Book Review: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson

I’ve been a fan of Kwame Alexander since I read his Newbery Award winning novel The Crossover. “Fan” might be a bit of an understatement. I confess that I follow him on all his social media platforms, have a Google alert set up for news about him, follow him on Amazon and on Goodreads – basically I could practically tell you what he ate for breakfast this morning. (Just kidding…no need to get a restraining order or anything like that.)

Reading The Crossover changed me as a teacher. It changed me as a reader. And, it most certainly changed me as a writer. In fact, I wrote about my experience with this ground-breaking book for Nerdy Book Club’s blog. Initially, I incorporated The Crossover into my 7th grade curriculum to try to reach a group of reluctant readers. Boy, did I do that, and then some. If you haven’t read The Crossover and its prequel Rebound, I highly recommend you do so. 

Just a week prior to the shut down of life as we knew it in March of 2020, I had the opportunity to hear Kwame Alexander speak to a group of school librarians. The setting was a high school library (one of my favorite places on earth), and the star of the evening was Alexander himself, along with his musician friend, Randy Preston, who plays background guitar for Kwame Alexander’s appearances. You know, sort of like a rockstar on tour with his backup musicians. He talked about his writing life, his books, his family, his recent move to London to be “poet in residence” at the international school his daughter attends. The icing on the cake was his reading of his most recent book, The Undefeated, a picture book illustrated by Kadir Nelson. 

When I say “reading,” it was more like performance art. Alexander doesn’t just read his work, he breathes life into it so that it dances and sings all around you, sort of like staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and experiencing Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam, where with one touch of his finger, God gives life to Adam. Am I fangirling a bit too much to compare Kwame Alexander to Michelangelo? Maybe, but when it comes to getting kids to read for pleasure, to getting kids hooked on books, to creating stories where kids of color can find  likenesses of themselves, I don’t feel embarrassed at all by stalking following the career path and creative brilliance of Kwame Alexander. 

The Undefeated, with its gloriously bold illustrations, tells the stories of Black Americans who persevered and endured to become the artists, athletes, and activists who brought color to the history of this great country. In the pages of this picture book you will find the never quit attitudes of MLK, Jr., Maya Angelou, Jesse Owens, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, and more. The illustrations jump off the page at you, and the words – like poetry – envelop you and propel you forward in time. 

Picture books are not just for kids. If you are a middle school or high school teacher, The Undefeated can be wonderfully paired with studying slavery or the Civil Rights Movement or analyzing MLK, Jr.’s “I Had a Dream Speech.” Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? It works great to set the stage for that. Looking for “official” validation of this work of art? How about a Caldecott Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, and a Newbery Honor Award? Sure, this book also ticks all the boxes for Black History Month, but why wait for February? Read it now. Experience it now. Breathe life into its words and its portraits of these movers and shakers, these “dreamers and doers” as Alexander puts it, who were, in fact, The Undefeated. 

Book Review: Twenty-one Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks

This book was just not for me. Some readers have noted that the format was not to their liking, but I didn’t mind the story unfolding in list format. I’ve read other books not told in traditional narrative prose, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary told in journal entries and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen told in emails and inter-office memos, and enjoyed the newness of both of those. However, the content of this book was a different story. While I love novels about bookstores and booksellers, there wasn’t enough of that in this book to hold my interest, along side the lists of the less savory parts of Dan’s life. In fact, I just didn’t like the main character Dan enough to care about his lists. Not every book is for every reader, and I’m happy to read another of Matthew Dicks’ books to see if they suit me better!

Thanks to NetGalley for the e-book of this novel.

Book Review: Learning to Talk to Plants by Marta Orriols (Pushkin Press, June 2021)

From the publisher: “By turns devastating and darkly funny, Learning to Talk to Plants is a piercingly honest portrayal of grief – and of the many ways to lose someone.”

The publisher’s quote above really says it all for this book, at least for me. I rated this book a 4/5, mostly because it was so painful to read. I personally didn’t find the dark humor noted above, but there was quite a bit I found devastating.

Marta Orriols has truly taken the reader to a dark place, albeit she works herself out of it and into a better place. The writing is strong, however, there were times when I was unsure who she was talking to, or if it was a flashback vs. the present time. Since it is written in first person, protagonist Paula, a neonatal physician, is often talking to herself, to the object of her grief, or to a coworker. Because everything in the novel becomes marked by “before X happened” or “after X happened,” flashbacks taken out of present time but still written in present tense are sometimes a bit confusing.

The book is peppered with medical jargon, most of which is self-explanatory taken in context, but it seems realistic for a doctor to speak—and think—that way, even when we hear her inner dialogue. I found Paula’s professional life, also filled with darkness and loss, to be interesting. I was not as intrigued by her post-trauma love life and attempts at returning to the vitality of her pre-trauma life.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an e-book version of this new novel.

