Banned Books Week (Sep 26 – Oct 2)

The illustration shows two hand clasping a book with the Earth the backdrop, with the text across the hands and book reading, "Books Unite Us." The rest of the text reads, "Banned Books Week. September 26-October 2, 2021. ALA American Library Association. The illustration is in shades of purple, lime green, and orange.

by Jean B.

 “Any time we eliminate or wall off certain narratives, we are not getting a whole picture of the world in which we live…we limit our vocabulary, which complicates how we communicate with one another.”  

– Jason Reynolds, the acclaimed Maryland author named Honorary Chair for Banned Books Week

A library may be held together with walls, but it’s the doors and windows that really matter — doors open for all people and windows that illuminate all perspectives. During Banned Books Week, we celebrate the freedom to read and the commitment by libraries, publishers, teachers, writers, and readers to promote access to materials that the ALA Freedom to Read Statement says, “enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression.” Established in 1982, Banned Books Week responds to efforts across the country to challenge and censor books and focuses attention on how restricting access to information, ideas, and stories harms American cultural and political life.   

In a time when divisions cut across our nation like fault lines, the 2021 Banned Books Week theme reminds us that books can be a force for unity, even – or especially – when they convey a wide variety of views and experiences, including those that are marginal, unconventional, or unpopular. The freedom to read strengthens our ability to communicate with one another.

In a democracy, we trust individuals to learn and decide for themselves.  But to make informed choices, citizens require free access to all viewpoints and all kinds of ideas in the process of self-education. Where can people go for free access to ideas and information? Their public library! As essential institutions of democracy, public libraries implement intentional collection policies to ensure the breadth and inclusivity of materials available to their communities. For Howard County Library System, this translates into a collection that reflects a wide range of voices, including controversial and conflicting ideas.  

As the HCLS Board of Trustees affirms, while, “anyone is free to reject for [themselves] books or other materials of which [they] do not approve, [they] cannot exercise this right to restrict the freedom of others.” The freedom to read strengthens our citizenship. Each year, the American Library Association (ALA) publishes a list of the ten most frequently challenged or banned books across the nation. This snapshot reflects only a small percentage of the challenges that take place in schools and libraries.  The ALA estimates that 82 – 97 percent of requests to remove materials are unreported. As this list illustrates, the challenges come from all directions and perspectives. The freedom to read protects all points of view.

So this year, in honor of Banned Books Week, open the library door and explore our extensive collections.  Look through the windows of stories into all different kinds of lives, familiar and unfamiliar.  Explore HCLS’ Brave Voices, Brave Choices campaign to discover a wide range of experiences in our own community. It’s all free to you, and you are free to choose.

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch and loves reading books for all ages when she isn’t enjoying the outdoors.

Cool off in Patapsco Valley State Park

The writer's dog stands in thick grass near a trail marker in Pataspco Valley State Park.

by Eric L.

You may be hot and it may be humid, but this doesn’t mean you should stay indoors. To the contrary, you should get outside. If you’re reading this, it’s probable that you live close to Patapsco Valley State Park. The Park was founded prior to the National Park Service and encompasses approximately 16,000 acres. It offers some very fine East Coast nature, in my opinion. 

I’m from Baltimore, I have spent a lot of hours hanging around it, the recreation areas and even camping right off Route 40. My significant other finds this hilarious. I’m assuming because of the proximity to suburbia and the bustling thoroughfare right next to the camping area.

I’ve ridden my bike in it and hiked so many miles. I’d be curious to know the total – maybe thousands! I moved to Ellicott City to be in the Patapsco Valley. My neighborhood is on it, and I consider myself very lucky. There are not as many cicadas back there now, and it’s cooler than the blacktop world. Some of the views are just spectacular (perform an internet search for some of the scenery). 

All three of the dogs I’ve owned as an adult have logged thousands of miles with me. To be sure, I’m not a dog training expert, but I’ve been lucky, patient, diligent and have walked my dogs all over it, sometimes even off-leash. It’s a great place to take your kids to play, outside! My kids have also enjoyed many great afternoons in the Patapsco Valley. 

