Thursday, February 7, 2013

2012 Nonfiction Round-Up (Part One)

In which I briefly review several titles that I read last year but never got around to reviewing in depth. I totally blame this oversight on Game of Thrones.

 Miles To Go For Freedom: Segregation and Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years by Linda Barrett Osborne

I looked at many books on civil rights last year, and this one stuck out for me because of its handsome design and wealth of photographs and illustrations. The book was published in association with the Library of Congress, and the pages of this book are saturated with of its treasures. Osborne clearly depicts how the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy Vs Ferguson allowed for segregation and the devastating effects on Americans' lives that resulted. The sources in the back led me to this great website: This book was named a Booklist Editor Choice for Youth.

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose

B95 is the hero of the story, a nearly 20-year-old rufa red knot who thrives in a harsh world. He's nicknamed Moonbird because he's flown at least as far as the moon, and most likely further. As a long-time survivor among a species that seems destined for extinction, it's hard not to root for him. The design of the book is very similar to the wonderful "Scientist in the Field" series, and the abundant maps and color photographs make it easy to follow along with the birds as they migrate over 9000 miles from the southern tip of Argentina to the Arctic Circle. My favorite picture is the blimpish red knot on page 31, who's fattened up to prepare for the journey. Moonbird was named a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction and Sibert Medal honor book, and was named an Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 by the National Science Teachers Association.

Black Gold: The Story of Oil In Our Lives by Albert Marrin

This slim volume offers more breadth than depth in telling the story of oil - including its science, history and politics - from its making to our current struggle to find alternatives for it. Marrin presents thought-provoking and informative text that is aided by many helpful illustrations and diagrams. It was named an Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 by the National Science Teachers Association.

Superman Vs the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate by Rick Bowers

Well-researched, fascinating parallel stories of the history of the Klan and Superman collide in 1949, when the writers of the popular Superman radio show decide to tackle hate groups. Created by a couple of Jewish kids from Ohio, Superman stood for the underdog and sought justice from the very beginning, but it wasn't until after World War II that social issues became a main focus of his adventures. The staff of the Superman radio were aided by the work of "Klan busters" like Stetson Kennedy, a Florida native who infiltrated the organization with the goal of exposing its secrets and bringing it down.

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson 

Hopkinson follows several passengers and crew of the ship as they go about their daily routines. Once the boat hits the iceberg and begins to sink, the narrative transitions into a riveting struggle for survival. I was most captivated by the accounts of the men who survived by clinging to an overturned lifeboat. Their stories provided the most suspense, as they were engaged in a life or death struggle where I didn't already know the outcome. Though both the text and illustrations were enlightening, I wish that the book included a diagram of the ship that labeled the decks and locations of all the lifeboats. This book was named a Sibert and YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction honor book.

Next week, I will post brief reviews of We've Got A Job, Steve Jobs, October Mourning, My Friend Dahmer and Bomb.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Invincible Microbe

Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure
by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank
149 pages
Clarion Books

Publisher's Description:

For centuries tuberculosis in many forms was treated with everything from poultices and potions to the king's touch. The microorganism that causes the disease was eventually identified, more effective treatments were developed, and the cure for TB was thought to be within reach. But the TB germ simply will not die; drug-resistant varieties continue to plague and panic the human race. The "biography" of this deadly germ, an account of the diagnosis, treatment, and "cure" of the disease over time, and the social history of an illness that could strike anywhere but was most prevalent among the poor are woven together and supported by 70-plus archival prints and photographs.

My Comments:

Murphy and Blank tackle TB from three perspectives, presenting a biography of this evolving microorganism, an account of how the illness came to be treated and cured, and finally a social history of the disease.

I was fascinated by the many photographs, including one of a 500,000 year old fossilized skull of a homo erectus that contained scars caused by TB bacterium. The layout is one of the strong points of this book. That skull photograph appears on a two-page spread along with an image of m. tuberculous bacteria up close and sneeze droplets. The images and accompanying text concisely tell the story of how tuberculosis works.

Later sections detail how the Industrial Revolution contributed to TB's spread, crazy treatments that have been attempted over the years (including sewing ping pong balls inside patients' chests), scientific research by Robert Koch that led to legitimate treatments, TB in popular culture (the Bronte sisters made it glamorous), and the sanitorium movement that became popular in the United States for a time.

The book ends with a discussion of TB's growing resistance to drug treatment and current TB hotspots around the globe, where unsanitary prison conditions and outdated treatments fuel the disease. For now, we can only contain the disease by focusing on early detection and developing new drugs.

