Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spies of Mississippi

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

published by National Geographic
128 pages

Publisher's Description:

The Spies of Mississippi is a compelling story of how state spies tried to block voting rights for African Americans during the Civil Rights era. This book sheds new light on one of the most momentous periods in American history. Author Rick Bowers has combed through primary-source materials and interviewed surviving activists named in once-secret files, as well as the writings and oral histories of Mississippi civil rights leaders. Readers get first-hand accounts of how neighbors spied on neighbors, teachers spied on students, ministers spied on church-goers, and spies even spied on spies. The Spies of Mississippi will inspire readers with the stories of the brave citizens who overcame the forces of white supremacy to usher in a new era of hope and freedom—an age that has recently culminated in the election of Barack Obama.

My Comments:

Bowers has written a very interesting, matter-of-fact expose of the secret commission that was formed to prevent integration from coming to Mississippi. I was shocked to learn how government agents conspired to persecute, imprison, and even murder NAACP organizers and volunteers. I was already aware of the murders of Medgar Evers and the three volunteers who came to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to register voters, but only from movies (Ghosts of Mississippi and Mississippi Burning) so it was enlightening to read the facts without any filtering from Hollywood. The movies are old enough that young readers may never have heard of these men.

I had never heard the stories of Aaron Henry, who was elected president of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP and then punished by being tied to a garbage truck; or of Clyde Kennard, who after repeatedly applying to the all-white Mississippi Southern College (Ole Miss) was arrested and put in a maximum security prison on phony burglary charges. Now I wonder whether these compelling civil rights figures will ever get their due on screen.

The copy of Spies of Mississippi that I got a hold of is an uncorrected proof, so I tried to ignore things like misspellings and bad punctuation. Hopefully, these have all been fixed in the final version of the book. The illustrations, photographs, index, and bibliography were all absent, as well. I think that these elements are critical with nonfiction, so I was happy to stumble upon the National Geographic booth at PLA last Thursday, and find a copy of the finished book on display.

There are some relevant historical documents included at the end of the book, like copies of checks made out to prominent African Americans who spied on the NAACP, as well as a section of color photographs in the middle. I only wish that the illustrations were integrated a little more smoothly into the overall design. The design of this book is a little more "adult," for lack of a better word, which I think will appeal to many teens who don't want to look like they are reading a picture book. For readers like me, who love the slick paper and big colorful photos of National Geographic magazine, the design may not be as appealing. I realize that this is largely a matter of personal preference.

The bibliography at the end is extensive, but the tiny text and lack of contextual information (for instance, there is no organization of sources under headings like "for more information about...") make it not so user friendly, so I was a little disappointed with it. I also wish there had been some sidebars to explain some of the things that weren't detailed in the main text, like how Agents X, Y, and Zero got their names and who they might have been. Maybe the answers to these questions are not known, but they are worth asking.

* This is an official nomination for the YALSA Nonfiction award, which will be announced in January.*

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What is Poetry?

I didn't get my hands on a copy of Spies of Mississippi in time to read and write about it this week, so instead I've thrown together a post discussing poetry. My comments on Spies of Mississippi will appear next week. Also, since the copy I'm reading is an uncorrected proof that doesn't include illustrations or back end matter, I would love it if anyone who has read the final version could provide some comments!

What is poetry; and if it is going to be judged against other books for a nonfiction award, then how do you judge it?

The New Oxford American Dictionary that we keep behind the reference desk at my library has the following definitions:

poem: a piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song ...

poetry: literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive styles and rhythm

Hmm. After looking in the dictionary, I turned next to my near-constant companion, the Internet.

From Wikipedia I found this tidbit:

Poetry (from the Greek "ποίησις", poiesis, a "making") is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning.

Okay, none of these definitions is very helpful at defining what poetry is, but it does tell me that the way a poem sounds and how/what it makes the reader feel are both important to whether it is successful, or not.

That seems simple enough. When reading a poem, does it have rhythm? Does it evoke strong ideas or feelings?

The following suggestions about poetry come from

1. Poetry may well be the art of the unsayable.
2. Poems are an act of discovery, and require immense effort — to write and to be understood.
3. A poem is something unique to its author, but is also created in the common currency of its period: style, preoccupations, shared beliefs.
4. Poems are not created by recipe, or by pouring content into a currently acceptable mould.

This would suggest that poetry should seem fresh and current, and should avoid cliches. I'm not so sure about the "immense effort" part, although I know from my school days that writing good peotry is hard. Should it be hard to read, though? Perhaps poetry should say something that may be difficult to express through conventional prose.

How do these questions correspond to the criteria for the YALSA nonfiction award? The eligibility criteria for the YALSA nonfiction award include, "excellent writing, research, presentation and readability for young adults."

Presentation and readability seem pretty straightforward. Is the book attractive? Will young adults get the poetry? The part about "excellent writing" seems fairly easy, as well. Perhaps when judging "excellent writing" in poetry one should look at its rhythm, the feelings and ideas that it evokes, and it's originality. But what about research? How much research goes into writing poetry?