If you feel as though you need some motivation, borrow some of the great materials we have.  

Also, a great nonfiction read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (also as a book on CD, as well as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)Bryson tells the humorous account of his discovery, and attempts to hike the Appalachian trail. To be sure, this is not the story of an experienced hiker doing the entire trail from Maine to Georgia in record time, but rather the story of an average middle-aged person and his old friend hiking and discovering together. He interweaves interesting history and social commentary. Or try the film, starring Robert Redford.

There are so many different terrains one can hike, from flat, paved trails to some rocky terrain. That said, you need not be exceptionally fit, after all, it’s just a walk. You will need some comfortable shoes, running, or trail running. Hiking boots, or shoes, are certainly nice for some of the more rocky, advanced terrain. Please keep in mind that Maryland has a large deer population, and thus deer ticks. That said, dress accordingly, and use bug spray as needed. Do some research (Consumer Reports) about the most effective ones, it is very important! 

At any rate, don’t miss out. Get back there! It’s thought by many a lay person, psychologist, scientist that a walk in nature will make you feel better. View the Park’s website to find the right trail and place for you. Stop by the Elkridge Branch + DIY Center, where you can borrow trekking poles, a compass, binoculars in case you spy something you’d like to view up-close, and metal detectors for treasure hunting.  

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

A New Universe of Sci-Fi: Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem (and sequels)

A mostly blue background shows a pyramid, mysterious objects floating in the sky and in front of the pyramid. A lone human figures appears small in the foreground.

by Khaleel G.

When one picks up a science fiction titles from our shelves, there’s a good chance that author will hail from the US or UK. Their stories, however wild and imaginative they might be, will still have roots in English-speaking literature, with all its tropes and customs, characterizations and particularities. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but one must wonder – how do writers from abroad imagine the future, or space travel, or alien life? If England can produce an author of such wide-ranging influence as Arthur C. Clarke, what speculative fiction might be borne out of Russian experiences? Or Nigerian? What possible futures have international authors imagined?

Cixin Liu is a Chinese author who has received massive acclaim in his own country. Yet only recently, several of his novels have been translated into English, including his most popular series, Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Consisting of three hefty tomes, its story pushed my mind as far as science fiction allows, in a way few other books have done.

While the story bounds about the 20th century and different countries, we follow Wang in his investigation, leading him to a popular and mysterious virtual reality game. Called “Three Body,” players enter into an open plain, accompanied by digital avatars of famous scientists. In the sky above, the sun disappears or multiplies, seemingly at random, resulting in the player freezing or burning to death, then having to start all over. Wang has to puzzle out this video game amid all the political and scientific intrigue, as it may hold the key to the cause of all these events.

To say anymore would spoil the reveals Liu builds over the first book, and throughout the following two sequels. But the translation by Chinese-American author Ken Liu (a wonderful speculative fiction writer in his own right) delivers the plot in clear, steady language. If the above paragraphs made this seem unwieldy and convoluted, do not worry – for as wide as the narrative goes through the cosmos and time and space, alongside characters of various national origins, the books never feel impossible to progress through. Like other sci-fi authors I’ve written about, Cixin Liu takes the time to let the reader absorb the world, understand its rules, and thusly be prepared for the twists and turns of the plot.

That being said, if I had one criticism of the series, it’s that the characters don’t have a whole lot of progression or development. Indeed, outside of Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, I had a hard time recalling any one character, or even their name. Yet, at the same time, the books still work as fiction. See, the focus isn’t on individuals; humanity itself is the protagonist, and the laws of physics, the cosmos, the nature of sentient life serve as co-stars and antagonists. I never would have thought I could be captivated by a description of microphysics, but in one scene, an atom is “unfolded” to a gargantuan size, then shrunk back down; it sounds technical to describe here, but the reader’s experience in the moment is awesome, the true meaning of “invoking awe.”

