How To Judge a Book By Its Cover, Part 1

This will be a two-parter, because there’s a lot to talk about.

One of the best parts of spring at the bookstore is the arrival of a whole crop of new books. (This happens in summer, fall, and winter, too, but hey, it’s not summer/fall/winter right now.) We order titles from publishers a couple of months in advance, and then they arrive in staggered shipments over the course of the season, showing up a couple of times a week in various boxes that have to be unpacked and inventoried. Putting books into our inventory system isn’t the best part of my day, but unpacking boxes can be like Christmas every week when you’ve got a lot of new titles to get excited about. Picture books! Cool history! The Hate U Give! Paperback copies of a book that’s been out in hardcover forever!

With kids’ books I’m frequently there when my boss orders them, so most things aren’t a complete surprise, but there’s still a big difference between seeing a tiny, much-compressed photo of the cover on a computer screen and getting to hold the book in your hand. Picture books are especially potent. When Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise came out, my boss laughed so hard that everything in the children’s department came to a screeching halt while she read it aloud to all of us. We sold three on the spot.

Which brings me to today’s point: cover design is a huge part of how we pick books, and that’s not a problem.

But, you interject, we shouldn’t judge a book by its trappings! Thus there is no such thing as bad cover design! And yes, hyperbolic representation of a hypothetical reader, you’re wholly correct, in a broad ethical sense. We are all more complicated than our appearances make us out to be, etc., etc. But regardless of whether we should judge a book by its cover, we nearly always do. Take a look at the nearest shelf of books and you’ll see that some spines stand out to you as particularly appealing. Lay out a dozen books on a table, face-up–they come face-up in the boxes, for the most part–and you’ll find that you’re drawn to some covers more than others. Though it’s true that which books you’re drawn to may shift depending on the day of the week, it takes a conscious effort to look past your first impression that this book is more interesting to me than that one.

And that can frequently be a good thing! Covers are basically a quick shorthand to let us know what kind of story we’re getting ourselves into. There are far more books in the world than there is time to read them all, and covers can tell us at a glance if the book we’re holding is one we’re likely going to want to finish. There are genre conventions–you can probably pull a generic romance-novel cover to mind pretty easily–and I’m suddenly wondering about the shared roots of “genre” and “generic”–anyway, there are genre conventions, and there are other rules of thumb that can give you clues to what’s inside the book.

Hate U Give cover 1

The jacket design for The Hate U Give is, to me, both beautiful and brilliant. From a quick genre-check perspective, it has no spaceships, loopy fonts, soft-focus photographs of an attractive couple gazing longingly at each other, or still-life paintings of fruit and bread on a table. The spine and front cover are both eye-catching, with simple, highly readable fonts that are unlikely to be confused with others on the shelf. The graphically bold yet understated figure on the front and the quieter figure on the back are immediately identifiable as individual people in the context of the book, but the choice to use artwork rather than a photograph allows them to stand as American archetypes as well; there’s a kind of tension there that’s explicitly and tacitly discussed throughout the book. Then, too, you have to make the effort to draw Starr’s face in your mind instead of conveniently filling in a stock model. This jacket design represents the very best of the form: a cover that’s a work of art in its own right as well as a window into the story. Before you’ve read the book, it draws you in; after, it takes on deeper personality as you connect the very specifically individual people you’ve just read about to the way we discuss them as archetypes. It complements the book rather than simply describing it.

The artist who created those striking images is Debra Cartwright, and she’s incredible. I definitely encourage you to go look her up.

Man. I could talk about this book all day. But let’s all go look at Debra Cartwright’s work instead, and we’ll come back to covers on Saturday for Part 2.

Canteen #3

LENA: That can’t possibly be true.

ROB: It is! Honestly!

CAP: So what did you say to him?

ROB: “Excuse me, I believe that’s going to be my hat in a minute.”

LENA (as she and Cap both dissolve laughing): And he just gave it to you?

ROB: Wouldn’t you?…Oh no, what’s going on?

(They look. A small crowd is beginning to gather in the doorway.)

LENA: Uh-oh.

CAP (to Rob): Are you wanted for anything?

ROB (faintly miffed): Not here.

LENA: There’s nothing planned for today, right?

CAP: Not that I know of.

ROB: Maybe we should go.

CAP: There’s another crowd at the back door.

