Your Story Matters.

With all of the rich conversation going on right now on the CCBC listserv, I wanted to voice my own vision– both connected to the conversation and entirely separate (… I have come to love blurred lines and paradoxes).

We know that, like Megan Schliesman so beautifully stated, THE ONE answer to problems of representation of race and ethnicity doesn’t exist. If there are plural answers, we are all going to have varying opinions about which are correct, which are valid and valuable.

Here’s one thought, among the many:

Let’s do everything we can to let every human being know that THEIR STORY MATTERS. I think if we shift the conversation a bit– from who is publishing or not publishing certain material, who or who is not represented, and blame (the stem and the leaves of the tree)– to a sense of self-ownership and each of us belonging and being valued (the root of the tree), we might get somewhere.

All people have hard issues, deep sensitivities, and a plethora of identities. Each of us wants to be treated as the multi-dimensional person that we are; I definitely want to be seen as more than my physical appearance, more than my cultural identity, more than my age or religion or gender or sexual orientation or my hobbies. But those things ARE me; I can’t separate them out from my story.

So I should tell my story. You should tell your story. You should convince everyone– your friends, your family, your library patrons, the kids in storytime, the people you meet on the train or at the grocery store– to tell their stories. This doesn’t mean that every story will be published as a book for kids (it’s not easy to publish a kid’s book!). But it DOES mean that more people will BELIEVE that they can do it. They can tell their story orally to their grandchildren, they can journal, they can blog about their experiences, they can share anecdotes with friends and family and strangers and their stories will go into the air and might change something. It could change anything! Maybe your story will convince someone else to write something, maybe your story will give someone confidence to get the education they deserve or ignite them to research the publishing industry and how to develop a manuscript and submit. It may sound spiritual, or “self-esteemy” or “woo woo new age let’s go light some incense,” but so much of the stories we hear now are built on shame (think reality TV, magazines, social media, negative self-talk) that it’s no wonder people think their stories are unimportant!

My point is: If more people believed that their story is important, our literature would be a more accurate representation of our diverse world. Sharing story is HARD. It opens you up to vulnerability, possible rejection (think of how many times authors get rejected before getting published!), and critique.


Commonalities, Not Competition: Newbery 2014

It gets to be this time of the year in the children’s publishing world and my anxiety starts to bubble to the surface of my being. Blogs are buzzing with reviews of novels, analysis of illustrations, and comparison of genres. Librarians ask each other, “What are your favorites this year?” Patrons ask, “So who do you think is going to win?” And while I love love love the ALSC awards, I want to take a step back and reflect upon what a few of these buzzing books have in common, rather than the spirit of competition that my air bubble is currently filled with. This perfectly fits with The Butler Center’s mission to encourage imagination and wonder through literature.

I generated the following list of books randomly from several sources. This is simply for observation’s sake, so if a book isn’t included, there is no intention or reason behind it (and I have had a chance to READ THESE!) Let’s check out some of the books:

  • Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
  • One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
  • The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Center of Everything by Linda Urban
  •  A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
  • Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Okay, so let’s the get obvious ones out of the way– most of these authors are women and they are all fiction choices. But this says more about me as a reader than about the Newbery contenders this year.

But let’s look at what’s underneath. When I take a close look, this is what I see:

1) They all ask important questions. Why are we here? How do I discover my own voice? What is the best way to make decisions? Where do I fit in? Can I change my own destiny, or is it just up to luck? Whether it is Georgie who is trying to navigate her own world amidst feelings of loss and coming-of-age discoveries or Flora going on adventures with a magic squirrel, these characters search, seek, and only sometimes find the answer. In other words, they make us think.

2) They are filled with important relationships. I think we know that humans instinctually want to connect with others, but each of these books explores friendship and family relationships with distinguished and dynamic depth. Cady searches for her long-lost parent. Willow loses everything she has and then finds family in a patchwork quilt of interesting human beings. The ghost of Jacob Grimm protects young Jacob Johnson Johnson, forming a kind of intimate bond between male characters. This level of authenticity is, in my opinion, rare in middle grade/YA novels.

