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Roof Gardens and Backyard Birds: May Staff Picks


Roof gardens, backyard birds, spring days.

Recipes passed down between generations, poems that live in our hearts.

Imagination and action changing the world.

In our May Staff Picks, we share what we’re reading this spring. Find books from Morgan Talty, Rhiannon Giddens, Andrea Wang, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Deborah Jackson Taffa, Rebecca K Reilly, Agnes Lee, and more great writers.

Julia’s Pick 

In the new picture book Grandma’s Roof Garden by Tang Wei (translated by Kelly Zhang), an elderly woman tends a vibrant garden atop her apartment building in a city in southwest China. “Granny sometimes does things that may seem funny or strange,” Wei tells us, such as collecting damaged produce from the market. But those wilted greens nourish her rooftop vegetable beds, providing abundant baskets of produce for her neighbors and a delectable meal for her family.  

In Wei’s colored-pencil illustrations, Granny’s “gorgeous, chubby veggie children” practically burst off the page. I love books where the pictures include details never mentioned in the text; in this one, readers can trace the antics of a black cat and a mouse who follow Granny through the pages. 

Cindy’s Picks 

We Could Fly is a lovely picture book written by Rhiannon Giddens and illustrated by the amazing Briana Mukodiri Uchendu. Giddens was deeply inspired as a child by the famous collection of Black American folktales The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. This is her luminous ode to that collection. The illustrations are captivating and lead you from one page to the next in a mesmerizing way.  

 The School for Invisible Boys is a middle grade book by Shaun David Hutchinson. There is more than meets the eye at St. Lawrence’s Catholic School for Boys, and if Hector is going to save Orson—and himself—from a terrifying creature preying on students’ loneliness and fear, he’ll need to look deeper. With the help of a mysterious new classmate, Sam, can Hector unravel the mysteries haunting his school and discover that sometimes it takes disappearing to really be seen? This magical realism novel has LGBTQ and bullying themes.  

Summer at Squee is a middle grade book by Newbery-Honor-Winning author Andrea Wang. Phoenny Fang is planning to have the best summer ever.  She is returning to the “Summertime Chinese Culture, Wellness and Enrichment Experience” Camp (“Squee” to campers in the know) and this year she is a senior camper, which means that she and her squad of friends will be among the coolest kids.  But on the day she arrives, she discovers that not only has her squad been split up, a whole crop of new campers has arrived. She is determined to make the best of it, but quickly realizes that there are things she doesn’t understand that she must learn about. 

Emily’s Pick 

I found a new favorite audiobook & fictional family in Rebecca K Reilly’s Greta & Valdin, a new-to-the-U.S. book that was first published in New Zealand and thankfully has made its way here. Greta and Valdin Vladislavljevic are queer Māori and Russian siblings and roommates in Auckland. They’re both dealing with a whole slew of relationship messes, their ridiculous but loving family, and trying to get through their day-to-day lives. I listened to the audiobook and can’t recommend it enough—I loved hearing the two main narrators give voice to Greta and Valdin, with all of their emotions and wry humor, and their talents at bringing the characters to life.  

In the novel, Valdin is trying really hard to get over his ex-boyfriend Xabi. While it helps that Xabi moved all the way to Buenos Aires, it doesn’t help that he is Valdin’s uncle’s husband’s brother, so Valdin still has to hear about him. Valdin’s also made a major change in his career (from studying physics to TV), and tells the listener about learning to manage his OCD. Meanwhile Greta is navigating a crush that turns into heartbreak, getting lost in the woods, and working on her graduate degree in Russian literature. She also gets to experience a quite hilarious (to the listener!) family dinner when she brings a new girlfriend along and things quickly get chaotic. Definitely one to read—and if you can, listen to! 

Gabrielle’s Picks 

I recently read—and loved—two very different books that struck me as similar in their quietly moving depictions of grief and joy. One, Ædnan: An Epic, is a novel in verse by Linnea Axelsson, a Sami Swedish writer. She gives voice to various Sami characters as they navigate the heartbreak of being forced to leave behind their traditional ways, language, lands, and identity. The second, 49 Days, is a graphic novel by Agnes Lee which unrolls over the course of the 49 days that, in Buddhist thought, is the time between death and rebirth. The book explores the grieving process as it is experienced on both sides of the divide: by the deceased as well as by the loved ones who are still living.

Both books are beautifully written in language that felt to me both spare and lush. Neither one took long to read and yet, while I was in each book, time slowed down and the rest of the world fell into a hush (which, to me, is one of the great gifts of reading). 

