novel with sprawling subplots and flashbacks that explain and give psychological depth to much of the book. God bless the indulgent editor who let it all stay in.

Franzen could have crafted a good novel simply by marrying this new, broader canvas to his considerable skill as a prose stylist, but what sets Purity apart is something surprising: empathy. Previous Franzen novels at times feel weighed down by irony, too focused on wryly pointing out the flaws of their protagonists to make the reader care for them. Purity is just the opposite. Its guilt-ridden misfits are extended authorial forgiveness and love for even their worst crimes. In Purity, Franzen's true achievement is trading cynicism for compassion. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

BINC: Read Love Support Campaign

The Writer's Life

Julia Keller: Memory and Place

photo: Mike Zajakowski

Julia Keller was born and raised in Huntington, W.Va, the daughter of a college mathematics professor and a high school English teacher. As a journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for a three-part narrative series on a deadly tornado that struck a small town in Illinois; she has also taught writing at several universities. She currently divides her time between Chicago and a small town in Ohio.

Keller's detective series starring prosecutor Bell Elkins is set in the fictional town of Acker's Gap, W.Va. The fourth novel in the series, Last Ragged Breath (Minotaur Books, August 25, 2015), refers to a real event, the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood. Years after this tragedy, a fresh murder challenges Bell to consider the waning coal industry and burgeoning tourism investments. It's a complex case concerning the nature of memory and revenge.

You have established a successful series with a well-developed character. Your readers presumably have certain expectations from new installments. Does this make the writing process easier or harder?

Harder--but it ought to be harder, right? I mean, based on the response I get from readers, they know these characters well and they have certain expectations for them, much as our friends have expectations for us and tend to call us out when we veer away from our essential natures. People know Bell Elkins and Nick Fogelsong, and they have an idea about how they'd behave in particular situations. If Bell suddenly became meek and timid, I think I'd hear a lot of outrage from readers because that's not who she is. Her mistakes are always going to be mistakes of commission, not omission.

Your question reminds me of an aphorism about life choices that I've always liked: "Be careful when you choose your rut--because you're going to be in it for a long time!" It's the same with creating a series: Be careful when you dream up your characters and their peccadilloes, because you'll be living with them for a long time--if you are fortunate, that is, and if your series strikes the fancy of enough readers.

In Last Ragged Breath, Acker's Gap is described as a "beautiful, beleaguered patch of West Virginia." Could these novels have been set anywhere else? 

Absolutely not! I've always said that my home state of West Virginia is the most singular state in the country, because it combines stunning natural beauty with so many intractable social problems. Many states are beautiful, and many states have social and economic woes--but only West Virginia combines beauty and sorrow in just this particular and poignant way. 

I sometimes gnash my teeth when people mistake West Virginia for "western Virginia" (believe it or not, this is a common error) or lump together all novels set anywhere outside New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Every place has a specific character and texture--just as every person does. There may be superficial similarities, but the deep essence of a region--its history, the stamp it leaves on those who live there--is unique. One of my favorite lines in Last Ragged Breath comes when Nick Fogelsong contemplates his life in Acker's Gap: "To walk each day on ground that had given rise to you" is, he decides, pretty darn cool. And so it is.

Did researching the Buffalo Creek Flood take you back to your career in journalism? Was that a comfort or a chore? 

You know, journalism used to be the automatic career choice for aspiring writers--everyone from Ernest Hemingway and Katharine Anne Porter to Thornton Wilder and Willa Cather. It enables you to have experiences that you'd otherwise never have. It certainly did for me. I got to go to murder scenes, fly a plane, tour a coal mine--and so much more. That's not as true today as it used to be--a lot of fledgling novelists end up in creative writing programs in grad schools instead of newsrooms--but for me, journalism was a great education, and I constantly use what I learned there in my fiction.

Many of the cases in the Bell Elkins series have roots in stories I covered. The death of a young boy in A Killing in the Hills is based on a crime story I wrote about. The opening scene in Bitter River--a car being pulled out of a river, with a body inside--is based on a similar moment I had as a reporter at a riverbank. And the retired coal miner in Summer of the Dead whose daughter rigs up a coal mine in the basement so that he'll feel at home is also based on a real-life situation I came across as a journalist. The coal mine scene in Last Ragged Breath is informed by my own very harrowing journey down into a working coal mine, while researching a story on coal production.