3) They leave us with more questions, rather than answers. These books don’t tell us the way to live. There is no black and white, right or wrong. They explore questions along the way, but they leave the answers up to the reader. And isn’t that what great books are all about? Some of the best books I’ve read, I’ve finished the last page and thought, “Hmmm,” or “….huh….?” But then I think. I talk to other readers. I wait for it to sink in. And all of these books have sunk in because they don’t “fix” or “solve” anything. They explore, ignite, and wonder.

What Newbery buzz books are you excited about this year? What do they have in common with each other? How do the books inform each other when you compare them in the aggregate rather than in direct competition with each other?

Have You Seen This Website?


There’s not many things cooler than the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL). Not only does this website contain free ebooks, but it contains literature for children in multiple languages. Here in Chicago, the school system has over 70 different languages represented in its student population. Wow, right? How can we offer these students access to literature in their first language?

You can search in two ways– simple and advanced search. In the simple, kid-friendly search, users can search by “kid characters” vs. “animal characters,” length, even color of the cover! There are books in Spanish, Danish, German, Japanese, Mongolian, Arabic, Swahili, Polish…the list goes on and on.

You won’t find Diary of a Wimpy Kid here, but you will find gems that are endearing, funny, and accessible to all via the Web. Talk about ACCESS and ADVOCACY for ALL. The website states, “Ultimately, the Foundation aspires to have every culture and language represented so that every child can know and appreciate the riches of children’s literature from the world community.” Way to go, ICDL!

if you want to see a whale.

if you want to see a whaleif you want to see a whale.

Written by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead.

A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-59643-731-9

Quiet and lyrical, this picturebook (created by the same team as And Then It’s Spring) celebrates childhood in its playful energy and its deep contemplation. Fogliano’s minimalist poetry flows off the page like maple syrup; yet, the text is not without structure. Fogliano uses assonance and alliteration effectively and intelligently throughout the story, using fun phrases such as “whales won’t wait for watching” and delicate ones such as “ship that is sailing” and “flag that is flapping.” Stead’s signature illustration style of muted pastels and purposeful negative space compliment and extend Fogliano’s artful text. As I experienced this story, I couldn’t help but put myself into the young character’s shoes, imagining, remembering and creating images in my head about my own childhood journeys.

I was left with many thoughts and feelings after I finished this book, but the most significant was a personal meditation on patience and discovery. After a first read, it might be easy to think that seeing a whale is the most important thing for this young boy. After all, it is the title of the book. Yet, I think the text and image are purposefully juxtaposed here. Yes, the text states, “You’ll have to just ignore the roses,” and “Don’t look way out and over there to the ship that is sailing.” But, the boy doesn’t ignore the roses, and he does look way out and over there. During the majority of the book, the boy isn’t seeing a whale. Rather, he is exercising patience for the future and truly experiencing the beautiful things of every day. Most days aren’t monumental, right? Most days, we don’t have promotions, our babies aren’t born, our books aren’t published, and the love of our life doesn’t knock on our door with 1,000 yellow daises. Rather, we write emails and cook dinner and help with homework and come home to chaos or maybe empty apartments. The days of actually “seeing the whale” are fabulous and memorable and obviously grand. But we have to be patient to discover them. Maybe Fogliano and Stead are saying that the whale has always been there all along, hanging out in our minds and hearts. We just have to open our eyes to the every day to finally see it.

On a side note, I adore the dog in this picturebook. I love the tilt of its head, the way its back arches when it smells roses, and the way it follows the boy around in every spread, just like dogs do.

And the book trailer is awesome.

