Month: August 2021

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Dystopia, the Future Gone Wrong

Dystopia, the Future Gone Wrong

By Jennifer Bergen, Program & Children’s Services Manager

Cover of "The Fog Diver" by Joel Ross, three children run towards the edge of a stempunk looking blimp, where a flying ship resembling a pallace with smoke towers nears themDystopian fiction is a popular genre in books as well as movies and TV, from “The Hunger Games” to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and we seem to enjoy getting sucked into these terrifying worlds gone awry. It can be difficult to understand the appeal, especially when the dystopia is linked so closely to our reality that it doesn’t take much to imagine it could really happen. Some people view dystopian stories as cautionary tales – make sure this doesn’t happen to your world!

In September, the library launches a new community-wide reading program, ReadMHK, aimed at building connections through reading and sharing experiences with one another. Our first month of reading “together” will focus on dystopian fiction. We invite the community to join the ReadMHK reading challenge online and read a dystopian book this month. Each month from now until May 2022 will have a different theme with diverse reading lists of recommended titles, monthly book discussions, podcasts and even some prizes for participants.


Here are a few ideas for this month:

Librarian Jan Johnson recommends “The Marrow Thieves” by Cherie Dimaline, which is also the K-State First Book choice for this school year. Dimaline masterfully tells the story of 15-year-old Frenchie who, along with other indigenous survivors of North America, is one of the only humans left with the ability to dream. In a world ravaged by climactic and environmental chaos, Frenchie and his family search for others like themselves, while avoiding the “recruiters” who would harvest them for their marrow. Beautiful and heartbreaking, Dimaline’s tale draws parallels between this dystopian world and the historical treatment of indigenous people in residential schools.

If you haven’t already given into the hype around “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel, it’s time, says YA librarian Rashael Apuya. The book starts with a bang – an actor dies onstage while performing in a production of King Lear. A man starts buying up all of the bottled water he can find before holing up in his apartment. There are rumors of people being infected with a disease that is extremely contagious. Within hours of the actor’s death, most of the population is dead. Fifteen years later, a theater troupe called the “Traveling Symphony” travels the Great Lakes region and performs Shakespeare for what is left of the population. This harrowing novel covers the fall of civilization, human connection in a post-apocalyptic world, and the power of art.

Children’s librarian Hannah Atchison suggests a favorite of hers, the 1985 Nebula award-winning “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. Ender is an eight-year-old boy who has been recruited to join a special army training academy in space. Ender is bullied, but spends his time there learning how to move in zero gravity, how to design creative battle strategies, the importance of forming alliances, and the even more critical skill of compassion. If you liked the movie, you will love the book!

I read “The Fog Diver” by Joel Ross with my son, and we were drawn in by the plausible concept of a world overwhelmed by pollution and a deadly “fog,” making it inhabitable by humans. In Ross’s tale, people now live in the highest peaks or on platforms that seem to float in the sky, with steampunk-style airships used to commute between cities and junkyards. The main character, 13-year-old Chess, sticks with a small gang of kids, known as scavengers, and their beloved Mrs. E, who has the life-threatening fogsickness. Their only hope is to take Chess fog diving, dropping him down to the surface by a long cord to search for treasures they can exchange for getting Mrs. E. what she needs to survive.

The library is planning some in-person programs this fall, following good safety practices of masks and distancing. On Tuesday, September 21, readers can gather at the library to share about dystopian books they have enjoyed and have a relaxing evening focused on our favorite pastime – reading! ReadMHK book discussions will continue on the 3rd Tuesdays each month. I can’t wait to get some more good book recommendations from others.

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“The Personal Librarian” By Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray: A Review

“The Personal Librarian” By Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray: A Review

by Marcia Allen, Collection Services Librarian The Personal Librarian: 9780593101537: Benedict, Marie, Murray, Victoria Christopher: BooksBelle da Costa Greene. While few may have recognized that name, now a wonderful new piece of historical fiction highlights the woman’s remarkable career. I am alluding to “The Personal Librarian,” a novel co-authored by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. It is based on the life and career of Belle, who began her work at Princeton University but moved on to a position as J. Pierpont Morgan’s private librarian. From there, she earned the esteemed position of first director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, a position she held for over forty years.