Throughout the books, that sense of amazement is always around the corner, shocking me at with the scope and scale of events. Again, without spoiling anything, this series goes further and wilder than any other sci-fi novel or series I’ve read, to a finale beyond imagination. I have re-read the last fifty pages of the final book, Death’s End, on a few occasions since I first finished it, yet each time, it creates this vertigo-inducing wonder in me, a near-physical sensation in my gut, like falling into the wide open ocean. Like, how can this be?

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End sit amid the titans of sci-fi literature, with a viewpoint and flavor all their own. Their popularity has inspired film and upcoming TV adaptations, and pushed Chinese sci-fi into the mainstream of American publishing. Liu has other works in our collection, as do more Chinese authors. Science fiction always seeks to expand the reader’s mind, and with more diverse authors in the mix, our minds can only get wider and wilder and weirder. And I welcome the prospect!

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End are available in print from HCLS, and in digital eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/Overdrive. We also have Cixin Liu’s works in his native language

Talk Therapy

By Holly L.

When faced with a personal problem, some people will talk about it. Find a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear to fill. Others of us have a tendency to downplay it, to deny it, to avoid talking about it. This isn’t the healthiest coping method, bottling it all up inside and burying that bottle in the backyard behind the garden that really needs watering and….what was that? A problem? There’s no problem. It’s all….just…. FINE. 

(smiles sheepishly) 

Even though I sometimes — okay, often — have trouble talking about my problems, when I do let down my guard and confide to someone, I almost always feel miraculously better. The truth is that talking helps, and I find the same sort of comfort reading about the personal struggles of others and learning about how they’ve navigated their own difficult moments. Two recent nonfiction books recall this power of a good talk to bring peace to a troubled mind.

The cover shows a square, yellow tissue box with a white tissue coming out of the top of it, against a turquoise background with the title overlaid in black lettering.


Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed is a fascinating and highly readable memoir by psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb. In this 2019 book, she shares her experience as a therapist going to therapy following a devastating personal crisis. We are introduced to the character of Wendell, her quirky therapist with a shabby office and a straightforward but compassionate demeanor. During the author’s sessions with Wendell, we are allowed glimpses of the kinds of thoughts that run through a therapist’s mind when she herself is in therapy: Does he think my problems are trivial? Will he ever replace this old couch? Does he like me? Weaving the story of her own journey with those of her patients, Gottlieb offers up a humor-laced but empathetic glimpse into her own and her patients’ sessions, giving the reader a behind-the-scenes look at therapy from both sides of the therapist’s couch. As I followed Gottlieb and her patients’ struggles and successes, I saw parts of myself reflected in the characters and was prompted to examine my own relationship to therapy and the benefits of talking through problems. Also available as an eBook.

The book cover shows a pink rose with a thorny green stem, winding through the black lettering of the title against a cream-colored background. The author's name, Anna Sale, and "Host of the Podcast Death, Sex & Money" are written in cornflower blue.

I have been a fan of Anna Sale’s podcast Death, Sex, and Money for a few years and had been eagerly anticipating the release of Let’s Talk About Hard Things when it landed on our library shelves in May (also available as an eBook). This moving book continues the kinds of discussions that make her podcast so compelling, focusing on, “the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” Subjects ranging from, yes, death, sex, and money, but also family and identity. Sale opens the book by sharing some hard things from her own past, specifically the unraveling of her first marriage. Feeling utterly lost after her divorce, she began to find strength and clarity by talking to others about their own dark times and hearing how they found, or didn’t find, peace. Realizing how therapeutic these hard conversations can be, she was inspired to launch her podcast in 2014 on WNYC, New York City’s public radio station. Let’s Talk About Hard Things serves as a companion piece to Death, Sex, and Money, and it contains some of the most crucial conversations and valuable lessons from Sale’s life. Fans of the podcast will be reassured to know that, although the book may include a few references to the podcast, the majority of the material comes from fresh interviews conducted for this project. Sale’s written tone is as warm and personal as the voice she brings to her podcast (for this reason, I highly recommend the eAudiobook). After finishing this book, I was left with a feeling of comfort, as if I had just had a conversation with a close friend. The kind of conversation that doesn’t always find answers but that deepens connections and speaks to the power of just talking. And being heard. 