“The President Has Been Shot!” vs. Kennedy’s Last Days

When I discovered that two different accounts of Kennedy’s assassination had arrived at the Butler Center, I immediately grabbed them and started reading. Like so many people, I have a fascination with the Kennedys. I can’t pinpoint why exactly, but I’m guessing it’s a combination of my enchantment with mystery, glamour, politics, unexplainable tragedy, and story. Kennedy’s life—and death—are captivating stories, and two versions of Kennedy’s story are newly published for young adults in 2013: “The President Has Been Shot!”: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson, and Kennedy’s Last Days: The Assassination that Defined a Generation by Bill O’Reilly. Before I compare and contrast, I want to make a note about audience. Scholastic suggests that the Swanson book be for ages 12 and up, noted on the book jacket. O’Reilly’s book cover does not indicate an intended age, but after further research I discovered that Henry Holt and Co. notes on their website that the book “will captivate adults and young readers alike” ( Of course, librarians can choose where to shelve this book, on what bibliographies to include this book, and what ages to steer this book to in reader’s advisory conversations. Finding out the publisher’s intended age was important to me though, for one reason: As I was reading, I wondered, Why is there no mention of Kennedy’s affairs? Both of these titles are not picturebooks or nonfiction titles intended for early elementary children. They are written for older kids—tweens and teens. Of course, many might argue that Kennedy’s philandering might not be appropriate for tweens, but then I beg the inevitable question. Why are we okay with telling them about extreme violence? Both books have large pictures of rifles and handguns. Of the assassination, Swanson’s book states, “[The third bullet] cut a neat hole through [the president’s] scalp and perforated his skull. The velocity, the pressure, and the physics of death did the rest. The right rear side of the president’s skull blew out—exploded really—tearing open his scalp, and spewing skull fragments, blood, and brains several feet into the air where it hung for a few seconds, suspended in a pink cloud” (113). Similarly, O’Reilly states, “The next bullet explodes his skull…it slices through the tender gray brain matter before exploding out the front of his head” (207). It is bothersome to me that both authors consciously eliminated sexual content for a young adult audience, but were perfectly fine with descriptive violence. I understand the importance of preserving JFK’s legendary status and historical importance, but this is a book of nonfiction, and kids deserve to know the whole story. The intended elimination reminds me of Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Caldecott winning book Abraham Lincoln, in which there is no mention of Lincoln’s assassination. Do we think we are protecting young adults by eliminating facts? Do we think they won’t find out? What is it that is so much more terrifying about sex than exploding brains, spewing skull fragments, and revolvers?

president bookSwanson’s book establishes a strong narrative flow immediately. His writing is detailed, jargon-free, and action-packed. He is always able to put his reader right inside the story while using a third-person point of view. Swanson knows how to paint a picture, and emphasizes significant things that are not just arbitrary. I’ve read so much about the Kennedys and I never had read this: When Jackie got off the plane in Dallas, she was given red roses EVEN THOUGH the state flower was the yellow rose. Apparently, “so many of them had been ordered for the various events the Kennedys would attend in Texas that local florists had run out of them” (87-8). Pretty eerie that Jackie would be given red roses in the city that her husband would be assassinated in only minutes later. Never-before seen photographs are released in this book, and Swason’s charts and graphs are descriptive and compelling. Swanson details Oswald’s every move through text and picture, even recreating his view of Elm Street from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Several photographs of the seconds after the violent shots are shown from varied angles, displaying Clint Hill covering the president and Jackie with his own body. Swanson’s biggest accomplishment is his ability to keep the tension high while keeping facts straight; I didn’t want to put the book down.

