In 1971, a local Chicago radio announcer, Don Cornelius, began Soul Train, a TV show featuring black performers and black dancers. (The name came from a series of dances he put on in Chicago where the performers moved from gym to gym.) It immediately caught on and soon moved to Los Angeles. It went national and became must-see TV for an entire generation of African-Americans, influencing artists, fashion and language for years to come. An icon of cool, Cornelius used the same street slang on the show that he had as a Chicago disc jockey. Soul Train continued for 1,117 shows, until 2006. It constantly adapted to new competition from MTV, American Bandstand, and a copy called Soul Unlimited. In the words of Don Cornelius, “You can bet your last money…it’s gonna be a stone gas honey” to read this book about the most colorful dance show ever to grace the airwaves.
Why I picked it up: I was more of a Solid Gold fan, but I know it was derivative of Soul Train. I jumped at this book, hoping it would explain the beginnings of the show in the 1970s, when fashion and dance were at their flamboyant peak.
Why I finished it: Todd Oldham, a famous clothing designer, said this of the bold outfits worn by the dancers, "[it was] like a giant pancreas on the stage." He didn’t mean that they looked good, but that the dancers were willing to take chances with fashion, and that their looks emboldened him to be more flamboyant with his designs. The Moonwalk, made popular by Michael Jackson, started on Soul Train with a group called the Electric Boogaloos. Many black performers said that a chance to perform on the show was the pinnacle of their dreams, including Snoop Dogg, who said it was a major highlight of his career.
It's perfect for: Amanda, who studies dance. Even though Soul Train is dated, the dance moves are sure to come around into popularity again. I think Amanda would love “The Line” at the end, when performers made a tunnel that a pair danced through, showing off their best, booty-shaking moves.
@bookblrb: The history of the influential TV show Soul Train and its influence on American culture.
A charming yellow dog catches sight of a black speck of a bug. It leads him out the doggie door, down the street, and into a series of increasingly crazy encounters.
Why I picked it up: I saw the sequel, Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors, in the publisher’s catalog and was instantly intrigued by the dog because it has ears like my own Liza Lou. Frustrated that I was going to have to wait until August 2014 to read it, I was very happy to find my library had this book.
Why I finished it: A simple, cute dog story is enough to entertain me. This book went from normal dog behavior (engaging in friendly butt-sniffing) to silly (mirroring goofy grins) to weird (wearing green cat masks) to absolutely surreal (smoking bubble pipes while wearing top hats). I thought nothing could be better than Bow-Wow turning a corner to find dozens of different dogs pursuing their own bugs, but then he ran into a parade of giant bugs chasing tiny dogs.
Readalikes: This book reminds me of those by one of my favorite picture book writers, Todd Parr (It’s Okay to Be Different, The Underwear Book), who also combines thick black outlines and bold colors to create scenes that are cartoonish and have a ton of personality.
@bookblrb: A yellow dog follows a bug out the doggie door and down the street.
Spademan is a garbageman in a largely abandoned New York City. If you want someone dead, he just needs a name and an address. He doesn’t need a reason. He doesn’t want to know why, and he doesn’t care. There’s just one caveat: he doesn’t kill kids.
He’s hired to kill Grace Chastity Harrow, a.k.a. Persephone, the daughter of evangelist T.K. Harrow. It takes him a while to find her. When he sees she’s pregnant, the job is off. For reasons Spademan can’t explain, he finds himself protecting her from her father.
Why I picked it up: It was compared favorably to Ready Player One, so I decided to give it a try. The dust jacket blurb from Ghostman author Roger Hobbs sealed the deal: “...It’s the best sci-fi thriller I’ve read since Snow Crash.”
Why I finished it: It’s not much like Ready Player One at all; it’s much darker and there are no pop culture references. But I enjoyed Sternbergh’s nearly abandoned, post dirty bomb Manhattan quite a bit. The parks are full of tents and squatters. There are no tourists in Times Square -- only religious revivalists dare set foot there. The subway, along with everything else the poor use, is on its last legs. Many of the city’s residents spend their days tapped in to the limnosphere, a VR network the rich have disappeared into to live out their fantasies and conduct their business without being bothered by reality.
It's perfect for: Frank, whose distaste for televangelists is even stronger than mine, because T.K. Harrow is the most evil one I can imagine. He doesn’t just promise Heaven, he sends his followers there -- it’s a place he’s built in the limnosphere, and he lets them tap in. It quickly becomes clear that Harrow is an abusive, scary bastard who wants his daughter back for reasons other than her health and welfare, and that the virtual place he sends his followers is not the promised paradise.
@bookblrb: If you want someone dead, Spademan needs a name and address. But then he sees that his next target is pregnant.
Zac has spent so much time in the hospital to treat his leukemia that he knows the benefits and drawbacks of each room in the cancer ward. When a new teenage girl is admitted, he is curious about her story when she blasts Lady Gaga, verbally abuses her mother, denies that her life will change because of cancer and refuses everyone’s help. Zac is a fountain of positivity with tons of family support, while Mia is foundering -- she even runs away from home and refuses to tell her friends about her medical issues. They strike up a relationship that gives both of them strength.
Why I picked it up: The promotional materials said it was a cross between John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (which is never on my library’s shelves because of the hordes of teen girls waiting to check it out) and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park (a Michael L. Printz honor book and one of my favorite relationship books last year!), so I had to read it.
