Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty
by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke

published by Lee & Low Books
96 pages

Publisher's description:
Eleven-year-old Roger is trying to make sense of his classmate Robert "Yummy" Sandifer's death, but first he has to make sense of Yummy's life. Yummy could be as tough as a pit bull sometimes. Other times he was as sweet as the sugary treats he loved to eat. Was Yummy some sort of monster, or just another kid?

As Roger searches for the truth, he finds more and more questions. How did Yummy end up in so much trouble? Did he really kill someone? And why do all the answers seem to lead back to a gang—the same gang Roger's older brother belongs to?

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty is a compelling dramatization based on events that occurred in Chicago in 1994. This gritty exploration of youth gang life will force readers to question their own understandings of good and bad, right and wrong.

My comments:

For a few days in the fall of 1994, 11-year old Robert "Yummy" Sandifer became infamous for shooting an innocent girl during an attempted gang murder and made the cover of Time magazine. This account of Yummy's short life succinctly illustrates the cycle of gang violence in poor neighborhoods, where kids are groomed to be both bullies and victims.

The events all take place in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago's South side. While Yummy's story is true, Roger has been invented to narrate it. So is this a work of fiction or nonfiction? I've seen it reviewed as both, and it is cataloged as nonfiction at my library and a few others. Other libraries have it cataloged as fiction or included in mixed graphic novel collections.

Either way, it's a gripping read and one of the best graphic novels I've seen all year. The black and white artwork by DuBurke digs beneath cliche Chicago images like the Sears Tower, Michael Jordan and Al Capone, presenting the people and events in stark clarity. This is a neighborhood of nondescript brick boxes and ramshackle frame houses. The infamous cover of Time is worked into one sequence, and Yummy's mugshot serves as inspiration for the cover. His small stature is perhaps the most surprising element of the art.

In an author's note at the end, Neri (then a teacher in South Central LA) recalls where he was when Yummy's story first broke, and how he followed it day by day. "Yummy was both a bully and a victim--he deserves our anger and our understanding," he concludes. A list of author's sources includes a blend of news articles from the time as well as more recent critical analysis.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Good, The Bad and the Barbie

The Good the Bad and the Barbie
by Tanya Lee Stone
published by Viking
130 pages

Publisher's Description:

During her unparalleled fifty-year history, Barbie has been the doll that some people love and some people love to hate. There's no question she's influenced generations, but to what end? Acclaimed nonfiction author Tanya Lee Stone takes an unbiased look at how Barbie became the icon that she is, and at the impact that she's had on our culture (and vice versa). Featuring passionate anecdotes and memories from a range of girls and women, a foreword by Meg Cabot, and original color photographs, this book explores the Barbie phenomenon in a brand-new light.

My Comments:

My own impression of Barbie as a kid was mixed. I had a couple of the dolls, but was more interested in playing with Dallas, Barbie's horse. When I played My Little Ponies, Barbie was often the villain. So, I was bolstered somewhat by Stone's even-handed history, which acknowledges that not every little girl was enamored with Barbie.

Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler, is presented as a feminist who worked outside the home from an early age. She helped to form Mattel with her husband Elliot and another partner named Matson. Mattel under the Handlers is presented in a very positive light – the company was progressive and integrated before integration was required. Stone does later mention that the Handlers eventually resigned from Mattell amid some scrutiny from the SEC. While the writing overall is very good, I was occasionally bothered by simplistic statements like on page 25, “television, movies and music do a great job of reflecting what is happening in society at any given moment.”

Overall, though, the book presents a balanced and thorough view of Barbie. Chapter 5 provides a nuanced, thought-provoking examination of Barbie’s effects on girls. It includes interviews with fathers as well as girls and women. Stone also makes it clear that Mattel counted on customers buying clothes and acessories for their dolls, and that the company cared about what would sell as well as quality. Chapter 6 delves into racial and ethnic identity. Stone reveals that, while it may be more obvious to think of Barbie's unattainable proportions as being harmful to girls in general, a more common problem may have been how the doll's whiteness effected non-white girls. Chapter 7 gets into how kids (including boys) played with Barbie. There are several laugh-out loud moments. Chapter 8 examines Barbie as art, and how the doll has inspired many artists and designers.

I found the otherwise-engaging forward by Meg Cabot to be somewhat troubling because of one instance of poor word choice. She said that Barbie was “useless without Ken,” which invalidates her other statements about Barbie inspiring girls to be whatever they wanted to be. I think maybe what this slip reveals is that girls’ aspirations have been limited by social conventions, and that these limitations had more effect on how they played with Barbie than vice versa.

There are many photos throughout, and the section of color photos toward the back is a lot of fun. Stone acknowledges Peter Harrigan, a theatre professor whose massive Barbie collection is featured prominetnly in these photos. The book is very well-documented. Quotes from personal emails of Barbie fans and detractors are noted while maintaining privacy. Additionally, many books and articles have been consulted. Photo credits are given ample space, making them easily readable. The index denotes textboxes in addition to photos and is well-organized in general. I liked this book even better than Almost Astronauts, which was a YALSA finalist last year.

Your Comments?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing *2011 YALSA Award Winner*
by Ann Angel
published by Amulet/Abrams

Publisher's description:
Forty years after her death, Janis Joplin remains among the most compelling and influential figures in rock-and-roll history. Her story—told here with depth and sensitivity by author Ann Angel—is one of a girl who struggled against rules and limitations, yet worked diligently to improve as a singer. It’s the story of an outrageous rebel who wanted to be loved, and of a wild woman who wrote long, loving letters to her mom. And finally, it’s the story of one of the most iconic female musicians in American history, who died at twenty-seven. Janis Joplin includes more than sixty photographs, and an assortment of anecdotes from Janis’s friends and band mates. This thoroughly researched and well-illustrated biography is a must-have for all young artists, music lovers, and pop-culture enthusiasts.

My comments:
This book was a labor of love. It began as a short piece that Angel was encouraged to expand. She worked on it for years, conducting email interviews with Joplin's friend and bandmate Sam Andrew (who wrote the introduction), Joplin's former road manager John Byrne Cooke and her friend and publicist Myra Friedman. Angel even forged her own friendship with Friedman.

The eye-popping design is a delight. The colors and patterns adroning the pages reflect the psychedelic look of the album art incuded as illustrations. There are also many photos of Joplin, some filling an entire page, that show her both in her awkward youth and as the performer that she transformed herself into. This a fun book to browse through.

Angel does a really good job of describing Joplin’s persona and the impact her persona had on people, but what I felt was missing was in-depth analysis of her music. There is discussion of a few song lyrics, but it seemed a little too shallow to me. I would also have liked to hear more thoughts from fans and musicians who were influenced by Joplin. I thought that the view of 1950s culture presented was a little simplistic, but I liked how Angel shows Joplin as a misfit who struggled with her self image -- something that teens can identify with.

The bibliography is a bit difficult to navigate, because personal emails, articles, books, and albums are all lumped together without any obvious indication to show which is which. Divisional headings would have been helpful. The well-documented source notes, however, are very insightful, because they include the full sources and helpful things such as links.

Your comments?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

YALSA's Nonfiction & Morris Chat

I mentioned YALSA's upcoming chat on the Morris & Nonfiction shortlists last week, and now one detail has changed. The chat has been moved from ALA to Adobe Connect. This means that ANYONE can join in, not just YALSA members.