LENA: I don’t see any weapons.

CAP: And the manager hasn’t gotten out her sword…Wait a minute, are those kids?

(Pause.)

ROB: Oh, we are definitely leaving.

LENA: You like children!

ROB: These aren’t children, they’re monsters.

CAP: I don’t see the problem.

ROB: You will in a minute. See the one in the big coat?

CAP: Yes?

ROB: Look familiar to you?

(Pause as they stare.)

LENA: …Oh.

CAP: Hm. Yeah. Gotcha.

LENA: I thought he wore a top hat, though.

ROB: Sometimes. It showed up in the illustrations and I guess most versions have kept it, but it’s not really his thing.

CAP: I would have thought you guys would get along nicely.

ROB: Dodger and I run in slightly different circles.

LENA: Well, they can’t thieve here. The manager wouldn’t stand for it, and she still doesn’t look too unhappy. It must be fine.

ROB: They don’t have to thieve to be monsters.

CAP: Okay, your cryptic comments are very interesting and all, but do you want to explain why you’re feuding with a twelve-year-old kid?

ROB: It’s not a feud.

CAP: Still asking.

ROB: Um…

LENA: We can start guessing if you’d rather.

ROB: Please don’t.

LENA: He once ate a honey cake you’d baked for your grandmother.

ROB: …No.

CAP: He painted your house blue, and you prefer green.

ROB: What? No.

LENA: You were both planning to steal the crown jewels and he got there first.

ROB: We don’t steal stuff like that!

CAP: He stole your wife’s wedding band and sold it before you could retrieve it.

ROB (with dignity): I am not married.

LENA: Is it something stupid? It’s going to be something stupid.

ROB: Can we drop this, please?

CAP: Did he pick your pocket? Is that all?

ROB: No.

LENA: Wait. I know that tone. Did you accuse him of picking your pocket?

(Pause.)

ROB: Anybody want more coffee? Cap?

CAP: Have you ever seen me drink coffee?

ROB: You said you missed being able to drink it. I thought you might be ready to reintroduce it.

CAP (grinning): My, what impeccable timing you have, it’s like you’ve read my mind.

LENA: I can’t believe you’d go around accusing people at random.

ROB: It was hardly at random!

LENA: Poor kid. I bet you had your wallet with you all along.

ROB: It was my keys, and no, it turned out that a dragon had taken them for a chew toy.

CAP: A dragon?

ROB: Why do you think they have that sign now?

(He points to “PATRONS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR DAMAGES CAUSED BY PETS”)

CAP: I thought that was because of the scorch marks.

ROB: Same incident. The dragon got mad when I tried to take the keys back. And then that kid starts roaring his head off about his injured dignity and how he’s going to get Parliament in on this, and everyone…Oh no.

CAP: What?

ROB: Hide me.

CAP: What??

ROB: He’s coming this way!

LENA: Rob. He has a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He’s getting a table. He’s not plotting your demise.

ROB: You don’t know that.

(Dodger passes by, his eyes on his newspaper.)

DODGER: Morning, Rob.

ROB: Morning, Jack.

(He continues on his way. Rob collapses back in his seat.)

LENA: You are ridiculous.

CAP (suddenly): What’s that on the floor?

LENA: Did he drop something?

CAP: Is that dragon dung? Because it looks like the kind that gives off that poisonous—

ROB: OKAY EVERYBODY OUT!

LENA: Excuse me, everyone, we need to evacuate, please move calmly to the exits—

(ONE WEEK LATER, a new sign:

Patrons are responsible for all damages caused by imitation bodily excretions”)

Pretty Pictures

I’m on the road today and short on computer access, but I still want to share something I learned at work last week:

The British Library has a Flickr account with tens of thousands of pictures scanned from old books and papers in their collection. There’s an album devoted to children’s book illustrations, and another one full of old cover designs, and plenty more besides. IT’S SO COOL. If you’re an illustration or design nerd like me, the whole thing is a joy. Happy scrolling!

“You know…”

Yesterday evening at the bookstore was lovely. I got to hand-sell to several kids, parents, and aunts, and no one asked me for books about leprechauns (“but, you know, good books”), which was last week’s special oddity.

I did have one parent ask me a question–well, double question–that I get asked a lot, so I wanted to clear it up here for anyone who’s curious. The question is, “You know all these books, right? How is that? Do you get to sit and read at the store all day?”

