While visiting Japan, Sussman was encouraged by many people to take the time to go see a special tree that is 7,000 years old. To get to it she had to go to the bottom of Kyushu (the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan), take a long ferry ride to Yakushima Island, then hike for two days. Both the journey and the experience of seeing this tree shaped Sussman in ways she could never have predicted, and set her off on a ten year quest to use her photography skills to document as many of the world’s oldest living things as she could reach.
Why I picked it up: Some of my favorite memories from road trips involve stopping at the Redwoods in California to marvel at those beautiful old trees. But the biggest of them, the grand General Sherman, is one of the youngest things featured in this book -- Sussman decided to only include things that were over 2,000 years old.
Why I finished it: I found plenty to amaze me. But what really blew my mind were the things that I would never have imagined could live so long. There’s a slow growing lichen in Greenland that only grows one centimeter every 100 years. A Honey Mushroom (otherwise known as the humongous fungus) in Oregon is the only thing in the book that is a predator -- it eats trees. The list includes corals, sea grasses, and some moss that has been living in Antarctica for over 5,500 years! Many of these have lived long lives by cloning themselves relentlessly, which seems like a bit of a cheat, but is still darn impressive.
Readalikes: Although it lacks this book’s amazing photographs and the worldwide scope, The Good Rain by Timothy Egan broadened and strengthened my appreciation of the environment by documenting how human habitation has impacted the Pacific Northwest. Both books are fascinating reads that will make you want to save as much natural space and species as we can before it is too late.
Bruce Eric Kaplan, also known as BEK, is one of the most celebrated and admired cartoonists in America. I Was a Child is the story of his childhood in suburban New Jersey, detailing the small moments we all experience: going to school, playing with friends, family dinners, watching TV on a hot summer night, and so on. It would seem like a conventional childhood, although Kaplan’s anecdotes are accompanied by his signature drawings of family outings and life at home-road trips, milk crates, hamsters, ashtrays, a toupee, a platypus, and much more. Kaplan’s cartoons, although simple, are never straightforward; they encompass an easy irony and dark humor that often cuts straight to the truth of experience. Brilliantly relatable and genuinely moving, I Was a Child is about our attempts to understand the mysteries that are our parents, our families, and ourselves.
“This is a wonderful, touching, and funny book.” —Roz Chast, author of National Book Award finalist Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
“In his poetically illustrated memoir, Bruce Eric Kaplan manages to capture all that is beautiful, hilarious and painful about growing up human. He will make you laugh with recognition, cry with nostalgia and longing, and somehow wish you were growing up bored in New Jersey.” —Lena Dunham
“I Was a Child made me so happy and so sad at once. It is a sweet and hilarious gut-puncher. That a memoir rooted in rage and confusion could leave me aching with love, determined to forgive, and desperate for 70’s TV is glorious alchemy indeed.” —Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette
A mysterious cataclysm ruined Los Angeles and changed its inhabitants. All technology is gone, except for what prospectors like Ross can find in the collapsed buildings. After he finds an important book, he is chased to the gates of a small, fortified village. The residents don't trust him, but they take him in, even though his presence is inviting war with a local warlord and his forces.
Why I picked it up: Sherwood Smith wrote an awesome series of fantasy books called Inda, so I jumped at the chance to read her new book.
Why I finished it: The crystal trees that take on the color of the clothing their victims were wearing were just one of the strange creatures in the book, created by "the change" that mutated people and destroyed civilization. My favorite was the pit creature, a giant mouth at the bottom of a sinkhole. Sometimes it worked in concert with giant snakes to drive the unwary to the edge of its home. (It’s kind of a small-sized sarlacc.) Plus overall the book gave a very wild west feel to a post-apocalyptic setting.
It's perfect for: Abby, a student of mine who suffers from anxiety. I think she would actually like the knife-edge tension that exists throughout the book because it focuses on themes of safety and wanting to belong, things she often thinks about.