That chat is set to take place today (Wednesday, Dec. 8) at 8pm Eastern Time (7pm Central Time). The link to access the chat is:

The shortlists for both the Nonfiction and Morris awards are available on the YALSA website.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mock YALSA Voting Results / YALSA Official Shortlist Announced

I just came from the mock discussion and vote for the YALSA nonfiction award. It was held at National-Louis University's Center for Teaching Through Children's Books. I sat in a room with 9 other lovely librarians and discussed the nonfiction titles that I had picked (somewhat subjectively) as being among the best of the year. The titles we discussed are:

Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery
Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman
They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone
Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

There was a lot of great discussion on the books, as well as related topics including how to categorize poetry, whether "appeal" could be considered to fit within the definition of "presentation" and how much white space is too much white space. In regards to poetry, someone made the point that a majority of poetry could be considered nonfiction, because it is intended to present Truth (with a capital T). After the discussion, a vote was taken. The War to End All Wars and They Called Themselves the KKK were tied at 3 votes apiece, with Sir Charlie and Kakapo Rescue also garnering votes. A runoff vote between the top two vote-getters resulted in a win for They Called Themselves the KKK with 6 votes.

So, congrats to Susan Campbell Bartoletti for They Called Themselves the KKK! There is no prize associated with this mock award, other than perhaps it will inspire a librarian somewhere to put the book on display, or it to hand it to a teen and say, "Try this book, it's really good!" Which really should be the point of having these awards, right?

The five official finalists were also announced by YALSA earlier this week. Here is the OFFICIAL list:

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories by Paul Janeczko

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw

I'm not at all surprised to see They Called Themselves the K.K.K. on the list. I've read two of the other finalists. I thought that Spies of Mississippi was really good, but it didn't stand out for me like several books did. I enjoyed Janis Joplin (more extensive comments are coming soon) and I love the design.

The Dark Game also has a definite cool factor. I haven't even had a chance to see it since it arrived at the library, as it's been checked out the entire time. Every Bone Tells a Story is probably the biggest surprise, simply because it's been off my radar. I'm going to have to get a hold of it, now.

The official winner will be announced during the MidWinter meeting of ALA in San Diego.

Your Comments?

Monday, November 29, 2010

YALSA Shortlist Chat

An online chat to discuss the YALSA Nonfiction finalists was just announced on the yalsa-bk listserv. It will take place next Wednesday (Dec. 8) and is limited to YALSA members. Here is the message sent by Stephanie Kuenn, communications specialist with YALSA:

Join YALSA for our free monthly e-chat on Wednesday December 8 from 8-9pm EST to discuss the recently announced Morris and Nonfiction finalists. Did one of your favorite books get nominated? Were you surprised by any of the choices? Join us in ALA Connect for this lively conversation, moderated by Rob Bittner.

Chat participation is limited to YALSA members. YALSA members should go to and use their login for the ALA website, If you've lost your password, you can recover it through the ALA website.

Once logged in, head to the YALSA area (it's or you can navigate there within Connect by choosing "YALSA" from under "My ALA Groups") and then click "Chats."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton
by Connie Nordheilm Wooldridge
184 pages
published by Clarion Books

Publisher's description:
Edith Wharton, author of Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and other acclaimed novels, was born into a wealthy family. Beginning in childhood, Edith found ways to escape from society's and her family's expectations and follow an unconventional, creative path. Unhappily married and eventually divorced, she surrounded herself with male friends. She spent much of her life in Paris and was recognized by the French government for her generosity and hard work during World War I. Her literary and personal life, her witty and incisive correspondence, her fondness for automobiles and small dogs--all are detailed in this warm and sparkling account of a woman well ahead of her time.

My comments:
I must confess that (having never been required to read any of Edith Wharton's books as a student and not being inclined to pick them up on my own) I knew almost nothing about her before picking up this biography. I thought that maybe the "brave escape" the title referred to might mean that Wharton would abandon the life of wealth and privilege she was born into to live as a pennliess writer, and at first I was a little disappointed that she merely gave up the stuffy old-money social circle of her parents while managing to hold on to the wealth and privilege.

Eventually I came to see that rejecting her parents' ideals and aspirations is nothing to sniff at, though. Her actions are ones that any independent or rebellious teen can admire. Wharton also had the courage to pursue a career as a writer at a time when it was not respectable for a woman to write. By winning a Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence, she made the writing profession a respectable one for women to pursue.

I found Wooldridge's writing to be clear and engaging. It's clear that she respects Wharton, imperfections and all. The many photographs of her and her beloved bachelor friends and dogs are interesting, and well-captioned. There's nothing fancy about the design of the book, but the paper is high quality, the fonts look nice, and it's just the right size (not too big, not too small).

The book is well-researched, drawing from university archives, Wharton's body of work, and other biographies. The back end materials include source notes, a bibliography, a list of Wharton's works, and an index. I found the index to be very helpful whenever I needed to refresh myself on one of Wharton's many bachelor friends. The abbreviations used in the source notes confused me at first. It seems like there should have been an easier way to keep the length of the note citations manageable without resorting to two pages of abbreviations. The arrangement works well enough, but is a bit clunky.

I think the highest praise I can give The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton is that I'm actually interested, for the first time in my life, in reading Wharton for myself.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Under A Red Sky

Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania
by Haya Leah Molnar

320 pages
Farrar Straus Giroux

Publisher's description:

Eva Zimmermann is eight years old, and she has just discovered she is Jewish. Such is the life of an only child living in postwar Bucharest, a city that is changing in ever more frightening ways. Eva’s family, full of eccentric and opinionated adults, will do absolutely anything to keep her safe—even if it means hiding her identity from her. With razor-sharp depictions of her animated relatives, Haya Leah Molnar’s memoir of her childhood captures with touching precocity the very adult realities of living behind the iron curtain.

My comments:

Aside from poetry, memoirs may be the most slippery of the nonfiction genres. James Frey's embellished truths and outright lies may have been relatively easy to sniff out in modern America, but who's to know how much of Eva Zimmerman/Haya Leah Molnar's childhood in 1950s Romania is true? She is upfront about the challenges in piecing a book together from her memories in her author's note at the beginning of the book. "The story is filtered through my memory," she writes, and also, "this is not a journalist's rendition of historical events but my personal story about growing up." Some names have been changed to protect people's privacy, and some conversations have been re-imagined, but the "essence" is true.

Her candor is evident throughout her story, which has no clear villains and few hugely dramatic events. Instead, she relies on the color provided by her family members (she grows up as the only child in a house filled with adults) and the quietly dramatic revelations that unfold over time. If there is a villain in the story, then it is the unseen, uncaring government bureaucracy which looms as a constant threat to her family's well-being.

The trials of Eva's childhoods include many that most anyone can identify with, like trying to fit in at school when you are different, getting along with family members who can be affectionate but rude, frustration at not understanding religion or your parents and worrying when your parents are unemployed. Others, like not being allowed to leave the country and not being allowed to take your possessions when you are allowed to leave, may tap in to the imaginations of those who read to experience circumstances far removed from their own.

Eva's father was a filmmaker and photographer, and several of his family photographs appear in a section towards the back of the book, strengthening her account. She doesn't just include them as window-dressing, but ingeniously incorporates them fully into her memories, telling the stories of how the photographs came to be so that when I saw the pictures, I said, for instance, "Aha! That is how she looked on her first day or school!"

