“Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith” by Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma Book Cover Charles and Emma
Deborah Heiligman
Juvenile Nonfiction
January 6, 2009

Michael L Printz Honor Book 2010


Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heiligman's new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

Charles and Emma is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature.

I didn’t dislike this book, but I couldn’t quite figure out why it was considered worthy of honor by the Printz Committee — or of any of the honors it received.

It was…fine? I learned quite a bit, actually, about Darwin’s work and how he came up with his ideas, which was quite interesting, but the writing didn’t feel all that spectacular to me.

I guess I found myself comparing it to another non-fiction book that won a lot of awards recently — “Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon” by Steve Sheinkin, and it did not hold up favorably. “Bomb” was a wonderful book — it was fast-paced, non-stop, and read like an adventure novel, but it was real!

“Charles and Emma” — it meandered and backtracked, and talked about a lot of minutiae. Maybe I just wasn’t crazy about the way in which the author wove in commentary from letters and journals — it all felt somewhat awkward and contrived.

I could tell that the author was very passionate about her subject, just as Darwin and his wife were passionate about their family, their love for each other, and the work that Darwin was doing. I guess it just wasn’t enough for me to really end up loving this book, too.

“Punkzilla” by Adam Rapp

Punkzilla Book Cover Punkzilla
Adam Rapp
Juvenile Fiction
Candlewick Press

Michael L Printz Honor Book 2010


An award-winning writer and playwright hits the open road for a searing novel-in-letters about a street kid on a highstakes trek across America.

For a runaway boy who goes by the name "Punkzilla," kicking a meth habit and a life of petty crime in Portland, Oregon, is a prelude to a mission: reconnecting with his older brother, a gay man dying of cancer in Memphis. Against a backdrop of seedy motels, dicey bus stations, and hitched rides, the desperate fourteen-year-old meets a colorful, sometimes dangerous cast of characters. And in letters to his sibling, he catalogs them all — from an abusive stranger and a ghostly girl to a kind transsexual and an old woman with an oozing eye. The language is raw and revealing, crackling with visceral details and dark humor, yet with each interstate exit Punkzilla’s journey grows more urgent: will he make it to Tennessee in time? This daring novel offers a narrative worthy of Kerouac and a keen insight into the power of chance encounters.

I am not the target audience for this book, and while that doesn’t usually matter for a lot of books (a good book is a good book regardless of genre or targeted age-range), this one did nothing for me.

I can appreciate the literary merit. I’m probably reacting as a mom of teenaged boys who would very much like to pretend that the kind of world the 14 year boy in this book lives in doesn’t exist.

Runaways, drugs, sex, homelessness, AIDS, death, prostitution, and on and on……the world is such an ugly place for some people. If nothing else, I guess this book is a good reminder for me of just how lucky my family and I are. And maybe a call to action to help make the world suck less for other people, if I can.

Wrapping up 2009

As I said in a recent post, I got bogged down and side-tracked by a book in the 2009 Printz honored list. It’s been a month or more since I read some of these, and I don’t feel like I’ve done them justice in the posts I’ve made.

It’s also been a ridiculously busy time of the year — we’re already 4.5 weeks into the new school year, and I’ve managed to spend some evenings doing nothing more than playing Candy Crush Saga and it’s evil twin Candy Crush Soda Saga.

I liked most of this month’s books, and I still feel guilty about not liking one of them. I’m not sure what that says about me.

I’m already on to the 2010 list of books, and hope to keep up the momentum now that I’m past 2009. I’ve been reading many of these books via Oyster Books, an ebook subscription service — they’ve just announced that they are shuttering their service in 2016, so I need to hurry and read the books that are on my reading list from them. I very purposely DIDN’T switch to the Kindle Unlimited program when it came out, and I don’t know that I will. I’ve been trying to check on some of the books I’d like to read that are in Oyster, and finding that they aren’t in KU.

“Tender Morsels” by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels Book Cover Tender Morsels
Margo Lanagan
Juvenile Fiction
Knopf Books for Young Readers

Michael L Printz Honor Book 2009

Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever—magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?

This is not a book for everyone, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for younger teens. It starts off with some very disturbing events, and while some reviewers felt these were gratuitous, or too explicit, they didn’t feel that way to me (and I have a pretty low tolerance for that kind of thing in the books I read).

The prose was beautiful, and while it was based on a fairy tale (Snow White and Rose Red), it felt very original and unique to me. I’m a sucker for retellings and expansions of fairy tales, and I loved what Lanagan did with this.

One of the things I like about reading from the list of Printz books is that they aren’t just from US authors — Lanagan is Australian, as is Marchetta (author of the winning book from 2009), and it’s nice to see at least a tiny bit of world perspective. Even more would be better.

I’m glad to have read this and Lanagan’s previous award-winning book of short stories.


“The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 2: The Kingdom on the Waves” by M. T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II Book Cover The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II
M.T. Anderson
Juvenile Fiction
Candlewick Press
December 21, 2010

Michael L Printz Honor Book 2009

Sequel to the National Book Award Winner! Fearing a death sentence, Octavian and his tutor, Dr. Trefusis, escape through rising tides and pouring rain to find shelter in British-occupied Boston. Sundered from all he knows — the College of Lucidity, the rebel cause — Octavian hopes to find safe harbor. Instead, he is soon to learn of Lord Dunmore's proclamation offering freedom to slaves who join the counterrevolutionary forces. In Volume II of his unparalleled masterwork, M. T. Anderson recounts Octavian's experiences as the Revolutionary War explodes around him, thrusting him into intense battles and tantalizing him with elusive visions of liberty. Ultimately, this astonishing narrative escalates to a startling, deeply satisfying climax, while reexamining our national origins in a singularly provocative light.

So, this book. This is the book that derailed me. I really enjoyed the first book in this duology (The Pox Party), but this book was such a slog. And it was a slog in a way that made me feel guilty about not liking it. The first book was very compelling — there’s so much history that we never learn about, voices and stories that go untold, and reading about a character who was a slave during the American Revolution, was fascinating.

This book….I just couldn’t care about what was going on — it was another important part of our history, that I didn’t know anything about, which is why there was a lot of guilt on my part for not liking the book. Octavian Nothing escapes Boston and ends up in Virginia, joining up with Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment — slaves were offered freedom if they joined up with Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia.

As you can imagine, it didn’t really turn out well. The book was a diary of the horrors the former slaves endured, and of course, they never really did get their freedom.

I wish I could have enjoyed this more, I think it was me, not the book, though I’ve read other reviews that expressed similar sentiments.

Finishing it was a relief, and now I can move on.