Remarkable achievement? Absolutely. Belle was a woman in what was considered a man’s world of acquiring valuable manuscripts and rare books. She developed a reputation as a shrewd assessor and dealer and attended international auctions at Morgan’s behest. Together, she and Morgan built a world-famous collection of rare books, as well as documentation and cataloguing to accompany it.

Even more stunning is Belle’s racial background. Belle’s father was an African American educator and activist who graduated from Harvard. Belle’s mother, hoping to provide advantages for herself and her children, identified the family as Portuguese rather than Black, thus avoiding racial barriers. Belle’s father was greatly offended by this misrepresentation and gradually distanced himself from the family. Belle, however, followed her mother’s wishes, as well as her mother’s determination that the girl become a great scholar. Throughout her life, Belle hid her racial background and carefully guarded her personal life.

What do authors Benedict and Murray offer in their fictional account of Belle’s life? First of all, they adhere to factual accounts of events in Belle’s life. They rely heavily on Heidi Ardizzone’s biography of Belle entitled “An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege.” In researching that book and others, they learned how Morgan gradually began to trust Belle, sending her to auctions at his request and celebrating her acquisitions of treasured works. They learned of Belle’s affair with the married art historian, Bernard Berenson. They learned of Belle’s awkward relationship with Morgan’s daughter Anne, who may have discovered that Belle was Black, but who also had secrets of her own due to her lesbian relationships.

Beyond the careful research, the authors do a wonderful job of bringing Belle’ personality to life. That first interview with the gruff J.P. Morgan shows us a young woman who is not only knowledgeable about rare books, but who is also confident of her skills and not intimidated by Morgan’s reputation. Further interactions with wealthy personalities of the times demonstrate her grace and conversational ease. She quickly adapts to the expectations of the upper class and convinces the wealthy she is Morgan’s worthy emissary.

Some of the best sections of this book demonstrate her spunk. When Morgan’s daughter Anne tries to intimidate Belle with references to some kind of Greene family background in the tropics, Belle assures her that this is not so and also tells Anne she has ignored rumors of Anne’s friendship with a notorious character. When Belle learns that her lover Bernard Berenson had shared her secret Morgan collection plans with unethical art dealers, she accuses him of treachery and leaves him. Thus, the authors create memorable scenes in which Belle proves her strength of character.

To be sure, some of the scenes in the book have taken liberties with facts. This is because Belle destroyed her personal correspondence when she was older, and she asked Berenson to do the same. But Berenson kept the correspondence the couple shared, and much information about their lives is to be learned from his letters. As is often the case, Benedict and Murray present the facts that they learned and flesh out the story for a riveting narrative.

This fascinating novel is the product of a splendid collaboration between two gifted writers. Don’t miss this account of one determined woman’s journey to overcome terrible barriers and preserve history.

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Coming-of-Age Stories

Coming-of-Age Stories

by Rashael Apuya, Teen Services Librarian

Being a tween is kind of the worst. You are discovering who you are, what your values are, and how you relate to others. On top of all that, things tend to happen that are out of your control, like your parents getting divorced, or moving away from all of your friends. The combination of these internal and external stressors causes you to look at the world in a new way, and it can feel isolating when you feel like you’re going through all of this stress and change alone. When I was a tween, I often turned to books with characters who were going through similar situations. Luckily, there are more stories like that now than ever – they are referred to as coming-of-age stories.

When I say coming-of-age stories, you might immediately think of titles like “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, or “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton. Those are classics for a reason, but literature for young people has come a long way from social class drama and teen angst. There’s still plenty of that, but written in a way that is more accessible for young people, while portraying issues tweens are facing in 2021.  Authors from various cultures, backgrounds, and circumstances are writing stories that modern tweens and teens can relate to. Here are some coming-of-age stories that I highly recommend for readers of all ages:

King and the Dragonflies” by Kacen Callender follows 12-year-old Kingston (King) James, as he and his family are dealing with the recent loss of his older brother, Khalid. Handling all of this grief would be a lot easier if he was still talking to his best friend, Sandy Sanders. They stopped being friends after Khalid overheard Sandy tell King a secret – he might be gay – and advised King not to be his friend anymore. “You don’t want anyone to think you’re gay too, do you?” When Sandy goes missing, and King finds him in his backyard, King is confronted with a decision – keep Sandy hidden as the town searches for him, or tell his parents where Sandy has been this whole time? Khalid’s words still haunt King, but he misses his best friend and wants to keep him safe from a dangerous home situation.

