Chernobyl on Page and Screen

By Kristen B.

It’s not exactly a cheerful topic – the most devastating nuclear accident ever to have happened. However, the story of what went wrong is riveting and amazingly complex. More than 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986 at 1:23:58 am, one of the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl site suffered a massive explosion and containment failure, which led to fallout poisoning in large areas of Ukraine and Belarus. At the time, the Soviet government was more concerned with containing the political and international ramifications than protecting its citizenry. I have to admit that until recently I hadn’t thought much about Chernobyl other than as an unfortunate incident that happened during my teenage years.

A member of the book discussion group that I moderate, Books on Tap, advocated for reading oral histories and books in translation, particularly this one. She argues (and I agree) that it’s a marvelous way to gain insight and perspective from other cultures and points of view. Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster presents the ultimate expression of telling stories “in their own voices.” Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote it 10 years after the nuclear accident, and it was more recently translated in 2014. The book presents the written account of her interviews with a wide cross-section of people who lived through the catastrophe and the subsequent years. A surprising number of people returned to their homes or fled to the “open” country as other Soviet Socialist Republics disintegrated into ethnic warfare. They often refer to Chernobyl as “war,” being their only other frame of reference to so many people dying and the subsequent governmental propaganda. Although it can feel a bit repetitive, that sheer recounting from so many different people – teachers, party loyalists, army conscripts, wives, and mothers – drives homes the devastating, ordinary reality of living on top of nuclear fallout.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham (also an eBook and eAudiobook) offers another side of the story, one rich in politics and science. Where the previous title provides a direct line to individuals, this book takes a much larger overview of the history of Chernobyl – literally starting with the creation of the plant and its company town along a marshy stretch of wilderness. The perfidy of the Soviet institution’s need for results and optics, above any adherence to safety and good practice, was something I had forgotten since the fall of the USSR. The Chernobyl disaster was nonetheless a direct result of the political reality during that time… and in fact contributed to the fall of the communist regime. This book draws on interviews and recently declassified archives to bring the disaster and the people who lived through it to life. Although there’s a short holds list for the book, it’s worth the wait.

HBO aired a five hour, five episode Chernobyl miniseries in 2019 that combined the source material from these two books into an excellent show about what happened during the explosion and in the two years after, available to borrow as DVDs. You can’t turn away from the real-life drama unfolding on the screen, not even knowing the basic outlines of the story. All sources, books and screen, point to the complete cognitive dissonance of dealing with an accident that was largely deemed to be impossible. The show is immensely well-written and well-acted, pulling you in almost despite yourself. Content warning: The middle episode contains some particularly hard scenes of “cleaning up” wildlife and abandoned pets. Here, too, the faces and the voices give a human accounting to an unimaginable tragedy.

The area will not fully return to “safe” for millennia, barring any further contamination. I feel like this was an important moment in time, and only now can we begin to appreciate its history. I also hope it will give us some optimism about human resilience and the ability to solve big problems… because one thing has been made perfectly clear: it could have been so much worse.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, cook, and take walks in the park.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

An illustration shows a raggedy spit of land above a blue sea, with a red house with lots of windows at its very edge. Windswept trees and a blue and pink sunset sky frame the house.

by Sarah C.

Have you ever read a book that feels like a warm hug? Not just certain scenes either, like the entire story overall, start to finish, feels…happy. Comforting. Wholesome. And despite containing a large variety of themes, concepts and emotions, highs and lows, and a bit of magic, the book still manages to wrap itself around you like a soft, well-loved quilt?