If you need someone to talk to, please visit this HCLS page for local mental health resources.

Holly L. is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting and appreciates an audiobook with a good narrator.

Definitely Hispanic by LeJuan James

The book cover shows the author in a black suit and sneakers with a startled expression on his face, about to catch a pink flip-flop that is flying towards him through the air. He is posed against a red background.

By Carmen J.

With racial equity at the forefront for the library and the county, a much-needed read on Hispanic life crossed my path recently. 
For those who may not know, I’m Cuban American. I’m in that nice little hybrid world of always exploring my Cuban-ness amidst my American-ness. I’m often torn between both worlds and questioned if I was Cuban enough for not speaking enough Spanish and not having a plethora of Hispanic friends. Yet my childhood and its lasting effects on my family orientation, personality, and work ethic set me apart from some of my “American” counterparts.

Long story long – another lovely Hispanic trait – I’m recommending Definitely Hispanic: Growing Up Latino and Celebrating What Unites Us by comedian and YouTuber LeJuan James (in homage to Lebron James, with his real name: Juan Atiles) for your primer on Hispanic and Latino life. James started as a Vine creator and moved on to YouTube with his hilarious parodies of his parents. The short, family-friendly videos highlight the realities of Hispanic culture in a good-natured format with himself acting out all of his characters (including his mom while keeping his signature beard, no less).

This engaging and honest book of essays brings to light all of the memorable things I appreciated while growing up Hispanic, including celebrating holidays dressed in all of our finery with an open door of family and friends; enduring the family gossipers and “roasting” (such as comments on weight gain or a less-than-becoming outfit) by relatives; escaping spankings via “la chancla” in a thrilling game I’d refer to as dodge-belt; watching telenovelas;  and the comical list goes on and comically on.

James’ musings focus on the funny as well as tender-hearted moments surrounding his nomadic upbringing between the Dominican Republic, Florida, and Puerto Rico. In addition, he beautifully shares the strong influences of his mother and grandmother and their impacts on his work as a YouTuber. The book serves as an education on Hispanic culture, without falling into caricature or stereotypical territory. The essays are detailed and full of heart. They served as a reminder to this Cuban American that the joys of being and growing up Hispanic involve more than language.

I encourage you to check out his short and funny posts on YouTube. Here is one of my recent favorites: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czUIhnOwAE0

Definitely HIspanic is also available as an ebook and an eaudiobook from Libby/OverDrive and as an eaudiobook from CloudLibrary.

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.

Where Black Music Month and Pride Month Intersect

Shea Diamond, a Black woman, sits by herself at a table covered in a red striped cloth. She's wearing a yellow sundress, hoop earrings, and a bracelet. Her chin rests in her hands as she looks toward the camera from the edge of her eye. The wall behind her is a weathered blue.

by Ash B.

As a passionate lover of music and self-proclaimed band nerd for life, I love analyzing the music I listen to. I enjoy paying attention to all the choices that go into a work of music – the chord structure, time signature, melody, instrumentation, and so on – and I love identifying the possible musical influences that affected those choices.  

Music is fascinating, in part, because so many different styles connect in some way, even if those connections are not immediately obvious. However, innovation doesn’t occur out of thin air; new musical styles have always developed out of existing ones, with artists often blending different cultural influences to create new sounds. I believe that understanding the history of American music is essential to fully appreciating the music of today, and to do so, we must center the musical innovations of Black Americans. 

And now is the perfect time to do so! 

While it may be a coincidence, I find it extremely fitting that June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month as well as Black Music Appreciation Month. While we don’t know how many of them would label themselves with today’s language, many pioneering Black musicians throughout history defied gender norms, had same-gender relationships, or both. Some expressed their sexuality quite openly, such as Gladys Bentley, a 1930s blues singer and pianist who performed in men’s tuxedos while flirting with female audience members. Other musicians were not as public regarding their sexuality, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel-singing, electric-guitar playing “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” who had relationships with both men and women.