kennedy bookWhile I’m not normally a fan of O’Reilly’s politics, I went into this book with a distinct conviction to be unbiased. O’Reilly starts his book off with a personal touch, describing where he was and how he felt on November 22, 1963. He outlines his book into four parts—The Making of a Hero, The Making of a Leader, Dallas, Texas—November 1963, and The Making of a Legend. The chapters alternate perspectives, recounting the parallel time frames of the lives of Kennedy and Oswald. It is an interesting approach the illuminates personality traits of both men. Using present tense, O’Reilly attempts to place his reader directly into the narrative, as if it is happening right now. The thing is, Swanson does that with past tense and it makes much more sense. One does not need to write in present tense in order to make a story come alive. In fact, because the book often needs to use past tense for historical background and context, it is strange to jump back and forth between tenses. Yet, O’Reilly writes with respect towards JFK and loyalty to his country. I was bothered by some of the assumptions made, specifically about people feeling certain things. For example, O’Reilly states , “Jackie Kennedy likes to think of herself as a traditional wife, focusing most of her attention on her husband and children” (55-6). First of all, how do we know what Jackie Kennedy felt about her role as a wife? Secondly, I have read the contrary. Rather than focusing on her family and children, Jackie took several trips abroad without her children, and very rarely had to do the things that many “traditional mothers” have to do—change dirty diapers, cook breakfast, do the dishes, clean the laundry. While I’m not doubting Jackie’s loyalty to her family, I do doubt O’Reilly’s statement that she was a traditional wife. In the memoir Mrs. Kennedy and Me, by Clint Hill (Jackie’s personal secret service agent), Hill describes Mrs. Kennedy in a way you’ve never known her before. It’s definitely a book to read if you like all things Kennedy.

It is difficult to be an author that follows up a fabulous year of narrative nonfiction, and let’s face it—2012 rocked. These two authors do a good job with building and maintaining a tense, politically-charged, mysterious story about a piece of contemporary history. When I grew up, history was just history to me. It all seemed the same, and numbers never had much significance for me, because I just had to MEMORIZE them. I probably became fascinated with the Kennedys because my parents constantly told me about that time period—it’s when they grew up. I remember the realization of “Woah. Civil Rights wasn’t long ago. This assassination (and Bobby Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s) was one lifetime away from me.” Kids in middle school and high school now don’t have as many parents that remember this time. It’s up to great nonfiction writers to preserve the past and keep the story alive. Swanson’s book available in October; O’Reilly’s in stores now.

Openly Straight

Openly StraightOpenly Straight

by Bill Konigsberg

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013.

In the hilarious comedy Anger Management, Jack Nicholson’s character (a therapist) asks Adam Sandler’s character (an average Joe businessman) who he is (see video below). Adam Sandler answers with thoughts about his job, his personality, and his “likes.” Jack Nicholson pushes, and says “No, those are things ABOUT you. I want to know WHO YOU ARE.” An entertaining dialogue pursues, and the movie goes on.

Who are you?

Quite the question, huh? Often times, when I get asked this question when meeting someone new, my stomach feels like someone forced Robitussin cough syrup down my throat (the worst thing I can remember tasting in my life). Who am I? A graduate student. A dog lover. A dancer. A musician. A writer. I work at a library and I’m a middle child and in my spare time I do aerial acrobatics and play piano. My favorite candy is Laffy Taffy.

All of this is true. But is it really who I am? WHAT DOES THAT QUESTION MEAN?

Part of the problem is that we aren’t defined just by our own labels. Other people have labeled me, and in ways I don’t always like. Blonde. Overly Sensitive. A Pushover. Sometimes, I believe or become those things because someone else labeled me that way. Labeling is a scary, slippery slope, and it happens every day to everyone.

In Bill Konigsberg’s new YA novel, Openly Straight, seventeen-year-old Rafe is sick of his label. He’s been “the gay boy” since he came out in eighth grade, and it has become exhausting. He knows he’s got it lucky—he lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he isn’t bullied in school, his parents fully accept his sexuality, and he has good friends. But he’s been defined by this one label for so long that he feels like his other parts have disappeared. So he takes a risk and transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England to try out a new method of self-expression—being “openly straight.”

For a while, life is fabulous. Rafe discovers his love of sports, hones his gift of creative writing, and fulfills his desire to be seen as Rafe, not Gay Rafe. But of course, there is another boy in this book—a boy that Rafe falls for, and complication ensues. Konignsberg writes his first-person narrative with a quirky grace and his dialogue with honesty and intelligence. His ability to build relationships between characters and willingness to ask thought-provoking, challenging questions to his reader is exceptional.

There’s still more to this book that I’m not including; something that is very hard to put into words. Alas, I will try.