Vicky’s Pick 

I recently listened to Deborah Jackson Taffa’s memoir Whiskey Tender on cloudLibrary. A member of both the Quechan Nation and Laguna Pueblo, Taffa describes growing up first on the Quechan reservation in eastern California and then in Navajo country when her welder father took a job in Farmington, N.M. She recounts her childhood and youth with crystalline precision: Her experiences are not some monolithic “Native Experience” but particular to her culture, setting, and family. But they are informed by the systemic injustices perpetuated by settler colonialism: the Spanish invaders who problematized her mother’s family’s sense of identity for generations, the 1887 Dawes Act that restricted her father’s family’s landownership, the 1956 Indian Relocation Act that ultimately uprooted her family from the reservation. She grew up proud to know her family’s surname was a president’s—only to learn years later that Andrew Jackson was the architect of the Trail of Tears.

Taffa twines national, family, and personal histories into a singular narrative of growing into a complicated, treasured identity. Charley Flyte, who is Oglala Lakota and Mohawk, voices this moving, immersive account. (Those who prefer print will find copies available in MaineCat.) 

Fionna’s Picks 

Last month I listened to Fern Brady’s memoir Strong Female Character. Brady was diagnosed as autistic as an adult, after being misdiagnosed with OCD as a teen/young adult. Her questions about autism as a teen were dismissed and she was even told she couldn’t be autistic because “she’d had loads of boyfriends and made good eye-contact.” Strong Female Character goes over the years without the diagnosis as Brady struggles to find context, validation, and support for the overwhelming sense that she experiences the world differently than most. What results is a memoir that is brutally honest and absolutely hilarious as it shines a light on one woman’s experience with autism. I haven’t stopped talking about or recommending this to people since I started listening. 

 I just finished listening to Kennedy Ryan’s This Could Be Us, her follow up to last year’s Before I Let Go, that works well as a stand-alone.  This second-act romance was perfect listening for our ascent into springtime with the sunny and (Maine) warm days we’ve had in the last week. The narrators were fantastic and over the days I was listening I found myself feeling lighter and hopeful even when my earbuds weren’t in. Ryan wove serious topics through the story while maintaining the joy and ease of reading I look for when I pick up a romance. Try it this spring or save for a perfect beach read! 

Elizabeth’s Picks 

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop by Hwang Bo-reum (translated by Shanna Tan) is a treasure—a gentle, thoughtful novel about a woman who opens a bookstore in a neighborhood in Seoul and how it changes her and the community who gathers there. There’s much coffee-drinking and chats between characters as they mull over life. It’s a relaxing read, but you’ll want to know what happens next to the characters, too.  

I love Jean Valentine’s spare, searching poetry (“Where will you be going? Who will the others be?”). I’m glad for Light Me Down, the last volume of her work, with poems new and old. 

Two guest picks: a friend who loves basketball and the writing of Hanif Abdurraqib is thrilled that these worlds collide in There’s Always This Year. And my mom, an avid birder in Illinois, recommends The Backyard Bird Chronicles, written and (wonderfully!) illustrated by Amy Tan.

It’s not out until June, but you might want to place a hold on Morgan Talty’s new novel Fire Exit now! More new books by favorite authors: The Dead Cat Tail Assassins. Beautyland. Bite By Bite, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I’ve been waiting for another book from Rachel Khong—a stellar humorist and poignant observer of human foibles—since her first novel Goodbye, Vitamin. She’s back this spring with Real Americans. 

I’m also looking forward to new books by debut authors. “Each evening’s menu told me what kind of stories we would hear at the dinner table.” Elaine U. Cho’s new sci-fi adventure Ocean’s Godori comes with a misfit crew and space chases, while Karla Tatiana Vasquez gathers stories from grandmothers, moms, aunts, and friends in The SalviSoul Cookbook: Salvadoran Recipes & the Women Who Preserve Them 

I’ll leave you with Imagination: A Manifesto. Ruha Benjamin shares a vital tool for the work of transformation and collective liberation. “We can transform the hostile environments that try to trap us—whether they are literal cages, barbed wire-encircled playgrounds, or bullet-friendly classrooms. We can imagine otherwise.”   

Thanks for reading! You can find all of these books in our booklist Roof Gardens and Backyard Birds: May Staff Picks.

For more reading ideas in May, try books from our booklists, search our new books, or try our Your Next Great Read reading service for a personalized booklist of reading ideas from our staff.

posted: , by Elizabeth
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Seniors | Art & Culture | Readers Writers
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