Regardless of the labels that would best suit historical figures, it is worth recognizing the personal complexities of artists who lived these intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. A refusal to acknowledge the intersections between Black music history and LGBTQ+ history would be a failing to understand the foundations of American pop culture and music.

Black LGBTQ+ artists continue to have great impact on the American musical landscape: Janelle Monáe, Lil Nas X, Kehlani, and Frank Ocean, just to name a few. However, there are still many incredible artists that don’t get the amount of attention they deserve, and that is why I’d like to shine the spotlight on the singer-songwriter and activist Shea Diamond. 

Shea Diamond singing “Seen It All” in the recording studio and speaking to the It Gets Better Project about her life experiences.

Shea Diamond’s music draws upon her lived experiences as a formerly incarcerated, Black trans woman, speaking to the challenges of navigating a society that has frequently marginalized her, all while remaining confident and determined to create space for herself. 

Her first EP Seen It All was released in 2017 and is definitely among the most mature and masterful debuts I’ve ever heard. Shea’s dynamic, powerhouse voice conveys raw emotion, amplifying the message of her vulnerable and authentic lyrics. From playful to proud, celebratory to somber, reflective to resilient, Shea seamlessly weaves threads of her experience together into a tapestry that portrays the complexities of her life, all in five gorgeous songs that show an impressive musical range.  

While she is predominantly considered a soul and R&B singer, her music has a very strong rock/pop presence that incorporates elements of funk, blues, gospel, and folk. Many artists are skilled in their musical range, but I find Shea to be unique in the particular way that she cohesively brings together the aforementioned genres. Her music is fresh and contemporary while being clearly rooted in these American musical traditions, and the message of her lyrics is amplified by the corresponding musical style and instrumentation of each song. I don’t think there’s any other artist that can get me from dancing to crying and back again as quickly and as powerfully as Shea can!

Ultimately, I find her most inspiring because of the authenticity and passion she brings to her work. She is an artist who knows the power of her voice, and she isn’t afraid to use it – from her emotional vocal techniques to the lyrics she sings. Shea Diamond has a lot to say; will you listen?

Find Shea Diamond’s music on your preferred platform here, or stream Seen It All for free on hoopla through HCLS.

Interested in listening to CDs, too? Check out our current bundle bag options for Black Music Month and Pride in Music.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch. They grew up playing piano and clarinet, and are now slowly learning the ukulele. At any given moment, they might be thinking admirably about Janelle Monáe.

Wordless Joy

The cover shows a child and dog at the edge of a marshy pond, surrounded by trees, with herons and deer in the foreground. The pond is in shades of turquoise and the child, animals, and trees are in shades of grey and white with a hint of the turquoise blue; only the dog has a pop of yellow, on its collar and leash.

By Eliana H.

Many stunningly beautiful picture books are available to readers these days. Even if you don’t have young children in your life, you might be surprised at how much you appreciate picture books as an adult! Picture books can include a wide range of writing styles, sometimes with sparse or rhyming text aimed at younger readers, and sometimes with denser, more complex language. For this post, though, I want to highlight wordless picture books. 

The cover is a father and child walking hand-in-hand down a city sidewalk. The illustration is done entirely in shades of black and grey, except for the child's red coat and flowers in blue, yellow, and pink. The father carries a basked of groceries and their are parked cars and historic-looking buildings in the background.

Wordless picture books offer appealing illustrations that tell the creator’s story on their own. They tend to include abundant details that provide renewed enjoyment every time the book is read and reread. If you are a caregiver for a young child, you can use wordless picture books to practice important pre-reading skills. Look through the book together. Talk about what is happening in each of the pictures. Ask the child what they notice on the page. Teach sequencing ideas and language by showing the order of events in the story. Promote the child’s confidence by inviting them to read the story to you! 