We all want to be taken for the entire, deeply layered, multi-dimensional person that we are. I know I don’t want one of my labels to define me, but I do want the sum of my PARTS to define me. There is a type of psychotherapy called “Parts therapy,” which is based on the concept that we are complex human beings that have many different parts within us. I have a sensitive Part, but I also have a bold Part. I am a creative artist, but I am also a researcher and scholar. I don’t want to get stuck in one Part, and I don’t want to get hidden beneath a Part so no one sees any of the other Parts. Is my sexuality important? Of course. Does it define WHO I AM? No, it’s a Part. There is no Me without every Part that exists within me, and if I deny a Part of me, I’m not really Me either. Parts are fluid. They are not static; they change as we change. Openly Straight is poignant and powerful because it both asks and challenges the question: WHO ARE YOU?

Rafe would have to answer that question for himself, but I’m guessing he would say that he’s many, many things, but most of all he’s human. I would tell him that I’m the same, and that I’m a system of Parts that all work together to create the one—and only—me.

Just like you.

Boot & Shoe

boot & shoeBoot & Shoe

by Marla Frazee

Beach Lane Books, 2012.

There is no denying that Marla Frazee has made her mark on children’s literature. Her signature illustration style has delighted children and award committees with titles such as Stars, All the World, and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever.

Boot & Shoe, Frazee’s 2012 gem, stands out for me among her work. I know this is partially because I’m a dog person—I even have two dogs who are brother and sister, similar to Boot and Shoe. But this book is much more for me than just being part of a target audience. It is rich with humor, artistry, and honesty.

Boot and Shoe come from the same litter, and they do everything together—eat, sleep, and even pee. But, Boot likes the back porch and Shoe likes the front porch. Frazee uses soft lines of black Primsacolor pencil and textures and details every page with gouche paint to bring out a wide variety of moods. Significant white space is used throughout the book to highlight vignettes, half-page spreads, and energetic scenes. The crisis of the book—when the dogs can’t find each other—instantly changes Frazee’s artistic style. In nighttime, sad scenes, Frazee uses harsher, straighter lines and deep colors of black and blue pencil. One of my favorite spreads is when the sun comes up, and both Boot and Shoe begin to cry.

So, the book changes. I read this book in a storytime, and kids were laughing and giggling and pointing at the beginning. But when the dogs couldn’t find each other, there was real fear in the room. When Boot and Shoe cried, the room was silent. While I was reading, I kept thinking, “Wow, this is a dynamic book.” Yes, it’s about dogs and friendship. But it’s also about loss; it’s telling children that it’s okay to cry when you feel sad, and it’s doing it with an honest intention and a comforting approach. Rather than books that are only charming and funny (which are great at times, too), Boot and Shoe really spans a variety of moods and emotions, just like we all feel every day. How great to have such authentic, conscientious storytelling for children.

And I gotta say it: If you have dogs or love dogs, this is a book for you. I grew up with one dog, and when she passed away my parents decided to get two—a brother and sister, Jem and Scout. Since getting to know these cuddly dudes, I’m telling you, I’ve never seen such friendship. Besides the fact that Jem would eat all of Scout’s food if he could and Scout bites Jem’s ears constantly, these two dogs are BFFs. Just like Boot and Shoe, they sleep together, eat together, play together. But they are individuals, too. Seeing how much they love each other just makes me want to love more, and to treat each person I meet the way they treat each other—with an open heart, a forgiving soul, and always a shoulder (or back or stomach) to lie on.

Thanks, Marla Frazee. You rule.

Check out Scout and Jem’s friendship throughout their lives below.

IMG_0067  IMG_0258 IMG_0305

IMG_0665 IMG_0746_2

A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff


I pick up a book for a number of reasons—good reviews, a fabulous cover, or because a friend or colleague gives a recommendation. Rarely does a book’s title encourage me to dive in. Even though A Tangle of Knots has all of the aforementioned things, its title is what really struck me.