I felt that the story ended a little too abruptly with the family's arrival in Israel. There are photographs of Eva's parents' vacation in their first car, and a self-portrait of her father as they immigrate to America. However, I was disappointed to find that the stories behind these photographs are not included in the book. Perhaps a second volume that covers her life in Israel and America is in the works? It's one that I would find worth reading.

Your comments?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Discussion & Mock Vote: December 2

Everybody is invited to a YA nonfiction book discussion on Thursday, December 2. It will be held at the Center for Teaching Through Children's Books of National-Louis University in Skokie, IL.

5202 Old Orchard Road, Suite 300
Skokie, Illinois 60077
Phone: 224.233.2288

Click here for a map.

The event is scheduled for 4:00-6:00pm. From 4:00-4:30 will be time to introduce ourselves, grab some refreshments and get settled. The discussion will take place 4:30-6:00, with a mock vote at the end.

I've made up a short "recommended" reading list for the discussion:

Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery
Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman
They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone
Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

Everyone who attends is also encouraged to bring their own favorites to discuss. All nonfiction published for young adults between November 2009 and October 31 of this year is eligible for the award. One very interesting title that seems to have just missed this deadline is Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos - I believe it will be eligible next year.

Please spread the word! If you are unable to attend, but want to participate, then please post comments here. I will share all of your comments during the face-to-face discussion on December 2.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Frederick Douglass: A Noble Life

Frederick Douglass: A Noble Life
by David Adler

140 pages
Published by Holiday House

Publisher's description:
Popular biographer David A. Adler recounts the exciting life of escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in 1818 and raised on a Maryland plantation under brutal conditions, Frederick Douglass against all odds grew up to become a famous orator, journalist, author, and advisor to U.S. presidents. Many contemporaries found it hard to believe that he was an escaped slave with no formal education. Douglass was also controversial. He urged slaves to revo0lt and befriended the abolitionist John Brown. A pivotal figure in U.S. history, he helped Abraham Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation and was an ambassador to Haiti.

My comments:
Adler provides an accessible introduction to the life of abolitionist and civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass that will hopefully inspire young people to seek out Douglass' own autobiographies. Adler includes direct quotations of Douglass' own work along with research conducted through other sources, including books and newspapers from the time.

Many black and white photographs and illustrations grace the pages of the book, including portraits of Douglass and his family members, friends and contemporaries, depictions of slave life, posters, letters and newspaper clippings (including some from Douglass' own paper).

Adler's focus is primarily on Douglass' public life rather than his private life, although he does provide in-depth coverage of his childhood as a slave. Adler often lets Douglass speak for himself through his autobiographies; a wise choice since Douglass' writing is so eloquent. Of Douglass' two marriages and five children, I got just the basics. I read far more about his abolitionist activities in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to covering Douglass' life, Adler also discusses major events tied to his life, like the insurrection led by John Brown, the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Back end materials include a timeline, chapter notes, selected bibliography and index. There are also picture credits, which (I was happy to see) are actually presented in a readable format and font size. The chapter notes are important because much of the text relies on Douglass' own autobiographies. The notes tell readers the titles and pages where each quotation can be found. Adler also provides additional interesting information (such as a portion of a letter to a Pennsylvania newspaper following the passage of the 15th Amendment) that perhaps wouldn't have fit with the main text. The selected bibliography includes a number of books and newspapers. The index is quite extensive and includes names, places, major events and many topics such as foods and religion.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Kakapo Rescue

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot
by Sy Montgomery (photographs by Nic Bishop)

80 pages
published by Houghton Mifflin

Publisher's description:
On remote Codfish Island off the southern coast of New Zealand live the last ninety-one kakapo parrots on earth. These trusting, flightless, and beautiful birds—the largest and most unusual parrots on earth—have suffered devastating population loss. Now, on an island refuge with the last of the species, New Zealand’s National Kakapo Recovery Team is working to restore the kakapo population. With the help of fourteen humans who share a single hut and a passion for saving these odd ground-dwelling birds, the kakapo are making a comeback in New Zealand. Follow intrepid animal lovers Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop on a ten-day excursion to witness the exciting events in the life of the kakapo.

My comments:
This book pretty much has it all - lovable characters, humor, drama, danger, romance, tragedy and a hopeful ending. The Kakapo are introduced by name; all are adorable and full of personality. The scientists who appear in the book take a back seat to the birds, and I think this is a wise choice. Lisa is an attentive mother and Richard Henry is a distinguished senior statesman. One male, Sirocco, was raised by humans and thinks that he's human, too. His efforts to find a mate add humor, romance and danger (one ranger stubs a toe while running from Sirocco's unwanted affection) all at once.
Montgomery and Bishop literally had to wait for years to create this book, so that they could visit the birds at a time when they were breeding. When they arrive at Codfish Island, there are 88 birds. Births and deaths occur during their 10-day research mission (visitors are only allowed on to the island for 10 days at a time). Each hatching egg is attended with great anxiety and celebration, and each death is a crushing blow.

Bishop provides many lush green photographs of the parrots and their surroundings, but doesn't leave the humans out. We see them weighing and feeding chicks and tracking the birds through the dense forests. We even see the author in one photograph, during her magical encounter with a curious Kakapo named Sinbad. There are also photographs of other native birds and even a very cool shot of a bat in flight.

The writing has an engaging journalistic sensibility and (except for sections on the history of the birds and the other Richard Henry, a famed conservationist) is told in the first-person and present tense. Most of the research for the book was conducted on-site, so there are no notes. A few helpful books are listed in the back; four recent titles and one historical book from 1888. The website and mailing address for the Kakapo Recovery Programme are also included.
I think this book benefits from having the right subject, right author, and right photographer all come together to create something very special.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection
edited by Matt Dembicki

232 pages
published by Fulcrum

Publisher's description:

All cultures have tales of the trickster-a crafty creature or being who uses cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. He disrupts the order of things, often humiliating others and sometimes himself. In Native American traditions, the trickster takes many forms, from coyote or rabbit to raccoon or raven. The first graphic anthology of Native American trickster tales, Trickster brings together Native American folklore and the world of comics.

In Trickster, more than twenty Native American tales are cleverly adapted into comic form. Each story is written by a different Native American storyteller who worked closely with a selected illustrator, a combination that gives each tale a unique and powerful voice and look. Ranging from serious and dramatic to funny and sometimes downright fiendish, these tales bring tricksters back into popular culture in a very vivid form. From an ego-driven social misstep in "Coyote and the Pebbles" to the hijinks of "How Wildcat Caught a Turkey" and the hilarity of "Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale," Trickster provides entertainment for readers of all ages and backgrounds.

My comments:

With more than 40 writers and artists contributing to this collection, it's hard to know whether it would be considered for the YALSA award. It's also hard to know whether it qualifies as being published for young adults. School Library Journal recommended it for grades 5 and up, and Kirkus for ages 10 and up, but Publisher's Weekly didn't include an age recommendation in their review and Booklist included it with their adult nonfiction. Fulcrum doesn't provide a target audience on it's website.

Like any collection with multiple authors and artists, the writing and art styles vary from tale to tale. The art ranges from characters against simple backgrounds to realistic characters traversing elaborate backdrops. There are naturally some tales that I liked better than others. My favorites include "Azban and the Crayfish" (about a wily raccoon who tricks a whole community of crayfish into his belly) by brothers James Bruchac and Joseph Bruchac with art by editor Matt Dembicki, "Rabbit and the Tug-of-War" (the cover image is taken from this story) by Michael Thompson and Jacob Warrenfeltz, and "How Wildcat Caught a Turkey" (rendered in a charmingly scribbly style) by Joseph Stands With Many and Jon Sperry. My absolute favorite tale in the book is "Puapualenalena: Wizard Dog of Waipi'o Valley" by Hawaiian storyteller Thomas C. Cummings Jr. with art by Zdepski. It'd be hard not to love the yellow dog with black spots after seeing pictures of him chewing up aha root for his master, or dancing among the psychedelic-looking 'uhane.

Dembicki explains in a page-long editor's note that the tales haven't been westernized for a wider audience, and are intended to provide readers with an authentic Native American storytelling experience. The note also briefly explains how the collection came to be. I actually would have liked it better if this note appeared at the beginning of the book (rather than at the end), so that readers who are unfamiliar with Native American folklore can get a bit of context before delving into the tales.

At the end are brief biographies of all the contributors. The tales are all written by Native authors. According to Dembicki, finding willing authors was a bit of a struggle until he was able to gain support from a few key people. The storytellers each got to choose artists for their stories from a pool of contributors and approve the storyboards. Many of the authors and artists have websites, which are included with their bios.

Your comments?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Get Real

Get Real: What Kind of World Are You Buying?
by Mara Rockliff

112 pages
published by Running Press

Description from Rockliff's website:

Can you change the world with your wallet? You already do.

This frank, teen-friendly manifesto reveals what you're really buying when you spend your money on a burger, a cheap t-shirt, or a cell phone--and points the way to better choices, both for people and the planet.

Start seeing the world for real, and discover how you can make a difference. You've got buying power--now let's see you change the world for good!

My comments:

Let me begin by saying that I agree with Rockliff's message, and think that this is a great idea for a YA book. Also, the design is fun: punchy graphics, compelling photos, and a funky red-green-aqua color palette.

In chapters like, "And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt," "Trash Talk" and "Sweeter Treats," Rockliff encourages teens to think before they buy - about where their products are coming from, who made them, what will happen to them when they're no longer wanted, and whether they really need them. "Buys in the Hood" extolls the virtue of buying locally, and "Green Warriors vs. Greenwashers," provides tips to determine whether a company is really making an effort to go green or just trying to make it appear that way. Teens are encouraged to not only consume wisely, but to consume less.

The writing is casual and in your face, as if you are having a conversation with a very passionate, fired-up person. Rockliff throws a lot of inflammatory information at you without immediately backing it up with sources. There is an extensive list of books, articles, websites, and documentaries at the end, but no notes to show you which statements come from where. Unfortunately for Rockliff (and any teens who read this book and are inspired by the contents) people who assault you with their opinions are really annoying, especially when they can't provide any hard facts or expert sources.

There's also nothing more futile than trying to convince somebody of something when you can't explain it yourself. The chapter entitled "Franken Foods" provides an example of this. Rockliff says that genetically engineered foods are bad, but doesn't really explain why they are bad. Her main argument seems to be that they aren't natural. Genetically altered foods may be bad. However, as demonstrated with this NPR story about genetically engineered salmon, there is room for multiple opinions and open debate.

Besides the obvious passion that was poured into this work, all of those websites and other sources are the book's greatest strength. In addition to the lists at the back, some resources are featured in red "more" boxes that appear at the end of each chapter. These boxes don't make up for a lack of notes, but they do give inspired readers a handy jumping off point for more research.

The book is printed on recycled paper with soy-based ink. It was also printed in China, which just goes to show how hard it is nowadays to practice what you preach.

Your comments?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Project Seahorse

Project Seahorse
by Pamela S. Turner

56 pages
published by Houghton Mifflin

Publisher's description:
Seahorses, some of the ocean’s most charming fish, are in trouble. In the past twenty years their populations has declined. They are threatened by overfishing, pollution and climate change. In Handumon in the Philippines, villagers and conservationists have joined to protect the seahorse and the coral reefs where they live. Amanda Vincent and Heather Koldewey, founders of Project Seahorse, work with Filipino colleagues and local fishers like “Digoy” Paden to protect seahorses and the livelihood of local fishing families. Through their efforts the Handumon Marine Protected Area is now a model “underwater park” where marine life is safe from fishing.

My comments:
I really liked Turner's last book for the Scientists in the Field series, The Frog Scientist, and fell in love with the leafy seadragons at the Shedd Aquarium more than 10 years ago; so I was excited to read this one.

Turner does a good job of explaining that, despite their unusual appearance, seahorses are fish. She a really good job of explaining how male seahorses give birth and how this unusual reproductive strategy came to be. What she does a fantastic job of is explaining the integral role that seahorses play in life on earth, and why they are worth conserving.

She balances coverage of the seahorses and their underwater environment with the local people who feed their families and make a living through fishing. The book shows that Project Seahorse is making an impact because of cooperation between scientists and locals.

The photographs are fantastic and the book design is attractive. However, I couldn't help being distracted by the white borders, tilted angles and drop shadows, which reminded me of iPhoto. The impressive index includes page numbers for all the photographs and captions, and you can look up each seahorse species that appears in the book.

Other materials include a guide on how to help seahorses (courtesy of Project Seahorse), a glossary, and a list of resources that includes, videos, websites and books. I was disappointed to see that the only books listed are other titles from the same series about the ocean. Where are more books about seahorses? I would have also liked to see a list of aquariums (like Shedd) where you can see seahorses up close.

My impression is that this is yet another very strong title in the Scientists in the Field series, but not the best.

Your comments?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

If Stones Could Speak

If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Screts of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson
64 pages
published by National Geographic

Publisher's description:
What are the secrets of the ancient stones? Were they a burial site, an ancient calendar, a sports stadium, a place of Druid worship... or even a site of sacrifice? World-renowned archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson recently began a new quest to excavate the wider area around Stonehenge to answer these and many other questions. National Geographic helped sponsor their mission, and now Mike takes our young readers behind the scenes to experience this groundbreaking story first-hand, through the eyes of the experts.
Within the past three years, Mike and his team have revolutionized our understanding of Stonehenge by exploring the surrounding landscape for clues about the stones. The results have been breathtaking: the team recently unearthed the largest Neolithic village ever found in England. If Stones Could Speak brings young readers the inspirational story of the incredible discoveries now taking place at this World Historical Site. The informative and drama-driven text includes tales of dead bodies, cremations, feasting, and ancient rituals, as well as science like carbon dating. The images include some of those featured in National Geographic's cover story on the discoveries, for which the stones were "painted in light" at night with awe-inspiring results.
The expert text, stunning photography, and explanatory maps and illustrations will all help young readers see this ancient monument in totally new ways, and no doubt inspire future generations of archaeological explorers.

My comments:
I found this to be a fascinating book in the vein of Written in Bone, one of my favorites from last year. It combines history, mystery, and the thrill of seeing scientists form and test a theory that leads to exciting discoveries. Concepts important to the archaeologists' work, like carbon-14 dating and strontium analysis, are explained in a clear manner. So is one major problem the scientists in the book encountered when studying Stonehenge, by way of the hypothetical discovery of basketball court 4,000 years from now (p. 27). If most experts agree that the court was used for religious rituals and one suggests that it was used to play a game, who would be believed?

I really liked the middle chapters, (four, five and six) for the story they tell. Mike, an archaeologist from England, brings Ramilisonina, an archaeologist from Madagascar, to Stonehenge to look at the stones with "fresh eyes." In Madagascar, people live in wooden homes and build monuments to the dead out of stone, and this is what Ramilisonina saw: a monument to the builders' ancestors. In chapter seven, their theory bears fruit when they discover the remains of an ancient village.