The series for which I won the Pulitzer Prize is set in a small town about the size of Acker's Gap. Hanging out in that town was a great way to sort of road-test my ideas about small towns in which, as the song says, "everybody knows your name." That can be wonderful--or it can be stifling.

I like the way you phrased the question--"comfort or chore"--because it's really a bit of both. I have the comfort of knowing that I'm writing about something I've seen and felt, but it's a chore in the sense that, as a reporter, you are often coming into people's lives in the wake of tragedy. I grew up hearing stories about the Buffalo Creek tragedy--every West Virginian does--and to return to a time of such heartbreak and loss is difficult, even if necessary. 

At the center of the story in Last Ragged Breath is a child survivor of the flood, now a grown man accused of murder. Does Royce Dillard have a historical counterpart, or is he entirely your creation?

Royce Dillard is entirely fictional, but there were certainly flesh-and-blood children who survived the Buffalo Creek flood. Some lost one or both parents. As far as I know, none of these children has ever faced a murder charge as an adult--thank goodness!--but the psychological scars left by the flood are well-documented. Royce's emotional issues are very loosely based on published accounts of the travails of real-life survivors. So he is fictional, yes--but he represents many people who suffered then, and who suffer still. 

You told NPR's Crime in the City series that you read most literary fiction as crime fiction. You cited HamletTo Kill a Mockingbird and the Oedipus stories. Is there a distinction between "genre" crime fiction and these classics? Where do your books fall? 

I try to write books that will be accessible and entertaining, yes, but that also give readers something extra--perhaps a way to reflect upon life's deepest questions, and a way to think about the catastrophes that can befall those who have done nothing to deserve them. To me, any novel--whether it's categorized as "crime fiction" or "literary fiction" or whatever--is a window into how another human being works out her or his destiny.

I fight against the idea of genre because it's so limiting. It's an artificial distinction. It puts novels into boxes and closes the lid--and novels need to breathe! Dorothy Parker once divided her bookcases into two categories: Good and Crap. That's the only division that really matters. 

Will my books turn out to be classics--that is, novels that are read by multiple generations? I'd certainly like to think so. 

Last Ragged Breath pulls together strings from past Bell Elkins novels. It appears that the series will continue. What's next? Do you already have the next book underway?

Oh, yes, indeed. I'm well embarked upon the fifth book in the series. It's set in an Alzheimer's care facility near Acker's Gap. I am intrigued by questions about memory, and by an awareness of how central our memories are to our very essence. When memory begins to fail, what happens to that core self? The basic plot in The Disremembering--that's the tentative title--is about a series of mysterious deaths at the facility, but the deeper theme is this issue of memory. As more and more people live longer and longer, our culture will be struggling with the problems of Alzheimer's and its long reach. It is a great springboard for a novel--and a touchstone for contemplation about how the past constantly interacts with the present, in ways both good and bad. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Book Candy

Books from a Dog's Point of View

Jill Ciment, author of Heroic Measures, chose her top 10 "favorite narratives told from a dog's point of view" for the Guardian.


"Your complete guide to bookish back-to-school swag" was collected by the Huffington Post.


"How much summer reading do you actually remember?" asked Buzzfeed as it "put your English Lit skills to the test."


"What would Amanda Palmer read?" asked the New York Public Library of the author and performance artist who was recently seen on the front steps of the 42nd Street Library, brandishing "a red ukulele and decked out in full body paint, Palmer posed as a statue (in the style of Damien Hirst's 'Verity')."


Entertainment Weekly's pop quiz: "Can you guess which celebrities wrote these children's books?"


Where they write: The New York Times offered a glimpse into author Jeanette Winterson's "rustic writing studio in Gloucestershire, England, where she works at a 17th-century table."

Book Review


Last Bus to Wisdom

by Ivan Doig

Reading Ivan Doig's final novel means accepting that he passed away in April 2015. But the story he left sparkles with typical Doigian language and humor, as Donal Cameron, 11-year-old, red-haired, word-loving Montanan, reluctantly sets off on a summertime adventure in Last Bus to Wisdom.

The adult Donal narrates his summer of 1951, but it's his boy's voice we hear. Donny begs to stay on the Double W, where Gram cooks while he roams the ranch, but Gram is sending him to her sister while she's laid up after surgery. So he boards the Greyhound armed with his good-luck arrowhead, his treasured "memory book" and a vivid imagination. Fellow bus travelers boost his shot at a Guinness World Record autograph collection and distract him from fretting about the relatives in "Wiss-con-sun."

