Wednesday, December 7, 2011

YALSA 2012 Nonfiction Award Shortlist

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

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

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

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

Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein by Susan Goldman Rubin

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Flesh & Blood So Cheap

Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
by Albert Marrin

182 pages
published by Alfred A. Knopf

Publisher's description:

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burst into flames. The factory was crowded. The doors were locked to ensure workers stay inside. One hundred forty-six people—mostly women—perished; it was one of the most lethal workplace fires in American history until September 11, 2001.

But the story of the fire is not the story of one accidental moment in time. It is a story of immigration and hard work to make it in a new country, as Italians and Jews and others traveled to America to find a better life. It is the story of poor working conditions and greedy bosses, as garment workers discovered the endless sacrifices required to make ends meet. It is the story of unimaginable, but avoidable, disaster. And it the story of the unquenchable pride and activism of fearless immigrants and women who stood up to business, got America on their side, and finally changed working conditions for our entire nation, initiating radical new laws we take for granted today.

My comments:

While this book does cover the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, that many pages are actually devoted to the fire itself. Instead, much of the focus rests on immigration and workers rights; two larger issues that have a great deal to do with the fire. Most of the workers who died in the fire were immigrant women, and unsafe working conditions are responsible for their deaths.

The legacy of the fire was a greater awareness of worker safety. Frances Perkins, a champion for workers' rights, was spurred into action by the fire. h eventually served as Secretary of the Department of Labor for FDR.

I have mixed feelings about the design. The size, shape, and heft of the book is somewhere between picture and coffee table book. The bright gold cover is attention grabbing, but the safety-orange end papers inside hurt my eyes. The text is large and is arranged in two columns per page with a lot of white space on the side.
There are many great images included in the book, including several from Jacob Riis' groundbreaking 1890 work How the Other Half Lives.

Prominent figures like Perkins and Riis get extra coverage.

Back end materials include a bibliography, source notes, picture credits, and index. The notes are numbered in the text and organized by chapter at end. The clear organization, generous text size and spacing make them easy to use. The picture credits, on the other hand, are cramped into a small block. There's also no information about photographers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Many Faces of George Washington

The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon
by Carla Killough McClafferty
120 pages
Carolrhoda Books

Publisher's description:

"No picture accurately resembled him in the minute traits of his person . . . there was an expression of his face that no painter had succeeded in taking." --London's New Monthly Magazine (1790). George Washington's face has been painted, printed, and engraved more than a billion times since his birth in 1732. And yet even in his lifetime, no picture seemed to capture the likeness of the man who is now the most iconic of all our presidents. Worse still, people today often see this founding father as the "old and grumpy" Washington on the dollar bill. In 2005 a team of historians, scientists, and artisans at Mount Vernon set out to change the image of our first president. They studied paintings and sculptures, pored over Washington's letters to his tailors and noted other people's comments about his appearance, even closely examined the many sets of dentures that had been created for Washington. Researchers tapped into skills as diverse as 18th-century leatherworking and cutting-edge computer programming to assemble truer likenesses. Their painstaking research and exacting processes helped create three full-body representations of Washington as he was at key moments in his life. And all along the way, the team gained new insight into a man who was anything but "old and grumpy." Join award-winning author Carla Killough McClafferty as she unveils the statues of the three Georges and rediscovers the man who became the face of a new nation.

My Comments:

McClafferty tells duel stories with her book: the fascinating modern process of creating lifelike figures of Washington, and Washington's own life story. The art and science of the modern "Bones-ish" storyline are what initially attracted me to the book.

The three new likenesses of Washington are all based off of the work done by Jean-Antoine Houdon. The French sculptor visited Washington in his home to create a plaster life mask. Washington posed for Houdon at age 53, so it took scientists and artists a lot of work to accurately depict him at ages 19, 45 and 57. Many color photographs of the creation process are included, along with captions that provide additional information about how it’s done. A great deal of care went into details like his hair, eyes and clothing. Washington was known for being an excellent horseman, so it's fitting that his horse, Blueskin, was also recreated to go along with his 45-year old figure.

McClafferty's rendition of Washington's life focuses on exciting incidents, such as young Washington's role in the French and Indian War and middle-aged Washington's role in the American revolution. Photographs of Mount Vernon and other important historical sites such as Fort Necessity are plentiful, and well-captioned. The history sections are well-written overall, but I found one erroneous date (on page 35) that muddles the story. In the middle of a section on Washington's time spent with General Braddock in 1755, the text suddenly claims that he fell ill on June 14, 1754.

