Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

March 17, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

Spring Recs for the Preschool Set: Guest Post by Jennifer Bostwick Owens

Sesame Street was as urban as it got for me, growing up in leafy, suburban Raleigh, North Carolina (“City of Oaks”). My parents took my sister and me on trips across the country that included big city visits, but we saw those cities as tourists. Sesame Street showed me in a more personal way – in an imaginative way – a different kind of neighborhood than mine. Everything was crowded in right next to each other – houses, shops – and people who looked and sounded very different from me and each other were talking, laughing, even arguing a little if memory serves. They were loud. Oscar was a little scary but seemed to me an essential part of the urban landscape. Urban meant a little scary, a little loud, and also – very often – friendly. One of the best things this version of urban did for me, I think, was to normalize a colorful world.

Since my girls are grown, I’m not on top of hot programming for the preschool set. But I’ve got a friend who’s recently done a deep dive into current preschool lit. She’s found some wonderful children’s books that make a multicultural world look normal, amidst a sea of less great books with the same (or similar) intent. I’m so thrilled that Jennifer Bostwick Owens is stopping in at Bacon today to share her top picks!

From Jennifer Bostwick Owens:

Winter has come to a close, and the last of my postage stamps featuring The Snowy Day were mailed out with Valentines. Ezra Jack Keats’s acclaimed 1962 picture book starred for the first time a young black boy, and its wide appeal prepared the soil for many vivid multicultural characters to come. Over the years, The Snowy Day has led to a flowering of picture books featuring kids—including memorable heroines—of diverse heritage and of color.

In the way that we parents identified with Peter as he made angels in the snow, preschoolers now will bond with these spunky, caring multicultural girl-protagonists. The books they star in are not didactic—they don’t teach about great achievers or about history, and they don’t overtly emphasize political ideas like inclusivity or female empowerment. These are year-round classics about love, curiosity and possibility. In the five picture books I recommend below for three to five year olds, modern multicultural heroines express the joy of growing up in this wide, colorful world.

I am Josephine (and I Am a Living Thing), by Canadian author Jan Thornhill, stars beginner scientist Josephine narrating a simple story of classification: she is a human being, and she is also a mammal, an animal and a living thing. Kids will be engaged in her project of naming and counting the many cheerful living things that fill the pages. The book has a cumulative effect: it gradually creates the awareness that trees, flowers and ants are alive, just like us. It makes us feel part of the natural world, nurturing empathy for other living things.

Illustrator Jacqui Lee uses an appealing palette of tropical colors—aqua, coral, orange and yellow—to give the book a modern, happy feel. Young kids will want to study the picture of the charming town, with its range of humanity in the windows and on the street. There’s a lot to look at—on one page Josephine snorkels among snapping lobsters, pink jellyfish and a smiling whale, and on another children play soccer and girls carry jugs of water on their heads.

The pictures help tell the story. Josephine has brown skin, curly hair, a baby brother, a dog and plenty of personality. She is a magnetic character, and kids will be interested in how she becomes annoyed with the cat and takes a spill on her rollerskates. Her curiosity and enthusiasm bring her to life. It is Josephine who leads us in counting the human beings on the page, as well as in counting and noticing so many other wonderful living things. (Owlkids Books, 2016.)

Days with Dad, by Korean author-illustrator Nari Hong, is a quieter book of a girl recounting how she loves spending time with her dad. In words and drawings, the young narrator introduces us to her dad and shows us activities they like to do together—ice-fishing, bird watching and singing along to his ukulele. Her dad, she explains without pity, can’t walk. She shares what some of her friends like to do with their dads—ski, ride bikes, etc.— conveying that she doesn’t lack for anything.

Hong’s colored-pencil drawings are charming and cheerful. The narrator’s dad is introduced first in portrait style without his wheelchair and then with it. Depicted in warm colors and solid, large shapes, the dad is a comforting physical and emotional presence. He is joyful and kind. Kids will immediately feel the warmth of this father-child relationship. The two-page spreads are inviting, welcoming us to use our imaginations to join in drinking rainy-day cocoa and building sandcastles.