Donny's 1,600 miles to Manitowoc are a warm-up for adventure that awaits. Just two weeks with insufferable Aunt Kate and gentle Uncle Dutch, then Kate shuttles Donny, "the bunkhouse roughneck," back to the station. His surprise seatmate: Uncle Dutch, there to keep him company. "So, we are on the loose, ja?" Dutch and tour guide Donny ride the silver dog west. Their journey gets rocky and includes a stint with welcoming hoboes, but the "punchers of cows" attend the annual Crow Fair, meet Donny's rodeo hero and find a deeply satisfying destination.

Last Bus to Wisdom is a treasure; one suspects that the beloved Ivan Doig--a red-haired boy who lived with his grandmother and grew up to tell stories--chuckled as he plotted to leave his readers a part of himself. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: A posthumous novel by Ivan Doig, whose spunky young protagonist ventures by Greyhound from familiar Montana country to Wisconsin and back.

Riverhead Books, $28.95, hardcover, 9781594632020

We Never Asked for Wings

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

After getting pregnant as a teenager, Letty Espinosa has worked hard to make ends meet, holding down multiple jobs while relying on her mother to raise her son, Alex (and later, her daughter, Luna). But when her aging parents move back to Mexico, Letty is left in San Francisco to care for her children alone--with no clue about how to be a parent. Vanessa Diffenbaugh's lyrical second novel, We Never Asked for Wings, paints a thoughtful portrait of Letty and her children as they struggle to adjust to their new life and step forward into an uncertain future.

Letty had always been grateful for her parents' steady presence, and their absence makes her painfully aware of her own inadequacies. Alex, a sensitive 15-year-old scientist, is wrapped up in his first love, while six-year-old Luna misses her grandparents and her old routine. Amidst this struggle, Letty finds herself attracted to a handsome bartender at work, but the reappearance of Alex's father--Letty's high school boyfriend--complicates matters further.

Diffenbaugh (The Language of Flowers) unfolds her story in graceful prose that serves to highlight the sharp realities of the Espinosas' situation. The novel weaves together far-reaching themes, such as educational inequities, bullying and the plight of undocumented children, but its central theme is expressed in a tattoo worn by one of the characters: the origin of our identity is love.

Heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful, We Never Asked for Wings is a powerful story of big dreams, difficult choices and what it means to be a family. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Vanessa Diffenbaugh's lyrical second novel tells the heartbreaking but hopeful story of a struggling single mother in San Francisco.

Ballantine, $27, hardcover, 9780553392319

Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders

by Julianna Baggott

One author's stories become larger than life in Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders by Julianna Baggott (Burn). This sensitively rendered, well-balanced novel is told through four female points of view. At the heart is Harriet Wolf, a reclusive, revered author of six adventurous novels featuring two characters, Daisy and Weldon, who fall in love with each other as children; as the two age, from book to book, they are "separated by wars and disasters, by acts of God and calamities of the heart. When they finally reunite, they suffer." Harriet died before the seventh book was published, and enamored readers believe it would've revealed whether the entire series "was a tragedy or a love story, whether humanity is basically good or doomed."

Harriet's daughter, Eleanor--who has two adult daughters of her own--despises and resents her mother's success, having had to share Harriet with the world. When Eleanor suffers a mild heart attack, her own fractured nuclear family reunites. This includes Ruth--married to a Harriett Wolf scholar, but trying to lead a normal life while estranged from the family for 14 years--and Tilton, a shut-in, nursing a host of physical challenges and sheltered by Eleanor, who shared an intimate bond with her grandmother and made a pact with her regarding the rumored seventh book. With Eleanor ailing, is it time for Tilton to finally expose the mystery surrounding Harriet's last book?

With keen insight, Baggott offers an original, richly textured story infused with dark secrets, promises, loyalties, love stories and the psychological complexities of family dynamics across generations. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: The revelations of a revered author whose success--and secrets--affected scores of readers and her family.

Little, Brown, $26, hardcover, 9780316375108


by Ottessa Moshfegh

The week before Christmas 1964, in a small New England town she calls "X-ville," 24-year-old Eileen Dunlop's life takes a major turn. As narrated by the character 41 years later, in Ottessa Moshfegh's disturbing novel Eileen, it was not much of a life. Painfully self-conscious and obsessed with her appearance and personal "organic processes," young Eileen works as a low-level clerk at a juvenile boys prison and lives with her widowed father, a retired local cop--abusive, alcoholic and prone to imagine wolves in the backyard.

