• By Donald R Dwiggins
  • Posted Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Books We Like

With the New Year comes fresh energy and optimism. I hope it brings renewed creativity as well, since January is International Creativity Month. The books here described offer extravagant creativity of subject matter or format, making them especially enjoyable.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery is a bestselling 2015 National Book Award finalist for adult nonfiction. Popular with book clubs, it appealed to me because I had heard about an octopus who repeatedly escaped and re-entered its enclosure, evading the humans responsible for it. Did the octopus plan or reason in those instances, I wondered? Is a creature with a walnut-sized brain and neural cells in each arm actually capable of thought?

This book is Montgomery's story of befriending four octopuses in Boston's New England Aquarium in a quest to know what it's like to be an octopus. Over the course of two years, she bonds in turn with Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma--all giant Pacific octopuses with unique dispositions. Amazingly, they show affection, solve puzzles, behave playfully, express emotion, and display distinct preferences for people and tastes. At key points while drawing readers into the octopuses' world, Montgomery invites us to creatively consider new ways of thinking about thinking, "of imagining what other minds might be like" (p. 13).

If you've ever had the feeling that an animal you are watching is watching you back "with an interest as keen as your own" (p. 1), then this book might suck you in regardless of whether you prefer fiction to nonfiction. It’s an adult book mostly because of the chapter on octopus amour. Also recommended are Montgomery's eleven nonfiction books for children and eight others for adults, including Birdology (2011) and The Good, Good Pig (2007).

A second recent creative favorite is Alamo All-Stars (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #6). A graphic novel of historical fiction, it reads like a docudrama starring Stephen Austin, Jim Bowie, William Travis, and Davy Crockett. With humor and excitement, it reanimates the struggles and battles of the Texas-Mexico region in the 1830’s, including ‘flashback’ summaries of the Mexican Revolution and the James Long Expedition.

In each Hazardous Tale, the present-day writer/illustrator, Nathan Hale, retells history in graphic format with another character of the same name, the Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale. A third narrating character, which Hale invented for comic relief, is a wise-cracking executioner. This trio of amusing narrators present the stories, offering interjections throughout.

Do you remember Continental Army officer and spy Nathan Hale? Captured and hung by the British troops, his last words have become famous: “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”

Hale’s compact and attractive Hazardous Tales target grades 3 and up. Packed as they are with such strong storytelling, solid facts, and surprising humor, they appeal widely to homeschoolers, public-schoolers, and even adults.

Lastly, I hope many readers will find and open a beautifully illustrated book of short, ingenious, thought-provoking poems. Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths by Marilyn Singer brings fresh life to fourteen classic Greek myths. Life is too short not to spend a few minutes with this book. It's a pleasure to sit and savor it with a friend of any age. Singer's previous books of reverso fairy tales are also recommended: Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow.

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