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In the Spotlight

Infinite, Unfathomable, Nonstop

Once upon a time, I stumbled across a quiz that asked, “Where You At?” Despite, or perhaps because of, its sloppy grammar, the question has stayed with me. My interest in natural and cultural history, and even my fascination with infrastructure, surely dates to this time, as evidenced by the real estate that writers like Henry Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, and Barry Lopez occupy on my bookshelves. Read More..

Broken River Could Be J. Robert Lennon’s Breakout Novel

Each time J. Robert Lennon drops a new book I think, this is the one, this is the time the “general public” will discover J. Robert Lennon.

Entertainment Weekly will give it an “A+,” Angelina Jolie will tweet about it, or some such thing. Famed writer of thrillers Lee Child calls Mr. Lennon’s latest novel, Broken River, “compelling from the first page, and then smart, sophisticated, suspenseful and satisfying throughout — [it] is a first-class ride.” It has also been chosen as the May 2017 Indie Next #1 Pick, so who knows, perhaps Broken River, his eighth novel, will be that breakout book. It is certainly worthy of that distinction. Read More..

Filling in the Gaps

As someone who works in the Children’s Department, I routinely feel bad for not knowing every book in our collection. We get so many new books each week, and between my obsession with Romance and YA, there’s rarely a place for juvenile fiction in my to be read pile.

When I feel like I need to fill a gap in my children’s lit knowledge and I don’t have time to read, I turn to audiobooks. They are a great way to consume literature, especially the ones where people look at you and say “I can’t believe you’ve never read… This one book everyone has read!” You can listen to it without disrupting your reading schedule!

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Catching Feelings at Book Club Speed Dating

Finding the right read for your book club can feel a little bit like dating sometimes. You go through a bunch of duds before finding the right fit. Sometimes your friends are helpful but other times… not so much (looking at you, Friend Who Tried Setting Me Up With Someone Who Hates Cats).

The whole thing is messy, but at least with books we can make it a *little* easier. Behold: Book Club Speed Dating. It’s like regular speed dating, but with books, which is WAY less awkward. The Book Squad (along with fab folks from The Raven and Dusty Bookshelf) recently put on our THIRD Book Club Speed Dating event. Read More..

Birding While Black: Author is Lyrically Rooted In Place With Diversity In Mind

Being nearby to see a bird in flight can be a transcendent experience. The sensation of watching a bird flying overhead has inspired me to simulate my own flight, standing with my arms raised high. And this seems most powerful in a wide-open natural area like the Haskell-Baker Wetlands—in the presence of many red-winged blackbirds.

I’ve become more aware recently that most other people out on the nature trails have white skin like me. Author J. Drew Lanham poetically describes the phenomenon of uncommon black or brown companion birders.

His recent book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature, shares lyrically-written storytelling of deep connections to family, his strong sense of place, a passion for nature, optimism and wit along with the frustration of being the singular African American ornithologist in a predominantly white field. Lanham is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University in South Carolina; he’s also a poet, naturalist, hunter, and birder.

bk cover TheHomePlaceMemoirsofacoloredmansloveaffairwithnature

“Birding While Black” is a poignant chapter in Lanham’s book reflecting fears similar to the negative experiences expressed by the phrase “driving while black”. A black man risks being accused of suspicious activity simply for being out in a remote environment.

Lanham writes:

In remote places fear has always accompanied binoculars, scopes, and field guides as baggage. …a white supremacist group [was] “organized” in the mountains of western North Carolina, near the places I was supposed to do a research project. They’d made the national news in stories that showed them worshiping Hitler and shooting at targets that looked like Martin Luther King Jr. Someone at the university joked about my degree being awarded posthumously. So though the proposal had been written and the project was well on its way to being funded—and as potentially groundbreaking the research on rose-breasted grosbeaks, golden-winged warblers, and forest management in the Southern Appalachians might be—I had to abandon the whole thing.

 J Drew-Lanham

Author J. Drew Lanham

He continues:

I look at maps through this lens—at the places where tolerance seems to thrive, and where hate and racism seem to fester—and think about where I want to be. Mostly those places jibe with my desires to be in the wild but sometimes they don’t.

The wild things and places belong to all of us. So while I can’t fix the bigger problems of race in the United States—can’t suggest a means by which I, and others like me, will always feel safe—I can prescribe a solution in my own small corner. Get more people of color “out there.” Turn oddities into commonplace. The presence of more black birders, wildlife biologists, hunters, hikers, and fisher-folk will say to others that we, too appreciate the warble of a summer tanager, the incredible instincts of a whitetale buck, and the sound of wind in the tall pines. Our responsibility is to pass something on to those coming after. As young people of color reconnect with what so many of their ancestors knew—that our connections to the land run deep, like the taproots of mighty oaks, that the land renews and sustains us—maybe things will begin to change.