Me neither…until now! To be fair, my preferences are usually hard-hitting realistic teen fiction with some fantasy and sci-fi thrown into the mix, and I tend to avoid gentler, softer stories. Maybe that is why this particular book was so surprisingly engaging for me. Regardless, let me tell you about this charming modern fairy tale of a novel that I had the absolute pleasure of reading.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) was recommended by a colleague who is always on point with their choices, so I assumed I’d enjoy it, but was not prepared to fall in love like I did. Utterly and completely head over heels in love. After staying up late on a weeknight to finish this page turner, I then re-read it slowly over the weekend to savor it…then demanded my friends, my book club, my social media groups, my co-workers, and my family read it. Then I bought it, AND I requested it again from the library because at this point there was a decent waiting list but my copy was almost overdue. I proceeded to suffer greatly waiting for the copy I bought to arrive, so I began reading it yet again, together with my 11-year-old in the evening..and so on and so forth.

Perhaps you might like to hear about the actual book at some point, as opposed to my swooning?

Right, well this is the story of a group of misfit children with different special abilities and backgrounds, and the “normal” adults who play certain roles in their lives. Some try to raise and protect them, some try to control and contain them, while others fear and scorn them. Our main character, Linus Baker, is confused by them but curious and good-hearted, and throughout the book learns to see them for who they truly are and love them more for it. A lonely, rule following caseworker for the Department In Charge Of Magical Youth, Linus lives a dull and dreary life, until he is given a mysterious assignment to investigate the “dangerous” children being cared for at the Marsyas Island Orphanage and identify their threat levels. Without much information to go on, Linus embarks upon what becomes a life-changing adventure, filled with unexpected beauty and memorable characters. There might also be a sassy and insufferable pet cat, which is an added bonus.

Themes include found family, celebrating differences, facing bias and prejudice in ourselves and others, accepting help and love, and recognizing true bravery and learning that it’s never too late to start over or discover something new, with many parallels to today’s world. Darkness lurks around corners in Cerulean Sea as well as our own lives, and the author skillfully acknowledges this, lest the story become too unrealistic.  

As I finish this book for the third time, I am left with a renewed sense of hope for the future. I invite you to fall in love as I did with this intergenerational “must read” for 2021.

While you will have to request the title because it’s so popular right now, the wait will be worth the while!

Sarah is the Teens’ Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch, where she can be found geeking out over new graphic novels, spotting rainbows and drinking day-old coffee.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

The book cover shows two boys running in silhouette against a dark foreground and blue sky with clouds, between two leafy trees.

by Aimee Z.

In a small, forgotten Mississippi town, a vicious crime and a missing girl are like déjà vu for hapless farmer and hermit, Larry Ott. Decades before, the man the whole town still calls ‘Scary Larry,’ took local girl Cindy Walker on his first and only date. The girl never came home, and her body was never found.

Blame fell on Larry Ott, and he became a pariah to everyone, including his parents. But the one person Larry could not bear to lose was his best friend from childhood, Silas Jones. Silas “32” Jones, a black man, once dirt poor, worked hard over the years to earn the respectability he covets as the town’s lawman.

Now another girl – a politician’s daughter – has gone missing. Once more, the town is certain Larry did it. The last thing Silas needs is anything to do with Larry Ott – until he responds to the 911 call: Larry Ott’s been shot by an intruder and is now in intensive care. It doesn’t look good.

Silas’s struggle to do the right thing is what makes this book a small gem. Readers will settle in to assume that this is another insignificant southern town, bristling with economic despair and racism, but they’ll be wrong. Sure, Franklin creates an oppressive atmosphere where heat and kudzu vines flourish, and neighbors get back at neighbors with the occasional cottonmouth snake in the mailbox. Urban legends, racism, ignorance, child abuse, and the small-town need for a whipping boy abound. We need a hero, and refreshingly, Franklin has given that role to Silas.

At the same time, any connection to Larry Ott could put Silas back on that precipice of racism. But as he investigates and pursues the perpetrator, unearthing the bones of an old crime, Silas’s conflicted emotions press to a breaking point. Will he admit to the complicated part he once played in the harrowing life he shared with Larry Ott? If only he could forget turning his back on Larry when Larry needed him most.

Part thriller, part literary fiction, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is still a book I want to press into everyone’s hands. I think it should also be part of the high school curriculum. An eloquent and tender story, it will shape any reader’s collective consciousness regarding race and what it means to be a friend. 