There are an abundance of beautiful color photographs, as well as an illustrated map of the stone circle and surrounding archaeological sites to give readers a sense of the area being studied. Despite these images, I had a hard time grasping the connections between all the different sites (Southern Circle, the Long Barrow, the Cursus, etc.). I understand what each one was, but not how they are bound together. Maybe this is because there is so much that is yet to be learned about each one of them.

The materials at the end include an annotated factfinder index, a list of archeologists and their theories, a chronology of the riverside project, and a list of its members. Unfortunately, when I wanted to go back and read the basketball court analogy again, I couldn't find it using the index. There's also a timeline for Stonehenge, accompanied by an explanation that this timeline is ever-changing becasue of continued scientific investigations. I was disappointed that the timeline didn't help me to better understand the connections between the different sites. On the very last page is a list of books for further reading (divided into categories for kids and adults) and a few online resources including National Geographic, where you will find more stunning photographs.

Your comments?

Monday, October 4, 2010

This Is Rocket Science

This Is Rocket Science: True Stories of the Risk-Taking Scientists Who Figure Out Ways to Explore Beyond Earth by Gloria Skurzynski
80 pages
published by National Geographic

Publisher's comments:
From the award-winning author of Are We Alone? comes a title to propel young imaginations far into space. This Is Rocket Science explores the past, present, and future of space travel. The compelling text—vetted by NASA scientists—is a combination of history, science, human drama, and future challenges. Readers learn how fireworks in ancient China developed into the fire arrows used by Genghis Khan; we meet Sir Isaac Newton, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and learn how their imaginations shaped rocketry. We revisit the era of Sputnik, the satellite that launched a superpower space race, ending with moonwalks and a rendezvous in space. Finally we look forward to the future challenges of Mars and beyond. We also get a sneak peek at new technologies like space elevators, solar sails, ramjets, and more.

My comments:
The cover of this book is what really attracted me to it. The cover image and title both scream, "Pick me up, there's cool stuff inside!" Inside is a nice balance of the history of rocket science (beginning with alchemists in ancient China) with its future possibilities (new technologies like nano tubes and solar sails could make missions to Mars and beyond a reality and not just fiction).
There are also lots of color photographs and illustrations, pulled quotes and informative captions.

I found one editorial error, at the bottom of page 21. A thought is cut off mid-sentence, and the next page begins with a new paragraph. The meaning of the sentence fragment can be worked out by rearranging the words and the next paragraph is on the same topic, so I think this was more of a forgot-to-rewrite-the-sentence error than accidentally-deleted-two-pages-of-text error.

Skurzynski successfully blends science and history, explaining Newton's three laws of motion and how they apply to rockets, the stories of three men who would become known as the fathers of modern rocketry, the space race between the US and Soviet Union, and the competition between chemical and nuclear propulsion for funding in the United States.

Where rocket science takes us next (and how) is still uncertain. SpaceX, a private company launched by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, gets attention for its potential role as taxi service to the International Space Station: after a few more missions, our shuttles will be retired. The dynamics of at least one question raised in the book (whether we would be heading once again to the moon or lighting out instead for Mars) have been altered recently by the approval of Bill S. 3729, which provides a total of a total of $58 billion to NASA through 2013.

The information in this book will eventually become dated, but for now, it sheds light on ideas that are at the cutting edge. There's been a lot of talk about a "new direction" for NASA, and Skurzynski highlights some of the possibilities.

The final pages include a glossary and lists of other interesting books and websites, all in tiny print. Quote sources and illustration credits are squeezed, also in tiny print, on to a single page. Looking at it hurts my eyes. The single-page index is in slightly larger print that is much easier to look at. Would it have been so hard to add a couple more pages, so at the glossary and bibliography were easier to use?

Your comments?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sir Charlie

Sir Charlie: Chaplin the Funniest Man in the World
by Sid Fleischman
268 pages
published by HarperCollins

Publisher's description:

See him? That little tramp twitching a postage stamp of a mustache, politely lifting his bowler hat, and leaning on a bamboo cane with the confidence of a gentleman? A slapstick comedian, he blazed forth as the brightest movie star in the Hollywood heavens.
Everyone knew Charlie—Charlie Chaplin.
When he was five years old he was pulled onstage for the first time, and he didn't step off again for almost three-quarters of a century. Escaping the London slums of his tragic childhood, he took Hollywood like a conquistador with a Cockney accent. With his gift for pantomime in films that had not yet acquired vocal cords, he was soon rubbing elbows with royalty and dining on gold plates in his own Beverly Hills mansion. He was the most famous man on earth—and he was regarded as the funniest. Still is. . . . He comes to life in these pages. It's an astonishing rags-to-riches saga of an irrepressible kid whose childhood was dealt from the bottom of the deck. Abundantly illustrated.

My Comments:

Sir Charlie jumped to the top of my reading pile after I saw my teenage nephew browsing through it. He said he liked it because of all the pictures. There are an abundance of wonderful black and white photographs, including publicity stills from Chaplin's movies, family portraits and news images. The pithy captions help to make browsing informative as well as enjoyable.

The print is large, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Fleischman's writing is facile. I found the text to be very engaging, and peppered with quirky phrases that I would describe as old-fashioned. Younger readers who are unfamiliar with them may pick them up from the context, look them up out of curiosity, or simply move on without worrying about their meanings.

Chaplin's story is the story moviemaking in America - you can't learn about one without learning about the other. Young people who dream of making comedies, whether on a big or small screen, can learn a lot from Chaplin, and this book has the potential to inspire them to seek out his best works.

Fleischman clearly admires Chaplin, but doesn't let that admiration blind him from his less admirable traits - like his foul treatment of younger actors. He doesn't gloss over Chaplin's failed marriages or movies that flopped. He also states that Chaplin, "outlived his genius," a phrase that bothers me in general. I would hope that readers are captivated enough to watch Chaplin's work and then make their own assessment.

Back end materials include a Charlie Chaplin time line, an extensive references section that includes extended comments about many aspects of Chaplin's life, a bibliography made up of books and a few documentaries, a select list Chaplin films, and an index that includes names, places, film titles, and relevant terms like "banana peel" and "pantomime."

Your comments?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

They Called Themselves the K.K.K

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group
by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

172 pages
published by Houghton Mifflin

Publisher's description:

Boys, let us get up a club. With those words, six restless young men raided the linens at a friend's mansion, pulled pillowcases over their heads, hopped on horses, and cavorted through the streets of Pulaski, Tennessee. The six friends named their club the Ku Klux Klan, and, all too quickly, their club grew into the self-proclaimed Invisible Empire with secret dens spread across the South.

This is the story of how a secret terrorist group took root in America's democracy. Filled with chilling and vivid personal accounts unearthed from oral histories, congressional documents, and diaries, it is a book to read and remember.

My comments:

My teenage niece and nephew visited a couple of weeks ago, and before they arrived I put a few books out on the coffee table to see if they'd look at them. This is one that my nephew, a high school junior, said that he would read based on the cover alone.

The image of the sweat-stained hood is striking and practically dares you open it up and have a look. The black and white book design is very nice throughout, and is credited to YAY! Design, a company who also claims design credit for The Secret of the Yellow Death and The Frog Scientist, among others.

Bartoletti begins her narrative with the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, and quickly moves to the story of six former Confederate soldiers who hated and feared Union rule and the threat of racial equality. What they began as a sort of fraternity in 1866 quickly morphed into a group that existed to bully freedpeople. Early chapters are devoted to the beginning and early spread of the Klan. In later chapters, the focus shifts to horrible crimes perpetrated by Klansmen, and the personal experiences of their victims. The final chapter and epilogue tell of the federal government's crackdown on Klan activities, made possible by the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and the undoing of that act just a few years later. She also touches briefly on the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, perhaps an excellent topic for another book.

Bartoletti makes great use of oral accounts of the Klan's actions, both from former Klan members and their victims. A note at the very beginning explains that some of the language used in these accounts may be offensive, and also explains why the accounts of many former slaves are transcribed in non-standard English. I appreciate that the language has not been edited.

Newspaper illustrations and a few photographs are presented throughout the book, and these are all accompanied by excellent captions that provide context and source credits. I especially enjoyed seeing the political cartoons by Thomas Nast. I remember learning about Nast's skewering of Tammany Hall in high school social studies, but not his interest in civil rights in the South.

The bibliography and source notes are presented in narrative form, complete with photographs from Bartoletti's travels to the South. I found this section to be just as fascinating as the main text. Over the course of seven pages, she recommends scholarly texts as well as trial testimonies, white supremacist perspectives and titles on racism in general. She also recounts her attendance of a Klan Congress, "That night I couldn't get the shower hot enough to scrub away the words," she said. This is one instance where I was glad to read the entire bibliography section from beginning to end. The amount of research that went into this book is stunning. It's clear that Bartoletti threw herself passionately into writing this book, and her excitement for historical research transmitted to me as I read.

Other useful back end materials are a civil rights timeline that begins with the Emancipation Proclamation and ends with President Obama's election, quote attributions grouped by chapter, Acknowledgemnts that direct readers to the Southern Poverty Law Center for more information, and an index that includes references for text and illustrations.

* This is an official nomination for the YALSA nonfiction award. The winner will be announced in January.*

Your comments?

Friday, September 3, 2010

The War to End All Wars

The War to End All Wars: World War I
by Russell Freedman
176 pages
published by Clarion Books

Publisher's description:
Nonfiction master Russell Freedman illuminates for young readers the complex and rarely discussed subject of World War I. The tangled relationships and alliances of many nations, the introduction of modern weaponry, and top-level military decisions that resulted in thousands upon thousands of casualties all contributed to the "great war," which people hoped and believed would be the only conflict of its kind. In this clear and authoritative account, the author shows the ways in which the seeds of a second world war were sown in the first. Numerous archival photographs give the often disturbing subject matter a moving visual counterpart.

My comments:
Freedman's book has received much praise and some criticism, and I have tried to not let either color my own opinion as I read it. At first, I was a bit overwhelmed with the rapid pace at which Freedman tore through the causes and early stages of the war. World War I is a complex subject, and he did have to simplify and condense many events in order to squeeze them into a few coherent chapters.

At times, I felt like I was getting a "greatest hits sampler" of the war, with one-sentence references to popular figures like Eddie Rickebacher in Chapter 6: The Technology of Death and Destruction. While chapters like this one and the next one (on life in the trenches) were interestng, I also felt that they weren't telling me anything I hadn't already gleaned from history textbooks and movies. Later chapters, on the battles of Verdun and the Somme (chapters 8 and 9) engaged me more. Finally, I felt like I was reading something new.

The photographs throughout are fascinating, especially the ones depicting soldiers fighting just feet away from discarded bodies, or carrying wounded comrades to safety. I like that they are given so much space on the pages. I only wish that there were more maps. I could have really used maps during the chapters on Verdun and the Somme, so that I could picture the small stretches of land that were so fiercely and tragically fought over.

I like that the source notes are divided by chapter, and that the pages that they reference are clearly marked. The selected bibliography lists many recent works, but the narrative presentation makes picking out the titles and authors more difficult then if it had just been formatted as a list. The index appears to be comprehensive and is very useful for looking up specfic people and battles, as well as the various countries' involvement in the war.

Overall, this is a "big picture" type of book, meant to give you an overall picture of the subject rather than getting into the nitty gritty details. Along the way, however, there are some very interesting details, like the frequent quotes from soldiers who were there.

If there is a big picture that I get from this book, it is how arrogance tempts leaders of powerful countries into entering easy wars that prove to be anything but. Sound familiar? I hope that the irony of Freedmans' book title is not lost on his young readers.

Your comments?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Horrors of Andersonville

The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death Inside a Civil War Prison
by Catherine Gourley

192 pages
published by Lerner Publishing Group

Publisher's Description:

Conditions at Andersonville were indeed deplorable. The soldiers drank from polluted water and ate meager rations—mainly bug-infested cornmeal and bacon, which was often consumed raw, as there was little firewood for cooking. While some prisoners managed to make tents or shanties, many had to survive in the open without blankets or adequate clothing. Disease was rampant.

The camp had other dangers as well. Guards could shoot prisoners for just reaching across the deadline—an internal border 15 feet from the stockade walls. Some prisoners turned against each other in hopes of earning extra rations. And for a time, a gang called the Raiders preyed on fellow prisoners.

Of the nearly 45,000 prisoners that came to Andersonville, more than 13,000 died. When the Civil War ended, many people felt outrage. Was the camp commander Captain Henry Wirz ultimately responsible for these horrors? Or was he unfairly executed as a scapegoat for the atrocities of the camp?

Using diaries, letters, official U.S. government war records, media of the time, and other primary source documents from both Confederate and Union soldiers, author Catherine Gourley pieces together the life and death stories of Andersonville, revealing that the horrors of war include far more than what happens on the battlefield.

My Comments:

Andersonville prison is one element of Civil War history that slipped through the cracks of my formal education. I hadn't heard of it until a high school student needed help finding books about it for a history project. At first I was confused, thinking that it was somehow connected to the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. Actually, it was a prison in Georgia where Union captives were held by the Confederacy from February 1864 to the end of the Civil War. By all accounts, Andersonville was truly horrible. Originally intended to hold 10,000 prisoners at a time, the population swelled to more than 30,000 in August 1864. There simply wasn't enough food, water, space, medicine, shelter or clothing for anybody.

Not being familiar with the prison other than from reading this book, I can't speak to its veracity. I can say that it's derived from a variety of well-documented sources including the diaries and memoirs of inmates, eyewitness accounts that were published in local and national newspapers and magazines of the time, and records of the U.S. War Department. Gourley also presents a balanced view of what went on within the prison - for instance, the infamous killing of a crippled inmate is presented from several conflicting points of view. She also highlights harsh conditions in Union prisons for confederate soldiers like Elmira (also known as "Hellmira") through effective use of text boxes.

The writing is very engaging and the layout and design make it very easy to follow. Page and chapter breaks and even the placement of the shaded text boxes preserve the narrative flow. I even like the old-school font and subtle color scheme (deep blue, black, white and shades of gray).

The many illustrations and photographs are both relevant to the story and well-captioned. Captions for illustrations that appeared in newspapers, for instance, include source and contextual information. A couple of amazing drawings of the prison were actually drawn by inmates in their diaries.

The index at the end is very useful, as are the selected bibliography and further reading. I like the "cast of characters" at the beginning and end, however I felt that some people were left out who maybe should have been included, and the inclusion of others left me wondering why they hadn't been mentioned more in the text.