Tangles and knots both suggest tension, complexity, and stress. I don’t know about anyone else out there, but the world has seemed to be a tangle of knots lately. I’m not sure when the tangle of knots began for me—maybe 9/11 was the first time I truly  comprehended catastrophe. Since then, and very recently, it feels like they just keep coming– the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. The Boston Marathon bombings. The tornado. The daily violence here in Chicago.

That’s just the United States. If I start thinking about the terrorism in Mogadishu or the violence in Syria, the knots get thicker and the tangles more snarly.

So what does this difficult stuff have to do with a middle grade novel? Well, I picked up this book in the middle of one of those really tangly, knotty weeks. I had read first-person accounts from the families affected by the Newtown, CT shootings at my doctor’s appointment. The Boston Marathon bombings happened. Then the tornado came. Yet, as I read Graff’s novel, a number of things changed for me. First of all, I let myself sink into the world of the novel and was distracted from my sensitivity for little while. Graff’s eloquent, imaginative story weaving and her sophisticated, third-person writer’s voice made it impossible not to be encapsulated by the book. Secondly, I laughed, probably for the first time that week. Lastly, the book was a window and a mirror.  I thought about the book’s tangle of knots, my own tangle of knots, and the world’s tangle of knots, and I accepted them all.

This acceptance probably has to do with the fact that the book is all about cake, and there is no way I can be in a bad mood when I am reading about cake. The protagonist, Cady, is an orphan searching for her place in the world. She has her own special Talent—she can meet someone and instantly know his or her favorite cake. I love Cady. The novel is rich with a puzzle of characters, but what I love about Cady is that she has lost almost everything, and she is not bitter. By the end of the book, I realized that Cady’s magic had nothing to do with her cake making—it is all about her heart. Add in a whimsical family, an old woman who has lost her ability to speak, a boy who has a Talent for spitting, a thief, several real cake recipes, and some blue suitcases–we’ve got a winner.

As I turned the last page, I stopped thinking about the horrific parts of past tragedies and turned toward the small miracles. The police workers on 9/11. The Boston marathoners who crossed the finish line and ran to the local hospitals to give blood. The interview with the woman who had lost her dog in the rubble of Oklahoma’s tornado (see attached video). I know people talk about the small stuff, but it truly is everywhere. And it’s written all over Graff’s novel. A ferret. Peanut butter cake.  A missing dinosaur bone.

And then I thought: tangles and knots. Yes, both suggest tension. But put in a different light, they suggest stability, support, strength. We tie knots when we want something to stay together. When my hair tangles, it comes together in clumps, and each individual hair is indistinguishable. Maybe sometimes we need to be individuals, to be untangled and free. But other times, especially hard times, we need to tie knots with each other, and learn to lean on each other for support and strength. Cady does.

Graff writes, “Cady was one of the biggest-hearted people Marigold had ever met—she tried harder than anybody else to make others happy…If Marigold had learned anything that week, it was that trying hard and being a good person didn’t always mean that good things would happen to you.”

We all know that bad things happen. But that fact doesn’t make Cady lose her sensitive heart or her willingness to stay positive, so it won’t make me lose mine, either.

I think my favorite cake would be a chocolate one; almost brownie-like, with a really rich, dense texture and chocolate frosting, warmed up with ice cream on the side.

What’s your favorite?

Dynamic Bibliography: Eight Keys and Relish

Every month at the Butler Center, we have an open discussion group in which we consider three books with something in common, called Butler Book Banter. The purpose of this meeting—to discuss books in the context of others—resonates with part of Thom Barthelmess’s mission for the Butler Center: what he calls Dynamic Bibliography.

I personally think Dynamic Bibliography should be added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The concept rests in the idea that while it is important to look at an individual book, the real truth, discovery, beauty, essence, and energy of a work resides in intertextuality. How do books talk to each other? What are common themes, or how do themes resist each other or argue? What is between the lines, between the pages, between the covers of a list of books? How does a book change when you discuss it in context with different books? When we put two, or three, or four books next to each other, they certainly say something different than one that stands alone.