A Wallace Stegner Fellow and Plimpton Prize-winner, Moshfegh similarly explored the jagged edges of depravity in her 2014 novella McGlue. Eileen wears her dead mother's frumpy clothes, reads National Geographic, shoplifts drugstore notions, binges on laxatives and regularly sips from a pint of vermouth. When chic Harvard graduate Rebecca comes to work at the detention center and befriends her, Eileen latches onto the young woman as her ticket out. The sensible narrative voice of the older Eileen doesn't sugarcoat her dismal youth--rather it makes her peculiar past not just believable but in some ways admirable. When that Christmas week plays out, narrator Eileen looks back with some satisfaction: "What came after this story ends was not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks." Eileen is an unforgettable character, and Eileen is a haunting novel. As Moshfegh said in a recent interview, "every place needs a few wolves or there would be no stories to tell." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: A haunting novel of an obsessive woman trapped in a dead-end life and desperate to find a way out.

Penguin Press, $25.95, hardcover, 9781594206627

Mystery & Thriller


by Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong (Visions) returns to Cainsville, Ill., for more mayhem and magic as her series continues to shift toward a more traditional urban fantasy than apparent in the beginning.

In the previous installments, Olivia Taylor Jones--born Eden Larsen--learned her biological parents are incarcerated serial killers, the town of Cainsville is host to two fae factions, and she has nascent supernatural powers because of a blood connection to them. Now living in Chicago and researching her parents' case with lawyer Gabriel Walsh, Olivia has to contend with her ex-fiancé, James, who stalks her, while trying to nurture her fledgling relationship with good-hearted biker Ricky and ignoring her romantic feelings for Gabriel. The mysteries of her past continue to tug at her in the form of gruesome, fever-inducing visions about figures from fae lore. To further complicate matters, the fae refuse to share information about Olivia's visions or her parents, and despite offers of protection or alliance, Gabriel and Olivia remain convinced none of them are trustworthy.

In Deceptions, Armstrong moves the series forward with a few startling revelations about Olivia's parents and childhood and with a game-changing disclosure that sets up the next volume in the planned series of five. Cainsville fans will welcome the growing tension in the Olivia-Gabriel-Ricky love triangle. While Armstrong doesn't forget to add plenty of action, her main emphasis is establishing characters' relationships as she sets the board for a latter half of a series already filled with twists. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Discover: The next chapter in Kelley Armstrong's paranormal mystery Cainsville series.

Dutton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780525953067


by Chuck Wendig

Zeroes by Chuck Wendig (Mockingbird, Blackbirds) begins with a premise that may feel familiar at first: five bad-guy hackers are coerced, by one means or another, into putting their technological skills to work for the United States government. Taken to a campus in an unidentified location, cut off from communication with the outside world, the "pod" (as they are dubbed by their government handlers) is asked to tackle one hacking challenge after the next, first as individuals, then as a group.

In true Wendig style, though, the familiar ends there. As the group moves forward in their various challenges, they begin to see a common thread. And it's when they pull on that thread that they discover Typhon, which is--a program? A robot? Artificial intelligence?

What--or who--Typhon is remains a mystery to the pod, just as it does to the reader, for far longer than is comfortable. That mystery is what gives Zeroes its drive as Wendig builds a novel that is at once a heart-pounding story of suspense and a cautionary tale about the invasion of privacy as well as the dangers of an over-reaching government. It's a lot to pack into one book, but Wendig pulls it off with aplomb, peppering his writing with pop culture references, clever jokes and detailed technical research that will delight those who love computers, clever sci-fi novels and those who love to see the two combined. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Discover: A heart-pounding suspense novel about hackers, artificial intelligence and technology, from the author of Mockingbird.

Voyager, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062351555

Darkness the Color of Snow

by Thomas Cobb

Thomas Cobb had the good fortune to have his critically well-regarded 1987 first novel, Crazy Heart, made into an Academy Award-winning film. This kind of good fortune is tough to follow. Other than two historical westerns and a story collection, he hasn't published any fiction since. Darkness the Color of Snow suggests that this hiatus was worth it. Like much of Richard Russo's work, Cobb's novel takes place in a small town in upstate New York near the Vermont border. When rookie patrolman Ronny Forbert stops a speeding Jeep with former schoolmates looped on beer and weed, tempers get out of hand and old jealousies lead to a scuffle that accidently puts the driver, Matt Laferiere, in the path of another car sliding on the dangerous icy highway. Laferiere is killed and the other car takes off. This relatively unambiguous hit-and-run case turns into a local political battlefield as the influential parents of the guys in the Jeep lawyer up and go after Ronny and Chief Gordy Hawkins.