The source notes are useful, however I found that I needed to reference the bibliography to decipher some of the abbreviations. Another small quibble is that the reader has to assume that the number before each note is the page number. It would have been nice if "page" had been typed at the top of the first number column, just for clarification. It appears that, at one point, each note had been assigned a unique number, because I discovered two inexplicable superscript numbers while reading the text (the first one is "76").

One other complaint is the occasional use of parentheses to explain certain terms that someone (author? editor?) felt young adults would not understand. Some of these parenthetical definitions may be useful, but others are just annoyingly condescending - for instance, I can't imagine any teen not knowing that the eagle is the national bird. Overall, I felt they detracted from the book, but not enough to ruin it.

Your Comments?

Friday, August 20, 2010

More Books Coming Soon...

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending YALSA's webinar Back to the Facts: YA Nonfiction, presented by Angela Carstensen. A recording of the webinar will be available through YALSA's members' only section in two months time, but in the mean time I think it's okay if I share some of the notes that I took.

Carstensen was the 2010 chair of the YALSA nonfiction award committee. I've previously mentioned the article she wrote for YALS. It doesn't look like it's available online, but the effort to track down a print copy is worthwhile.

In addition to the YALSA award, she highlighted several other awards that are useful for collection development, including the ALSC's Sibert Medal (nonfiction for ages birth-14), the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award (for children), the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for excellence in science books (for children and young adults), and the Boston Globe-Horn Book awards (also for children and young adults)

End of the year best-of lists are another very helpful resource, and a great place to access them is Early Word. (Early Word also hosts periodic galley chats on twitter that are fun to follow!)

Carstensen also mentioned several blogs including Nonfiction Matters by Marc Aronson, Bookends by Lynn Rutan and Cindy Dobrez, Reality Rules by Betsy Fraser, and INK: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. She also mentioned this blog, which was completely unexpected and wonderful, but also made me realize, "Oh no, I haven't updated it recently!"

I'm currently reading The Horrors of Andersonville, and also have The War to End All Wars: World War I and This Is Rocket Science waiting for me, so I pledge to post comments on these books very soon!

Finally, Carstensen highlighted several new and upcoming titles, some of which I hadn't heard of yet. These include: The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton (pubbed this month), Frozen Secrets and The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie (both pubbing in October). She also mentioned two more entries in the Scientists in the Field series, Kakapo Rescue and Project Seahorse that I have just neglected until now (Project Seahorse and Frozen Secrets have been recently featured on Fraser's blog).

Please share any great new nonfiction books for young adults that you've discovered in the comments field below!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


by Raina Telgemeier

214 pages
published by Graphix (Scholastic)

Publisher's description:

Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth, and what follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that, there's still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly. This coming-of-age true story is sure to resonate with anyone who has ever been in middle school, and especially those who have ever had a bit of their own dental drama.

My comments:

I've never had braces and slept completely through the removal of my wisdom teeth, so Raina's account of her personal "dental drama" was very enlightening to me. I had no idea, for instance, that teeth could be shifted to the extremes that hers are. The fact that this is a graphic memoir, and Telgemeier uses drawings to show you what has been done to her teeth makes it very easy to grasp the process. I'm not sure if young people facing the prospect of wearing braces would be more horrified or reassured by seeing what they could be in for, but anyone who's been through any of the various procedures will likely be comforted to know that they're not alone.

In addition to the dental drama, she also depicts how she learned to stand up for herself and pursue her own interests in high school, rather than trying to hold on to middle school friendships that no longer suit her. Who can't identify with that?

I really like Telgemeier's artwork. It's colorful and detailed without looking cluttered. The details help to create a strong sense of time (early 1990s) and place (both the overall San Francisco setting and her middle and high schools).

Other nice touches include the end papers, which have been designed to look like signature pages in a school yearbook, and the author's note, which explains how she came to put her story down on paper. Overall, it's a cute and charming book.

Your comments?

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Hive Detectives

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe
by Loree Griffin Burns
80 pages
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publisher's Comments:

Without honey bees the world would be a different place. There would be no honey, no beeswax for candles, and, worst of all, barely a fruit, nut, or vegetable to eat. So imagine beekeeper Dave Hackenburg's horror when he discovered twenty million of his charges had vanished. Those missing bees became the first casualties of a mysterious scourge that continues to plague honey bee populations today. In The Hive Detectives, Loree Griffin Burns profiles bee wranglers and bee scientists who have been working to understand colony collapse disorder, or CCD. In this dramatic and enlightening story, readers explore the lives of the fuzzy, buzzy insects and learn what might happen to us if they were gone.

My comments:

This is another solid entry in the Scientists in the Field series. Burns provides a very interesting look at honeybees, the mysterious affliction (Colony Collapse Disorder) that have decimated their populations since 2006, and the scientists who study them. The pages are full of colorful high-quality photographs that show off the bees and the different colors of honey that they produce, as well as lots of facts about bees, apiarists (another name for beekeepers) and the scientists, of course.

I like that the various theories of what is happening to the bees are presented, as well as the evidence the scientists find that either rule them out or mark them as possible culprits. It's made clear that we don't know for sure what is happening to the bees yet, and that further research is necessary.

At the end there is a helpful glossary of bee-related terms, the cutely named "Appendix Bee," and a nice list of resources (including books, documentaries and websites) for further study.

This book didn't grab me as much as another title in the same series, The Frog Scientist. I think this is partially because The Hive Detectives highlights several scientists instead of focusing on one. There simply isn't time or space for Burns to get very personal with her subjects.

Your Comments?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Simeon's Story

Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till by Simeon Wright with Herb Boyd
144 pages
published by Lawrence Hill Books

Publisher's comments:

No modern tragedy has had a greater impact on race relations in America than the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy from Chicago whose body was battered beyond recognition and dumped in the Tallahatchie River while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. This grotesque crime became the catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Simeon Wright saw and heard his cousin Emmett whistle at Caroline Bryant at a grocery store; he was sleeping in the same bed with him when her husband came in and took Emmett away; and he was at the sensational trial.

Simeon’s Story tells what it was like to grow up in Mississippi in the 1940s; paints a vivid portrait of Moses Wright, Simeon’s father, a preacher who bravely testified against the killers; explains exactly what happened during Emmett’s visit to Mississippi, clearing up a number of common misperceptions; and shows how the Wright family lived in fear after the trial, and how they endured the years afterward.

Simeon’s Story is the gripping coming-of-age memoir of a man who was deeply hurt by the horror of his cousin’s murder and, through prayer and hope, has come to believe that it’s now time to tell it like it was.

My comments:

The foreword, by writer Herb Boyd, relates how he met Simeon Wright at a screening of a documentary about Till. Over the course of a few years, Wright was convinced to put his story in writing with help from Boyd. Boyd explains that it's Wright who tells the story (not him) and that he has merely added facts here and there to fill readers in more fully on the time and place. In the acknowledgments that follow, Wright thanks his wife for helping to convince him to share his story with Boyd.

Wright has told his story in plain but compelling language, and I felt as I read that I sat and listened to Wright telling it to me in person. There are only a couple of spots (near the beginning and near the end) where I sensed Boyd's intrusion, but even then the spell wasn't completely broken.

In addition to presenting a unique first-hand perspective of Emmett Till's last days, Wright reveals the story of his own life, which has been irrevocably shaped by Till's murder. Chapters near the end provide updates about the case, which was reopened in 2004, and the "Till Bill" that was signed into law in 2008.