If you’re interested in a modern story that will teach you something about recent Native American history, “I Can Make This Promise” by Christine Day is a great choice. It follows Edie, who loves to make movies with her friends. Edie doesn’t know much about her own heritage, except that her mother is Native American and her father is white. Her mother was adopted by white parents and has never talked to Edie about her culture or birth family. One day, when her two best friends are at Edie’s house to talk about a film they’re making for a competition, they go to the attic looking for some popsicle molds. Instead, they stumble upon a box full of pictures of a Native American woman that looks like Edie, and letters signed “Love, Edith.” Who is this Edith? And why has Edie never heard of her?

In “Efrén Divided” by Ernesto Cisneros, Efrén Nava is the child of parents who are undocumented. His Amá and Apá work long hours to support the family. Efrén, and his siblings Max and Mía are all American-born, but Efrén is always worried about the family being separated. There have been more and more ICE raids in his neighborhood, and one of his classmates’ parents were just deported, leaving her alone in America. Efrén’s nightmare becomes reality when his Amá doesn’t come home from work one day. She has been deported to Tijuana, and now their father has to find a way to support the family by himself.  Efrén is willing to do anything to get his Amá back, even go to Tijuana by himself to find her.

You can find these and similar titles in the Young Adult Middle School Collection, and on our Coming-of-Age Stories display that is up right now in our Young Adult section.

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Finding Inspiration in Children’s Books

Finding Inspiration in Children’s Books

by Jared Richards, Learning and Information Services Supervisor

Once upon a time, I decided I was going to draw a tree every day, and I haven’t missed a day yet. I now have over two hundred drawings and what amounts to a part-time job, because some of the drawings take more than five hours. This is caused by a mix of inexperience and trying to draw more complex ideas in an attempt to keep things interesting. Occasionally, these ideas come to me without much effort, but I have recently found myself leaning more heavily on external inspiration.

One of the best sources for this is children’s books. They are often filled with beautiful illustrations, from simple line drawings with flat colors to highly detailed drawings with varied textures and complex shading.

Chris Van Allsburg began his art career as a sculptor but is probably best known for his books “The Polar Express” and “Jumanji.” His first book, “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi,” features black-and-white illustrations drawn with a charcoal pencil, and they look amazing. The entrance to the garden features an ivy wall with countless leaves meticulously drawn to the point of just looking like a photograph with a grainy filter. Throughout the book, there are also numbers of different trees, both coniferous and deciduous, featuring basic tree shapes in the background and more realistic trees in the foreground that you can easily imagine rustling in a breeze.

Anno’s Journey,” by Mitsumasa Anno, is based on the author’s own travels in Europe and is filled with finely detailed pen-and-ink with watercolor illustrations. It is purely a picture book, no words, and every time you flip through the pages, you’re bound to find something new because each page is packed with activity and really gives the sense of a living world. This book pre-dates “Where’s Waldo?” but I kept expecting to find him peeking out front behind a building because it has that same investigative feel.

One of my new favorite illustrators is Erin Stead, who often teams up with her husband, author Philip Stead. “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” features a combination of woodblock printing for color and pencil for detail. She starts by carving out the shapes she wants color for, like the animals, in blocks of wood. Paint is applied to the carved wood, and the blocks are used like stamps on the page. Stead then adds detail and creates the scene itself with pencil drawings. It’s a really cool effect, especially when you can see the woodgrain in the color.

For another one of their books, “Bear Has A Story to Tell,” Stead created her own paint by grinding up chalk pastels and mixing them with water. This creates an interesting textured look for the illustrations, which she again penciled on top to add detail.

The grass is always greener on the other side, so sometimes I like to entertain the idea of becoming an illustrator, conveniently ignoring all the time and effort required, and the stress that can come with creativity. To help feed these entertainments, we have two practical books at the library that have helped me explore this imagined future. In “Illustration that Works,” Greg Houston covers everything from what an illustrator is, the different mediums that are used to create illustrations, tips and tricks, and even includes exercises like designing a book cover or drawing a portrait.

How to be An Illustrator” by Darrel Rees dives into the specifics of topics like preparing a portfolio, promoting yourself, and explaining how to create an invoice for your work. My favorite part, however, is that it is filled with interviews with illustrators and art directors, so instead of getting one perspective on what it is like to be an illustrator, you’re getting over a dozen.