And the two-part answer is: I don’t, and no.

Okay, to be fair on the first part, I do know a decent number of books. I read a lot, I talk to a lot of people who work with books, I read reviews when I don’t have other information, and I spend a good part of my days restocking and shelving our inventory, which requires me to learn why any given book goes in any given section. Still, I don’t actually know all the books we have in the store. I don’t even know all the books we have in the children’s section. It’s just that the ones I pluck from the shelf to give to you are all books I’ve read, and I do it casually enough that it looks like I could pull the adjacent title and know just as much about that one.

It’s a sampling bias. You won’t see the gaps in what I know until you ask me for something like a story with a moral or a good book about leprechauns.

So no, alas, I don’t know all the books. But it’s the second part that people get really excited about, and the first question was really only a way of leading up to it.

“Do you get to read at the store all day?”

People ask me that with the shining eyes that novels like to ascribe to little tykes who have just met Santa Claus. Grown-ups, kids, everyone loves the idea that there might, just might, be a job in the world that’s as cozy and pretty and pleasant as movies make it out to be. Working in a bookstore must be so charming and perfect–you read all day, and then customers come in and you help them cheerfully and adroitly, and then you go back to reading. It’s every book lover’s dream come true!

Which, hey, it appeals to me too. It’s just not how it works. We shelve books, we ring up purchases, and we write the recommendations that people pick up from the counter or see on the shelves. We spend a fair bit of time troubleshooting the ordering process–books that came in damaged, say, or obscure books that customers want that may or may not be carried by our suppliers–and putting together author events. I should note that I work at a small independent store; larger stores and chain stores often have different people handling graphic design, ordering, and events. Still, booksellers at big stores will be so busy with customers that they won’t have time for reading either.

But all that said–I love my job. I love getting to talk with people like you about books we care about. I love looking after the store. I love trying to make everyone feel welcome. I even love questions about leprechaun books, or I like them, anyway.

And once in a blue moon, when the newsletter is done and the latest order is on the shelves, when we need a break from staring at the same inventory reports for hours on end…you may catch me or one of my coworkers reading behind the counter.

What can I say? We’re surrounded by books all day, including things like, hypothetically, to name a completely random example that I definitely didn’t crack open during a shift, March: Book 3.

And a job doesn’t have to be perfect to be pretty darn good.

Waffle Tuesday

Waffle Tuesday 1
Please enjoy this entirely candid picture of my second breakfast in which I did not move anything around to make everything sort of fit in the frame.

Today I awoke to several inches of snow and a day off; I work weekends this month, so Tuesday is my Sunday. I had errands to run yesterday and work to finish last night, but this morning I woke up practically giddy, because there was snow on the rooftops outside the window, a can of pumpkin in the cupboard, and a paperback calling my name. I mean, the only thing that could possibly make pumpkin waffles better is snow and a book, right?

Why is that?

Far be it from me to question to coziness of waffles and books. I just find it really interesting how this whole specific set of cultural practices has grown up around reading books in certain contexts or in certain ways. We pair books with environments the way restaurants pair wine with entrees. A high-seas epic makes a fine companion when you’re curled up in an armchair by the fire. A stack of picture books sounds great in the library on a rainy afternoon. Three Times Lucky is the perfect porch read on a hot summer night. The Federalist turns a train trip into an adventure. You may not agree with my specific choices any more than you agree with pairing a Riesling with clam chowder (okay, full disclosure here, I know absolutely nothing about either wine or seafood), but we probably agree on the general idea: in some places it’s not just nice to read books; it’s nice to read books there.

(Google tells me that a Riesling is actually a great wine for clam chowder, so PACK UP AND GO HOME, FOLKS, I AM APPARENTLY A WINE GENIUS AND WILL NOW BE CHANGING CAREERS.)

…Oh, look, we’re all still here.

Anyway.

We like to talk about how reading transports us to other worlds and immerses us in new ideas; and it definitely does both of those things. It’s funny, then, how we’ve put this extra layer on top of it, this idea of the value-added experience. Reading itself becomes almost irrelevant in the face of a room full of books, tea, and armchairs. Whole social media feeds are devoted to the beauty of book aesthetics. We want to be transported, but first we’d like our lives to feel like there’s no need for transportation at all.