The design of the book is very attractive. The trim size is very similar to Houghton Mifflin's "Scientists in the Field" series, and the look and feel of the pages is typical of National Geographic's work. Dark red text boxes and bars contrast nicely with off-white backgrounds. The text is divided into two columns, and the font that's used is not quite so big as to seem childish.

Back end materials include a note from the author, a very useful George Washington timeline, source notes, a bibliography, further reading and an index. The note thanks many of the people involved in the creation of the statues who shared their insights with McClafferty. To research the book, she spent time at Mount Vernon and the studio where Washington's likenesses are "freshened" each year. The source notes are not very useful because they are not individually numbered. Only page numbers are included, so that you have to guess at what portion of the text the note is referring to. The bibliography is extensive, and includes books, articles, primary sources, interviews, a couple of DVDs and even a master's thesis on Washington's dental history. The further reading section includes several websites.

A little text box on page 117 promotes complementary educational resources available through the publisher's website: What the text box doesn't tell you is that you must register with Lerner in order to access the downloadable materials. Fortunately, registration is free. The downloadables turned out to be nothing too exciting: a list of some additional websites, a journal assignment for anyone wishing to burden young readers with homework and a photo slideshow. Okay, the slideshow is pretty cool.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal
160 pages
Flash Point

Publisher's Description:

It began with the best of intentions. Worried about the effects of alcohol on American families, mothers and civic leaders started a movement to outlaw drinking in public places. Over time, their protests, petitions, and activism paid off—when a Constitional Amendment banning the sale and consumption of alcohol was ratified, it was hailed as the end of public drunkenness, alcoholism, and a host of other social ills related to booze. Instead, it began a decade of lawlessness, when children smuggled (and drank) illegal alcohol, the most upright citizens casually broke the law, and a host of notorious gangsters entered the public eye. Filled with period art and photographs, anecdotes, and portraits of unique characters from the era, this fascinating book looks at the rise and fall of the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition.

My Comments:

First of all, this book is very well-written. Blumenthal draws readers in immediately with an account of the St. Valentine's Day murders and then shoots back in time to describe the people, ideas and events that led up to it. In addition to introducing readers to the major players like Morris Sheppard, the "father" of Prohibition, she traces the roots of Prohibition all the way back to the pilgrims without letting the story get bogged down in the minutia of the past. If you'll pardon the expression, I never found the writing to be "dry." It helps that the book covers such a fascinating segment of American history, full of larger than life characters like Carrie Nation and Al Capone.

The overall design of the book is nothing special, but the wealth of images are a great strength. From a beer advertisement featuring a toddler (p. 28) to a full-page photograph of labor union members marching with "We Want Beer" signs and miniature flags (p. 107), the pictures alone tell a compelling story. A pair of photographs on page 68 comparing prohibition agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith in and out of costume had me giggling for several minutes.

Blumenthal makes a point of mentioning in her bibliography and source notes that there is great wealth of primary sources on prohibition available to anyone willing to dive in. She describes her trips to university libraries with entire sections on temperance and prohibition. In addition to library research, she also contacted famous people born just before 1920 to request interviews. Jean Craighead George (p. 75) and John Paul Stevens (p. 126) were two of the people who responded. The bibliography is nicely organized into subject categories (i.e. cars, Al Capone). Source Notes are organized by chapter, and while a little guesswork is needed to pair sources with quotes, I still found them to be helpful. Also included in the back is a useful Prohibition and Temperance Glossary. It's worth browsing for the definition of "ombibulous'" alone. Picture credits and an index round out the end materials.

The lessons learned during Prohibition (the problems with single-issue politics, the need for compromise, the consequences of changing the Constitution) are pertinent in today's political climate and ripe for discussion. Ken Burns' 3-part Prohibition documentary just debuted this week. In his Sept. 28 interview with Stephen Colbert, the reasons for Prohibition, the problems with the Volstead Act, and the era he describes snugly with what Blumenthal described in her book. Historian David Okrent, author of recent adult title Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, figures prominently in Burns' series. These two books may pair well for a teen-adult book discussion.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It Gets Better

It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living
Edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller

328 pages
Published by Dutton/Penguin

Publisher's description:
Growing up isn't easy. Many young people face daily tormenting and bullying, making them feel like they have nowhere to turn. This is especially true for LGBT kids and teens who often hide their sexuality for fear of bullying. Without other openly gay adults and mentors in their lives, they can't imagine what their future may hold. In many instances, gay and lesbian adolescents are taunted - even tortured - simply for being themselves.
After a number of tragic suicides by LGBT students who were bullied in school, syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage uploaded a video to YouTube with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for LGBT youth facing harassment. Speaking openly about the bullying they suffered as teenagers, and how they both went on to lead rewarding adult lives, their video launched the It Gets Better Project YouTube channel and initiated a worldwide phenomenon. With over 6,000 videos posted and over 20 million views in the first three months alone, the world has embraced the opportunity to provide personal, honest and heartfelt support for LGBT youth everywhere.
It Gets Better is a collection of expanded essays and new material from celebrities, everyday people and teens who have posted videos of encouragement, as well as new contributors who have yet to post videos to the site. While many of these teens couldn't see a positive future for themselves, we can. We can show LGBT youth the levels of happiness, potential and positivity their lives will reach if they can just get through their teen years. By sharing these stories, It Gets Better reminds teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone - and it WILL get better.

My comments:

Here's the video that started it all: What started as one youtube video has steamrolled into a movement with it's own website where the continually growing collection of inspirational videos will be maintained for years to come. In addition to watching videos, visitors can sign a pledge, read the blog, and follow it on twitter and facebook. As Savage stated in his keynote address at the ALA conference in June, the purpose of the book is to reach kids in school libraries and other places where the Internet may be filtered and blocked.

The collection of 100+ contained in the book is truly diverse, including contributions from gay, straight, bisexual and transgender people; from residents of rural areas, suburbs and large cities; from atheists and members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths; and from teenagers through senior citizens. Their experiences and perspectives are all unique, yet share many commonalities. For instance, even those who say that they weren't badly bullied still recall instances when they were called names or ostracized for being different. Many emphatically state that life gets better after high school, while a few bluntly state that life is still tough, but they have grown stronger.

While the common theme and basic message of the essays is repetitive, the differences in viewpoints and writing styles help to distinguish one essay from another. Most are written in a very straightforward manner, a few read like lyrical narrative fiction ("In The Early Morning Rain," p. 18), and a couple appear as comics (see "I Was a Teenage Lesbian," p. 79 and "Survival Tools, " p. 177). A few contributed by groups are presented as scripts (see "Coming Out of the Shtetl: Gay Orthodox Jews," p. 48). All are brief, the longest being about five pages.

I like the brief biographies at the conclusion of each essay that tell a little more about the author and what else they're up to. Resources at the end provide curriculum guidelines for teachers and point readers to helpful organizations including The Trevor Project, GLSEN and the ACLU.

I read the book a few entries at a time, marking the ones that I especially liked with scraps of paper. At first I thought I would limit myself to a top ten, but by the time I finished I had marked 25 favorites. While it's nice to see essays from celebrities and public figures like Suze Orman and Al Franken, the most moving contributions came from "regular" people. Food blogger Adam Roberts' contribution,"The Dinner Party," (p. 82) made me long for the warm family dinners that he now shares with his and his boyfriends' parents. Some, like "Hope Out of Tragedy" (p. 282) by Columbine High School (yes, that Columbine High School) graduate Matthew Anthony Houck, had me reaching for the kleenex. Whether teens read the essays in order, or skip around, there is little doubt that they will find messages that resonate with them.

Friday, July 15, 2011

ALA Nonfiction Book Blast

I've been reading at a snail's pace lately, so to liven up the blog until I have more books to comment on, here are my thoughts on the excellent Nonfiction Book Blast held at ALA Annual in New Orleans. Ten authors of nonfiction books for young people shared their inspiration, writing and research process, and programming ideas to accompany their books. Visit for the full color handout that accompanied this program.

Anastasia Suen moderated the panel. She mentioned her blog, a weekly round-up of nonfiction for young readers. She also writes Booklist Quick Tips, a monthly e-newsletter for youth librarians and teachers. Her readers' theater program on sports can be found on page 36 of the handout.

April Pulley Sayre encourages use of her books for read-alouds, describing them as poetic narrative nonfiction. She's inspired by nature (vultures, sea turtles) and gardening. Her new book Rah Rah Radishes was inspired by a depressing interview between Jamie Oliver and kids who didn't know any vegetable names. She also shared interesting facts about bumblebees: unlike honeybees, bumblebees are native to North America. They pollinate plants that honeybees can't by shaking and creating static shock.

