Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future


Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Ashlee Vance
Harper Collins
January 2017

You may know Elon Musk as the boundary-pushing leader of tech companies SpaceX and Tesla, but how did he get there? The young reader’s edition of Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk takes middle grade readers from his childhood in South Africa to his immigration to Canada and later the U.S. to his success as an Internet millionaire to his quest to save humanity through technology. In a world where adults are increasingly concerned about children’s ability to take risks and tolerate failure, there’s no better role model than Musk. His companies and his personal life have swung from the brink of ruin and nearly miraculous accomplishment, but even in the lowest points, he remained undeterred from his lofty goals. The advances his teams of engineers make for inspiring STEM-related reading. Beware the first chapter, which focuses on a dinner the author had with Musk, an episode that may have held some interest in the adult version of the book but that makes a dull opening for kids. Please push through – or even just skip – the first chapter and be rewarded with a story that is sure to inspire.


Humans of New York: Stories

Humans of NY

Humans of New York: Stories
Brandon Stanton
St. Martin’s Press
October 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

What started out as a jobless guy wandering the streets of New York City with a camera became an Internet sensation – Humans of New York. You’ve read the blog, followed the Facebook posts, and now you can own the book. The stories and photos in the book are taken directly from the blog, so there’s no special content that you couldn’t find online. It is curated and loosely organized by theme. There are no headings or chapter distinctions, but if you read it from cover to cover, you’ll notice that similar stories are grouped together. The layout is clean with only one or two stories per page. Bottom line, it’s a great coffee table book, but if you follow HONY closely online, you’ll probably have read most of these stories.

What I find more interesting about HONY is the similar online communities, websites, and Facebook accounts it has spawned in other cities around the world. I occasionally check out Humans of Jerusalem and have actually recognized people on the street who were profiled on it. There’s also some good parody accounts, my favorite being Pigeons of Boston, which sadly appears to have stopped being updated last fall.

Brandon Stanton has had a huge impact on online story-sharing landscape by compassionately promoting others’ humanity, celebrating diversity, and interacting face-to-face on behalf of an Internet community, all of which I think is awesome and is the recipe of his success. Here’s a short NPR interview where he explains the beginnings of HONY and what it takes to walk up to strangers in New York City.

Between the World and Me


Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau
July 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

In Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his young son about growing up black in America, the fears he harbors about his son’s safety, and the experiences that formed and nurtured these fears. Between philosophical tracts about racism, inequality, division, and otherness, Coates shares his most formative experiences – going to Howard University (“the Mecca” as he calls it), meeting his son’s mother, making friends and later losing a good friend to violence, and traveling abroad for the first time. He also writes about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other black men killed by police and gun toting civilians and the effect of the deaths and of the exoneration of the killers on his son. There are photographs throughout of Coates with his son, friends, and other family members. It’s not a very long book, 176 pages broken up into three chapters, but it gives you a lot to think about.

Between the World and Me won the National Book Award for non-fiction. Ta-Nehisi Coates is also a writer for The Atlantic where you can read more of his writing on race and society.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street Books
October 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten list

You probably recognize Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman in history to sit on the Supreme Court, by her small stature, her signature collars, her pursed mouth, or even from the online memes created to celebrate her in recent years. But if you are like me, you had no idea of the whole story. Luckily MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon and founder of the Notorious RBG tumblr, Shana Knizhnik, were here to educate me on all the ways that RBG and her work, even before joining the Supreme Court, has opened doors, knocked down walls, and sought to give women and men equal opportunities and rights (though admittedly we have a long way yet to go). The book is a mix of biography and legal history, covering RBG’s personal life and early career as well as her most famous and influential court cases.

Even more amazing to me than the accomplishments of RBG is the world in which she started her career. As a millennial woman, I knew in a vague way that women didn’t always have the opportunities that I have today, but I had no idea how bad it was. Notorious RBG lays it all out: losing your job for getting pregnant; forced abortions for women in the military even while abortion is illegal in the rest of the country; women unable to get a job to support themselves and their children after a husband dies; working women dying and their husbands not getting to collect benefits because the law assumes no women work; and the list goes on and on. RBG made it her life’s work – starting with her positions at the ACLU and teaching at high-profile law schools and still today with her seat on the Supreme Court – to make the U.S. a better place for women than it was when she was growing up but doing so while also fighting for the equal rights of all people. She is also such a character. From her relationship with her husband to the way she treats her clerks to her personal style, she is a class act and a shero of the highest order.

This book is well researched and readable. The chapter titles come from Notorious B.I.G. lyrics and there is tribute art sprinkled throughout the book. In addition to notes and citations, it has some fun back matter like “How to Be Like RBG” and “R.B.Juicy,” parody lyrics to Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Juicy.”