Which I guess is a quite reasonable and human thing to hope for, and so long as the hope and the cozy mornings don’t take the place of doing something for the world we care about, I’ll remain quite excited about fresh snow and a book.

(It’s The Lanahan Readings in the American Polity, for anyone who tried to decipher the page.)

Now who wants pumpkin waffles? Because this is slightly more than a one-person recipe.

Waffle Tuesday 1a

The Hate U Give

Hate U Give cover 1One day when this book is more than two weeks old, when bookstores haven’t sold out of every copy and libraries don’t have months-long waiting lists—or at least when I know more than five people who have gotten to read it—I’ll write a longer spoiler-filled post about some of the many, many reasons to love it.

In the meantime, please enjoy the exceptionally beautiful cover; I’ll let you discover for yourselves how the art continues on the back. As for what’s inside:

In theater, there’s this quality an actor can show in a role that’s sometimes referred to as ease. It’s sort of like poise. It means that the hard work the person is doing disappears into the background, so that what you see as an audience member is the character, their struggles and triumphs, rather than the struggle of the actor themselves to put forth an emotion or idea. It’s the difference between an award-winning movie where you’re marveling at the Acting with a capital A the whole time, and an award-winning movie where yeah, sure, people are probably acting, but shh, stop talking about that, I want to see what happens next.

With The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas embodies the analogous quality in writing. The book is beautifully composed; there are brilliant turns of phrase and astute observations right and left. And still the writing consistently draws attention to the story, not to itself. When Starr, our narrator, makes us think or cry or laugh, we see and hear her without being distracted by a separate authorial voice. The Hate U Give isn’t something I’d characterize as an easy book; it’s long, layered, and ambitious in scope, with nuanced characters and a deeply compassionate skepticism for all-or-nothing views of American society. But there is a sense of ease to the way the story is told, a sense of poise and assurance, that means that even with our hearts in our throats, we never once have to doubt that we’re in good hands.

Story Time

We do story time on Saturday at the bookstore. A dozen-plus families pile into the space, and someone sings, plays instruments, and reads books.

That person is not me. After I sang “Row Row Row Your Boat” to two kids I babysat for some years ago, the three-year-old patted me gently on the knee and said, “Please don’t sing.” Mine is a specific kind of musical talent, which is to say, the missing kind. But someone comes in and does story time for us, and we get a lot of kids listening these days.

Story time is hectic, and there’s always plenty to watch out for—toddlers pulling on books as they cruise around the room; babies crawling underfoot; that one two-year-old who always tries to ramble right on out the front door—but it still makes Saturday my favorite day of the week. The little kids are fun. The parents, many of whom are regulars, are generally lovely. And best of all, older siblings frequently tag along with the tiny ones, and I get to do my favorite part of my job: talking about books with kids, not just for them.

It’s one thing to write about, and talk with other booksellers and parents and librarians about, which Jason Reynolds novel is our favorite or why the comic-book-panel setup works in Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. It’s another thing entirely to actually get to share the books we’re talking about with the kids they’re written for.

So much of what happens in stories is what plays out inside our own heads. That means that any discussion I have with other grown-ups about what a ten-year-old might think of Number the Stars is ultimately academic; what matters is the reaction that ten-year-old has to actually reading the book. It’s a privilege and a pleasure when kids are willing to open up about their experiences.

So here’s to the kids who told me this weekend about the puns they loved in A Series of Unfortunate Events and how excited they were that Crooked Kingdom was just as good as Six of Crows. Thanks for making my job well and truly worth the occasional customer who thinks I should be able to get him a paperback copy of a book that’s only been published in hardcover. You never fail to surprise me with the things you notice and discover.

And here’s to story time. Thirty people in a room listening to one book makes for a morning where it doesn’t matter if you’ve read Shh! We Have a Plan so often that you know it by heart; for a few minutes it’s a different story than you’ve ever read before, because someone there is hearing it for the very first time.

Green Glass and Grown-Ups

greenglass-house-cover-1

I’ve worked in bookstores off and on, mostly on, for a number of years, and, in case you hadn’t guessed, I gravitate towards the children’s section. The places I’ve worked haven’t gone in for the whole primary-colors-everywhere thing—or, worse, pastels—so it’s mostly just good books and enthusiastic people, and almost no one there who tries to tell me that I should be happy Hemingway wrote chauvinistic protagonists, because anything else would apparently misrepresent the period in which he was writing.