Carla McClafferty's latest book is The Many Faces of George Washington. She describes it as “CSI meets the Biography Channel.” She talked about how the image of Washington used on the $1 dollar bill is based on an unfinished portrait by Gilbert Stuart. New statues that depict Washington at various stages of his life were created using life masks and state of the art computer imaging. She traveled to Mount Vernon to learn more about, and connect with, the book's subject. Watch the book trailer:

Shirley Duke has a biology degree, has taught science, writes a science blog, and has also written fiction. Her book You Can't Wear These Genes is about genetics. She has also written about infections, infestations, and diseases. She has 3 books coming out in the fall: Enterprise Stem, Forces & Motions at Work Here, and Environmental Disasters.

Loree Griffin Burns doesn't shy away from tackling troubling stories. Her 2007 book Tracking Trash tells the dark and troubling story of a gigantic garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. She says that the key to telling troubling stories is to provide something for kids to do about it. She had the “citizen science” concept in mind when writing last year's Hive Detectives, about the mysterious deaths of honeybees. She also shared information about the Great Sunflower Project – You can participate by planting lemon queen sunflower seeds, caring for the plants until the flowers bloom, and then staring at them for 15 minutes each week to count the bees that visit them. Submit data through the website. Her upcoming book is Citizen Scientists.

Darcy Pattison's new book, Prairie Storms, comes out in August. The narrative combines information about weather, habitat and animals. Her next book, Desert Baths, is coming next year. Her publisher, Sylvan Dell, has provided downloadable lesson plans at Her book trailer incorporates the animal sounds.

Deborah Heiligman, who has written more than 20 books, joked about changing her name to Charles & Emma because that's the one that everyone remembers. She used only primary sources in writing Charles & Emma, finding scanned images of family letters and journals online. The paperback edition comes out in the fall, and the readers theater she wrote for it should be included in back. She asks that you email her if you use it in a program. She wants readers to get immersed in books and not think about her as the author. For the “Holidays Around the World” series she uses the pronoun “we.” Each of the books in that series includes a recipe that she's made herself (usually desserts) that can also be made by her readers.

Christine Taylor-Butler has a website: She's an MIT engineer and lives in Kansas City, where the average ACT score is 14. She has several science books coming out this year & next year. She presented several cool science experiments that can be replicated for under $5 including "Is there metal in your money?" in which she used a rare earth magnet to push and pull a $1 dollar bill. This magnetic push and pull is the same force used to power maglev trains. Another one measured the iron content in Total cereal. The cereal is crushed and mixed with hot water in a plastic bag, then rubbed with a magnet to draw the iron out. She likes to call them “magic tricks” to hook kids, then explains the science as she conducts them. Check out for more information and links to videos and PDFs.

Carla Mooney is the author of Explorers of the New World: Discover the Golden Age of Exploration from Nomad Press, published this month. 22 projects are included in the book. She's written many series nonfiction books for ReferencePoint Press, including entries in the "Compact Research" series and Dragons for the "Monsters and Mythical Creatures" series.

Kelly Milner Halls is the author of many books including Saving the Baghdad Zoo. Only 40 animals were found alive (mostly large carnivores) after the U.S. invaded. All the others had been eaten. She likes to get readers asking questions like, “What would you do in this situation?” Her latest book is In Search of Sasquatch, coming out in October. She encouraged everyone to watch the Patterson-Gimlin footage of “Patty” on youtube, here’s just one version: She brought in plaster casts of bigfoot tracks, and showed how people can make their own. Her previous book Tale of the Cryptids got her fascinated with Bigfoot. She began researching Sasquatch convinced that it would turn out to be fake, but after interviewing several scientists she found herself open to the possibility of its existence.

Tune in next week for my thoughts on It Gets Better, edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Father Abraham

Father Abraham: Lincoln and His Sons
by Harold Holzer
232 pages
Boyds Mills Press

Publisher's description:

Abraham Lincoln was devoted to his country - and to his family. President Lincoln called America a "House Divided" but he struggled to keep his own house united. It would prove to be an impossible task. Sickness, loss and family tensions overwhelmed Abraham, Mary, and their four sons. Opening up the Lincoln family album, noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer highlights the family's heartaches and happiness. Illustrated with archival photographs and backed by extensive primary source material, this compelling portrait illuminates the private lives of four generations of a prominent American family.