Book Review – Nadiya’s British Food Adventure

I love watching British cooking shows and reading cookbooks from the UK. This particular book, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, combines my love of all things British with a desire to learn more about other cultures.

Nadiya Hussain is a breath of fresh air. No pretentiousness, no putting on airs. Just family style cooking elevated with a bright smile and a touch of style. You may recognize her as the winner of the Season 6 series of The Great British Bake Show. You could just tell she was a star from the start.

Her recipes are things that are easy to pull together, often with ingredients you already have at home. Her television series brings all of her recipes to life, as you watch her effortlessly turn classics into modern versions of dishes her family loves, such as the tea cakes with date butter. I could really gobble one up right now with a nice cup of tea!

An excellent cookbook by a welcome new face on the food scene.

Book Review: Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer

Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer is the seventh book in a pastiche series of MG/YA novels. Set in Victorian England, Springer creates a new character all her own: Enola (which is the word “alone” spelled backwards), the much younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. And, alone she is, as her mother has abandoned her, her father is deceased, and her two older brothers are off living their own lives. She describes her brother Sherlock as the one and only professional private detective in all of England, while she is the one and only professional perditorian, one who finds things that are lost.

Full disclosure: I was introduced to this series via the Netflix film based upon the first in the series, Enola Holmes and the Missing Marquess. After watching the film in September of 2020, I quickly downloaded the corresponding novel and flew through it. Having read quite a bit of the Sherlock Holmes canon, I was immediately drawn into his world once again, this time with a female protagonist who shares many of Sherlock’s quirks and characteristics.

And, now, thanks to NetGalley and this advance ebook of the seventh installment, I return to Victorian England and meet up once again with Sherlock and Enola. I actually enjoyed this one more than the first; perhaps the first fell victim to my breaking one of my hard and fast rules: never see the movie before reading the book. I will now finish up the series, reading those in between the two bookends in order.

One thing is certain, however, I am glad to be reading Springer’s work on my Kindle as my finger is perpetually loitering over words unfamiliar to me. As a veteran English teacher and a lifelong avid reader, my vocabulary is pretty solid, but Springer has sprung quite a few new words on me. For example, a barouche is a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage with the passenger seats hidden from view by a folding top.

Springer has created a unique literary character, a young female in Victorian England who walks into pubs unescorted, drives a horse-drawn carriage—albeit badly, carries a dagger in the bosom of her dress, and more. I found the most recent installment to move at a faster clip than the first, but this is perhaps a result of having seen what Hollywood did prior to reading. A very enjoyable series, which I hope continues past this most recent one. Another movie or two would be fine with me as well, as long as I’ve read the books first!

Book Review: Sing Freedom! by Vanita Oelschlager and illustrated by Mike DeSantis

What a beautiful book! The illustrations are really well done and fit the text so very well.

Sing Freedom by Vanita Oelschlager and illustrated by Mike DeSantis is a perfect book to explain how freedom, once lost, is so very difficult to regain. This book covers a major political event very well, with just enough information to teach, but not too much to overwhelm. A glossary in the back gives more details on new people and places. Another page in the back shows the steps the illustrator takes to create the art, which is a fascinating peek into the artistry behind picture books. I can easily see this being a favorite page for those students who love to sketch. A bare-bones map of Europe shows all of the countries in relationship to each other, helpful in a time when geography is not taught any longer in many elementary schools.

Full disclosure: I knew practically nothing about Estonia, so I found this book very informative, even as an adult!

As a veteran middle school language arts teacher, one of the things I loved to do was to pair a picture book with a grade-level novel. For example, before reading Esperanza Rising, the story of a once wealthy Mexican girl who loses everything and must be secretly smuggled across the border with her mother and their trusted servants. Once in California she must learn things like sweeping and cooking as her mother works alongside their former servants picking and packing fruits and vegetables in the fields. Before reading, I would have the students read picture books of immigration and the difficulties people from war-torn countries faced both at home and here in their new home. Sing Freedom! would be a great picture book to pair with a YA novel about the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.

Interesting side note: the back jacket of the book tells of a film about the “Singing Revolution”. This would be a great cross-curriculum, multi-media experience to watch the film, read the book, and study the map of Europe, learn more about the break-up of the Soviet Union, and finish with learning the national song of Estonia, “Land of My Fathers.”

Thank you to NetGalley for allowing me read an e-book version of this book.