Lastly, sometimes the best inspiration is to actually see someone create art, not just looking at the final product printed on a page. This gives you a greater appreciation for the process and proves that it is actually doable by human hands, with a lot of practice.

CreativeBug is a great online resource for this, that is available free through Manhattan Public Library. You’ll find full classes, like “Drawing and Illustration Basics” with Heather Ross and “Daily Observations: Drawing Objects from Life” with Mou Saha. They also have a collection of live videos during which they sit down with artists like Lisa Congdon and George McCalman, and create art while having a conversation or cover interesting techniques like adding salt to watercolor paintings, who would have thought?

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LGBTQ+ Fantasy

LGBTQ+ Fantasy

By Alex Urbanek, Library Assistant 2

Cover of "Cemetery Boys" by Aiden Thomas: Two Latino teenagers stand back to back amongst gravestones as a robed skeleton in a flower crown floats behind them, backlit by the moon against a maroon skyI have been passionate about fantasy stories for years, and especially more so since the pandemic. Being stuck inside, it has been wonderful to escape into magical and fantastical worlds. In particular, I’ve made it my mission to read more fantasy titles by LGBTQ+ authors, many of which have LGBTQ+ protagonists, and I have found some fantastic stories. Whether they’re contemporary fantasy with hints of realism, or high fantasy that happens to have queer characters, fantasy is finally showcase characters with a variety of genders and sexualities.

Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas is the story of Yadriel, a transgender brujo who is struggling to prove he belongs among his traditional Latinx family. After completing the ritual to become a brujo, Yadriel summons a ghost to banish as proof, but soon becomes stuck with easily-excited and troublesome Julian. As Yadriel tries to help Julian understand what killed him, running behind the backs of his family, he begins to feel connected to Julian in a way he never expected.

Working as a Case Worker for the Department of Magical Youth, Linus Baker lives his life by the book. He follows the rules and regulations of his job to a T and has a quiet home life with his cat Calliope.  In “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by T.J. Klune, Linus is charged by Extremely Upper Management to travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, a high security orphanage that few know about, and decide if it’s worth keeping open. Within the orphanage, he finds several children (a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the 6-year-old Antichrist), as well as the caretaker, effortlessly charming Arthur Parnassus. Linus has been given one month to fill out his paperwork and decide if the home should be shut down or if this crazy little family should be allowed to stay together.

Anna-Marie McLemore is easily one of my favorite writers; their magical realist books combine young love, LGBTQ+ struggles, and the beauty of magic throughout. The first book I read by them was “When the Moon Was Ours.” Miel is a young girl with roses growing out of her wrist, and rumors say she appeared out of the water tower when she was five. Her best friend Sam paints lit-up moons to hang in trees and keeps his history before moving to town a secret. Even though most kids find Miel and Sam weird, even they keep their distance from the Bonner girls, four sisters rumored to be witches. When the Bonner sisters decide that Miel’s roses can make anyone fall in love, they’re determined to get the roses no matter what it takes.

For something with a more classic fantasy feel, “Girls of Paper and Fire” by Natasha Ngan is a great read. Within this story, Lei, a member of the lowest caste, is chosen to be one of eight Paper Girls selected to serve the king. However, this year, instead of eight girls, there are nine. The king has heard of Lei’s beauty and her golden eyes and sends his guards to retrieve her. Once in the castle, Lei has weeks of training with the eight other girls to learn what it is to be a king’s consort. However, during her training she ends up falling into a forbidden romance.

Charlie Jane Anders’s “All the Birds in the Sky” has a curious mix of sci-fi and fantasy. From childhood, we follow the stories of Patricia Delfine, a witch, and Laurence Armstead, a genius and slightly-mad scientist. Once childhood friends, they have grown into adulthood in very different environments. Patricia has worked at magic school and now travels with a small band of magicians secretly righting wrongs. Laurence has worked his way up within a tech company that is determined to save humanity with space trouble or end it by trying. While both are trying to help the world in their respective ways, they find their way back to each other with the help of a mysterious force. Now they have to see who has the right idea to fix the world, and if it can even be fixed.

If any of these titles got you in the mood to read some great fantasy, all of these books, and many more can be found at the Manhattan Library!