While she does not have a name, the young narrator (presumably of Korean descent) is an impressive character, not easily forgotten. She helps create the   positive relationship through her generosity of spirit, reassuring her dad, for example, when he apologizes that he can’t play soccer with her. She asserts the many wonderful ways they spend time together, focusing on their connection and shared experience. The narrator in Days with Dad is exceptional in her early capacity for gratitude and embracing difference. (Enchanted Lion Books, 2017.)

Latina heroine Rosalba also exhibits a great capacity for love and connection in the beautiful book Abuela, written by Arthur Dorros. This is the story of Rosalba’s flight of fancy—in which she and her grandmother, an immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country, soar over New York City, over the park, the shipyard and the Statue of Liberty. Grandmother and granddaughter give joy and meaning to each other, sharing experience and adventure. Mostly in English, the text contains Spanish phrases that are easy to decipher and fun for non-Spanish speakers to try.

Elisa Kleven’s folk-art illustrations form an intricate tapestry of bright, melding colors. New York City, which elsewhere might be depicted as threatening, is shown here to have pattern and harmony. It is a place of beauty. Kids will be entranced by the gorgeous details in the cityscapes and the imaginative nature of the artwork. At one point, young Rosalba imagines the whole sky as her house, and the accompanying illustration shows her resting in her grandmother’s lap in a chair made of clouds.

Rosalba is a great multicultural heroine; she embraces both her grandmother’s culture and her own. She speaks English, explaining her grandmother’s history and translating for us. She is the active intermediary between her immigrant grandmother and those of us reading. This book is the young girl’s fantasy, yet it’s telling that it’s filled with her grandmother’s stories. Young Rosalba is capable of a wide embrace of culture, spreading a joyful desire to connect with difference. (Puffin Books, 1991.)

The Hello, Goodbye Window, by American author Norton Juster, is another outstanding book centered on the grandparent-grandchild relationship. A happy story of early childhood, this Caldecott winner depicts a family of multiple skin tones and backgrounds. Race is not a heavy theme here; the interracial grandparents simply share laughter and playfulness with their adorable granddaughter. I wish for every child the experience shown here—caring adults who envelop the child in warmth, security and attentive love.

Chris Raschka’s illustrations brim with life, like an overgrown garden in full bloom, created with watercolor, oil pastel and ink in varying lines and textures. In the manner of finger-painting or coloring outside the lines, the scenes are exuberant and free; it’s hard to tell where a house ends and a sky begins. The pictures express the theme: a happy childhood, rich with love.

The main character, a biracial toddler, narrates her own story about spending days at Nanna and Poppy’s house. The hello, goodbye window, she says, “looks like a regular window, but it’s not.” It’s where she playfully announces her arrival and where, from the sidewalk, she waves to the faces of her grandparents to say goodbye until the next visit. It’s her capacity to engage in the so-called regular activities of their days and to reciprocate her grandparents’ humor and love that makes this toddler-heroine stand out. (Hyperion, 2005.)

Finally, I recommend Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue, a beautiful book whose young heroine, stylistically inspired by Japanese comics, possesses special powers and a desire to help. There are no grownups in the story—only Red Knit Cap Girl, her forest friends and a polar bear cub that has lost its mother. Gently removing us from the concerns of everyday life, this is a tale about larger themes such as helping others and the expanse of our natural world. Young kids will love the happy ending when the cub exclaims, “Mama!”

Author and artist Naoko Stoop, of Japanese descent, creates gorgeous seascapes using transparent washes of acrylic on plywood. Like glowing real-life sunsets, the illustrations captivate us: kids and adults will be drawn in by the ethereal colors and mottled, streaked beauty. With varying saturations of yellows, peaches and blues, the grain of the plywood lends texture and nuance, adding to the splendor of the sky and ocean.

Among her small band of friends, Red Knit Cap Girl is the leader. She devises means to rescue the stranded polar bear cub and return him home, by first creating a hang glider out of newspaper and later a sailboat. Receiving help from her friends and guidance from the moon, Red Knit Cap Girl bravely sails north, encountering a violent storm and friendly Orca whales on her journey. She is a great heroine, full of childlike wonder, ingenuity and a big heart for the inhabitants of the natural world. (Little, Brown & Co., 2013.)