Ike wants to write a story. When writer's block hits, he goes on a quest to gather the ingredients for his incredible ink.
Why I picked it up: On the cover, Ike is an inkblot holding a shining jar of ink, so I thought this would be fun.
Why I finished it: Ike's quest for the ingredients was poetic -- they include a shadow and the feathers of a Booka-bird. The illustrations, which often use ink spatters, as if the artist was careless, kept it light. Ike's process speaks to the procrastinator in all artists, and might give some a push to get going.
Readalikes: One of my childhood favorites, Harold and the Purple Crayon. Ike and Harold are both artists. Ike goes on a journey because he wants to tell a great story. Harold takes a simple, dreamlike adventure as he draws a picture with his crayon.
Zee's work as an empath in twenty-third century London gives her a lot of satisfaction, especially when she meets the new patient. David is one of a few aliens from a distant planet who have come to study Earth. He doesn't look different at all, though -- he's gorgeous, and the two quickly bond. When he reveals the deep secret about why he is on Earth, her life turns upside down, and she must choose between him and leaving her family forever.
Why I picked it up: I wanted to read some light science fiction.
Why I finished it: The romance is definitely the draw, although Zee's friendship with the very elderly Mrs. Hart (one of her patients) develops into something just as sweet. When Mrs. Hart dies and wills Zee her famous diamonds, their shrouded past opens up an intriguing connection with robots that develops in the next book.
Readalikes: Across the Universe by Beth Revis, which also features a strange future and two young lovers.
Rats invade Hamelin during its annual The Most Gorgeous Child contest. It’s hard to decide who’s more disgusting, the kids (“a wretched posse of pink-cheeked snot sacks”) or the badass pi-rats who vomit and pee and use “their rat egg-hole-poo-gun-machine-bums to rat-a-tat-tat the pageant into a dung-covered muck hurricane.” Then the Piper arrives.
Why I picked it up: Brand makes me laugh, though I hate him for having such good hair, and Riddell illustrated The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman. (I’m still waiting for the U.S. release.)
Why I finished it: Can’t wait to use this in a banned books display! There’s only one kid in Hamelin the narrator “wouldn’t love to slug in the guts with a wooden hammer.” The most wretched of the rest is Fat Bob, winner of many Gorgeous Child pageants, who pushes “a wasp into a baby’s open mouth.” Also sure to get attention from would-be censors is Casper, leader of the anarcho-egalitarian rat collective, married to both Gianna and Paul, who are twins.
Readalikes: Dirtie Bertie, a picture book about a gross kid who pees on things and picks his nose. I think Brand’s version of The Pied Piper, which has more words and uses a more dazzling vocabulary, would be a great step-up in reading or listening for kids who like their stories gross.
A meditation on drawing, creativity, memories, and writing by cartoonist Lynda Barry, created with comics, drawings, collages, paintings, notecards, images, questions, and more.
Why I picked it up: I read bits of this amazing book all the time. But after I read Barry’s Syllabus, I had to pick it up and read it all the way through.
Why I finished it: The autobiographical comics are my favorite part, where Barry talks about her creative experiences (and missteps). Her parents were not readers. Mine, either, so I identified with her throughout, especially when, as a kid, she remembers the artists and writers who stood out in her teacher’s mind, and how she wished she was one of them. These personal episodes break up sections of big, seemingly imponderable questions (“What is an idea made of?” “Where are images found?” “What happens when we read a story?”) and bring me right right back. Plus, in the margins and front-and-center, Barry draws a myriad of creatures, including many-eyed octopi and monkeys, that seem to have leapt right out of her mind.
It's perfect for: Anyone why thinks they need high-end art supplies to be creative. Most of this was clearly created on yellow legal pads. I’m always thinking that a new (and expensive) pen is going to make me draw better. Barry’s lesson is that all I really need to do is keep my pen or brush or whatever moving and let go. I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs to hear this.