I’m hoping that soon a black birder won’t be a rare sighting. I’m hoping that at some point I’ll see color sprinkled throughout a birding-festival crowd. I’m hoping for the day when young hotshot birders just happen to be black like me. These hopes brighten the darkness of past experiences.

Lanham is a terrific ambassador to inspire more people to enjoy the natural world, yet he also recognizes the empowerment shared by people with similar cultural experiences.


Sky Dawgs Dudley, Jeremiah, Doug, Roy, Dave, Drew

The “Sky Dawgs,” J. Drew Lanham and more colleagues of color

Lanham has created several entertaining short videos to advocate his mission of diversifying the community of naturalists; one of my favorites is witty-satire “Bird-Watching While Black: A Wildlife Ecologist Shares His Tips.” Use this link to watch the 2-minute video online, produced by BirdNote and featured in National Geographic Society’s Short Film Showcase.

This is a rallying cry to help more people connect to the outdoors, and I am inspired by Lanham’s message. I will be reaching out to be more inclusive in planning future nature-related events. As a Board Member and volunteer with Kansas Native Plant Society, I have organized and attended many outings over the last 17 years; almost all the folks who have joined me have been white.

students birding at a summer enrichment experience

Lanham and student birders

We need to be ambassadors to bring more kids and adults together from diverse communities to explore and connect with natural places—to imagine flight and experience transcendence with the birds.

I crave being outside in nature, but I was well into my 30s before I first enjoyed a wild environment. I wish someone had taken me under their wing to share wild places when I was a kid. I’ll be following J. Drew Lanham’s lead; when I visit a natural area I’ll respectfully invite new & old friends of different ages, varied hues and diverse origins to join me. I hope you’ll join me and we’ll exponentially increase the advocates for the natural world!

-Shirley Braunlich is a Readers’ Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

Cover Image: red-winged blackbird, credit:

Royal Reading

If you’re like me and are still in a post-Downton Abbey funk brought on by the gut-wrenching series finale, you may have heard about the recent ITV and PBS Masterpiece program Victoria, based on the bestselling novel by Daisy Goodwin, which appears in many ways to serve as a capable, well-crafted Downton successor.

My friends have been raving about Victoria’s lavish costumes, brilliant set designs, charming acting, and enthralling story. In fact, it seems to touch on all of my favorite aspects of television. British drama set in the Victorian era, check. A haunting and amazing main title theme sung by the Mediaeval Baebes, check. Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who playing the titular character, a million checks.

As a massive steampunk and urban fantasy fan, the Victoria I typically read about is not of the fleshy variety, either appearing as an undead creature of the night or a human mechanical hybrid.  Since it was high time I gave Victoria a chance, I decided to break out of my narrative wheelhouse and read some historical fiction with no runic magic systems, supernatural beings, or fog-ridden streets in sight. To see my thoughts on one of my first major forays into the genre, keep on reading.   Read More..

Branding is Everything, Even in the Westerns

No, we’re not actually talking about cattle today, unfortunately—or marketing, for that matter. In the library context, a brand is a personal mark a reader puts on the inside cover of a book. Normally I wouldn’t advocate defacing the collection in this way, but there’s a pretty good reason for the practice. Read More..

Five More Questions with Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas

Lawrence Public Library has been a steadfast supporter of our local writing talent, so much so that we’re curating a local author section. Given this, and April being National Poetry Month, it felt synergistic to check in with Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas. In 2015, we asked McHenry five questions, and with the release of his new collection,Odd Evening, it felt time to ask him five more. Read More..

Audiobooks You Should Be Listening to on Hoopla

Sure, that title has a clickbait quality to it, but I’m pretty serious and vocal about my love for all things Hoopla. I’ve sung its praises in the past (mostly because the graphic novel selection is pretty darn great), but only recently have I really delved into the audiobook section.

Mostly because, until recently, I wasn’t exactly a fan of listening to books. Lugging around CDs is always a pain, and I’m still not sure what those MP3 thingies are all about, but listening to a book on your phone while multi-tasking or taking a walk? You mean I can read all the time if I want to?! Read More..

Crypt Lit

Where does one store a souvenir Abraham Lincoln beard?  I bought mine years ago on a road trip with my father to see Lincoln historic sites in Springfield, Illinois, but I’ve never known what to do with it. After I was told to stop wearing it to work every day, I tried hanging it up with my ball caps for a while, but it got in the way. Then I tried my underwear drawer, but that was way too weird.

It finally found a home among my much neglected neckties, which makes sense because I inherited most of those from my dad, and I only keep the beard around as a memento of him. On the last day of our trip we visited Lincoln’s tomb, an impressive bastion of granite, marble, and bronze, beneath which the president lies with Mary Todd and three of their four sons: Tad, Edward, and Willie. This place was heaven for us, since my dad also left me his gene for walking battlefields, reading gravestones, and pondering the life of Honest Abe. Read More..