My comments:

Despite the length, this was a fairly quick, easy read. It was also enlightening, since I only remember learning about Tad Lincoln in school and not Robert, Eddy or Willie. I learned, for instance, that my belief that Tad was the president's favorite son was probably due to the fact that he lived longer than his beloved brother Willie, and thus had more opportunities to pose for photographs with his father.

What kind of a father was Abraham Lincoln? He was frequently absent because of work. When he was home he doted on his younger sons, but not on his oldest son Robert. If this lack of affection had deleterious effects, they are not evident in Holzer's account. Robert cared for his mother and Tad after his father's murder, and ended up being the only son to survive into adulthood and have children of his own.

Plenty of photographs of the Lincolns appear throughout the book, helping to make the large pages fly by. Captions include interesting information about the circumstances surrounding each picture that I greatly appreciated. I was especially impressed by the photo of Tad that the little scamp altered with a drawn-on mustache (p. 120). Picture credits on page 229 reveal that several come from Holzer's own collection. Many others were supplied by the Library of Congress, and the included ID numbers can be used to locate the photographs at

Mary Lincoln, who I've most often heard described as Lincon's "crazy" wife, is also featured prominently throughout the book. Holzer's view is more nuanced: she liked to decorate and entertain, and the deaths of her sons and husband affected her very deeply. Well-chosen photographs show the contrast between her earlier, fashionable dresses (P. 111, very smiliar to this one) and the plain black dresses she wore exclusively after the assassination.

A generous bibliography, extensive index and source notes are appended. Holzer is a renowned Lincoln scholar, so while I trust that he knows what he's talking about, I was disappointed that his notes refer only to the work where a quote may be published without elaborating further on it's source.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I don't have any new book comments to post just now (my reading has been rather slow, lately) but in the meantime, anyone who's attending ALA this June should consider attending this event:


Sunday, June 26 from 8:00 am to 10:00 am in room 243 above Hall D of the Ernest N. Memorial Convention Center in New Orleans. The details provided here all come from a press release via Kelly Milner Halls.

Ten award-winning nonfiction writers -- April Pulley Sayre, Kelly Milner Halls, Deborah Heiligman, Loree Griffins Burns, Carla Killough McClafferty, Christine Taylor-Butler, Shirley Duke, Darcy Pattison, Carla Mooney and Anastasia Suen -- will booktalk their latest factual explorations, complete with programming suggestions to help bring those pages to life.

Featured titles include:
Rah, Rah, Radishes by April Pulley Sayre
In Search of Sasquatch by Kelly Milner Halls
Charles and Emma by Deborah Heligman
The Hive Detectives by Loree Griffin Burns
The Many Faces of George Washington by Carla Killough McClafferty
Magnets by Christine Taylor-Butler
You Can’t Wear These Genes by Shirley Duke
Prairie Storms by Darcy Pattison
Explorers of the New World by Carla Mooney
Read and Write Sports by Anastasia Suen

According to the press release, attendees will "...leave their two hour session with new books to add to your collections and instructive activity handouts specially to engage young readers." I'm most excited about hearing Deborah Heligman, and would love to see what kind of activities will be presented to go along with Charles and Emma, the 2010 winner of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.

The Many Faces of George Washington, which combines an exploration of history, science and art, is a new one that looks really interesting. Targeted to a middle-school aged audience, it has been favorably reviewed by Kirkus and School Library Journal. In Search of Sasquatch, which comes out in October, looks intriguing as well.


Anastasia Suen is the award-winning author of 128 books for children and adults, a literacy blogger, and a children's literature consultant for several publishers. She has taught kindergarten to college, including Southern Methodist University and University of North Texas. Suen lives in Plano, Texas. Website:

April Pulley Sayre is an award-winning children’s book author of over 55 natural history books. Her read-aloud nonfiction books, known for their lyricism and scientific precision, have been translated into French, Dutch, Japanese, and Korean. Originally from Greenville, SC, she now lives in Indiana. Website:

Christine Taylor-Butler is the award-winning author of more than sixty books for children. A graduate of MIT, she frequently conducts lectures and workshops to promote literacy for children. In 2009, she received the George B. Morgan ’20 award for her work on MIT’s Educational Council. Christine lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Website:

Carla Mooney is an award-winning author of more than 25 books for children and teens, in a variety of topics. She enjoys speaking to children and adults about books and the writing process. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Carla lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Website:

Carla Killough McClafferty is an award-winning author who says she writes “Biography Plus” books. She writes in such a way that brings her subjects to life, plus she adds valuable, unique information that goes beyond the usual biographical material. Carla lives in North Little Rock, AR. Website:

Darcy Pattison, Arkansas author of picture books, novels and how-to-write books has been published in eight languages. She studied for her master’s degree at Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS. She returns to the wide, open skies of our heartland’s prairies in her first nonfiction picture book, Prairie Storms. She follows this with another nature book next year, Desert Baths. Originally from New Mexico, she lives in North Little Rock, AR. Visit

Deborah Heiligman is the author of Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, a National Book Award finalist, Printz Honor, LA Times Book Prize finalist, and the winner of the first YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. She has written 27 other books, including the "National Geographic Celebrate Holidays Around the World" series. She is working on her first novel. A Pennsylvanian most of her life, she now lives in New York City. Please visit

Kelly Milner Halls specializes in well researched, quirky nonfiction for young readers, including her best known books Albino Animals and Tales of the Cryptids, both YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. She travels all over the nation speaking at schools, libraries and conferences. She makes her home in Spokane, Washington with one dog, two daughters, too many cats and a 4-foot rock iguana named Gigantor. She also assists YA author, Chris Crutcher. Website:

Loree Griffin Burns has a passion for science and discovery, which she channels into creating fascinating books of non-fiction for young people. Her work has garnered several honors, including ALA Notable designations, an SB&F Prize, an IRA Children’s Book Award and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award. Loree lives with her husband and three children in Massachusetts. Website:

Shirley Duke writes for children from the preschool age to young adult. She also writes teacher guides for educators. A former science teacher, she uses her background in biology and education in her books to explain complex science in a way kids can understand. She blogs about books and easy science lessons at SimplyScience, and is a guest blogger for NOVA’s web program, “The Secret Life of Scientists.” She lives with her husband in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico and in Garland, Texas. Visit her at and

Monday, May 2, 2011

Amelia Lost

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
by Candace Fleming

published by Schwartz & Wade
118 pages

Publisher's description:

From the acclaimed author of The Great and Only Barnum—as well as The Lincolns, Our Eleanor, and Ben Franklin's Almanac—comes the thrilling story of America's most celebrated flyer, Amelia Earhart. In alternating chapters, Fleming deftly moves readers back and forth between Amelia's life (from childhood up until her last flight) and the exhaustive search for her and her missing plane. With incredible photos, maps, and handwritten notes from Amelia herself—plus informative sidebars tackling everything from the history of flight to what Amelia liked to eat while flying (tomato soup)—this unique nonfiction title is tailor-made for middle graders.

My comments:

The description above gets a couple of things wrong. Earhart drank tomato juice when flying, and while it may be intended for a middle grade audience, I think many older readers could pick up Amelia Lost without worrying that it is too young.

After a brief preface on the difficulty of separating fact from fiction (in which she dispells legends like Earhart's claim to have been unimpressed by an airplane at a 1908 fair), Fleming delves into Amelia's 1937 disappearance. Dual narratives cut back and forth between the 17-day search for Earhart's plane and her life story. Fleming has made a great effort to unravel the truth of Earhart's life and disappearance from the myths.

More pages are devoted to Earhart's professional life, but Fleming also depicts her youth, including the troubled home life caused by her father's drinking. Her adult personal life also gets adequate coverage, perhaps thanks to the fact that her manager, George Putnam, eventually became her husband.

Fleming doesn't portray Earhart as the only or even best female pilot of the time. She learned to fly from Neta Snook, and Louise Thaden beat her in the 1929 Women's Air Derby -- a race from California to Ohio. Earhart benefited from better publicity thanks to Putnam, and (as noted by Fleming) her disappearance guaranteed her legendary status. Fleming admires Earhart for what she was and is: an inspiration to women who dream of accomplishing more than is expected of them, and who wish to live life on their own terms.

Earhart's 1937 autobiography was fittingly titled The Fun Of It -- she seemed to delight in setting records and constantly pushing the boundaries of what she (or any pilot) was capable of. Before her last flight, told Putnam that if she must go, "I'd like best to go in my plane." The desperate messages later received from radio enthusiasts as far away as Florida indicate that in the end, she may have changed her mind.