By Your Passion

By your cross
We were redeemed

By your childhood
We were raised

By your hands
We were led

By your feet
We were brought

By your words
We were taught

By your miracles
We were awed

By your parables
We were molded

By your psalms
We were enriched

By your side
We remain

By your mother
We were soothed

By your apostles
We were converted

By your martyrs
We were inspired

By your saints
We were emboldened

By your father
We were created

By your son
We were taught

By your spirit
We were confirmed

By your water
We were baptized

By your love
We are nurtured

By your courage
We were spared

By your grace
We were sanctified

By your pain
We were crippled

By your taunting
We were provoked

By your crucifixion
We were saved

By your death
We were delivered

By your body
We were fed

By your blood
We were bathed

By your cross
We were redeemed

Grammar for Grown-Ups

Here’s a cute little graphic to help you with two words that are often confused! Now, Dessert Island is a place I’d really like to visit! Enjoy!

Need Grammar for Grown-ups sessions, via Zoom, one-on-one or in a small group? I’m here to help with all your writing, editing, and grammar needs!

Book Review

You Had Me at Pet-Nat: A Natural Wine-Soaked Memoir by Rachel Signer

When requesting this book to read and review, I thought it was a novel, but I have since learned from Googling the author that it is a memoir. I’ve read a lot of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs over the years, and this book reads more like a novel to me.

It was great learning the difference between natural wines and wines that were not made using the natural process. I didn’t know any of this before; I drink wine, of course, but I only know that I like all reds and only some white, and that rosé is my favorite. Now, I will look at labels and the names of vineyards in a different way.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more if it was less technical with respect to the world of wines. For me, the abundance of information on certain labels, and some of the terminology unique to the wine-making industry, were a bit overwhelming, and the story of the author’s life took a backseat. However, it is clear that the author knows a great deal about wine in general, and about natural wines specifically. I also felt like at times the author was trying to shock me with some of her decisions, both those planned as well as those spontaneous.

Overall, a novel about a waitress-turned-wine expert and her journey through Europe might be more entertaining to me. Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced ebook edition of this book to read.

Book Review: Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

By Anthony Doerr (Published June 12, 2007 by Scribner Book Company)

I realize I am late to joining the Anthony Doerr fan club, but I tore through this piece of nonfiction in less than two days. I probably would have finished it in one day had I not stopped so frequently to admire his wide breadth of knowledge in many different subjects as well as his just outright beautiful command of the English language. He may not be fluent in Italian after living there for an entire year, but man, oh man, can he write!

Years ago I discovered the British tv series A Year in Provence based upon a book of the same title written by Peter Mayle, a British advertising executive who retires to an ancient farmhouse in Provence, France, to try his hand at writing a novel. The novel doesn’t happen, and when his deadline for turning in the novel arrives, Mayle submits instead his journals of his four seasons in the French countryside, where he renovates the farmhouse with limited use of the French language. Novels do come later, but his reputation as a writer is secured with his anecdotes of the people in the nearby village, the glorious meals he and his wife share, and his outsider’s view of the beauty of the Provence countryside, earning him an award for best travel book of the year and eventually Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French government.  

Part memoir, part travelogue, part nature journal, Four Seasons in Rome comes about in much the same way as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. It is the story of how Anthony Doerr and his wife Shauna come to live in Rome for one year, after learning a mere twelve hours after his wife gave birth to twin boys of winning an award he had not applied for nor knew existed. Doerr is shocked to learn that he was anonymously nominated based upon his collection of short stories and debut novel. The award he won was none other than the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, that comes with a one-year stipend to live and write in Rome. Along with the stipend comes a furnished apartment next door to the Academy, where he is also given a studio as an office from which to write a novel of historical fiction about occupied France during WWII. 

Much like Mayle, however, he does not actually write the novel, which he later completes back in Idaho, and which subsequently brings him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. What he did write was a journal of his time in Rome, his love affair with the city itself, and his journey as the father of bambini gemelli in a foreign land. 

While strolling his twins over nearly every square foot of Rome, he observed nature–especially trees and birds, architecture, and the many fountains of Rome. It is here that his writing really shines. I’ve been to Rome twice, and I might as well have been blind-folded both trips as I didn’t see any of what he so eloquently describes. His descriptions of the birds and trees reminded me of one of my favorite books, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which also won Dillard the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. 

Doerr doesn’t actually come out and say he is Catholic in this book, but if he isn’t, he is the first non-Catholic I have heard of who was so consumed by the health and ultimate passing of Pope John Paul II. Having myself attended the outdoor Mass on Easter Sunday in St. Peter’s Square in 2004, which was the last time Pope John Paul II celebrated Easter Mass, I could feel what he was experiencing in a poignant way. Standing in the brilliant sunshine, we could see how frail and pale the Pope was, and we feared that he was nearing the end of his earthly journey. I really enjoyed reading Doerr’s memoir of his year in Rome, even the difficult parts surrounding his wife’s hospitalization. And now I’ll do something I should have done much earlier, read Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.