Book Reviews

Favorites of 2015

Paul H. Ricks


The reviewed books range from grim historical accounts of crime and natural disaster through a whimsical experience with lost personal items that undergo magical change. Emotional challenges of children, teenagers, and an adult are featured as well.

This year has been a great year for fiction and nonfiction in poetry or prose. Here are a few of my favorite reads from 2015.

Blumenthal, Karen. (2015). Tommy: The Gun That Changed America. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.

John Taliaferro Thompson had an idea to save lives: invent a lightweight gun that would help soldiers on the battlefield.  In the wrong hands, however, his Thompson sub-machine gun, better known as the "Tommy gun," caused more death and carnage than he could have possibly imagined.  Blumenthal's novel follows the Tommy gun from its humble beginnings as a concept weapon for the military all the way through its many decades in gang warfare across the globe.  Black-and-white photographs help to bring to life the true stories of America's deadliest weapon and the people who used it. 

Tommy stands on its own merits as a solid piece of literary nonfiction, but the current climate of gun violence in America amplifies its importance and necessity.  Proponents of the right to bear arms will undoubtedly take issue with the political implications of a book that tells the grisly tales of a military weapon gone wrong, but the facts stack up strongly against the standing militia of our day.

Brown, Don. (2015). Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans. Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In a tone similar to his Great American Dustbowl, Brown deftly maneuvers between the linear storytelling often present in nonfiction texts and the nuanced insights afforded by the graphic novel.  Facts and dates come to life—and death—as the blurred faces of the huddled masses help readers to see themselves in the crowd.  The illustrations, with their darkened hues of blues, greens, and grays, make this geologic tragedy more real than death tolls and numbers of displaced persons scrolling across the bottom of TV screens ever could.  Brown pushes no obvious political agenda, though the facts don't do much to improve political images and reputations, and the facts themselves are eerily parallel to current conditions.  The marginalized populations of the socio-economic poor are still unheeded, and tragedy and trauma seem to be the only way to bring their plight to public consciousness.

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans is a gift to resistant readers and their teachers.  Don Brown suppresses no details in this graphic novel, and his solemn depictions of America's recent history will captivate young readers who gravitate toward true stories that highlight the human condition.

Lawson, JonArno. (2015). Sidewalk Flowers. Illustrated by Sydney Smith. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books.

A young girl walks the city blocks, accompanying her father who is preoccupied with his thoughts and cell-phone conversations.  The father passes through the urban landscape in typical adult fashion—there, but not aware; hearing, but not listening—and his daughter revels in the vibrant cacophony of sounds and shapes that line her path. Unnoticed by the father, wildflowers growing in the cracks of concrete sidewalks are picked by his daughter and then gifted to the various passersby.  With each gift, color comes into a black-and-white world, and the noticed and unnoticed gifts brighten the world this young girl chooses to see.

This wordless picture book captures the purity and simplicity of youth.  It shows the effects one positive personality can have for good, and it reminds readers, adults and children alike, that beauty is all around us if we choose to look in the right places.

Oppel, Kenneth. The Nest. Illustrated by Jon Klassen, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Steve is different. He hears voices no one else hears. He sees things no one else sees. Steve needs to wash his hands so often that his skin starts to crack and bleed. And Steve worries. He worries his sickly newborn baby brother won't be strong enough to survive.

Then one night Steve has a dream in which he speaks to a queen wasp who tells him she and her helpers can "fix" his brother. "We've come because of the baby. We've come to help." Steve is initially relieved, but when he wakes up he has difficulty discerning whether the dream was real or whether he made it up in his mind. With each subsequent dream, the lines distinguishing reality from fantasy blur, and Steve's world becomes ever more complicated and threatening.

If Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) combined forces to write a novel, this is what they'd create. Yes, it's that good. And yes, it's that terrifying.

Palacio, R. J. (2015). Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Auggie and Me, a companion-piece sequel to Wonder, brings us back into the world of Auggie Pullman, a boy with facial differences that simply cannot be overlooked.  With the first book, readers had six different characters and their points of view to enjoy and consider.  Now we are given an additional three, each about 100 pages in length, and each bringing insight to characters' motivations and actions.  There is Charlotte, the goody two shoes; Christopher, Auggie's friend who moves away; and Julian, Auggie's nemesis.