There are many great photographs and newspaper clippings, courtesy of Purdue University and the George Palmer Putnam collection. I would describe the three maps that are included as "servicable" rather than "incredible." The most amazing illustration may be from Betty Klenck's notebook. Next to a page of doodles is a transcription of what may be Earhart's final calls for help (page 81). The design features a 1930s font and very cool 30s-inspired lettering from cover to cover. I also really like the many text boxes and sidebars that cover everything from a failed romance in Earhart's youth to her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

For the most part, I didn't find any unnecssary definitions (one of my pet peeves) embedded in the text. A notable exception appears in "The Way It Works," a text box on page 3 that defines GPS and transmitted (it means "sent"). I was worried that this text box was an indicator of facile writing to come, but was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a fluke.

A bibliography, source notes, picture credits and index are appended. Of these sections, the bibliography is the most useful. It includes archival collections; books by Earhart, Putnam and Earhart's sister, Muriel; documentaries; and recent scholarly works. There's also a separate section for websites.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Unraveling Freedom

Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I
by Ann Bausum

96 pages
National Geographic

Publisher's Description:

In 1915, the United States experienced the 9/11 of its time. A German torpedo sank the Lusitania killing nearly 2,000 innocent passengers. The ensuing hysteria helped draw the United States into World War I—the bitter, brutal conflict that became known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars. But as U.S. troops fought to make the world safe for democracy abroad, our own government eroded freedoms at home, especially for German-Americans. Free speech was no longer an operating principle of American democracy. Award-winning author Ann Bausum asks, just where do Americans draw the line of justice in times of war? Drawing thought-provoking parallels with President Wilson’s government and other wartime administrations, from FDR to George W. Bush, Bausum’s analysis has plenty of history lessons for the world today. Her exhaustive research turns up astonishing first-person stories and rare images, and the full-color design is fresh and stunning. The result is a gripping book that is well-positioned for the run-up to the World War I centennial.

My comments:

What most impressed me about this book is the topic it covers and the parallels it draws between the political environments of World War I and post-9/11 America. The 2-page foreword by Ted Rall (in comic form) lays out the stakes - will we learn from our past mistakes? - in a clear and provocative manner that Bausum carries on in her introduction.

Chapter 1 focuses on a riveting account of the sinking of the Lusitania. Although I thought this chapter was occasionally hampered by awkward phrasing, it is also the most captivating section of the book. Remaining chapters cover the lead up to war, war propaganda, the harsh laws imposed by Wilson's administration, vigilante justice, and the end of the war and it's aftermath.

The book is very readable, but I was bothered a few times by unclear writing. For instance, when discussing the persecution of German-Americans, Bausum uses the ambiguous phrase "German-Americans including many citizens." I had to go to a sidebar (on page 60) to find explicit mention of the deportation of German aliens. I can only guess that Bausum's phrasing was used out of sensitivity to current illegal residents who have grown up in the US. If so, why not make the connection explicit in the main text? Pointing out that specific non-citizen populations have been targeted for persecution in the past as well as today makes sense given the book's themes.

One other issue I have with the text is the description of Wilson's stroke and subsequent impairment. Bausum uses the euphemism "mentally challenged" (page 65) to describe Wilson's post-stroke state, which is inaccurate. In actuality, Wilson was partially paralyzed on his left side, meaning that he suffered a stroke in the right hemisphere of his brain. According to the National Stroke Association, other effects could have included problems with spatial and perceptual abilities and short term memory loss. I don't understand why Bausum didn't present a proper medical explanation of Wilson's brain injury.

Overall I like the design a lot. The cover, dominated by a battered, windblown flag is great. I like the inclusion of political cartons and propaganda posters. The digital silhouetting and color tinting (mentioned on page 4) treatment used on several of the archival photographs is effective at making the people stand out, but also makes the backgrounds nearly indecipherable. I think that removing the subjects from their context makes the photographs less effective in some cases (like on pages 53 and 71).

The back end materials include two great timelines. The first is a 5-page guide to wartime presidents that compares Wilson's wartime actions to those by other administrations throughout American history. Why didn't I know that James Maison was so committed to freedom of the press? A second timeline tracks major events in the life of Wilson, the history of the Lusitania, and World War I. It nicely summarizes the main points of the book in three pages.