This was a fast, surprisingly entertaining read. Back matter includes a bibliography, source notes and index.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World
by Sy Montgomery
148 pages

Houghton Mifflin

Publisher's description: 

When Temple Grandin was born, her parents knew that she was different. Years later she was diagnosed with autism. While Temple’s doctor recommended a hospital, her mother believed in her. Temple went to school instead. Today, Dr. Temple Grandin is a scientist and professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Her world-changing career revolutionized the livestock industry. As an advocate for autism, Temple uses her experience as an example of the unique contributions that autistic people can make. This compelling biography complete with Temple’s personal photos takes us inside her extraordinary mind and opens the door to a broader understanding of autism.

My comments:

I've enjoyed several of Montgomery's books about animals (especially Kakapo Rescue and The Good Good Pig) so I figured she would be a perfect fit to write about Temple Grandin's passion for animal welfare. I was not disappointed. Her writing is always engaging and warm, and I was immediately sucked in to her account of Grandin's life. I was especially struck with her description of how Grandin felt, as an autistic child, to be constantly overwhelmed by sensory data.

Montgomery makes clear to readers that people with austism make up a wide spectrum, from geeky but gifted kids to people who barely talk. The boarding school that Grandin attended in New Hampshire after being expelled from high school is compared to Hogwarts. Before Harry Potter went to Hogwarts, he was confused by his strange abilities and felt out of place. Once he went to a school where he could learn to harness his abilities, he was better able to cope in the larger world.

The book design is very eye-catching, and it's full of color photographs and Grandin's own diagrams. I found the section about the dip vat she designed to be very enlightening.  Montgomery tells the story of how Grandin was hired to design a new dip vat for delousing cows that wouldn't frighten them and result in deaths like the old vats did. Her keen eye for detail and ability to think in pictures, benefits of her autism, allowed her to see exactly what about the dip vat frightened the cows. The accompanying images were very helpful in explaining how the dip vat works

There are several cool extras included,as well,inclduing a page of facts about factory farming and a section of advice for kids with autism from Temple Grandin herself. Grandin also wrote the forward, and seems to have cooperated with Montgomery throughout the book's creation, posing for pictures and allowing photographs to be taken of her home.

A thorough bibliography and index are appended.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Pregnancy Project

The Pregnancy Project: A Memoirby Gaby Rodriguez with Jenna Glatzer
Published by Simon and Schuster
224 pages

Publisher's Description:For her required senior project, Gaby Rodriguez decided to fake a pregnancy to get an inside view of what it's like to deal with the pressures and stereotypes of being a teen mom. The inspiration for the project came from her own mother, who became pregnant with her first child in 8th grade, and her older sisters, who all had children of their own as teenagers.

It started as a school project…but turned into so much more.
Growing up, Gaby Rodriguez was often told she would end up a teen mom. After all, her mother and her older sisters had gotten pregnant as teenagers; from an outsider’s perspective, it was practically a family tradition. Gaby had ambitions that didn’t include teen motherhood. But she wondered: how would she be treated if she “lived down” to others' expectations? Would everyone ignore the years she put into being a good student and see her as just another pregnant teen statistic with no future? These questions sparked Gaby’s school project: faking her own pregnancy as a high school senior to see how her family, friends, and community would react. What she learned changed her life forever, and made international headlines in the process.

In The Pregnancy Project, Gaby details how she was able to fake her own pregnancy—hiding the truth from even her siblings and boyfriend’s parents—and reveals all that she learned from the experience. But more than that, Gaby’s story is about fighting stereotypes, and how one girl found the strength to come out from the shadow of low expectations to forge a bright future for herself.

My Comments:

Faking the pregnancy wasn't easy; she found mentors to coach her on the symptoms that accompany each stage of pregnancy, enlisted a friend as well as her boyfriend to help spread rumors and act along with her, and built a realistic fake belly with some help from her mother. In addition to dealing with negative stereotypes, she also had to face the disappointment of her older siblings and teachers, some of whom were angry when they found out she'd lied to them.

Rather than composing a simple narrative of her life during the project, Rodriguez lays out her family history, how the project itself came about, and the media frenzy that ensued when she revealed her ruse at a school assembly. Those expecting the story to focus solely on her experiences during the fake pregnancy may be disappointed, but the "whys" behind the project, as well as the results, are clearly important. Rodriguez'writing is plain, but her story is compelling.

Her story has also been made into a Lifetime original movie (as advertised on the book's cover):

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Notorious Benedict Arnold Wins YALSA Nonfiction Award

The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin
received YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction on January 23, 2012.