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is also available from HCLS as an ebook from Libby/Overdrive, and in audiobook format on CD.

Aimee Z. is part of the adult research staff at HCLS East Columbia Branch. She lives on a lake with her two labs, Dixie and Belle, who enthusiastically approved the content of this review in exchange for a peanut butter and jelly biscuit.

Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee

The book cover depicts a girl in black silhouette, against a white background with various objects in black and shades of teal, including trumpets, musical notes, a basketball, acorns, seashells, and leaves.

by Carmen J.

I remember this phrase being said to me after I told a friend a boy was being mean to me in middle school. Maybe He Just Likes You. Because that didn’t make sense when I was in middle school, and it wouldn’t make sense today in modern day America. It’s the title of a timely and very thought-provoking book by Barbara Dee. This book was required reading for a work training, and I can’t say I would have stumbled upon it otherwise. I’m glad for the happy accident.

The story follows Mila Brennan, a seventh grader, as she navigates unwanted attention and advances in the forms of a guilt-tripped hug of a fellow male classmate, invasions of personal space on the bus, and not-so-innocent sweater petting. When the perpetrators are her friends and include a star student athlete and first-seat orchestra player, the line between only joking and tween-age Me Too becomes increasingly blurred. It is difficult for Mila to know what is right and what is completely wrong.

Maybe He Just Likes You offers a good and well-written story with characters you’d find as next-door neighbors. The better story is how it brings to light an important conversation to have with our young people regarding consent and what constitutes wanted and unwanted physical advances, as well as how these distinctions can vary so much from person to person, male to female. For example: I have a friend who would rather swallow garbage than have anyone hug her at any time. By contrast, I can’t wait until the pandemic is over so I may start the next bear-hugging movement. (Who’s with me? It’s OK, if you’re not with me).

There is extensive gender pressure for young men to act a certain way toward the opposite sex as early as middle school, maybe late elementary school, as if school cafeterias are the new singles bars. It’s my hope that more conversations are had about de-normalizing this behavior. Pump the breaks, guys and girls. There’s plenty of time for all of this after your childhood has developed. Please. Or better yet? Let’s keep our hands to ourselves. 

Maybe He Just Likes You is also available from HCLS in eBook and eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive.

Carmen J. is a teen instructor at HCLS East Columbia. Among her favorite things are great books, all things 80s, shamelessly watching The Bachelor, gardening, and drinking anything that tastes like coffee.

Author event with Kekla Magoon

Photo of author Kekla Magoon, who has a wide smile, rectangular glasses, and short hair with lots of curls. She's wearing a deep V-neck in a black and white print, pictured with a green yard behind her.

One of this year’s Battle of the Books titles is The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon. The author is visiting virtually on April 14 for a 30-minute live Q&A! You may type your questions in advance within registration or hold them for the event.

The Season of Styx Malone tells the funny, poignant story about one amazing summer in small-town Indiana, when Caleb and Bobby Gene make friends with the slightly older, way cooler Styx Malone. Let’s be clear: Styx Malone is definitely too cool for school! He knows things… like about elevator trading, where you can essentially make something out of nothing. These boys are going to make a bag of fireworks (obtained by temporarily trading their baby sister) into a green moped. All these brothers want is to see the big city of Indianapolis, but their (maybe overly) protective father wants them to stay close to home in Sutton. The desire for adventure wars against the need for safety throughout the family’s interactions.

The boys follow foster child Styx into one “interesting” choice after another, hoping to achieve their dream of having independent mobility via the green moped, affectionately nicknamed Grasshopper. When things take a turn for the worse, everyone has to reconsider what a happy ending will look like. As Caleb and Bobby Gene lobby for adopting Styx, it turns out that adults can sometimes make good things happen. It’s a delightful book full of good humor from the point of view of three bored friends longing for more from summer than watering holes and doing chores (Mom was not happy about the baby sister trading).

Kekla Magoon is the author of many novels and nonfiction books for young readers, including The Season of Styx MaloneThe Rock and the RiverHow It Went Down, and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventure series

She has received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the John Steptoe New Talent Award, three Coretta Scott King Honors, the Walter Award Honor, an NAACP Image Award, and been longlisted for the National Book Award. 

Kekla conducts school and library visits nationwide and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. She holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves as faculty. Visit her online at keklamagoon.com.

Cover art has an illustration of a Black teenager in a slightly off-center ball cap, adjusting his mirrored sunglasses. In the glasses, you can see two other Black kids. The title of the book appear in script on the orange hat.

The book is also available as an ebook, on CD, and as an eAudiobook.

Happy National Library Week!

A family of four stands together outside, with parents holding children wearing bright yellow shirts.

by John Dove

There are so many reasons that my family loves living in Howard County … the beautiful farm land, wonderful people and accessible county resources – including our world-class Howard County Library System.

We love using the Library. My family all take out books of course, but we engage in many Library programs as well, and love the garden at the Miller Library.

Why does this matter to me? 

This matters to me because we all need to support each other to the best of our abilities. We love our library community! Everyone is always so helpful and accommodating, and they offer so many incredible programs and resources to help us raise our family.

In fact, the Library is so important to my family, and to me personally, that I have chosen to invest my personal time as a member of the Board of the Friends & Foundation of the Howard County Library System, or as we simply refer to it as, “The Friends”.

Friends and Foundation of Howard County Library System is a nonprofit organization that supports HCLS in its mission to deliver high quality education for all ages.

Specifically, we support:

  • Battle of the Books
  • HCLS Spelling Bee
  • HCLS BumbleBee
  • HiTech STEM classes and events
  • Notable Author Events
  • HCLS Project Literary Graduation
  • Rube Goldberg Challenge
  • Summer Reading
  • Children’s Discovery Fair
  • Teen Time
  • Online Homework Assistance
  • Enchanted Garden
  • Family Movie Nights

While our family favorite is the Enchanted Garden, we know the entire county enjoys all of these Library efforts, and then some. That’s why my family supports the Friends, and I invite you to as well.

The Friends & Foundation is hosting a Floral Fundraiser to Kick Off National Library Week. This fall, HCLS will be introducing a new mobile library van, On the Road to Kindergarten, that will bring library collections, services, and programs to all corners of the community, focusing on preparing children from birth to three for kindergarten. The Friends & Foundation of HCLS is holding a floral fundraiser this spring to support it. You can donate and enjoy a thank-you gift(s): 

  • $35 – Hanging Flower Basket
  • $30 – Sobar Drink Kit
  • $30 – Flower Cookie Kit


A portion of your donation goes directly to HCLS to support this fantastic project that will creatively bring education, support, and activities to young minds outside the library’s buildings – it’s a Win, Win, Win! 

Learn more at www.friendshcls.org

There’s something for everyone at the Howard County Library System, and the Friends & Foundation is here to support it. Please join me and my family in both as we celebrate National Library Week! 

National Library Week 2021: State of Howard County Library System

Colorful banner with letters in bright boxes reads: Welcome to your library. National Library Week:: April 4-10, 2021

By Tonya Aikens, President & CEO of Howard County Library System

It’s National Library Week, a time to celebrate libraries! This year’s theme, Welcome to Your Library, is especially fitting as we welcome customers back inside our branches for limited in-person service for the first time since closing last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

While our doors were closed, our libraries were indeed open. Our team pivoted quickly and effectively to assist customers, develop and teach virtual classes, lead virtual book discussion groups, present renowned authors and speakers, coordinate virtual events, make more eBooks and eAudiobooks available, create a COVID portal with community resources, and work on a phased reopening plan – all while adapting to life in a pandemic.  

We created new opportunities to connect and engage – changing the Longest Table from a physical to a virtual table, converting the HiTech Carnival to a carnival-in-a-bag experience, transforming Evening in the Stacks into a virtual trip to Italy, adapting the Battle of the Books academic competition to an online space, creating Bundle Bags for people who missed being able to browse the shelves, launching a new blog, adding STEM Activity Kits to our collection, and lending Chromebooks and hotspots to help address the digital divide for those without devices or internet access.  

While dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also addressing the pandemic of racial injustice by integrating equity practices into our internal and external work, launching a Racial Equity Alliance, and supporting community building. Watch for news in coming weeks on our website and social media channels.  

Underlying all our work is a commitment to education for everyone in our community. We look forward to launching the On the Road to Kindergarten mobile unit later this summer, enabling us to bring our preschool classes and learning resources to children of families who do not have access to our six branches. By making these classes and services fully accessible, children can take their first steps to become ready for kindergarten. 

It’s clear that at Howard County Library System, we offer endless opportunities to transform lives, whether you visit our branches in person or virtually. 

We are grateful for our supporters and donors, especially the Friends & Foundation of HCLS, and our customers. Our staff is excited to welcome you back to your library! 

HCLS Reopening with Limited Capacity on April 5

A woman, with a ponytail and glasses and wearing a light brown corduroy coat, reaches for a book off a library shelf.

One year ago HCLS closed for what we thought would be two weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a much longer closure, HCLS pivoted – teaching classes virtually, making more eContent (e.g., eBooks, eAudiobooks, movies, online classes) available, and working with partners to address the growing and serious needs of our community. The library’s executive team began preparing for a phased reopening, seeking guidance from public health experts and industry leaders. At all times, the health, safety, and well-being of staff and customers remained the top priority. 

We’re excited to welcome you back! 

Beginning Monday, April 5, HCLS will open for limited in-person services. Passport services will resume at the East Columbia Branch. Contactless pickup and Bundle Bags will continue to be available at all branches. Watch for details about how to sign up for 45-minute appointments in the coming weeks. 

As we prepare to move to Phase 4 of our reopening plan, please know that the return to our branches will not be a return to a pre-pandemic environment. We will continue to follow guidance from public health experts to prioritize the health and safety of our staff and customers. 

Starting April 5, you can make a 45-minute appointment to: 

  • Access public computers 
  • Browse the shelves 
  • Check out items using self-checkout machines or our new Meescan app  
  • Print, copy, scan, and fax 
  • Ask staff for in-person assistance finding materials or other resources 
  • Apply for a passport (East Columbia Branch only) 

Quarantining of Items 

Effective Monday, March 22, HCLS will no longer quarantine materials. This decision was made in consultation with local health officials based on the current data. There are no known transmission of COVID-19 through contaminated books or other library materials in any library.  

As understanding of the COVID-19 virus evolves, scientists and experts now know that materials can be safely handled without quarantine. National and local health officials continue to emphasize the importance of frequent, thorough 20-second hand washing. Data shows that hand washing is effective at reducing transmission of COVID-19. 

Thank you!

Thank you for your support and flexibility during this unprecedented time. Your comments, which are posted on our website, have been greatly appreciated by our staff. 

Thank you for your ongoing support and for taking good care of yourselves and others. We look forward to seeing you soon! 

Women’s History Month: Classes and More

Against a teal background, three hands of varied skin tones rise up, holding quotation bubbles that read Women's History Month.

by Kristen B.

Do you know when Women’s History Month began? I didn’t until I started writing this post and realized I knew very little about the annual commemoration. It began in 1981 with Women’s History Week; then in 1987, Congress passed legislation designating March as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, presidents have issued proclamations and celebrated the contributions of certain historical figures during this time. That’s all within my lifetime! Maybe I’m more “historical” (read old) than I like to think.

HCLS has a couple of classes on the topic, along with always-available free online tools. For example, the Liberty Magazine Archives (1924-1950), listed under magazines and newspapers, includes valuable insight into everyday life in the United States during the Depression Era and World War II. American women sought advice about writing to servicemen, using their husbands’ names, and being drafted. Greta Garbo even wrote a guest piece in 1932 called “Why I Will Not Marry.” You can use a variety of other historical databases to research biographies and certain historical events, like the Seneca Falls Convention. You can also always chat with an HCLS staff member to find books and other resources on a specific topic.

