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?