The cover depicts the dog, Daisy, a white dog with brown ears and tail and a black nose. She is shown in two scenes: standing on hind legs as if alert for a treat, and chasing a red ball. There are bands of blue, red, and yellow, with the title and white and the two pictures of Daisy, as well as the gold Caldecott medal for this award-winning book.

Even with older children, opportunities abound for wordless picture books to enhance their literacy experience. As their vocabulary and comprehension develop, children will be able to tell more detailed and complex stories to accompany the images. Repeated experiences with reading other picture books together may inspire them to create a story that sounds very much like a published book! Children can begin analyzing literature by comparing the way a story may be told without words to a version that does include text. 

Of course, the main factor that will determine the impact of sharing a wordless picture book, or one with text, is the connection between a caring adult and a child exploring the story together with joy and love. Take a look at a selection of wordless picture books from our catalog below, or ask library staff at one of our branches on your next visit.

The cover shows a royal blue bluebird against a pale blue sky and a cityscape of buildings in shades of white and grey.

A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka

Bluebird by Bob Staake

Delivery by Aaron Meshon

Draw! by Raúl Colón

Field Trip to the Moon by John Hare

The Fisherman & the Whale by Jessica Lanan

Float by Daniel Miyares

Flotsam by David Wiesner

Fossil by Bill Thomson

I Walk with Vanessa by Kerascoët

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney

The Paper Boat by Thao Lam

At the Pond by Geraldo Valério

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson

Wave by Suzy Lee

Eliana is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).

Flowers and Planters are Great

The photograph shows DIY INstructor Eric seated in a red adirondack chair, with outdoor tools, a hammock, and a kids' swimming pool in the background, and his dog at his side with his feet up on a white DIY planter box he constructed.
DIY Instructor Eric and friend.

By Eric L.

I used to be young and naïve and I didn’t appreciate flowers, or maybe didn’t realize I appreciated them. Deep down, I was probably always the sort of person that would admire beauty around. That said, I’d implore you to get some flowers, plants, vegetation in your life.  

After renovating two entire houses I have come to appreciate the beauty of living space, indoor and outdoor. How one’s surroundings engender certain feelings. My surroundings make me feel comfortable and then calm. I recall the first place that my significant other and I shared, and changed. I felt more comfortable there than I had before. 

I’ll be honest, I used to think that flowers, gardens, and more generally my surroundings at home were sort of a bourgeois waste of time. Why would I spend work attending to these sorts of things, when I could read, hang out with friends, chat, drink at bars, or so many other exciting things? However, my mind has changed with innumerable carpentry projects accomplished, many, many holes dug, trees planted, landscape projects complete, planters made, and a stacked stone wall, literally built from two tons of rough stone (my least favorite project, ever).  

Having trees, flowers, and plants around does indeed make me calm. (There is science to support this). So let’s take it even further: imagine if you’ve selected the plants, then planted them yourself, and watched them grow and or blossom. How about even further: what if you’d made the planter, planter box, or raised bed that holds your plants? While it may not change your life, I think you may feel happy and proud. I do, so why not try it?

Building planters, window boxes, and raised garden beds are all relatively easy DIY carpentry projects. I’ve done these all with groups in person at the HCLS Elkridge Branch DIY Education Center. I don’t mean to oversimplify this, but you’re essentially making a box, one that you spruce up however you like. For example, add some architectural detail, paint it, hand-paint a design, stain it, make it rustic, use pallet lumber. There are myriad possibilities! It is a great way to practice and learn all sorts of carpentry skills. This endeavor is made even easier because you can borrow everything you need from HCLS. 

Please watch the video, and try it out. And it looks as though we’ll be able to do this in person soon at the Elkridge branch! 

There are two men, radical in many respects, and I’m a fan of both, who would receive flowers from fans. I can’t say I thought it was odd, but realize that some may consider it “feminine” for a man to receive flowers. It seems strange that flowers are associated with gender at all; they’re beautiful, please bring them to me!