And we wouldn’t want that.

Anyway.

While I gravitate towards the children’s section, I’m still, as it turns out, a grown-up person, currently reading Vaclav Havel and holding two jobs.* Thus I found that many of my favorite kids’ books, in the present day and in my childhood, have one notable thing in common: the adult characters are people, too.

There are dozens of examples to choose from, but I’ll stick to a few. In The Circuit and Number the Stars, the protagonists’ parents make complex, weighty decisions on-page. They interact with both their kids and other adults. There are other adults, and they sweat, eat, doubt, laugh, and die like any other human. In Stone Soup, the adults themselves are the main characters, even though there are kids in the story. And there are plenty of other titles—Peter Spier’s picture book Father, May I Come?, for example, where two different generations of Dutch boys wish to join their fathers’ lifeboat crews, or Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons books, which I read in seventh grade, and in which the series doesn’t end when the protagonist grows up.

The primary joy of these books is in the stories, but as a kid who couldn’t see herself growing up to be much like the adults she knew, it was a really big deal for me to read books in which child characters I identified with grew up to be adults I liked. It meant, for lack of a less dramatic way to phrase it, that my friends and I might have futures. I don’t know why I thought for so long that people turned miserable and inflexible on their 21st birthdays the way that Cinderella’s carriage went back to being a pumpkin at midnight. It was a ludicrous idea, especially when so many of the adults around me were thoroughly interesting and lovely people in their own right. And yet that fear dogged me all the way through my teens.

So it was a big deal to read Number the Stars, where the adults risked their lives to help their friends, or Father, May I Come? where they held jobs like cobbler and appliance repairperson in addition to manning the lifeboat. These grown-ups weren’t antagonists, ineffective comic foils, or cardboard cutouts of family members. They had plans and dreams and people they cared about. The child characters were part of all of that.

Which meant that maybe my friends and I were also part of that, and maybe we could grow up to have a say in it, and maybe the plans we made would still matter when we were grown.

It was an even bigger deal for me to read Dealing with Dragons, where (minor spoiler, but hey, the fun part is how it all happens) a girl who’d made unconventional plans for her future didn’t get a tidy ending; even after she grew up she kept having adventures. And those adventures actually happened on the page, instead of just being implied by a cheery sentence in the last paragraph. I didn’t have to identify all that strongly with Cimorene to feel both surprised, delighted, and relieved at that.

It’s great (and important!) to see yourself and your peers reflected in what you read. It can be tough to see only that reflection, frozen static in time, with a clear past but no discernible future. It’s not just me. Kids at the bookstore sometimes voice disappointment about an otherwise good book where the grown-ups are boring. The teenagers in a book group I used to lead talked in the same vein.

Adults are people too, and we all benefit from that fact, in and out of fiction.

So for all of us who like our stories multi-generational, I present, at long last, the book whose cover graces the top of this post, Greenglass House: a cheery, welcoming story about an inn full of possible smugglers, thieves, and tabletop game enthusiasts.

Including a couple of kids.

The premise is entertaining all on its own. Milo, our protagonist, is twelve. His parents own Greenglass House, an inn that is rather popular with smugglers of some strange and fascinating varieties. At the moment, though, smugglers are far from Milo’s mind; he’s just finishing his homework on the first day of winter break (of his own volition, no less) and is looking forward to Christmas at the inn, when it’s just him and his folks. Unfortunately for this happy vision of peace and quiet, the bell rings to announce the arrival of a guest. Milo is thoroughly put out—but then a second guest arrives, and a third, fourth, and fifth, and he starts to figure out that there’s something very strange indeed going on in his house.

There are stories within stories. There’s hot chocolate I’d love to drink if I could only have milk. There’s intrigue and treachery and a somewhat alarming cake. There’s maybe a tiny, tiny hint of magic.

And there are grown-ups everywhere, of all ages and professions, if by “all professions” we’re mostly including the shadier ones. (Never fear, there’s also a cook.) They’re each after something that matters to them. Best of all, not a one of them is the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning.

Read it curled up under a blanket as the temperature drops again, and maybe try not to choose a future for yourself that involves aiding and abetting smugglers of illicit ballpoint pens.