Why I finished it: The book is painfully realistic. When Zac or Mia have complications, it felt like a friend had been diagnosed. There were some twists and turns in the story where I felt like I was on a knife edge, but I didn’t ever feel manipulated. I liked the details that could only come from someone really familiar with a hospital, like when Zac wonders if the new girl is bored enough to count the ceiling tiles yet, (his room has eighty-four). This book takes place in Australia, which adds a bit of flavor to the story with The Good Olive Farm and Petting Zoo that Zac’s family operates. It was so homey and real that I wanted to pet the alpacas and help out during olive picking season.
It's perfect for: My 9th grade daughter Grace and her gaggle of friends. They are pretty sure that John Green walks on water and is the only author in the history of publishing worth reading. I would like them to have access to other books with snarky dialogue, complicated characters and heartbreak, to help them see that while John Green is awesome, so are other authors.
@bookblrb: Two sick teens, a boy with a positive attitude and a combative, secretive girl, strike up a relationship.
According to rat law, if there is cheese it belongs to the rat who finds it. But there are exceptions to every rule.
Why I picked it up: The cover art drew me in. It showed sketched rats holding a piece of cheese that was a photograph. I love picture books that combine different art mediums like this.
Why I finished it: This is one of those picture books so full of human nature and reality that it’s really for adults. The premise explains that cheese belongs to rats. But with every page the rules change, showing that a bigger, quicker, scarier, hairier, or meaner rat can take the cheese. Rats take the cheese from one another until they are all engaged in a brawl, boxing, wrestling, and biting to get at that piece of cheese.
It's perfect for: Brenda, who kept rats as pets when we were kids. She made it her adolescent life's work to show that rats are not the dirty pests people believe they are. Even though the rats in the book are fighting, the first rat sees the pointlessness in it all and just wants to share. I know that she'd love that sweet rat.
@bookblrb: According to the law, if there’s cheese it belongs to the rat who finds it. But there are exceptions.
Highly detailed color portraits and brief biographical information on sideshow performers from the 1800s to the 1960s take you behind the curtain and introduce you to people who should be showbiz legends but are far too often forgotten.
Why I picked it up: Sideshows are fascinating because they were pretty shady in their day and would be totally unacceptable now. Some of the performers were able to find money and freedom in traveling around, exhibiting their abilities and disabilities, while others were kidnapped, sold, or otherwise kept from doing anything else.
Why I finished it: Friedman's hyper-detailed portraits force you to see the performers as individual human beings. They look like people I see on the bus and at the library.
Readalikes: Celebrity biographies that make you ask yourself why you're looking (and why the subjects want to be looked at). As several people say in the book, there's only one showbiz, and they're all in it.
@bookblrb: Color portraits and biographical information on sideshow performers from the 1800s to 1960s.
For the past decade, Dietrich and Ferguson have been collecting superhero-themed poems and writing a few of their own in hope of creating this anthology. Of course, saying a poem is superhero-themed is about as descriptive as saying it is human-themed. The true themes range from love and longing to existential despair. Some are told in the voice of a hero, others from the voice of a comic book reader, and some just mention a caped figure to illustrate a larger idea.
For comic book readers, the poems use familiar stories to explore larger issues. Wolverine ponders that his original gift “was simply to heal,” while Joker asks Batman “Why kids? / It’s criminal negligence / Not me that kills them.” But even for those poor souls who have never held a comic book in their hands, there is sublime poetry to be found. I was brought to tears by Robin Smith’s “Capes and Comics,” about a child thinking of how his heroes were also abandoned by their parents
Why I picked it up: The same reason given by Marta Ferguson for compiling these poems. “Talking about comic books is fun. Reading and writing about superheroes, supervillains, and monsters? Fun, fun, fun.”
Why I finished it: I enjoyed the humor and small ironies that came up repeatedly. “Hulk Smash!” by Greg Santos, shows Hulk as a “really just regular Joe.”
Hulk hate paperwork!
Hulk smash paper shredder!
Hulk get yelled at by Shelley in adjacent cubicle.
Hulk hate Shelley! (Hulk think about Shelley every day.)
Readalikes: For a good mix of adventure and poetry, you cannot beat Sharp Teeth, a book-length story in verse about werewolves in Los Angeles.
@bookblrb: An anthology of poems about superheroes.
Colorful drawings and minimal text explore what kids are doing in different places around the world at the same moment, 6am GMT in Dakar, Senegal, which is 7am in Paris, France, which is 8am in Sophia, Bulgaria and so on around the world.
Why I picked it up: It has an unusual form factor: it’s much taller than it is wide. (It’s kind of the opposite of Leo Geo.)
Why I finished it: Perrin’s artwork is slightly cartoony and very colorful. The picture of a boy helping his father count fish in Senegal is mostly oranges and blues, giving a sense of both the seashore and the dawn. The wide-eyed fish seem to be smiling. Noon in the Himalayan mountains features purplish peaks and curling clouds behind a mother and daughter eating lunch, complete with a semi-hidden temple and a hard-working yak in the background.
Includes a nifty hand-drawn, fold-out map in the back of the book which shows the location of each kid.
Readalikes: 24 Hours in Cyberspace, which contains 200 photographs from a project to document digital technology and its uses around the world on February 8, 1996.
@bookblrb: Each two-page spread shows what kids are doing in different time zones around the world at the same moment.