Fans of the original book will not be disappointed, and I daresay this second book will win over a few fence sitters as well.  Palacio brings new depth to her characters, with Auggie's friends being afforded a few flaws and his enemies being afforded a few redeeming qualities.  In these new chapters we learn what motivates three characters we only understood peripherally before, and their stories are told with such care that we feel like the near-perfect Wonder was incomplete without them.

Stead, Rebecca. (2015). Goodbye Stranger. New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books.

Three best friends made a pact years ago: no fighting, ever.  Now that they're in seventh grade, this is really being put to the test.  Emily has physically matured faster than her two friends, and her new curves bring her attention—some wanted and some unwanted.  Bridge hasn't matured as quickly, and certain of her friends think her platonic relationship with a schoolmate should turn into something more.  And there's Tabitha, who seems eons away in both physical and emotional maturity, but sometimes she is the one with the most sound advice and clearest understanding of how to negotiate middle school.  Their lives intersect and weave to create a finely crafted story that is simultaneously enjoyable and heartbreaking, and the tension Stead creates in this middle-school drama is so real it's hard to believe it's a work of fiction.

This book works on many levels, not the least of which is the care Stead has for all of her characters.  Also the reader is rewarded with a mystery of sorts, as occasional chapters are told in a second-person narrative so that the reader actually feels like he or she is part of the story as it unfolds, though part of the fun is finding out who this second-person "you" really is.  Goodbye Stranger is funny, heartfelt, insightful, awkward, and a little painful— all in the best ways possible.  For me, that's how middle school was too, and reading this book will appeal to any and all who are willing to enter that teenage world of hormones and relationships.

Young, Cybele. (2015). Some Things I've Lost. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books.

This book is to picture books as the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile is to cars, or perhaps as Les Claypool is to bass playing. There are aspects of it that resemble a picture book—paper pages, type-written text, etc.—but the similarities end once one moves beyond the most basic descriptors.  You've never seen or read anything like this before.

If there is a story here, and I like to think that there is, it's that lost objects, like car keys, headphones, or one's glasses, anatomically shape shift beyond all recognition once they're out of your sight.  Like I said, you've never seen anything like this.  And that's why it's one of my favorite reads of the year.  Young's intricate paper sculptures take the reader from one lost object to the next, and each is a self-contained mystery that excites the imagination.  The question moves from "Why are these things changing?" to "What will they turn into next?"  On the last spread we see what all of the lost objects have become as we read, "Anything is possible."  The fact that such a book was conceived, masterfully crafted, and published at all makes us believe that the ending statement must be true.  Even a positive review is an injustice to a book like this.  You just have to experience it for yourself.

Young, Ed. (2015). Should You Be a River: A Poem about Love. Boston, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

In 2007 Ed Young's wife passed away, leaving him a single parent.  Years later he felt he needed to create something to help his daughters know of his love for his wife.  The result is the very personal Should You Be a River, a picture book poem.

Young does well to use comparisons with the natural world to explain his feelings for his wife and family.  The words are simple, the feelings are complex, and his illustrations are the perfect complement to the written text.  The textured layers of collage art help to create a piece that is collectively more than the sum of its parts, and each spread is a unique vignette that builds emotional depth even though there is no true narrative with an obvious beginning, middle, and end.  The poem reads as a number of flashback promises, and the reader is allowed an intimate view of the author's love for his deceased wife.

Some will argue that a book such as this will not resonate with children, as it deals with complex issues of loss and pain.  I would argue otherwise.  Children are often deeply aware of the struggles of mortality, and to assume the contrary is to pretend that loss is somehow understood better with age.  Young has created a thoughtful piece that will resonate with anyone who has loved and lost, a category not reserved for adults.


Paul Ricks is a thirty-one-year-old Pisces, the father of 1.6 children, and a visiting instructor of children's literature at BYU.