Set in the dead of a snowy winter, Darkness the Color of Snow is a story of a dying region's fragility, with its textile mill jobs gone overseas and little left behind but booze, guns and big trucks. As Gordy reflects on the death and divisiveness that descend on his town, "the human body is a frail thing in a world of things that are strong, fast, and very unfrail." Quietly and compassionately, Cobb captures the subtle way seemingly random events can upend the lives of a whole town. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Discover: The political and personal upheaval that arises from a rookie cop's seemingly routine traffic stop in a dying New England mill town.

Morrow, $25.99, hardcover, 9780062391247

Food & Wine

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books

by Cara Nicoletti, illus. by Marion Bolognese

Cara Nicoletti grew up in a family of butchers who had a love for good food, but "the truth is that I fell in love with cooking through reading, and I learned quickly that being in the kitchen offered me the kind of peace that settling in with a good book did." By combining her extensive knowledge of cooking with her love of great books in which food often plays a role, Nicoletti has compiled a comprehensive series of mini-essays that reflect her favorites in both departments. She skillfully gives a quick synopsis of each book and explains how a certain dish most reflects that particular piece of writing and then provides readers with a recipe to make that same dish.

Nicoletti's childhood favorites, like Little House in the Big Woods (breakfast sausage) and The Secret Garden (currant buns), lead readers into beloved adolescent books such as Lord of the Flies, complete with Porchetta di Testa (roasted pig's head), and To Kill a Mockingbird, featuring its biscuits with molasses butter. Her friendly tone and easy-to-follow recipes encourage readers to dust off old books and break out the cooking utensils, so that they may also enjoy a delicious bite of chocolate éclairs while reading Mrs. Dalloway. Nicoletti offers a deeper appreciation of the way descriptions of food are incorporated into a variety of stories, providing subtle layers of characterization and atmosphere to each book, as well as a variety of delicious recipes. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Discover: One woman's favorite books and the foods she creates based on them.

Little, Brown, $28, hardcover, 9780316242998

Biography & Memoir

The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life

by Janice Kaplan

Feeling little excitement at a New Year's Eve party, journalist Janice Kaplan (A Job to Kill For) wondered if there was something that could bolster her level of happiness. Nothing was wrong with her life, but everything felt merely okay. Her recent work with a national survey on gratitude taught her that "it wasn't the circumstances that mattered but how [she] responded to them. [She] could passively wait for the wonderful to occur--and still find something wrong. Or [she] could accept whatever events did come [her] way and try to appreciate them a little more." This realization sparks her resolution to spend the following year focusing on gratefulness. The Gratitude Diaries is the uplifting journal of her efforts, as well as a plethora of fascinating research on the mental, physical and psychological benefits of gratitude.

Kaplan chooses a focus for each month in order to isolate and evaluate how re-framing her perspective toward that person or thing alters her feelings. She begins with her husband and their marriage then works her way through the year with aspects of her life such as money, career, material possessions and health. Each experience Kaplan has is supplemented with insights from professionals studying gratitude or people living it in extraordinary ways.

Kaplan made a pointed effort to see the positive. By sharing her efforts, she offers people reading The Gratitude Diaries opportunity to notice their own reasons to be happy, and who couldn't stand a little more happiness in their lives? --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts

Discover: A successful journalist learns that looking at life with a new perspective can improve mind, soul and body.

Dutton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780525955061


Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing

by Reba Riley

At 29, Reba Riley struggled with a debilitating chronic illness she dubbed "The Sickness." It baffled everyone she consulted--doctors and chakra healers alike--forced her to sleep away her days and challenged her sunny disposition. Stymied by her physical ailments, she decided to focus on her wounded spirituality, sampling 30 different doctrines before her 30th birthday, seeking a cure for her self-diagnosed Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.

