I’ve always been interested in space, and I’m sure my childhood fantasies of being an astronaut led to my strong sci-fi leanings as a teen and adult. This book is a fab graphic novel which looks at the history of women’s involvement in the space program. It tells the compelling narrative story of Mary Cleave, one of the first women to complete NASA space training and then go on to complete 2 space missions and eventually lead the NASA Science Mission Directorate. Her personal story serves as a frame for the political and feminist history of women in space, and we see the story of the Russian space program and how it got there first. I particularly love how they employ a different font on the panels which depict the experiences of the Soviet space program. It’s a great visual cue to help differentiate these opposite yet parallel narratives.
The illustrations are charming, the science is fascinating, and the message is powerful – women can do anything, despite the men who try to tell them no. There’s some serious historical research that went into this book, and the librarian in me loves the source list at the end. The insight into the committee hearings which almost saw the Women in Space Program sidelined permanently was fascinating too – “of course we’ll need women eventually if we are planning on colonising another planet!” I loved this book, and will be on the lookout for their other graphic novel, Primates, to read soon!
I have loved going to the library for as long as I can remember. I don’t recall the first time I stepped into one – I should ask my mum about that. I do remember, though, that in my childhood growing up in a small country town in NSW (hey there, Wallerawang!) I’d visit our council-run library multiple times a week. On the way home from school, even though it really wasn’t on the way. On a Saturday morning, which would turn into a Saturday afternoon until the librarian eventually kicked me out. I visited it a few years ago, on my way home from a family funeral, and whilst I recognised the outside of the building, the inside was new and different. At the same time, though, if I had to describe that the inside looked like when I lived there, I don’t know that I could – it lives in my memory as an impression, rather than an image.
I don’t really remember anything about the books I read when I spent my time there either. There are no titles that stick out for me, nor magic discoveries of favourite books or authors that ended up staying with me forever, which is strange now I think about it. But I think what happened for me between those four walls was bigger than any one story. I discovered a safe space. Surrounded by ideas, able to meet people and explore places with no fear of being hurt, or disappointed, or rejected, I discovered the world that would become my home. In my current job, we’ve kind of adopted the unofficial tagline of “Stories that stay with you” to encapsulate the impact that stories can have on a reader, and that’s totally true. But sometimes, those stories stay with you through an impression, a feeling of connection and safety, a feeling of being seen by a character on a page who you’ll struggle to remember years later but whose impact is no less lasting or important.
I went through a phase in primary school where I didn’t visit my school library, after the librarian told me that I was “too young” to read a particular book (an irony if you know what I do now for a job!) but my high school librarians were people who saw me, who nurtured the lost soul that I invariably was, and who fed my desire for connection and comfort with whatever I wanted to read, and whatever they thought would speak to me. It was also around this time that we moved to another town – not far away, and not all that much bigger, but it held the main branch of the little council library that had been my childhood spiritual home. I was entranced. Rows and rows of shelves, and no-one cared that this skinny nerdy little 12 year old was wandering around carrying books that were far too heavy for her, both physically and intellectually. And the day I discovered the basement stacks, and the book sale tables … well, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Not surprisingly, I spent countless hours throughout uni in the library, but something happened when I got married and had children. Not through any fault of theirs, but I kind of forgot how much libraries meant to me. I’d half-heartedly go sometimes, usually to take the kids, but eventually we just stopped seeing each other, my Library Lover and I. When I started teaching, I spent very little time in the library, as the one that was at my school bore no relation to any library I’d loved before.
And then, I got the chance to change it. It stoked in me a passion I’d forgotten existed. I started to remember what my past Library Lovers had meant to me, and it made me want to build something like that for the students I treasured, as well as the ones I didn’t know. Did it work? I’m not sure. I know that for the kids who spent time in my library, it mattered. I hope that there are traces of that still living on in that space now I’m gone.
Now, I don’t spend much time in libraries – they’re the first places I schedule visits to on holidays, and I’ve got quite the collection of library cards, but they aren’t really a part of my typical weekly schedule. I guess I’d like to change that, and I’m going to pop into my local library this afternoon and pay my very overdue lost book fine (sorry, Penrith City Library!). Whilst I don’t spend time in a library often, though, I’m so passionate about their importance, and their potential to positively impact the lives of individuals and communities in ways that you can’t easily quantify, but are nonetheless meaningful. I guess you could say I’m in a long distance relationship with libraries now (which is also kind of appropriate if you know my personal story!)
So, happy library lovers’ day. Go visit yours this weekend. Ask the librarian for a recommendation. Give them a smile. And pick up a story that will hopefully stay with you for long after the last page is read.
Well. Books that bring me to tears, part 2. This uncorrected proof arrived in my world yesterday, and I read it last night. It’s long, but it’s a verse novel, so a relatively quick read. It’s not easy though, with some pretty heavy content. A patriarchal family with an abusive alcoholic at the head, both parents dealing with illiteracy, and the mother working a cash-in-hand sweatshop job. A teenager who is a talented runner but has limited resources and parental support to pursue this. The impacts of poverty, and privilege, and generational trauma. It’s heavy going, but the beauty of the poetry makes it somehow easier to bear. It had me thinking about my own experiences as a teacher – was I always as sensitive as I could have been to the kid falling asleep in my class? Did I make assumptions about resourcing and support that may have been out of the realm of possibility for some of my students? I think I was possibly one of the better ones, but I don’t know that I always got that right.
Built around the framework of An Anatomy of A Revolution – how do you overthrow an oppressive regime? – this book is stunning. It’s out next month. Please read it.
I don’t often listen to audiobooks at home, but Kelsey warned me I shouldn’t be in public when I finished this one, so I listened to the last hour or so of it last night. It was a good tip. There were messy tears. A beautiful, sensitive, sweet and smart book that I wish I’d read earlier. Aristotle is angry a lot of the time, and he doesn’t really know why. He meets Dante, and they strike up an instant connection. Two Mexican American boys with different families and experiences weave their way through this book to try and figure out the secrets of the universe. Do they get there? Maybe. You’ll have to read it to find out. But I feel like I understand it a little better now. The audiobook was beautifully narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda, and the print copy I stole off Kelsey is now dog-eared with many marked pages and passages that I’ll revisit in the future. A gem of a book.
I’m a sucker for a book featuring an orphan. I grew up reading my mum’s old British “orphan goes to boarding school/ finds a new home” books – Jan of the Fourth, The Secret Garden, and Anne of Green Gables were favourites. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how I feel about Harry Potter (books and movies – NOT author). So when The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris (yes, that one) came across my desk I nabbed it. Such a sweet story! I love that, despite the potential for scare factor (emotionally abusive carer, freaky-arsed clown bandits) it’s a gentle and nurturing story. Clever as you’d expect for a book about magic, it contains a number of “how-to’s” which will help aspiring magicians learn some clever sleight-of-hand and number trick magic skills. There are also a few hidden puzzles and ciphers for the sleuths among you. I particularly love the sweet dual dads, and hope that we get to see more of both of them in future books in this series. 10/10 recommend for your middle grade readers with an interest in magic, puzzles, and stories that have a bit of mystery but aren’t too challenging emotionally!
I don’t read a lot of manga or graphic novels usually, but this has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a little while now, and in the spirit of clearing space for new books I decided to give it a go. It’s quite lovely actually! I know that KonMarie takes a bit of a beating in the world of book lovers, as people get all up in arms about a statement Marie made about 30 books being ideal FOR HER, but I really like the simplicity of her method. I think focusing on what is important to you, and what contributes in positive ways to the kind of life you want, is a valuable skill to have. This was a quick read – it took me about an hour or so to whip through it. If you have teens or younger people in your life who have expressed an interest in wanting to get areas of their life in order, it’d be a good read for them.
I started Curious by Lily Serna yesterday on the way home, read a few chapters on the couch last night with Minerva overseeing, and have just finished it on the train into the city. What a joy this book is! I know it’s anathema to say, as you’re supposed to either be English or Maths and never the Twain shall meet, but I’ve always been a bit of a number nerd.
Curious is a delightful romp through dinner party maths, monopoly strategy, and how to look smart through quick mental calculation tricks. Any book which dedicates a few pages to working our value for money when ordering pizza has my vote, and the section on the Special Pancake Number had me smiling so hard. Lily’s sheer joy for maths is contagious, and she does that rare and wonderful thing of taking potentially challenging and confronting ideas and breaking them down into supportive and simple components so that those who think they aren’t really maths people can come away with something new.