Notes and acknowledgments, a bibliography, a resource guide that includes books and websites, quote citations, and an index are also appended.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tom Thumb

Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature
by George Sullivan

Published by Clarion Books
204 pages

Publisher's description:

When Charles S. Stratton was born in 1838, he was a large baby, perfect in every way. But then he stopped growing. At age four, though a happy and mischievous child, he was just over two feet tall and weighed only fifteen pounds--the exact same size he had been as a seven-month-old baby. It was then that the notorious showman P.T. Barnum dubbed him Tom Thumb and put him on display, touring him around the world as a curiosity. A natural performer, Charley became enormously popular and wealthy, more so than any other performer before him. In this spirited biography--the first on its subject--George Sullivan recounts the fascinating adventures of Tom Thumb, and raises challenging questions about what constitutes exploitation--both in the 19th century and today.

My comments:

Not having been previously familiar with Charles Stratton's (aka Tom Thumb) story, I was soon enthralled and read it on my computer in just a couple of sittings. I like that, overall, Sullivan doesn't talk down to his young audience, writing instead with sophistication. There are a couple of rare (and pretty minor) exceptions, like on page 49 where he mentions that Apollo was a major Greek god, instead of just saying that he was the Greek ideal of manly beauty.

Reading on the full-size monitor gave me a sense of the full-size book; the size and spacing of the text and the placement of the images. Reading this way made it obvious that the book is intended for a young audience. I later re-read it on a 7 inch nook screen, where text size and spacing became meaningless and I focused more on the content. Reading this way, I became aware that people of all ages could read the ebook without ever thinking about the "intended" audience.

I did relish all the photographs. Particularly fascinating are pictures of some of the other performers (circa p. 58) who lived and worked at Barnum's museum with Stratton, and the pictures of him in various costumes (circa p. 75). I found it intriguing that while Charles (or Charley to family and friends) and his cohorts may have been exploited, they were also sometimes given opportunities that they wouldn't have had otherwise. Charley, for instance, learns to read and travels the world. He also meets other dwarfs like himself, and eventually marries.

I like the design of the book overall. I thought the image of Stratton on the cover was a cartoon at first, but later realized that it's a reproduction of a photograph that has been colorized. If I have one wish it is just that the cover would look less cartoony. In addition to all the wonderful black and white photographs, the interior pages are decorated with 19th century patterns and flourishes in shades of gray.

Source notes and a bibliography are appended. The notes are organized by chapter, and include page references to quotes and articles included in the bibligoraphy. The bibligraphy includes works by Stratton's wife, Lavinia, and by friends Sylvester Bleeker and Barnum as well as books and articles about the period in general. There will be an index, however, it wasn't included in the advanced reading copy.

Disclosure: This blog post is based on the reading of an advanced reading copy received through NetGalley.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Notorious Benedict Arnold

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery
by Steve Sheinkin
352 pages
published by Flash Point
/Roaring Brook Press

Publisher's description:

Most people know that Benedict Arnold was America’s first, most notorious traitor. Few know that he was also one of its greatest war heroes. This accessible biography introduces young readers to the real Arnold: reckless, heroic, and driven. Packed with first-person accounts, astonishing battle scenes, and surprising twists, this is a gripping and true adventure tale.

My comments:

Benedict Arnold is the most famous traitor in American history, but once he was one of Washington's most trusted generals. This fascinating book details his rise and fall, including the political slights and money woes that may have motivated him.

This well-researched, well-written account of Benedict Arnold's life reads like an adventure novel. A flash-forward at the very beginning vividly describes an execution, but who's execution is it? I like the element of suspense that this trickery adds to the narrative. Sheinkin then turns back to Arnold's birth and lets the story flow chronologically through his life. It seems inconceivable that the dedicated (albeit hotheaded) patriot who led assaults on Fort Ticonderoga and Montreal would later turn on his country, but as slights and debts pile up

The design of the book (especially the cover art and dimensions) makes it look like a novel, which helps it stand out from the coffee table style books that are popular in YA nonfiction right now. Other than one portrait of Arnold at the end, the only illustrations are maps. The maps by Lazslo Kubinyi are very well done, and I referred to them often as I read. The short chapters include date ranges along with the titles, making it easier to place all the events chronologically.

Sheinkin admits to an Arnold obsession, and his passion shows not just in the writing, but in the extensive source notes and quote notes that are appended. I might have a hard time swallowing the quotes that Sheinkin attributes to the players in Arnold's drama, if he didn't have these sources (including several firsthand accounts) to back him up. I appreciate that the sources are arranged by category and the quote notes by chapter. There's also an index, which is handy for looking up specific people, places, battles and ships.

I knew very little about Benedict Arnold (other than he was a traitor) going into this book, and by the end Sheinkin had succeeded in making me interested in visiting the Revolutionary battlefields where he left his mark.