by Amanda Jo Slone
Students in my Composition class are writing literacy narratives. This is always my favorite assignment of the semester. I love to guide them through the mining of their memories and watch as their narratives take shape. It never fails that at the beginning of the unit, they claim they have nothing to write about. They say there is nothing special about their literacy journeys. They argue that their reading and writing lives have been unremarkable. I coax them through writing prompts that reveal their feelings toward reading and where those feelings originated. I ask them the first book they remember reading and how they felt the first time they recognized parts of themselves in a character. The initial resistance doesn’t last long. The memories burst from them, and they make connections between their reading and writing lives and the students they’ve become. They write beautiful, meaningful narratives full of emotion and reflection. They are always proud, and so am I.
I begin the literacy narrative lesson by sharing my own reading and writing memories. I have a lot to share, as I have been hoarding books and making up stories for as long as I can remember. I remember learning how to read. I was three years old and I clung to my brother, four years my senior, with sincere hero worship. Our mother read to us daily, but my brother was reading on his own. I envied him. My favorite book was Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban, and I begged my brother to read it to me over and over and over. At first, he did. It didn’t take long for him to tire of the book and of the clingy toddler who craved his attention. Instead of brushing me off, however, he vowed to teach me to read the book on my own. There was a bulky coal-burning heater in our living room. We could fit ourselves perfectly in the space between the wall and the heater, the warmest spot in the house. We’d crawl back there with our books and prop our feet against the warm wrought iron of the stove. It was there he taught me to read. He spent hours helping me learn the letters and form words, and he didn’t give up until I could read Bedtime for Frances by myself. This was the beginning of a rich literacy journey. To this day, I associate books with warmth, with family, and with love.
I still have our worn copy of Bedtime for Frances, and it has been part of my children’s journey as well. I love to collect the old books that have meant so much to all of us, and I love to add new titles to our collection. The books that follow are the latest I’ve read and loved. I hope you find something to warm you on your journey through these last chilly days of early Spring and to carry you from Spring to Summer.
- The Long Weeping by Jessie van Eerden (Orison Books 2017)
When this book arrived in my mail box, I meant to skim through it and put it aside for when I could dedicate more time and attention. I wound up glued to my chair and devoured it in one sitting. The Long Weeping is a collection of portrait essays, each steeped in intimate beauty, pain, and reflection. The subjects of the portraits range from historical figures to the author’s mother. Each one is handled with care and grace. Reading these essays is a spiritual experience that makes one feel more connected to their own lives and to those that surround us.
- Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf Publishing Group 2017)
Anyone who knows me knows can tell you I’m a sucker for any story that involves magic. Spoonbenders follows the lives of the Telemachus family, who earned their fame with their psychic abilities. Years after their mother’s death and their family’s fall out of the spotlight, we see the adult Telemachus siblings struggling to deal with their powers in daily, normal life. Though they don’t like to talk about their past, they wind up leaning on each other and a little bit of magic, to get past the trials they face. This book has everything I love. It’s magical, hilarious, and heart-warming. The characters are eccentric and exciting, and make even the unbelievable feel real.
- The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash (William Morrow & Company 2017)
I pre-ordered this book months before it was released. My reasons were many. First of all, I have yet to meet a Wiley Cash book I haven’t loved. Secondly, I am always interested in the repurposing of historical events in fiction. The Last Ballad is the story of Ella May Wiggins, who fought for workers’ rights in the labor movement of the early twentieth century. Through the novel we watch Ella May bravely contend with terrible working conditions in the North Carolina textile mills, the pressures of raising a family, and the horrors of political and social injustice. Ella May’s story is tragic but inspirational.
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press 2017)
There is so much to love about Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng’s second novel. Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, it is the story of two families who find themselves deeply intertwined despite their differences. A neighborhood couple’s attempt to adopt a baby sets a series of events in motion that change both families forever. This is a story about family, both biological and chosen. It’s a story about conformity, acceptance, class, and race. It is a story about the complexities, intricacies, and delicacies of motherhood.
- The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (William Morrow & Company 2018)
The Woman in the Window has everything I love about a good thriller. It is fast-paced and mysterious with a twist that kept me guessing until the very end. On top of that, there is an emotional depth to the characters that is often missing from popular thrillers. A.J. Finn’s characters draw you in and take you on an emotional rollercoaster of suspense, heartache, and fear. If you are a fan of class noir films and Alfred Hitchcock, you will love the references and the common themes throughout this one.
- The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2018)
The Immortalists is hands-down the best book I’ve read this year and easily in my top ten of all time. The mysterious draw of a fortune teller intrigues four young siblings and they visit the woman who tells them the dates of their deaths. The rest of the novel contains a section for each of the siblings, detailing how this information shaped and influenced the rest of their lives. This novel is a force of strong characters and emotional storylines. When I finished it, I immediately put it in my re-read pile, desperate to reconnect with the characters already.
- Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner (Dutton Books 2018)
Into the Black Nowhere is another book I preordered as soon as I heard about. This is a sequel to last year’s Unsub,which was a favorite of mine. It didn’t disappoint. FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix is a fierce female lead character. She is haunted by a tortured past and painful memories of her detective father’s career and death, but she is impossible to stop. Into the Black Nowhere is filled with heart-thumping twists and terrifying scenes as Hendrix and her coworkers search for a serial killer who is preying on young women and leaving a trail of gruesome PolaroidÒphotographs behind.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books 2018)
An American Marriage is receiving a lot of national attention as Oprah’s Book Club selection. I can’t think of a more deserving novel. Roy and Celestial are newly married when Roy is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Their life together is forever changed by circumstances neither of them can control. This novel is about injustice and its powerful influence. It is about the way we grow and change in love. It is about loyalty to ourselves and each other. The novel is presented from multiple points of view and includes moving sections of letters between the characters. I finished this book quickly, but I am still living with its characters and its lessons.
- White Houses by Amy Bloom (Random House 2018)
White Houses is a beautiful, tender novel that tells the story of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena “Hick” Hickok. Bloom tells the story from Hickok’s point of view, giving a powerful voice to a woman who was once a famous journalist. This novel takes us behind the scenes to follow Hick’s unfortunate younger life and her journey to success and love. Bloom illuminates a bond between Eleanor and Hickok that makes your heart both swell and break at once. This is an irresistible novel about all the ways in which to love someone else. It’s about friendship and passion, and how it feels to know and be truly known by another.
- The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (Penguin Books 2018)
I bought The Perfect Nanny at the suggestion of a colleague who said, “You won’t be able to put it down.” She was right. I sped through it the first day I got it. This novel centers on an unspeakable crime that is put forth in the first chapter. There are no twisty secrets or surprises. The rest of the novel takes a psychological dive into how and why the crime occurred. In many ways, it is more terrifying than any thriller I have ever read, as it looks deep into the tangles of class and culture—and the ways our lives intertwine with those around us. Told by a cool and distant omniscient narrator, we see the lives of what seems to be the perfect family with an equally perfect nanny. As the characters’ lives become dependent on the other, we see their relationships rise to a suspenseful and terrifying boil.