On March 16, author and jewelry historian Elyse Zorn Karlin discusses how the suffragettes, and those who supported them, used jewelry and other accessories to express their politics. Register for “Making a Statement: Jewelry and Other Adornments of the Suffragist Movement” to participate via Zoom.

There are certain women with whom I have always been fascinated. Growing up in Maryland, Harriet Tubman was always part of our local history and I can’t remember not knowing about her. I was always intrigued by her story of courage in escaping slavery, but also her determination to bring others to freedom. The recent movie, Harriet, knocked my socks off, and I plan to watch it again soon.

Dr. Richard Bell joins us on March 23 to talk about the two Harriets: Beecher Stowe and Tubman. Many people, including President Abraham Lincoln, believed that Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped precipitate the Civil War. Lincoln may just as well have been talking about Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. When asked about why he chose these two historical figures, Dr. Bell replied, “I consider Harriet Tubman a truly great American, a woman who fought for freedom against the toughest possible odds on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe is less well-known today than Tubman, but back before the Civil War it was the other way around. Too often we forget the central roles that American women played in driving the United States towards the reckoning of the Civil War.” Register to participate via Zoom. Dr. Richard Bell is Professor of History at the University of Maryland and the author of Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home.

Join us for any and all of these opportunities! I hope you celebrate the women in your life along with all the women who have contributed in every way throughout history. If you’d like to read more on the subject, here are several lists: adult fiction, adult nonfiction, and books for children and teens.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Cooking with Ottolenghi

Table covered in plates and bowls filled with colorful foods.

by Kristen B.

Something kind of funny happened at the holidays: every member of my family was gifted a cookbook. I’m not sure if this is in recognition that we all like to play in the kitchen or the need to find some new recipes as we have grown seriously bored with our old usuals. Both?

Last year in a gift exchange, a colleague presented me with Plenty by Yotam Ottalenghi. I was only vaguely familiar with the author’s name but was no particular fan. He’s an Israeli-English chef, restauranteur, and cookbook author. He owns several delis and restaurants in London and specializes in Middle Eastern flavors and cuisines. I was immediately intrigued by the beautiful photography and the series of recipes that concentrate on types of foods. Vegetables, grains, and other plants are often side dishes on my table, and this book shows how to make them the stars. While some of the recipes required ingredients I don’t always keep on hand and the time to think my way through a new process, the couple I have tried have been wonderful. The green couscous, overflowing with fresh herbs and scallions, was a lovely addition to summertime meals.

For Christmas, my son gave me Ottolenghi Simple by the same chef author, having noticed my enjoyment of the previous book. As the name suggests, this book contains simpler recipes. SIMPLE is an acronym for recipes that stands for: Short on time, Ingredients ten or fewer, Make ahead, Pantry-led, Lazy-day dishes, and Easier than you think. Not every recipe partakes of all the categories, but it offers a nice shorthand at the top of the page. Ottolenghi’s pantry differs significantly from mine, but shopping provides part of the fun of new recipes. Discovering different tastes and textures is the main reason I like to check out cookbooks and get busy in the kitchen. I have tried one recipe from this book already: Baked rice with confit of tomatoes and garlic. Baked rice was easy and turned out perfectly. Next time, though, I will halve the recipe because we ended up eating it all week. I posted a picture of my newfound deliciousness on Facebook (like you do) and promptly recommended this book to a friend who wanted the recipe.

The library owns a wide array of cookbooks for you to borrow, from celebrity chefs such as Ottolenghi to cooking with certain kitchen appliances (Do you have an Instapot or slow cooker?) or even for specific dietary needs. Celebrity chefs is one of the current topics for Bundle Bags, where staff will browse the shelves for you. Or, you can always chat with us about what you’re looking for. I wish you happy cooking!

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to spend winter reading, baking, and waiting for baseball to return.