“In this illuminating biography, Sheinkin proves that spoilers don’t matter—it’s not whether or not Arnold betrayed his country, but why,” said YALSA Nonfiction Award Chair Jennifer Hubert. Although the YALSA award honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults, this is a book that adults can enjoy, as well.

Sheinkin was not able to attend the award ceremony held at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in-person, but he supplied a heartfelt video message (now on youtube) in which he thanked YALSA for recognizing his “child.”

He described Arnold as America’s first action hero. As a textbook writer, he had always been trying to insert Arnold into history books, and his editors had always insisted on deleting him. “He makes people nervous,” Sheinkin said.

This book had its genesis as a work of fiction. The longer he worked on it, the worse it got. YA nonfiction saved him, because he was able to throw all of his “pretentious nonsense” out the window and stick to a straight-forward action story. He hopes the book’s readers will learn a lot about U.S. history without even realizing it, “until it’s too late.”

Finalists Karen Blumenthal (Bootleg) and Sue Macy (Wheels of Change) were in attendance at the award ceremony held from 10:30-noon at the Omni Hotel in Dallas, TX.

Blumenthal, who lives in Dallas, thanked her favorite local librarians. She delivered a candid, funny speech about publishers' resistance to her idea to share the Prohibition experience with young people. She said that, "nonfiction provides context for a complicated world," and "Real life is many shades of messy; in real life the girl doesn't always end up with the sexy vampire."

Macy shared an entertaining powerpoint presentation that included items from the private collections of bicycle enthusiasts that she'd met while conducting research for her book. Many of the images, advertisements and sheet music that appear in her book came from these collectors, who she met simply by being in the right place at the right time. She was inspired by This Fabulous Century, a series of Time-Life books that she grew up with. She credits this series for providing the roots to her thematic approach to history.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Music Was It

Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein
by Susan Goldman Rubin

178 pages

Publisher's description:

“Life without music is unthinkable.”—Leonard Bernstein, Findings

When Lenny was two years old, his mother found that the only way to soothe her crying son was to turn on the Victrola. When his aunt passed on her piano to Lenny’s parents, the boy demanded lessons. When Lenny went to school, he had the most fun during “singing hours.”
But Lenny’s love of music was met with opposition from the start. Lenny’s father, a successful businessman, wanted Lenny to follow in his footsteps. Additionally, the classical music world of the 1930s and 1940s was dominated by Europeans—no American Jewish kid had a serious chance to make a name for himself in this field.
Beginning with Lenny’s childhood in Boston and ending with his triumphant conducting debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic when he was just twenty-five, Music Was IT draws readers into the energetic, passionate, challenging, music-filled life of young Leonard Bernstein.
Archival photographs, mostly from the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress, illustrate this fascinating biography, which also includes a foreword by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. Extensive back matter includes biographies of important people in Bernstein’s life, as well as a discography of his music.

My comments:

This is a quick and easy read. There are many nice pictures, but my favorites are the pages of doodles (p. 65 and 66) from Bernstein's college notebooks. Handwritten tests and compositions, and autographed photos from musicians he admired are also illuminating.

The design is clean and simple. The cover and end papers are dark blue, and everything inside is black and white. Images are nice and large, and white space is used sparingly but effectively. The only flourish is a musical staff marking the beginning of each chapter, and chapter titles done in a faux-handwriting font.

In addition to conducting research through books, and exhibits at Harvard and the Library of Congress; the author interviewed two of Bernstein's children in person, and his brother and a lifelong friend via telephone. Bernstein's daughter, Jamie, wrote the foreward.

I would have liked it if Rubin had delved into Bernstein's impact, discussing some of his major contributions like West Side Story, On the Town and Candide, in an introduction or the first chapter instead of leaving them to the epilogue. Some interesting aspects of his personal life, like his bisexuality and the fact that he smoked (despite having asthma) are also crammed into the epilogue, as afterthoughts.

End materials include a discography, timeline, biographies of friends and mentors, a bibliography, quotation sources and an index. These are all substantive. The discography includes a couple of DVDs in addition to audio recordings; actually watching Bernstein conduct would be a treat as he used his hands rather than a baton and was noted for his energetic style. I imagine is style may have influenced young conductors like Gustavo Dudamel, however this also isn't discussed in the book.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

YALSA 2012 Nonfiction Award Shortlist

YALSA announced the five finalists for the 2012 Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults today:

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy

Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein by Susan Goldman Rubin

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin

I've been derelict in my reading and commenting (too much time spent on NaNoWriMo) but promise to try to try to get to Music Was It and Wheels of Change this month.

Of the three on the list that I have read, Bootleg and The Notorious Benedict Arnold were two of my favorites for the whole year.