I love her view that “arithmetic is to maths what words are to English. Words are, of course, the building blocks of language. However the value of a beautiful piece of processor a poem is greater than the sum of the words that form them.” Patterns, processes and predictions in maths are fascinating, and I’d recommend this book for both number nerds and the number challenged alike. It’s a really friendly, funny and supportive romp through maths in your everyday life.
I’m a sucker for a book which takes a classic narrative and gives it a contemporary twist, so a rewrite of Gulliver’s Travels should be right up my alley, right? Well, yes and no. I appreciate the message around finding your place in a new world as a refugee. The multiple narrators convey an interesting story, the illustrations and typesetting are fab, and the voice of the eponymous Boy Giant, Afghani refugee Omar, is authentic and linguistically well represented. I think there will be some readers to whom this book will speak loudly and powerfully, but I’m just not one of them. I’m a firm believer in the idea that when the right people and books come together, Magic happens, and for me, there was no magic here. If I was still in a library, though, I’d have no hesitation recommending it to younger readers. I think the interplay between classic British literature and migrant story that happens in this text is really interesting, and I’m glad I read it. It would probably have helped, truth be told, if I actually enjoyed Gullivers Travels!
I’m really interested in books which represent queer characters and stories. It’s been gratifying to see many more of these being published for YA readers in recent years, but there’s not been a lot for younger readers. I picked up George from a cute little bookshop just near Central Park in New York last year. and have just gotten around to reading it. It’s totally lovely. For middle graders who might be questioning their own gender identity, it provides an insight into what sharing that story with the people you love might look like. For young people who might find themselves dealing with someone “different” in their lives, it provides a sense of empathy. A sweet, sensitively handled story of a girl discovering how to tell her family and friends that her name is Melissa and not George. If you’ve got kids in your life trying to get their heads around what the T stands for in the acronym, this book is the perfect gentle and non-confrontational read for them.
There were tiny oceans in my eyes as I finished this exquisite book on the train home tonight. At one point I couldn’t make out the words of the final chapters as the tears overtook me. Mental illness is something quite difficult to capture beautifully on a page, isn’t it? Helena Fox has created something quite extraordinary in the world of Biz.
The blurb of the book says:
“Biz knows how to float. She has her people, her posse, her mom and the twins. She has Grace. And she has her dad, who tells her about the little kid she was, and who shouldn’t be here but is. So Biz doesn’t tell anyone anything. Not about her dark, runaway thoughts, not about kissing Grace or noticing Jasper, the new boy. And she doesn’t tell anyone about her dad. Because her dad died when she was seven. And Biz knows how to float, right there on the surface–normal okay regular fine.
“But after what happens on the beach–first in the ocean, and then in the sand–the tethers that hold Biz steady come undone. Dad disappears and, with him, all comfort. It might be easier, better, sweeter to float all the way away? Or maybe stay a little longer, find her father, bring him back to her. Or maybe–maybe maybe maybe–there’s a third way Biz just can’t see yet.
“This is a mesmerizing, radiant debut, at once heart-rending, humorous, and impossible to put down. Helena Fox tells a story about love and grief and family and friendship, about inter-generational mental illness, and how living with it is both a bridge to someone loved and lost and, also, a chasm. She explores the hard, bewildering, and beautiful places loss can take us, and honors those who hold us tightly when the current wants to tug us out to sea.”
The metaphor of floating is pervasive in this wonder of a debut novel, and as someone who has dealt with anxiety, depression and at one particularly low point in my life persistent suicidal ideations, I could completely recognise and empathise with that feeling of not being in control, of wanting to just give up and let the waves of mental illness carry me away. I found myself gasping frequently as I read, completely overwhelmed with Fox’s extraordinarily skillful and beautiful use of language.
I’d implore you all to read this book, and I totally believe you all should, but I also think you need to make sure that you’re in the right headspace to gently ease your way through someone else’s trauma. Books like this, that offer a window into a personal experience of mental health, are important in so many ways – they help provide a sense of visibility to those who are or have dealt with something similar, and they provide a sense of empathy to those who have not experienced anything like this in their lives. It’s also important, though to take care of yourself, so if these issues sound like something you’re in the throes of dealing with, then maybe this is a “later” book for you. I’ll be buying many, many copies of this, and I know it’s a big call not even halfway through January, but I’m happy to call it my book of the year.