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Citizen Science and Summer Fun

The photograph shows two orange, white, and black monarch butterflies gathering nectar from a stalk of lavender sage.
Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash.

by Jean B.

Last spring, as a COVID lockdown project, I expanded my backyard garden and planted some milkweed to attract monarch butterflies.  I was rewarded with not only bright orange-yellow flowers throughout the summer, but dozens of striped monarch caterpillars in August and then, the ultimate treasure:  one glittering pale-green chrysalis, from which I watched a monarch emerge one late September day.  Observing this life cycle drama unfold in my backyard was absolutely a pandemic highlight!

As you may know, habitats for monarch butterflies are declining rapidly, threatening their ability to make the incredible migration from Canada to Central Mexico that species survival requires. But there are tangible ways individuals can help monarchs. It can be a wonderful family activity to learn about, observe, and take action to help monarch populations, with help from some fantastic children’s books available at HCLS. Become citizen scientists!  It’s fun, it gets everyone outdoors together, and it’s rewarding. 

First, check out Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery. In this book, Meeg Pincus explores how the monarchs’ amazing migration journey was uncovered through the actions of not only scientists, teachers, and explorers but also thousands of volunteers, who helped tag and observe the butterflies to figure out where they went. When the mystery finally was solved, whose achievement was it? As this book joyfully replies, the discovery belonged to “all of them – the scientists, the citizen scientists, the regular folks along the way.”  Learning about that remarkable effort, it’s easier to appreciate how each of us can play a part in helping solve the problems facing monarchs and other struggling species.  

Now we need some specifics to get to work. Check out Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard by Loree Griffin Burns, with photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. This beautiful, family-friendly book guides kids and their grownups through four seasonal projects: tagging monarch butterflies in the fall, counting backyard birds in the winter, frog watching (and listening!) in the spring, and photographing ladybugs in the summer. Each section contains a visually-rich full spread with practical information for “when you go,” including a checklist of equipment, close-up photos of the creature to be observed, and a quick quiz to learn some useful facts.  Links to organizations that collect citizen scientist information are provided, too. It’s every curious and naturally-observant kid’s dream to count, name, and dig around outside to find interesting creatures, right? This book gives just the right blend of guidance and inspiration to harness that excitement to a great purpose.

While you’re outside looking for monarchs, you’re bound to see all kinds of other butterflies, caterpillars, and insects you’ll want to learn more about. Capturing the beauty and wonder of butterflies, the nonfiction picture book A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston, with spectacular artwork by Sylvia Long, is my favorite guide. It contains fascinating information presented with gloriously colorful and detailed illustrations. It’s available as an eBook from CloudLibrary, too. (And since this summer will be full of cicadas, check out A Beetle is Shy, by the same duo, to boost your beetle appreciation.)

Finally, if you embark on this journey of discovery, be sure to stop in at the HCLS Enchanted Garden located at the Miller Branch, a certified Monarch Way Station. Through the HCLS website and classes, the Enchanted Garden offers more resources to support citizen scientists and monarch watchers.   

Make HCLS your partner as you encourage the budding naturalists in your family this year and maybe you’ll get to see a brand new monarch stretch its wings, too!

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch and loves reading books for all ages when she isn’t enjoying the outdoors.

Authors and Stories For You and Me

Orange cover of On The Road by Jack Kerouac on the left with a black and white photo of the author on the right with his arms crossed.

By Eric L.

I like books and authors a lot, and periodically I will get on a kick and start reading books by a particular person and then read about the person.  

Jean-Louis Lebris de “Jack” Kerouac has always been one of my favorites, and he was one to celebrate jazz and the outdoors. Kerouac is the person that in theory personifies the “beat generation,” the beatniks, and the counterculture of 1950s America that inspired so many in the 1960s counterculture (which could be argued led to the push for progress in America).  

As a white Catholic from a middle-class background with a deep interest in the counterculture, his work spoke to me. I could feel his guilt for not conforming and appreciate his conservative Catholic hang-ups. His conflicted mind, introspective nature, desire for freedom, and the understanding that he was in some ways the observer and documentarian of counterculture and not so much the progenitor attracted me. 

