• Grace McKinney

What I Read This Summer: An Un-Curated List

This summer surprised me a bit. I had—or maybe made—more time to read during my Primary training. I found myself reaching for books whenever I had a spare moment, looking for something that would satisfy my need for a good story. Last summer, the thought of reading something more would have sent me over the edge and only the Great British Bake Off would do. I distinctly remember watching the book I had laid on my bedside table quite literally collect dust over the two months I was working on lesson plans and papers, woefully waiting for the day I could pick it up again.

Not so this year! Not only was I surprised by the amount of time I spent reading and listening to books, I noticed myself reaching for things outside what I would consider my "genres." Gaby and I have loosely allocated ourselves to specialize in different age groups and genres for the purposes of this blog; I tackle stacks of picture books and generally illustrated things, while Gaby works her way through middle grade and young adult pieces. I find myself most comfortable with picture books even when choosing outside the blog, and I have been quite pleased with this arrangement. However, my summer was filled with middle grade and young adult books almost exclusively.

And, while summer is the time that children often slog through assigned reading lists and adults skim through easy, breezy "beach reads," I found myself somewhere in the middle. I was making my way through these relatively quick reads (for an adult), but I was being challenged in ways I didn't expect. The diversity of human experience, whether by race, disability, folklore, or socioeconomic status, shone brighter in each and every book I picked up during these sweltering months. If only I'd had that opportunity as a child, instead of falling asleep daily reading Great Expectations at fourteen. (Sorry, Dickens.)

So, without further ado, a very un-curated list of the books I read this summer.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

(Ages 9-12) When meningitis leaves her unable to hear the world around her, Cece Bell must get used to a new normal, which includes having a hefty hearing aid called the Phonic Ear strapped to her chest at all times. Bell's autobiographical account grapples with disability, difference, and self-doubt amidst family, new friends, and new teachers, but does so with humor and frankness. Her bunny-eared characters provide a touch of whimsy, and her author's note further explains her own experiences with deafness and Deaf culture. This was a powerful and enjoyable read, and led me to more of Bell's books where her skill with humor shines through as well.

Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

(Ages 9-12) Shannon Hale penned one of my very favorite books as a teenager, The Goose Girl, a novelized adaptation of a German fairy tale that touched on just the right amount of adventure, romance, and far-away-ness that I craved. Real Friends, however, is almost nothing like it, but thirteen-year-old me was still very excited to see something else with her name on the cover. Her graphic novel details (with what she admits is an "incomplete memory") her experience navigating friendships in the phase just before entering sixth grade. Hale captures the human person so vividly, never letting them flatline into two dimensional tropes. Paired with Pham's equal attention to detail, Hale's experience rings incredibly true to the highs, lows, and whiplash of friendships and explores the beginnings of her creativity as a writer. The recently published Best Friends is a continuation of Hale's story, and is equally worth the read.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang (audiobook read by Sunny Lu)

(Ages 9-12) This was my first audiobook of the summer, one that I'd heard about but largely stepped into without much background. Yang tells the story of Mia Tang, a young girl (much like Yang) who immigrated with her parents from China several years ago. Her parents find positions at the Calivista Motel, where they manage the motel for the domineering and outright mean owner, Mr. Yao. Mia is displeased to find that his son is in her class at school, making it all the more difficult to hide the secrets she's keeping from friends. Persevering and hopeful, Mia fights for her family and friends to get off the "roller coaster" they seem to be strapped into for life and learns that writing may be that escape. Yang bluntly addresses Mia's experience of racism and poverty as a member of an immigrant family, pulling largely from her own experience as an immigrant to the United States. Sunny Lu brings veracity and sincerity to Mia's voice in the audiobook—one that's kept me thinking for weeks afterward.

The Language of Fire by Stephanie Hemphill

(Ages 12-15, 15-18) Another novel in verse about the life of St. Joan of Arc (what a year for Joan!), Hemphill's narrative begins before Joan steps into armor, when she lives among her sister, brothers, and parents in a small French town. Her poetry manages to weave thorough historical detail and reverent consideration of what a young and faithful farm girl like Joan could be thinking as she leads an army to victory against the British. Hemphill finds her stride in the latter half of this book, near the end of Joan's short life. Keep your eyes peeled for the The Horn Book's starred review of this one in their September/October issue.

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix

(Ages 12-15, 15-18) I'm bending the truth here, because I definitely read this on a snow day this past spring. BUT, it beautifully pairs with Hemphill's equally unconventional form for a biography—Hendrix straddles between graphic novel and more typical narrative nonfiction. His vivid full-page illustrations heighten the drama, both interior and exterior, of the events that unfolded in the life of Bonhoeffer. I picked this one up because it had been included in a Mock Caldecott discussion (which was, admittedly, a stretch), and Hendrix's art did not disappoint. I was enthralled from cover to cover, and any history-savvy teen would probably be, too.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (audiobook read by Bahni Turpin)

(Ages 12-15, 15-18) I'm not sure I would have been as captivated by this book had I not listened to Bahni Turpin read it on audiobook. And I'm not alone in this: her rendering won Adeyemi's title the 2019 Audie Award for Audiobook of the year. Adeyemi sets her story in a fictionalized West African setting of Orïsha, a nation where magic has been squelched. Zélie, a young woman endowed with magic, finds herself chosen to bring magic back, and she sets out to do so alongside her brother Zain and the king's rebellious daughter. I know I'm late to the party (read: bestseller), but if you haven't listened to this one, I highly recommend it.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

(Ages 6-9, 9-12) I have had a copy of Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon since I had the pleasure of meeting her during graduate school. She spoke to my class on the Picture Book during a visit to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in western Massachusetts, sharing her experience of growing up to embrace the Chinese culture she'd shunned for so long. This middle grade novel is the fruit of that embrace, and it is simply a joy. Minli sets out to change her family's fortune, encountering dragons and tigers and twins—oh my!—along the way. The narrative pauses at times, waiting for other's to share their stories or the tales of their ancestors, nodding to the traditions of storytelling in Chinese culture. This book is both physically and narratively gorgeous, and as I finally picked it up to read it, I found the sweet signature the author left on my copy from the day I got it: "For, Grace; From, Grace!"

My takeaways from these reads?

Children grapple with difficult things, and it's important that we invite them to think and talk and read about them. Don't shy away, even if you aren't quite sure of the answers.

Children have stories worth telling, whether it's from their own lives or the lives they imagine for themselves. Help them find their voice.

Oral storytelling is a preservative for the best and most magical parts of human history, and we shouldn't forget about it. Make space for storytelling.

Books come in as many shapes and sizes as people. (Probably. This is a broad assertion. I'll get back to you.) Try reading outside your bookshelf for a change, or pick up the one that's been collecting dust in the corner.

And, last but not least: people are resilient beyond belief.

That's all for now. We'll be back this fall as we start curating more book lists for all ages. Until then: have you read any of these? What did you read this summer, and what are you excited to pick up this fall?

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