These five books would make excellent additions to the libraries of little girls or boys of any race or ethnic heritage because they bring to life memorable protagonists with impressive capacities for imagination and connection. They also forge a space for girls of color and for girls of non-Western-European heritage to thrive without heavy narratives of race or discrimination defining them. These are the types of books I sought out and read to my daughters, and I’ll be mailing these five in particular to my niece Josie in Switzerland this spring, for her fourth birthday. What better gift than inspiration to become a big-hearted author of one’s own life.

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List of books:

I Am Josephine (and I Am a Living Thing)

by Jan Thornhill. Illustrated by Jacqui Lee. Owlkids Books, 2016.

Days with Dad

by Nari Hong. Enchanted Lion Books, 2017.


by Arthur Dorros. Illustrated by Elisa Kleven. Puffin Books, 1991.

The Hello, Goodbye Window

by Norton Juster. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. Hyperion, 2005.

Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue

by Naoko Stoop. Little, Brown & Co., 2013.

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Vanderbilt is the gateway drug to Nashville for many, including Jennifer Bostwick Owens!

Jennifer grew up in Washington D.C. then went to college at Stanford, where she studied literature and photography. She stayed in Northern California for over a decade, completing her masters in English at Mills College. She and her husband and their two daughters moved to Nashville in 1998 so he could take a teaching position at Vanderbilt.

What she likes about Nashville? “Lots of creative, progressive, caring people.” She loves her neighbors – and the fact that her neighborhood has sidewalks. A historic overlay helps.

Her favorite ways to relax? Playing ping pong while listening to soul music and 70s R&B. Spending time with her sweet puggle. And – truth be told – she doesn’t mind folding the laundry.

A mutual friend, Katie Greenebaum, first met Jennifer at Whitworth Pool back in the early aughts “when she held court on the chaise lounges down by the shady shallow end. It didn’t take me long to discover that she was a lover of books and words and an irreverent commentator on all of society’s foibles. A fierce and protective mother of two beautiful biracial daughters, she has had a vested interest in the representation of minorities in literature since she met and married her wonderful husband, Vanderbilt Owen School professor Dave Owens, more than 30 years ago.”

“Jennifer is way smart and has a wicked sense of humor that can catch you off guard, meaning she has great timing. She is generous and kind,” adds another mutual friend, Deb Alberts.

Jennifer works part-time as a writing coach at Vanderbilt and enjoys teaching writing one on one. She volunteers reading to economically disadvantaged preschoolers through RIF (Reading is Fundamental).

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Today’s post is brought to you by the letter J.


March 11, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

Six Colorful Reads for Spring: Bacon Top Picks

Spring arrives – not a moment too soon – in pinks and purples and yellows and whites. We’ve been waiting! It’s time for a new book, too. Today’s post features four novels, a short story collection, and a memoir, all of them as fresh and engaging as the season. Spring Break bonus: two of the books are perfect to read with your middle schooler or teen! 

The most satisfying book I’ve read in ages, and my top pick for Spring 2018, is The Hollow Land, by Jane Gardam – a gentle, extraordinary, light-filled work set in the timeless English countryside. You might know Gardam from her acclaimed Old Filth trilogy about an old Brit and his wife who return to England after living the expat life in Hong Kong. In Old Filth, Gardam makes you care more about the decline of the British empire than you ever thought you would, and she’s even better at making you care about the old Brit and his wife. It’s both strange and real how deep love and deep loneliness can co-exist in long-term marriages. The Hollow Land is a simpler tale. The Bateman family – “London folk” – plan a summer vacation in the English countryside, renting a cottage nestled in among farms for some peace and quiet. They don’t exactly get peace and quiet, but they do embrace country life – slowly – and return every summer. Their son Harry falls in with a local lad, Bell Teesdale, and the two become inseparable. The boys evade the not-so-watchful eyes of their parents and ride bikes, explore caves, get into various flavors of mischief. They don’t much like Poppet, the daughter of a friend who comes to visit – until, of course, one of them does. Harry and Bell and Poppet do what children sadly, magnificently, do: they grow up. The Hollow Land won the Whitbread Award for best novel for young people in 1981 and has only recently been published in the States, aimed at an adult audience. It was an entirely enchanting read for this grown-up, and a good read for anyone age 10 or older, depending on the child. It could be a good read-aloud with a younger child.