*And yes, apparently my definition of adulthood is reading Vaclav Havel and holding two jobs. I was going to qualify that with some kind of caveat, but you know what? I actually think it stands. I mean, it’s not all-encompassing or anything, but it stands.

Canteen #2

CAP: So when does it open?

LENA: Saturday. It all went…really fast.

CAP: That’s so exciting!

LENA: Yeah, I can’t wait for people to hear it. Everyone sounds incredible.

CAP: How’s the plot go?

LENA: You mean, is it good?

CAP: I mean what happens?

LENA: It’s an opera. Everything happens.

CAP: Come on.

LENA: No, really. It’s pretty much all there.

CAP: Dancing, duels, arguments, unrequited love—

LENA: Okay, no duels this time. But all the rest of it.

CAP: No duels?

LENA: Don’t worry, there’s pretty much a murder.

CAP: Pretty much?

LENA: And some very operatic suicides. It’s a tragedy. It’s a very tragic tragedy. (Pause.) Why do you suppose that is?

CAP: What?

LENA: Why’s it have to be a tragedy? Why do we keep telling tragic love stories? I mean, would it kill us to let Romeo and Juliet wake up next to each other at the end?

CAP: I saw a version like that once. It was…really good, actually.

LENA: Yes! It can be! If the story’s good, there’s no need to twist it around to make you cry at the end. You can be afraid for someone and have them survive. It doesn’t make the fear any less real.

CAP: No. It doesn’t.

LENA: And you can have something that’s sad without making it a tragedy. My brother is both dead and alive, depending on which version you read, but neither one is a tragedy in the classic sense.

CAP: Yeah. And it’s not melodramatic, either. It’s something that happens that hurts.

LENA: Exactly. But it’s still not a tragedy. I mean I know a tragedy is more than sad, with the arc of fate and whatnot, but that’s still what the plot points boil down to. Something sad happens at the end, even if the rest of the story had its ups and downs.

CAP: But there are good stories that are tragedies and worth telling.

LENA: Sure. I love The Queen of Spades. I love hearing it every night. I’m just suddenly wondering what it is with tragedies.

CAP: People say happy endings are for kids.

LENA: Why?

CAP: I guess because they make the stories easier.

LENA: But they…don’t, so much of the time. A happy ending—or a joyous ending, anyway; I don’t feel like there’s any such thing as a happy ending—a joyous ending doesn’t change the horrible things that happened beforehand. I should know. Half the time, for me, Christmas comes, and against all odds most of the family is alive, and we’ve had time to grieve and now there’s love in the air. But my brother is still dead.

CAP: …Yeah.

LENA: And anyway, it’s not as if bad things don’t happen to both kids and adults. Why not let people see the fictional people they love get something good now and then, even if the real people can’t have it?

CAP: Why do you suppose we care so much about endings?

LENA: Why wouldn’t we?

CAP: Well…because like you said, they don’t change what happened beforehand. And presumably they don’t change what happens after.

LENA: True.

CAP: But I’ve still written like three separate posts already that mostly have to do with how a story ends. Why is that?

LENA: Lack of imagination on your part?

CAP: Thank you so much.

LENA: We have to stop a story somewhere. And the ending is the last thing we remember.

CAP: So if the ending leaves us feeling sad, or hopeful, or both…

LENA: That’s how we’ll frame the rest of the story.

CAP: So we tell tragedies because—hmm.

LENA: Because…because they feel true. Because they make you feel like you’re close to something big and real.

CAP: So happy endings are for kids because we don’t think they can handle something too big or too real?

LENA: Yeah, but maybe we’re oversimplifying. Like if it’s all about wherever you end a story, then

Five Good Books

immigration-books

Edit: I’ve added a sixth book to this list, Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli.

It’s not Tuesday, not even close, but in light of the fear and uncertainty surrounding American immigration and refugee policy, I don’t really want to wait on this.

The following are a few books that deal with immigration and emigration. Two White Rabbits and Mama’s Nightingale are picture books that I commonly recommend for ages five or six and up, though the caveat always applies that every kid is different and age ranges are malleable. The Circuit is a novel in short stories; I read it in sixth grade. Human Cargo and Syrian Dust are adult nonfiction. I wouldn’t mind seeing them taught in high schools, but I’m also including them here because I think the list would be incomplete without them. It’s far from complete anyway.