Biographies written in verse, like Margarita Engle's Poet Slave of Cuba and Stephanie Hemphill's Your Own, Sylvia would definitely require research. So would poetry collections like Engle's Surrender Tree, which is about real events in the history of Cuba's struggle for independence. But what about works like Francesca Lia Block's collection of love poems, How to (Un) Cage a Girl? Shouldn't works like this be exempt from the "research" requirement?

While I believe that poetry in general should be eligible for the YALSA award, I also believe that there are some exceptions. Novels written in verse, such as works by Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Glass, Indentical) and Sonya Sones (Stop Pretending, What My Mother Doesn't Know), are cataloged with fiction. These are fictional narratives that just happen to be written in verse. It makes sense for these to be eligible for fiction awards, but not a nonfiction award.

A final word on poetry: On, I found this neat statement by freelance writer Mark Flanagan, "Poetry is a lot of things to a lot of people ... defining poetry is like grasping at the wind - once you catch it, it's no longer wind."

Your comments on poetry?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Liberty or Death

Liberty or Death: The Surprising Story of Runaway Slaves who Sided with the British During the American Revolution
by Margaret Whitman Blair
published by National Geographic
64 pages

Publisher's Description:

Liberty or Death is the little-known story of the American Revolution told from the perspectives of the African-American slaves who fought on the side of the British Royal Army in exchange for a promise of freedom. Motivated by the 1775 proclamation by Virginia’s Royal Governor that any slaves who took up arms on his behalf would be granted their freedom, these men fought bravely for a losing cause. Many of the volunteers succumbed to battle wounds or smallpox, which ran rampant on the British ships on which they were quartered. After the successful Revolution, they emigrated to Canada and, ultimately to West Africa. Liberty or Death is the inspiring story of the forgotten freedom fighters of America’s Revolutionary War.

My Comments:

This is an interesting but too brief look at blacks who fought on both sides of the revolutionary war, and what happened to them after the war ended. Those who fought for the British were promised freedom and land, but many ended up with only misery and death in Nova Scotia or Sierra Leone. I'm thankful that the aftermath of the war was covered, since I was completely ignorant of it beforehand. I wanted more details about the lives and war experiences of the prominent black loyalists like ColonelTye, Thomas Peters, and Stephen Blucke.

The book design, with red and black text boxes and varying fonts, is very attractive. The color illustrations are good quality and add to the story. I especially appreciate the map on the end papers, which shows slave trade and emigration routes across the Atlantic.

The foreword by L. Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia, sets the tone for the rest of the book by pointing out the hypocrisy of slave owner Patrick Henry's celebrated "Liberty or Death" speech.

A timeline at the end is very handy, and the brief index includes the major names and topics covered in the text. The resource guide includes several related fiction and nonfiction titles for children and adults. There are also a few websites listed.

On a side note, one of the things I learned from the book is that the smallpox inoculations practiced at the time actually helped to save some lives. This is a different perspective from the horrific inoculation scenes that made me cringe during The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol. 1: The Pox Party.

Your comments?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy

The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy
by James Cross Giblin
published by Clarion Books
304 pages

Publisher's Description:

When Cold War tension was at its height, Joseph ("call me Joe") McCarthy conducted an anti-Communist crusade endorsed by millions of Americans, despite his unfair and unconstitutional methods. Award-winning writer James Cross Giblin tells the story of a man whose priorities centered on power and media attention and who stopped at nothing to obtain both. The strengths and weaknesses of the man and the system that permitted his rise are explored in this authoritative, lucid biography, which sets McCarthy's life against a teeming backdrop of world affairs and struggles between military and political rivals at home. Chapter notes, bibliography, index.

My Comments:

Giblin does a great job of presenting McCarthy as a villain that you love to hate. His writing engaged me right away, and I enjoyed reading about McCarthy's entire life from his humble beginning on a Wisconsin farm through his ignoble death.

The book is full of quality photographs and illustrations from throughout McCarthy's life and career, and they seem carefully chosen to help tell the story. The acknowledgements mention Giblin's assistant Michael Cooper, who helped to search the National Archives and Library of Congress for photographs and political cartoons. Information and photographs were also gathered from the University Archives at Marquette University (McCarthy's alma mater), the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Outgamie County Historical Society in Wisconsin.

At one point, Giblin recounts a personal incident from his college days, without mentioning in the text that it was personal. In the account, a college professor refrains from discussing topics that he is afraid will get him fired. I guessed that the anonymous student in the professor's class that Giblin mentioned was himself, and flipped to the notes in the back to see whether it was mentioned there. It was. I liked this, both because it showed me that Giblin's notes are useful, and also because it would have been a little suspect if he'd just included that anonymous incident without providing any source to document it. Not every reader would care to know the complete back-story, so it makes sense to include it in the notes where only the curious will find it.

I found the index to be detailed and very useful. There are a lot of names to keep up with, and I encountered a couple towards the end that I couldn't remember from earlier in the text. Using the index, I was able to quickly and easily refresh myself on their roles in McCarthy's story.

Wikipedia is included among the many sources Giblin quotes. Many Wikipedia articles offer authoritative citations (including the ones he cites, which seem particularly well documented to me) making them valid source materials. I think that Giblin shows teens that there is a right way to use Wikipedia.

Your comments? Please don't hold back!