She carefully orchestrated her "30 by 30" foray into the "Godiverse"--"That's God plus the Universe"--at the start of her quest in 2011. There was no returning to the fundamentalist "believe-it-all-or-believe-it-none gospel" of her childhood, and in spite of the Sickness, she identified 30 spiritual beliefs practiced near her Columbus, Ohio, home. She told her supportive law-student husband, "I'm not going to find a new religion. I'm going to find myself."

She started, and almost stopped, with Word Alive, the dreaded church of her past, limping away afterward "feeling worse than Word Dead." But she moved on, from Baptists to Buddhists, Christian Spiritualists to the Amish. Her humorous internal monologues are often self-deprecating but never judgmental of her hosts, and her journey is filled with insights, coincidences and thoughts that came unbidden to her mind. (Sitting in her car, "a parade of words manifested in my mind--fully formed and strung like beads on a necklace: Jesús-Rama-Krishna-Christo-Abba-Allah-lleluia... my mantra.")

Both memoir and survey course on 30 belief systems, Reba Riley's quest for healing is an entertaining and enlightening story with a well-deserved happy ending. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: A former fundamentalist takes a yearlong spiritual journey to experience 30 religions.

Howard Books, $24.99, hardcover, 9781501124037

Children's & Young Adult

Mango, Abuela, and Me

by Meg Medina, illus. by Angela Dominguez

Meg Medina's (Tía Isa Wants a Car) elegantly crafted picture book traces young Mia's desire to communicate with her Spanish-speaking grandmother, and her perseverance in surmounting their language barrier.

Angela Dominguez's (Maria Had a Little Llama) warm, emotionally understated artwork fills in the parts of the story that go unsaid. Abuela's expression reflects her sorrow at leaving "her sunny house that rested between two snaking rivers," where parrots nested in mango trees, and where her husband died. The narrative unfolds through Mia's eyes, as she and her mother make space in her room for Abuela. At first, neither child nor grandmother knows enough of each other's language to converse. Abuela shows Mia a red parrot's feather and a photo of tu abuelo, reminders of the home she left behind. But then Mia remembers that her teacher helped her best friend, Kim, learn English by labeling things. Mia begins by naming the ingredients that go into the empanadas she and Abuela are making, and is soon placing word cards on the lamp, pillow, flowers--even on Edmund the hamster. Abuela "still calls my pillow a 'palo' and she says Edmund is a 'gángster,' " says Mia. But in time, each teaches the other enough words to carry on a conversation. And when Mia finds a parrot in the pet store while buying food for Edmund, the bird (which she and Abuela name Mango) joins the family--and their words--in pleasing mimicry of their newfound vocabulary.

This uplifting and affirming tale makes clear that connecting with someone sometimes takes work and ingenuity, but the payoff is priceless. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor emeritus, Shelf Awareness

Discover: A girl and her Spanish-speaking grandmother overcome a language barrier through love and determination.

Candlewick, $15.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-8, 9780763669003

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth

by Judd Winick, illus. by Guy Major

Ten-year-old Daniel Jackson Lim ("D.J.") is bummed. Every one of his four Asian American siblings has a talent for something like soccer or tennis, but his only talent is being a good friend to Gina, who moved away from Berke County years ago. Things are lonely for him, until a little blond boy wearing silver underpants falls from the sky, at which point, naturally, life gets much more interesting. His name is Hilo, and he doesn't know where he came from, but when he starts to eat grass it becomes obvious he is not from Earth. All Hilo knows is that he has a purpose, though he doesn't know what it is until a massive robot ant falls from the sky and--with plenty of sound effects like WHIIIIR and ROAAR!--begins attacking him and his newfound friends.

Amid the boisterous action and alien comedy (Hilo thinks "AAAAH!" is a friendly greeting), kids may well identify with D.J., a boy who feels like an outsider in his own family. Fortunately, D.J.'s old friend Gina moves back to town in time to assure him that he's not boring just because he doesn't play soccer or tennis... that bravery and friendship are what count.

Judd Winick, a cartoonist known for his appearance on MTV's The Real World and his graphic novel Pedro and Me, has a breezy, energetic illustration style and bold color palette that suit the simple plot and accessible, funny cartoon-bubble dialogue. Hilo ends on a cliffhanger, which will leave readers eager for the next installment. --Stephanie Anderson, assistant director for public services, Darien Library

Discover: A lonely boy befriends a robot boy in Judd Winick's fun, high-action graphic novel series debut sure to appeal to fans of Bone.

Random House, $13.99, hardcover, 208p., ages 8-12, 9780385386173

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