What’s fabulous is that what the books say is all up to the reader.

Today, I am going to attempt this concept of discussion through Dynamic Bibliography with two books, both published within the last two years. They are:

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur. Published by Wendy Lamb Books, 2011.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. Published by First Second, 2013.

ImageEight Keys tells the story of middle grader Elise, who is struggling between her childhood self and her impending adolescence. With a best friend who she believes to be childish, a locker partner who smashes her lunch, and two parents who died before she was three, Elise doesn’t have it easy. Then, Elise discovers a key that has her name on it in her uncle’s barn, and she enters a mystery that might finally help her come to terms with her past, her situation, and herself.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a graphic novel that is not just about food, but about finding deliciousness in every aspect of life. In this memoir, Lucy tells her life story through interaction of text and illustration, and she tells it in the context of sautéed garlic mushrooms, sushi, gourmet cheese, and much more. She tells of her life as a child of divorce, her travels abroad, her time in college, and her work life, her artistic core, and her relationships. It is refreshing to read a novel about a young woman who loves food, who enjoys it, and who has a healthy relationship with it.


Now, at first glance, these books don’t really have much to do with each other. One is a middle grade piece of fiction, one a graphic novel memoir. One’s focus is on mystery and school life, one is on food. One is written in linear prose, the other through childhood flashbacks and illustration.


But, let’s take a deeper look…what do both of these books say? What do they say to each other?


1.)    Family. Both of these girls’ lives are connected with their families, and both in unconventional ways. Elise is raised by her aunt and uncle, and Lucy spends time going back and forth between her mom’s house in the country and her dad’s city apartment. Yet, both girls cherish their families, get upset with their families, and forgive their families. And they both need their families.




“I walked over to her, climbed into her lap. I’m much too big for that; hadn’t done it in years and years, couldn’t even remember doing it, really. But I sat sideways with my legs on the couch. I put my arms around her neck and rested by head on her shoulder. She slipped her arms around me and held on.”
Eight Keys


“After almost eight years of living in Chicago, I realized: I’m homesick…And I missed my mom’s cooking.”




2.)    Friends. Elise’s friendship stories play a more significant role in the plot than Lucy’s, but several of Lucy’s vignettes include friendship as a central piece of her own development. Elise’s best friend Franklin is so kind and giving that when Elise ditches his babyish ways, my goes out to him. The antithesis of friendship—bullying—is also present in Eight Keys. Maybe it’s just the bullied kid in me (I have such white skin; kids called me “Albino” and “Alien” because you could see veins in my arms), but I was surprised that bullying wasn’t part of Lucy’s story. What does the absence of bullying say about Lucy’s story? That it didn’t happen, or that it wasn’t significant?


“Once we got on the bus, it was totally like usual—just me and Franklin on our own, in our own seat, having our own conversation. That was how the whole school day always used to go. We didn’t really need to get to know the other kids because we had each other.”


-Eight Keys




“We ate [sweet corn on a stick] while sitting on the dusty curb, with cold grapefruit soda, making a mess of our clothes and faces.”




3.)    Leaving Childhood behind. Adolescence was a hard, sad time for me, which is probably why coming-of-age novels are always my favorite. I see myself in them. Both of these girls struggle with questions—why is middle school so much harder than elementary? Why am I getting bad grades? Why is my dad so dang hard to get along with? Why doesn’t my family understand me? Lucy tells her story as an adult reflecting back on childhood, so her maturity bleeds through, while Elise is right in the middle of her struggle and doesn’t apologize for it. While each of these girls grow in different ways, they both find their way through the muck and become strong along the way.


“No one likes me because I’m friends with that dweebus Franklin. He makes me look like a baby.”


-Eight Keys


“We fought. The truth is, my dad and I are sometimes too similar—too finicky and stubborn and easily wounded—to get along all the time.”