I don’t have any read alikes for this book, so here are some favorite quotes:

“The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” (Chapter 4, location 1054 in Kindle edition)

“If women are to be leaders in life and in the military, then men have got to become accustomed to taking commands from women, and men won’t become accustomed to that if women aren’t let in.” (Chapter 5, loc. 1550 in Kindle edition)

“Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” (Chapter 10, loc. 2633 in Kindle edition)

We Should All Be Feminists


We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Anchor Books
February 2015
On the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten list

Writer and all-around shero Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie took a TEDTalk she delivered about feminism and growing up in Nigeria and turned it into this very quick, impassioned read (it took me less than 30 minutes to read). She shares stories about being accused by a friend – a boy – at a very young age of being a feminist and having to look it up in the dictionary. As she grows older, she experiences instances of misogyny, some blatant and others more subtle. Through these examples she examines gender norms for both men and women, starting from when they are boys and girls, and elaborates on how they shape us. I was especially impressed with her examination of men and masculinity and how expectations of masculinity create fragile male egos of which women are expected to be the protectors. I also agreed with her declaration that “emasculation” is perhaps her least favorite word ever. While the topic is timely, her points astute, and the writing engaging, the material is better, for me, when delivered through the oral medium of the TEDTalk. As a book, its brevity on such a huge topic made it ultimately unsatisfying and left me wanting more. Also Adichie is a beautiful speaker, so I would rather listen to her.


Fun fact: At the end of 2015, every 16-year-old in Sweden received a copy of this book in hopes that it would prompt conversations about feminism among the young people, even though Sweden is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world.



Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League
Dan-El Padilla Peralta
July 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

When Dan-El was a small child, he traveled with his mother and father from the Dominican Republic to New York City where his mother gave birth to his little brother. While dad went back to the D.R., mom decided to stay with her two sons past the time of their tourist visa, making them illegal immigrants. Staying first at a homeless shelter and then living on welfare in the projects in New York City, Dan-El and his family had a tough life in the states. Through a natural intelligence and love of reading, some caring adults, and, as he himself admits, quite a bit of luck, Dan-El went from a run-down public elementary school to a prestigious private middle school and high school on scholarship. From there he got into the Ivy League – Princeton – also on scholarship. All the while, and particularly when he headed to college and beyond, his immigration status was a hurdle to his education and employment, one that seemed almost insurmountable many times. Again, with help, luck, and perseverance, things end up alright for Dan-El, but several times there was a good chance he and his family (except his little brother who is a U.S. citizen by birth) would be deported back to the D.R. without the bat of an eyelash by the U.S. government.

Dan-El went to college back in the early 2000s when the DREAM Act, bipartisan legislation that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a path to citizenship through education and accomplishment, was first being introduced to Congress. It is still, more than a decade later, wallowing in the legislative process, but in 2012 President Obama enacted DACA to give many of the benefits of DREAM to undocumented children. Dan-El is basically the poster boy for why the country needs the DREAM Act, and this memoir really puts into perspective the kind of people we would be turning out of the country when they have so much to contribute.

Initially I thought this would be the kind of book I would take on my outreach visits to places like the juvenile detention center where some of the teens are affected by their or their family’s illegal immigration status. However, after reading it, I am having second thoughts. While Dan-El’s story is inspiring, it is highly uncommon, almost to the point of being completely relatable for the average person. He was exceptionally smart and had many caring adults and support programs to help him. Because of these things, not only was he able to work his way up to college, but he came to equate success exclusively with getting into the Ivy League, a narrative that just isn’t realistic for many teenagers these days, even ones of relative privilege. I hesitate to hand this book to someone for whom reading at grade level, graduating high school, or simply getting out of juvenile detention is the definition of success. I’m not saying they shouldn’t aspire to something more, but I wish I had an inspiring story of someone who gets into trade school or even state college against the odds and is held up as a success. Someone needs to write that book.

Read alikes

The Circuit series by Francisco Jimenez

Drowned City


Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans
Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
August 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On YALSA’s 2016 list Top Ten Great Graphic Novels

Released for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Don Brown’s Drowned City revisits the storm, the tragic aftermath, and the failure of political leadership that ensued in the storm’s wake. The graphic novel’s panels are colored in murky grays, browns, and blues and show a masterful use of perspective, as you can see on the cover. The text is clear and straight forward. Brown doesn’t reveal new information or demand that the reader see the storm one way or another. Rather he writes in a way that invites the reader simply to remember or, for the kids who were too young to remember first-hand, to look at what happened and judge for themselves.

In a instance of serendipity, I read this book the same day I watched Beyonce’s Formation music video for the first time. The people of New Orleans, particularly the poor, black people, have never really truly recovered from the economic and social ramifications of Hurricane Katrina, and the country needs to be reminded periodically of the lasting pain until we fix the problems that allow tragedies like this to disproportionately effect the most vulnerable among us.

It’s also important in an election year to have a book like this to remind us of the impact our political leadership has when the unexpected happens. The panels about President George W Bush and his incompetent appointees juxtaposed with the unimaginable suffering of the people of New Orleans made my skin crawl. It’s so easy to forget but important to remember.

Read Alikes

Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes