Category Archives: Book Stuff

Book stuff.

Renata’s Best Books of 2020

In years past, Kait and I have both counted down our favorite books read in end-of-year wrap-up podcast episodes. Since 2020 was a different kind of year, our end of year podcast episode was a little different this year too. But I still read a lot of great books and wanted to take the opportunity to pick my own Top Ten. As in other years on the podcast, I’m counting books I read this year, even if they weren’t published in 2020. I’m also not attempting to make a balanced list or account for some kind of “objective” quality–these were the best books for me, based on my own finnicky internal tastes.


Movies (And Other Things) by Shea SerranoKing of Crows by Libba Bray

10) Movies (And Other Things) by Shea Serrano (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

9) The King of Crows by Libba Bray (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

The Voting Booth by Brandy ColbertClap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

8) The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

7) Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore RameeDragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

6) A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

5) Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

Pet by Akwaeke EmeziFighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

4) Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

3) Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel NayeriElatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

2) Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)

1) Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Amazon | Bookshop | My GoodReads Review)



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#WeNeedDiverse Saddle Club Book Covers

In our Saddle Club podcast episode, we talked about the various editions’ different book covers and Carole’s ambiguous racial identity. Since a podcast is not a visual medium, I wanted to collect a few covers here so you can see what we’re talking about.

As best I can tell, this is the original 1988 cover. Carole’s weirdly cast in shadow.

Horse Shy


This next edition looks like the same girl as the first one but flipped out of the shadow into the light? And also she got some chickens? Also, that horse is not cobalt.


Horse Shy


This next cover features all 3 girls. Which is which? Who knows? (Presumably, knowing what we know about Carole from the series as a whole, she’s on the right. All we know about Stevie is that she’s blonde and I wouldn’t call any of these girls blonde. Maybe the one on the left has some blonde-ish highlights?)


Horse Shy


Here’s the cover of the 1996 reprint edition. She looks more recognizably like a light-skinned black girl. (And Cobalt, the horse, is also black, as described in the book.)


Horse Shy


But wait, here’s a cover for an Overdrive e-book collecting the first 2 Saddle Club books.

Horse Crazy Horse Shy


Finally, here’s Carole from the Saddle Club TV show, as played by Keenan Macwilliam.

Keenan Macwilliam as Carole Hanson

I want to make clear that this is not like a pre-movie Hunger Games Rue situation, where Rue is clearly described as black in the book’s text but a lot of white readers didn’t pick up on it. (And, in many cases, then got mad about it.) None of the Saddle Club girls are physically described at all in the book we read, except for an offhand mention of Stevie’s blonde hair. For all we know, all three girls could be black (and maybe one of them dyes her hair). However, most readers, especially white readers, assume characters are white unless stated otherwise.

With all of these book covers, I think if you look at them pre-armed with the knowledge (gained from other books in the series, or perhaps from familiarity with the Saddle Club TV show) that Carole is black, you could recognize Carole as a WOC, albeit one on the lighter end of the spectrum of color. But with most of them, especially as a white person with existing biases, one could also easily view Carole as white. (Of course, Carole could  well be black and white–lots of people are mixed race, and people of color come in all shades.) But the combination of very light-skinned cover models and a lack of physical description in this particular book make it pretty easy for a reader (especially a white reader) to just assume Carole is white. For what it’s worth, the original series author, Bonnie Bryant, also appears to be white.

Did these covers whitewash Carole (as is common in book covers)? Is she meant to be mixed race? Is she meant to have been depicted with darker skin? I literally don’t know, it was not mentioned in the text of the only Saddle Club book I have ever read. But whitewashing characters of color–both on book covers as well as movie/TV adaptations for books–continues to be a problem in 2017.

There’s a lot to unpack with Carole and these book covers, and I don’t have the time or expertise to dive deep, so here’s a quick link roundup:

If you have more thoughts, leave a comment or tweet @worstbestseller!

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When Reading is Hard

I self-identify as a reader and I have since a young age. I didn’t learn to read until first grade–I’m a first-born child and it never occurred to my parents to teach me at home. That’s what school is for, right? So while a lot of my Big Reader friends learned as toddlers or in pre-school or kindergarten, I didn’t learn to read until my first grade teacher started our Learning to Read unit. Once I learned, however, it seemed like I never stopped. In a cliche I’m sure many of you are familiar with, I sat through many a family gathering, sporting event, and school recess with my nose in a book. My parents, for a time, had a rule that I had to use my allowance to buy toys, etc, but they would buy me as many books as I wanted. This rule didn’t last long, purely because I burned through books so quickly even the library could barely keep up.

So, I read all through elementary school and middle school and high school. In college, I did my best to read on top of school work and mostly succeeded. After college, I worked in a bookstore and read all day in addition to reading at home. My mother was accidentally an early Kindle adopter, and I quickly stole it and filled it with more books than I could otherwise carry in my purse. In the first few years I lived in Boston, I found myself reading slightly less. I recognized that it was because reading was no longer a large component of my job, and before I could worry too much about it, I started really diving back into comics and discovered my library system’s e-lending program, nearly simultaneously. Now I could read on my phone, anywhere, any time, and even when I was too disinterested or depressed to read the book I was in the middle of, hundreds more were at my fingertips.

Last year, the way my depressed brain started to interact with reading changed. I’ve always been plagued by an inability to focus when depressed, but usually that just meant finding the right book to grab my attention. Now I could barely bring myself to focus on the written word at all. If I wasn’t reading fanfiction, I wasn’t reading, period. I pushed my way through a few written books, but it was audiobooks that largely saved me. With the Kindle/Audible partnership that provides the audio of Kindle books you already own at a discount, I was set once again. Sure, I couldn’t focus on words, but listening was somehow easier. I could load my phone up with audiobooks and drift in and out a little if my brain fogged over, but I generally didn’t lose the thread of the story and managed to get through the boring parts by half-tuning out the narration.

And that’s been fine. Mostly. Except that the last few months, even that has stopped.
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There’s a strong possibility that this will be the most controversial thing I have ever posted on the internet.
I’ve been blogging in some form or another since the late ’90s. In my youth, I wasn’t above getting into angry political fights in comment sections. I had an active Facebook account during the 2004 primaries and went to a college known for having one major, campus-wide controversy each semester.

And yet, here we are.

I am going to sort the Hamilton characters into Hogwarts houses.

This is a dicey proposition for multiple reasons. For one, this podcast and its listeners exist in a larger internet social group of book people that sorts characters for fun pretty regularly. For another, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, King Nerd of the Nerds, certainly has capital-I-Ideas about what houses these characters should be in, even if he won’t share them with the public. And, of course, sorting in and of itself is based on so many subjective qualities that any answer given for any character can be disputed with an alternate interpretation of the text.

Let’s visit the larger issues with sorting for a moment, along with some issues particular to this case:
1) Age – In Harry Potter, characters are sorted into their houses at eleven years old. There’s a lot to be said about the things about your personality that are steadfast and unchanging, but let’s be real–no one is the same person they were at eleven. When I was eleven, my social anxiety/shyness led me to believe I was the world’s biggest introvert who never wanted to be around people, despite spending all my spare time either hanging out with my local friends or chatting on the internet with my far away friends. I clung to that identity–the broody loner who wasn’t like other girls–very strongly. I imagined my whole future based on those assumptions about myself. AS IT TURNS OUT, I’m a chatty type-a leader who needs human contact to get through the day. Surprise!

Which is all to say, unless we’re sorting middle grade characters or characters whose journey we’ve followed for quite a while, we’re already using a different set of characteristics to sort than the hat would be if these characters actually found themselves at Hogwarts. In this case, though we get a little background about Alexander Hamilton’s youth in the opening number of the musical, we’re mostly working with men and women in their early twenties through late forties. Who knows if the Alexander at eleven would have been sorted the same way as Alexander at twenty-two?

2) Good/Evil Dichotomy – There is a tendency, in people who don’t spend as much time thinking about this as you, reader who’s already made it this far, for Gryffindor to be equated with good guy, Syltherin to be equated with bad guy, Ravenclaw to be equated with nerd, and Hufflepuff to be equated with cheerful idiot. All of this is, of course, incorrect. I know it. You know it. Whether JK Rowling knows it is up for debate, but the point is that all of the Hogwarts House traits are admirable in their own way and all of the houses have their flaws. It’s important to look past that when sorting, but many non-fannish types, major media outlets doing this for kicks, and casual fans can’t seem to do that. Your protagonist isn’t always a Gryffindor. Your antagonist isn’t always a Slytherin.

3) Interpretation – As I mentioned above, the defining traits of the Hogwarts houses are all present in all of us to some degree or another. No fully developed character is a cardboard cutout that is only ambitious or only loyal, with no other personal motivations. This means that interpretations of what a character’s strongest trait is are very objective. You can probably find evidence in the text to argue one way or another about many of the houses and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong; it all comes down to what particular things about that character you value above the rest.

4) Personal Preference – Sometimes we want our faves–or at least the characters we over-identify with–to be in our house. Simple as that.