In an appendix, Wright refutes several myths surrounding his cousin and the original trial of his murderers. The index is helpful for looking up names, things that modern young readers may be unfamiliar with (like the Sears catalog), and key locations like Bryant's grocery store.

There are a few black and white pictures integrated into the text, as well as a map and a layout of the Wright's home. The design and layout are not fancy; the gripping story is the main focus.

Your Comments?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Discussion Updates

The initial discussion held on June 2 was attended by a small but passionate group. Several new titles came up in addition to the ones I've written about on this blog:

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honeybee Catastrophe by Loree Griffin Burns has received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus. It's part of Houghton Mifflin's wonderful Scientists in the Field series, and like other entries in the series the well-researched text is accompanied by beautiful photographs.

If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson is a colorful archaeological mystery from National Geographic that has received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist. New theories and discoveries about Stonehenge's are among the highlights.

They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti comes out in August, and is already generating a lot of buzz. The cover is shocking and the topic -- a secret terrorist organization takes root in America -- is gripping.

Charles Darwin and the Mystery of Mysteries
by Niles Eldredge and Susan Pearson came out in May - I know, I know - do we need another book about Darwin? This seems to be a good one, though.

We Are the Weather Makers: The History of Climate Change was adapted by Sally Walker from a 2005 adult work by Tim Flannery. This is an important and popular topic.

Hip Hop World by Dalton Higgins is part of the Groundwork Guides series, and is a brief but well-rounded international survey of hip-hop music.

The final discussion has been scheduled for Thursday, December 2 at National-Louis University's North Shore Campus in Skokie, IL. Keep an eye out here for more details. In the meantime, look for reading suggestions here and feel free to post your own suggestions, as well.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Look for this Interesting Article...

If you haven't read it already, look for Angela Carstensen's article in the Spring 2010 issue of YALS, "YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Year One. " The 3-page feature starts on page 38. Carstensen was the chair of the new award committee, and she presents an enlightening inside view of the process that went into the selection of the 2010 nominations, finalists, and winners.

The committee wrangled with issues like whether to include poetry and books published for the 10-12 age range, readability and accessibility versus appeal, and how to judge books that don't rely on research. Carstensen ends the article by encouraging field nominations. The link to the page where you can nominate a title is:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Discussion Scheduled for June 2 Moved to Niles

I haven't posted my thoughts about any new books lately because, unfortunately, I haven't had time to read much during the past couple of weeks. I apologize for that. A couple of good-looking books that I hope to read when I get the chance are Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till by Simeon Wright and Smile, a graphic memoir by Raina Telgemeier. Smile has been checked out almost constantly since it first arrived here, and the excerpts I've seen look promising.

The main news I have this week is that a discussion of current nonfiction books for young adults that I had previously scheduled at NSLS headquarters in Wheeling, IL has been moved to the Niles Public Library in Niles, IL. Just in case you haven't heard about the North Suburban Libray System's dire financial trouble, here's an article from the May 19 Daily Herald that sums up the situation.

The discussion will now take place on Wednesday, June 2nd in the library's board room, from 9:30am to approximately noon. Our address is 6960 W. Oakton St. Click here for a map. Attendees are invited to bring and discuss any current nonfiction titles for young adults that they wish. There's a place across the street that makes great cupcakes.

Monday, May 3, 2010

An Unspeakable Crime

An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank
by Elaine Marie Alphin

152 pages
published by Carolrhoda Books

Publisher's Description:

On April 26, 1913, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan planned to meet friends at a parade in Atlanta, Georgia. But first she stopped at the pencil factory where she worked to pick up her paycheck. Mary never left the building alive.
A black watchman found Mary's body brutally beaten and apparently raped. Police arrested the watchman, but they weren't satisfied that he was the killer. Then they paid a visit to Leo Frank, the factory's superintendent, who was both a Northerner and a Jew. Spurred on by the media frenzy and prejudices of the time, the detectives made Frank their prime suspect, one whose conviction would soothe the city's anger over the death of a young white girl.
The prosecution of Leo Frank was front-page news for two years, and Frank's lynching is still one of the most controversial incidents of the twentieth century. It marks a turning point in the history of racial and religious hatred in America, leading directly to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League and to the rebirth of the modern Ku Klux Klan. Relying on primary source documents and painstaking research, award-winning novelist Elaine Marie Alphin tells the true story of justice undone in America.

My Comments:

Overall, the book looks wonderful, and is a great example of black and white design. The color scheme also fits the sober subject matter. One thing I do find annoying is that the tiny black text on the dark gray title page is hard to read.

I was already familiar with the Frank case because of the '80s-era mini series that Alphin mentions in her author's note, but I never felt bored as I read. I was grabbed immediately, and pulled through very quickly. The story unfolds in chronological order without giving away the ultimate outcome of the case ahead of time, which I think makes it more compelling than if Alphin had divulged Frank's fate early on.

Photographs of the people involved and images from the trial and aftermath appear throughout. Reproductions of newspaper headlines about the case are also integrated into the text. I like that Alphin emphasizes the influence of newspapers on public opinion, as well as the impact they had on the jury.

The timeline at the end is helpful, as is the "further reading" list of teen-friendly materials. I didn't need to reference the list of major figures involved, index, or glossary as everything in the text seemed very straight-forward to me. Some younger readers may find these features helpful, but with Law and Order airing constantly it seems far-fetched that a teen would need to look up words like jury, verdict, or even coroner.

Alphin indicates in her author's note that she did extensive research, and the detailed source notes and selected bibliography are evidence of this. She occasionally makes biased statements, like on page 103 where she claims that Governor Slaton was, "an unusual politician: a man with a conscience." Statements like this are small but jarring mistakes that marr an otherwise excellent book.

Your Comments?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

FDR's Alphabet Soup

FDR's Alphabet Soup: New Deal America 1932-1939
by Tonya Bolden
published by Knopf
144 pages

Publisher's description:

FDR’S New Deal, which followed the 1929 stock market crash, was a hugely influential moment in the history of the United States, encompassing everything from the arts to finance, labor to legislation, and some think it helped bring the country out of the Great Depression. Here, Tonya Bolden, writing in her trademark accessible style, creates a portrait of a time that changed American history both then and now.

FDR’s First 100 Days and how the United States was changed by it then are closely examined, especially now. The 2009 financial situation is eerily mirrored by that of the late 1920s, and this is a perfect book to help teens understand history and its lasting impact on current events.

My Comments:

It has taken me much longer than expected to get through this book. I love the idea of it, and the design. To me, though, it reads too much like a social studies textbook. Ironically, I feel this way despite the fact that Bolden uses a lot of informal language that you'd think might spice it up a bit. There's so much information about so many different things and people that I have trouble remembering the details, and also I'm not finding a cohesive story to follow. That's how I felt when I had to read social studies textbooks in junior high and high school.

There are some positives to this book, too. There are a lot of great images from the New Deal period in it, and lots of interesting facts and quotes scattered throughout. This book may be better for browsing than straight reading. The glossary is great for keeping up with all of the New Deal acronyms (AAA, WPA, FERA, FDIC, etc., etc.). The list of selected sources is extensive and would be very useful for students doing research.

I had a thirteen-year old volunteer look at several nonfiction books recently, and evaluate which ones she would like to read. This is one that she was especially interested in, based on the subject matter (she's studied it in school) and the overall design. Once she has a chance to read the book and give me her thoughts on it, I will add them to this post.

Your comments?