Revisiting his work over the years, it always changes as the world changes, and more importantly as I change. Thank goodness, I’ve always grown more! I have recently been reading books and articles about Kerouac, re-reading the The Dharma Bums (available in eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) after seeing it quoted in two books I was recently reading. The quote in one was, “Someday I’ll find the right words, and they’ll be simple.” I like this sort of searching and desire for simplicity. 

 

The book cover is a blank and white, bluish-tinted photograph of Jack Kerouac and fellow writer Neal Cassady.
Kerouac and fellow Beat Generation writer Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road.

I also re-watched the recent film adaptations of On the Road and Big Sur, both of which I’d recommend. The former HCLS owns in DVD format; the latter you can borrow using Interlibrary Loan. Some consider Big Sur one of his best novels. It’s the semi-autobiographical account his struggle with fame, depression, and addiction a decade after the publication of his most famous work, On the Road. The raw reality of addiction is sad to be sure, but it’s also a good read and viewing for the description and images of Big Sur. 

To be sure, there’s a lot not to like about Kerouac. The books and film adaptations are misogynistic, self-involved, and privileged in some respects. He drank himself to death at the age of 47, he never found the time know his own daughter, and had become truculent and seemingly illiberal near the end of his life. I could probably find some additional foibles. Conduct an internet search for his appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in the late 1960s; it’s pretty sad. 

For some reason, many of his contemporaries publicly and negatively commented on him, although John Updike later admitted he was jealous of his fame. James Baldwin described Kerouac’s work as “absolute nonsense, and offensive nonsense at that.” Charles Bukowski, another “beat” writer and poet who is controversial in many ways and the subject of several films, said Kerouac wasn’t that great of a writer, but suggested his fame came from the fact that he looked like a “rodeo star.”  

I’d disagree with Bukowski; there is some poetry in Kerouac’s prose and the performance aspect of it is amazing. Hearing and seeing him read his own work, which was inspired by jazz, is marvelous. His handsomeness certainly did not hurt his celebrity. I was reminded of his style while watching the young Amanda Gorman read and perform her great poem The Hill We Climb at the inauguration.

It was a pretty radical endeavor to hang out in a jazz club in the late 1940s, and I was curious what was so great about this thing called jazz. I now know. Moreover, books concerning his romantic relationships with African Americans and his close relationships with openly gay people were verboten at the very least, and illegal in many places in the US in the 1950s. Moreover, Kerouac’s attraction to and writings about Buddhism interested me very much as a fellow Catholic. 

Kerouac’s explicit mentions of Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, and other authors piqued my curiosity about these people, and his books gave me a point of reference when reading James Baldwin’s perspective of a similar counterculture from the African American point of view. Really, his work just got me reading, dreaming, and thinking differently than I’d done before. In other words, I’d like to think I was better for it. And I’m fairly certain that these are the reasons why On the Road is still in our reading list section and assigned by English teachers.

I had this conversation with the members of my book group, and they assuaged my guilt a bit for still liking Kerouac. But the times they change, and we change, and maybe Kerouac would’ve changed, too, but maybe not. 

In some cases, there are things that should be left in the past, but I’d contend we shouldn’t dismiss the progressive nature of all art pell-mell. All of us are flawed in some way, and this makes us interesting in my opinion. Indubitably the merits of Kerouac’s work and his reputation are debatable. But Kerouac did reject the conforming ethos of post-war America (something many now want to return to). And personally, he made me feel as though others were attracted to things that don’t quite fit into mainstream American culture. 

My hope is that this bolsters the case for diverse stories, viewpoints, and authors. Everyone needs characters and stories they can relate to and find themselves in. I think it’s a magical feeling to realize there are people that are like you, that feel like you do. So keep reading to find relatable characters and stories. Come by the library and tell us about your interests. We might be able to help, or know someone who can, find the books and authors for you! 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.