And, specific to this sorting:
5) Historical vs. Literary – Lin-Manuel took a lot of liberties with timelines, events, and characters in order to turn Hamilton’s life into a condensed, three hour biography with a coherent narrative. Some bits of characters/historical figures’ personalities suffered from that. For instance–Margarita Schuyler was, by all accounts, kind of a badass in real life. In the musical, she takes a decidedly more timid role. John Laurens was, pardon my French, a total reckless shithead. The music as we hear it glosses over that somewhat (although I will say that seeing the show live, a lot of Laurens’ more reckless nature comes through in the staging). Historical Hercules Mulligan seems to have been something of a braggart and cheerful opportunist. Musical Hercules Mulligan acts exactly like you’d think a guy named Hercules Mulligan would act.

I’m going to focus on sorting the characters based on their musical personalities/arcs, but I can’t promise a little of their historical counterparts won’t shine through.

So, with all that out of the way, let’s get to the part you’ve been waiting for. I eagerly await your refutation in the comments:
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Renata’s 2016 Reading Resolutions

In the spirit of RA For All and other bloggers, I’m setting some reading resolutions! I read pretty quickly, and I read a lot. People (especially non-librarian pals) are often impressed by my GoodReads totals. But, I’m going to take a moment to explain what goes into my reading life, because a lot of my reading is already necessarily locked into pretty specific books.

As a co-host of the Worst Bestsellers podcast, I’m committed to read 24 books a year (more or less). Pretty much all of those books are not things I would ever pick up on my own. Often, I think that’s a good thing for my life as a librarian–I think it’s valuable to read widely to be familiar with popular books of different genres. (I’m not saying, for example, that every librarian needs to go out and read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I know that after reading it I had a very different idea of what it was about and what its appeal factors are than I did from just reading blog posts about it.)

As for booktalk books–every month of the school year my co-worker and I go out and share books with the local 7th and 8th graders. Every month I need 3 new books to share. We’ll call that another 24 books a year. Three a month doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can be pretty tricky to find a diverse collection of books that are appropriate for 7th and 8th graders but also engaging. A lot of YA books with really compelling hooks are really pitched at high schoolers, and I don’t feel comfortable bringing them into 7th grade classrooms. And plenty of stuff that is appropriate sounds too “babyish” to compel 7th graders to go out and pick it up off the shelf. Plus, I like to bring in a good blend of books including stories with diverse characters (especially diverse characters on the cover, so I can hold them up and kids can immediately see someone who looks like them on the cover), nonfiction (a lot of young readers really prefer true stories), and graphic novels (a great grab for some kinds of reluctant readers). So to find three good books to bring, I might have to try out ten. (Sometimes I’ll DNF a book after a few chapters if it becomes immediately apparent that a book is going to have too much “YA” content.)

At the library where I work, we have a Reading Wildly book club where each month we have to read one book from a designated genre. This is another great way to make myself read outside my comfort zone, and also adds another 12 books/year to my personal quota.

Then, I’m in a book club that meets once a month-ish. We’ll call that another 10 books/year I have to read. (I mean I guess I technically don’t have to, but I’d get a little side-eye if I showed up every month and just drank wine without talking about the book!)

So, that’s a minimum of 70/books a year that I have to read, although as mentioned, it ends up being more just to find the right blend of junior high books. But, I read more than that anyway. According to GoodReads, last year I read 272 books. What are my reading resolutions beyond what I have to read?

  • Last year I signed up to do the Book Riot Read Harder challenge last year but stopped keeping track of it pretty quickly. I think I did complete the challenge, or at least most of it, but I just didn’t have a good place to keep track of it. This year I want to finish it and keep track of it, and having this shiny new blog should help out with that! That should codify practices I try to follow when reading anyway–I do try to prioritize reading books by women and people of color, as well as from a variety of genres and formats.
  • I prefer to read comics in bound graphic novel form–that way you get a whole arc at once. I’m not on board for the serialized format that some would argue is the point of comics. But I do like to support creators and characters I like, so I subscribe to a small number of comics digitally. I always put off reading these and end up with some weird guilt about not reading the comics I’m paying for. I’d like to read my digital comics at least once a month.
  • I’d also like to read more children’s/middle grade books. Last year the teen department I work in joined with the children’s department to become youth services (where as before it was with adult as part of reference services), and now I’m seeing more younger kids (and their parents) on the regular. I’ll put a number on this and say I’d like to read at least 30 children’s/MG books this year.
  • On GoodReads I set a goal of reading 150 books, which is over twice as many as I “have” to read. If my reading life is similar to last year, I’ll probably read more than that, but I don’t like feeling too stressed about the numbers. (Sidenote if any non-librarians are reading this and feeling stressed, as I have heard friends remark on my GoodReads goals–don’t compare your reading goals with a librarian [or other book professional]’s! Whatever reading goal that is reasonable and healthy for you is what you should do!)

So, those are my resolutions! I’ll possibly check in on them occasionally on the blog, or just at the end of the year. We’ll see how I feel!

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