The other book I must press into your hands this Spring is Dreadful Young Ladies And Other Stories, by New York Times bestselling author and Newberry Award winner Kelly Barnhill. I laughed, I cried, I marked the book up extensively with exclamation points and underlines and smiley faces. Imagine Ronald Dahl at his desk writing Charlie and The Chocolate Factory when Margaret Atwood drops by. J.K. Rowling knocks at the door, followed by Kazuo Ishiguro. They open a couple bottles of red and write some stories together. With apologies to author Kelly Barnhill, clearly a creative genius in her own right, this is the mental space of her stories. You’ll meet a Sasquatch in love, a Patron Saint of Healers, and an Unlicensed Magician. Butterflies, sparrows and Very Remarkable Hens play important roles. Reading Dreadful Young Ladies is like eating a gold-wrapped Wonka chocolate bar: you wish it would never end. This collection would be fantastic to share with your teenager. Spring Break family read, anyone?

The rest of the books in today’s post are squarely in adult territory. Here goes!

First up is Naomi Halderman’s The Power, selected by the New York Times as one of its Top Ten Books of 2017. As the novel begins, strange things are happening, and not just in the U.S. Newsrooms – not to mention government officials and parents – are trying to figure it out. In schoolyards, there’s “[a] strange new kind of fighting which leaves boys – mostly boys, sometimes girls – breathless and twitching, with scars like unfurling leaves winding up their arms or legs or across the soft flesh of their middles. Their first thought after disease is a new weapon, something these kids are bringing into school, but as the first week trickles into the second they know that’s not it.” Teenage girls have found that they’ve got an electrical surge emanating from their hands, and they’re learning how to control it. They also have the ability to awaken the power in older women who are – we all know – more dangerous. Life as we know it changes. Injustices are addressed – wrongs are righted – while you cheer and exult. But what happens next? Imagine the soundtrack of “This Girl is on Fire” with a deep bass pounding underneath – the fear that something is going very, very wrong. The Power is a passionate, thoughtful novel for our #MeToo moment in time. Literary fiction, and hot.

The Immortalists, a debut novel by Chloe Benjamin, shimmers with a different kind of heat – the propulsion of a literary thriller with the heart of a family saga. The Gold siblings – two brothers and two sisters – are regular kids, growing up on the Lower East Side in 1969. Their dad works long hours as a tailor and shop-owner and their mom stays busy managing the household. One summer day – bored, hot – the Gold kids decide to visit a fortune teller. It’s supposed to be fun and spooky, but it’s something more: a terrifying prediction of the day of their deaths. The rest of the book follows their life paths as the siblings head straight into the mouth of the prophecy – or find a way around it. “For someone who loves stories about brothers and sisters, as I do, The Immortalists is about as good as it gets,” writes Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. “Chloe Benjamin has written an inspiring book that makes you think hard about what you want to do with the time you’re given. This is not really a book about dying – it’s a book about how to live,” writes Nathan Hill, author of The Nix. One warning: the first paragraph of this novel, involving pubic hair, is quite possibly the worst opening paragraph I’ve ever read. Almost a deal killer. I only kept reading because of the good reviews.

It took me even longer to get hooked on Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, which won the Man Booker Award last year and is now out in paperback. I had to start it three times. Persistence in this case paid off: Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the loveliest, richest, most unusual, most affecting novels I’ve ever read. As you probably know, it imagines Lincoln in the days after his beloved son Willie’s death. Lincoln spends time in the cemetery with Willie’s body and a variety of ghosts, none of whom he can see or hear. The ghosts engage in a lively conversation about Lincoln and the place where the ghosts find themselves trapped, between death and what lies beyond (“the Bardo”). The way the book is written seems almost script-like, with the ghosts’ dialogue providing most of the momentum. You can imagine it on the screen, yet the pleasures of the language and the experimental style are also distinctly literary. Lincoln in the Bardo aims for the stratosphere – for originality and transcendence – and reaches it. It is a strange and wondrous tale, strangely and wondrously told.