So:

Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng / A little girl and her father wend their way north, headed for the United States border, though the girl doesn’t know their destination for sure. There are elements of a numbers book as dad and daughter make a game out of counting things they see, but most of the story follows their journey. The standout beauty of Two White Rabbits is in the way the illustrations show the care with which the little girl’s father looks after her. The family is still on the move at the end of the book. The title of the Spanish-language version is Dos conejos blancos.

Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub / Saya’s mother is confined to an immigration detention center, awaiting a hearing, while Saya and her father wait for her. The story revolves around the cassette tapes Saya’s mother sends to her daughter, on which she has recorded herself telling stories, and around Saya’s decision to tell her own story to help her mother. I’m going to go ahead and tell you that Saya’s mom’s case isn’t resolved by the end of the book, but she does get to come home to her family.

The Circuit by Francisco Jiménez / As Panchito’s family migrates from labor camp to labor camp, picking grapes and cotton and strawberries and whatever else is available, Panchito goes to school, draws pictures, collects the oldest pennies he can find, looks after his siblings, and starts to learn the trumpet, all with frequent interruptions to work in the fields. Larger interruptions are tied to changes in the agricultural seasons, when the family packs their belongings into cardboard boxes and moves on to the next place, and the next, and the next. As in both Two White Rabbits and Mama’s Nightingale, the heart of The Circuit is Panchito’s family.

A note on the ending—and THIS IS A SPOILER—YOU CAN SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WANT, just go right on to the next one, but some of you may want the warning. The Circuit is partially autobiographical. Like Francisco Jiménez himself as a child, the fictional Panchito doesn’t have documents, and he’s deported along with his family at the end of the book. An immigration officer picks him up from his school classroom. The scene is brief and there’s no physical violence, but there’s of course the violence of dislocating a kid from the life he’s known since he was almost too young to remember, and Panchito is understandably terrified. In real life, Francisco Jiménez and his family were able to return to the United States with papers when a farmer they had worked for agreed to sponsor them, and The Circuit has a sequel (which I haven’t had a chance to read yet), Breaking Through, that follows that story and beyond. Still, the deportation at the end of the book came as a punch to the gut even when I was a sixth grader who didn’t think I knew anyone who could be deported. I don’t put warnings on books very often, but if you or someone you love lives in fear of the ongoing ICE raids around the country, I don’t want to give you the impression that my love for this book means it has a happy ending.

Okay. The adult books.

Human Cargo by Caroline Moorehead / First published in 2005 and later updated with a new epilogue, Human Cargo is one of the most wide-ranging and readable books I’ve yet found that deals with people’s experiences seeking asylum around the world. From Guinean and Palestinian refugee camps, to Australian detention centers, to the far edge of the U.S.-Mexico border, to the wreck of a boat carrying 150 Liberian migrants on the Sicilian coast, the book details some of the myriad factors driving people to leave their homes—war, torture, and poverty so profound it is a kind of violence in itself, among others—and recounts what happens after they leave, both for those who are eventually granted asylum and those who are turned away. The history and reality of modern refugee policy are interwoven with the individual stories, and the text grapples directly with the difficulty and importance of putting such complex human experiences in narrative form.

Syrian Dust by Francesca Borri / Francesca Borri began covering the war in Syria as a journalist in February of 2012. Syrian Dust, translated from the original Italian by Anne Milano Appel, is subtitled either “Reporting from the Heart of the Battle for Aleppo” or “Reporting from the Heart of the War,” depending on which edition you have, and it’s exactly that, an account of the chaotic civil war and humanitarian crisis that international newspapers cover intermittently while hundreds of thousands of people live them without respite. The author writes with frank skepticism for anyone who claims to have a simple explanation for what’s happening in Syria and what should happen next, even as she works to understand what she’s seeing: the bombings she lives through, medical students who do what they can in place of murdered doctors, families living in a graveyard, and her own ability to move with relative freedom in and out of the country, in and out of danger, when so many people cannot.

Okay. Two tiny final things.

Five books don’t make an all-encompassing or representative list,

and

Books by themselves can’t fix things that are wrong in the world. They’re only a place to start.

I’d normally say happy reading, but with those last two…just remember to drink some water now and then.