4.)    Self-Discovery: This is the big one. Through overcoming obstacles, reconciling the past, and facing the future with an open heart, both of these girls discover who they are. Lucy uses food as a way to illustrate her self-discovery, and this makes sense because food is all about the senses—feeling, seeing, smelling, sensing, wanting, touching, tasting. Isn’t that what adolescence is about? Dipping our fingers into adulthood, trying certain dishes and finding out that some are delicious and some are disgusting? Elise discovers herself through a gift from her father, and sees that instead of waiting to live her life until after she grows up, realizes that she’s already living it, and has been her whole life.  


“It could be whatever I needed it to be, whatever I wanted it to be. And the truth, I suddenly understood, was that so could I.”


-Eight Keys


“Like me, still a young woman, learning about what moves me, what I want. What I love. And doing these things with excitement, curiosity, and relish.”




These girls are both lovable, both smart, and both grow into themselves in their respective books. I think if they were to magically appear in front of me, they would be friends. They would argue because they are both strong-headed, and they would both be protective of their own hearts.


But I can also see them planting a garden, Elise telling Lucy the way they do it on her farm, and Lucy returning with memories from her mother’s garden in the country.

And they’d share a tomato.

Summer and Bird

ImageSummer and Bird

by Catherine Catmull

Dutton, 2012

This book is a book to write about.

I first picked it up on Thom Barthelmess’s (curator of The Butler) recommendation, but was also instantly attracted to the beauty of the cover. A cream background contrasted with eerie, sharp bare tree branches echoes the themes of light and dark in the text. A giant swan opens its wings at the top of the cover, inviting you to look at the beautifully embossed, maroon, shiny cursive-like font of the title. The stark white of the back cover seems stripped of feeling, except for the back of two girls walking away, close in physical space but looking in different directions. Ingenious design here.

The text itself is lyrical, insightful, and entirely imaginative. Like Shannon Hale, Catmull pulls you slowly into her world, and in order to follow, you have to surrender your skepticism and let yourself be taken over by the lush phrases and astonishing world building. As with Neil Gaiman or Kathi Appelt, you must relinquish control let the author lead you through a story that will surely be magical, and maybe will even change you.

The plot centers on two very different sisters, Summer and Bird, who wake up one day to find their parents missing in their forest home. Softspoken, warm Summer and the young, spunky, but selfish Bird are overwhelmed with confusion, rejection, and mystery, but decide to follow a cryptic note from their mother and are drawn to the woods in search of their parents. Much like Narnia or The Looking Glass, the sisters enter into the fantasy world of Down, where they take separate, parallel journeys as they try to find their parents. Through their own experiences—Bird falling under the power of The Puppeteer, a manipulative bird who has stolen her mother’s crown, and Summer finding herself stuck in a nest high in the sky with nothing but a small egg—they find that maybe what they were searching for wasn’t necessarily their parents, but themselves. Touching on complex themes of jealousy, desire for power, betrayal, guilt, anger, the dynamic nature of family relationships, courage, inner strength, hope, and freedom, this book is mesmerizing and thought provoking. I admit that as I was reading it, I went through cycles of emotion—anger, fear, irritation, hope, joy, catharsis, and a type of tender sorrow that reaches down deep where I can feel my chest sting a bit with wonder.

Catmull writes in a third-person omniscient perspective, one that is difficult to write in and hard to keep your reader involved in, because the narrator knows every character, and can write from each of their viewpoints. Catmull, however, uses the perspective to add layer and layer upon the story, sometimes jumping in time, sometimes giving the reader secret information that Summer and Bird do not know. Abundant with the mythology of birds and elements of fairy tale, Catmull entwines sections of her story like a skilled weaver, leaving her reader with a one-of-a-kind, extraordinary piece of art.

An eloquent, magical, unsettling, brave debut novel, this is one you want to read.

“All their lives, Bird had been the difficult one, the unmanageable child, and Summer the good girl who could always be relied on. But Summer could see that Bird had always found her own story and chosen to follow it, and Summer envied that. Most of all, she envied the magnetic bird-soul that had told Bird what to do.”

~from the text