Irish author Maggie O’Farrell also takes chances in her memoir: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death. This is not your garden variety memoir describing a struggle, with a side dish of and feelings felt and lessons learned. It’s not even the story of her life, exactly. Instead, O’Farrell tells you in short chapters about each time she might have died. There was the time she was walking alone on a trail and a creepy man stalked her and very nearly trapped her. (She got away, but the man subsequently murdered another young woman on the trail.) There was the time she dashed in front of a car as a child. The difficult childbirth. The armed robbery by a man wielding a machete when she and her husband were hiking in South America. As with all books, and with memoir in particular, this approach works because of the voice. O’Farrell writes with steadiness and curiosity about the things that have happened to her – with both distance and immediacy. With a sense of awe. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am,” wrote Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, quoted by O’Farrell in the epigraph. You finish this book feeling grateful for O’Farrell’s many second chances – and thinking about your own.

Bonus picks: ON THE RADAR

Here are a few more ideas for Spring Reads, books I’ve read about or only just started reading…

If you prefer nonfiction… check out Stephen Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Bill Gates is a superfan: “The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.” Click here for more from Bill Gates.

If you love historical fiction… try Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan’s World War II era novel. Here’s what my extra-smart reader friend Sara Bhatia has to say: “Manhattan Beach is a breezy, can’t put down noir tale set in part in the seedy New York City underworld, with a plucky young heroine seeking answers to her father’s mysterious disappearance. The novel is Pulitzer-prize winning author Jennifer Egan’s first foray into historical fiction, and while I’m a sucker for a good historical setting, Egan seems to have fallen in love with her era, and has allowed her quirky locales – including decadent night clubs and the Brooklyn Navy Yard – to dictate her plot. Scuba diving — and Egan’s meticulous description of the 200-pound suits, and the murky work of the divers in New York’s harbors — is central to the story. It’s engrossing, but if you are going to read one book by Jennifer Egan, start with her brilliant, funny and experimental Pulitzer-prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad — the chapter written entirely in Power Point is astonishing in its creativity.”

If you loved The Nightingaleyou’ll be excited to know that Kristin Hannah is out with a  new novel, The Great Alone. A family of three heads to Alaska in 1974 for a fresh start. The father, a Vietnam vet, has been unstable since his return from war. Unfortunately, we tend to take our troubles with us. The characters are fairly predictable in this one, and it’s not hard to figure out who’s good and who’s bad. That being said, it’s pretty great to read about the Alaskan wilderness and sometimes you don’t want or need the most complicated read. “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next,” says Large Marge, owner of the General Store. “There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” This novel might be just what you’re looking for, and I wouldn’t blame you. I’m enjoying it.

If you loved Orphan Train… don’t miss Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World, now out in paperback, in which Kline imagines the life of the woman famously memorialized in Andrew Wyeth’s best known painting, “Christina’s World.” Here’s the publisher’s description: “To Christina Olson, the entire world was her family’s remote farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine. Born in the home her family had lived in for generations, and increasingly incapacitated by illness, Christina seemed destined for a small life. Instead, for more than twenty years, she was host and inspiration for the artist Andrew Wyeth, and became the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the twentieth century.” Author Michael Chabon calls it “a feat of time travel, a bravura improvisation on the theme of art history, a wonderful story that seems to have been waiting, all this time, for Christina Baker Kline to come along and tell it.”

If you want to see what all the fuss is about… try Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (multiple weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list). Little Fires Everywhere begins with a house burning down and evidence of arson. Everyone thinks the troubled youngest daughter must be to blame. But is she? In the picture-perfect world of Shaker Heights, nothing is at it seems. Especially since an itinerant artist came to town with her daughter, Pearl. And since a custody battle over an adopted Chinese girl began raging in Shaker Heights. This might be a good book club choice, as there will almost certainly be some people around the table who love it and others who will try to figure out why they didn’t. (I have to admit – I’m among the latter).


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