Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sugar Changed the World

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

published by Clarion Books
176 pages

Publisher's description:

When this award-winning husband-and-wife team discovered that they each had sugar in their family history, they were inspired to trace the globe-spanning story of the sweet substance and to seek out the voices of those who led bitter sugar lives. The trail ran like a bright band from religious ceremonies in India to Europe's Middle Ages, then on to Columbus, who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas. Sugar was the substance that drove the bloody slave trade and caused the loss of countless lives but it also planted the seeds of revolution that led to freedom in the American colonies, Haiti, and France. With songs, oral histories, maps, and over 80 archival illustrations, here is the story of how one product allows us to see the grand currents of world history in new ways.

My comments:

I was expecting a micro-history of sugar when I first began reading, which isn't exactly what I got. The title is accurate when it says "sugar changed the world," and that is really is the subject of the book - how sugar changed the world. Aronson and Budhos recount in the introduction how their ancestral connections to sugar (Aronson' has a connection to the European beet sugar industry, and Budhos' great-grandparents made a living on a sugar plantation in Guyana) spurred them to research and write the book.

The bulk of the book is divided into four parts. The first part does a nice job of describing how sugar spread through Asia and then Europe. Part two describes the hell of living and working on a sugar plantation. There are many excellent illustrations and photographs in this section that provide a portrait of plantation life, as well as a few maps that show the flow of slaves from Africa to the New World.

Part three describes how people (including slaves in the Caribbean, Colonists in New England, and citizens in England and France) began to fight for freedom. This section was a little confusing to me at times. For instance, when it jumped from discussing a rebellion in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) to the English invasion of Jamaica I was a bit lost at first. In part four, the authors return to their family connections and how change came to the sugar industry (and the world) through social reform and scientific discoveries like the development of beet sugar.

The back end materials include a time line, web guide to color images (many of the black and white images the book are available in color online), source notes, bibliography, list of websites about sugar and an index. There's also an essay, "How We Research and Wrote This Book' that is addressed to teachers and librarians rather than young readers. Assuming the book is intended for the young readers that the authors refer to in this essay, I wondered whether this is the best arena for it.

The acknowledgments recognize several indispensable works that the pair used in their research. These are a boon for ambitious readers who are curious to dive deeper into the history and impact of sugar.

Your comments?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 Awards Wrap-Up

To make room for books eligible for the 2012 award, the list of titles from last year has been removed. It lives on at Bibliocommons: List of Books read and commented on in 2010. The blog entries for each book can also be found in the archives by using the search box on the right.

The official list of nominations for the 2011 award has been posted on the YALSA website. I found it interesting that there were no works of poetry or graphic nonfiction included. I wonder whether the committee wanted to leave graphic nonfiction to the Great Graphic Novels committee. Yummy and Smile both made the top ten of the Great Graphic Novels list. Yummy also made the top ten of the Quick Picks list. Borrowed Names is a title that stuck in my mind all year, and yet it was not included in any list.

Field suggestions for 2012 are encouraged, and can be made by filling out the nomination form.

The Sibert Medal for most distinguished informational book for children was awarded to Kakapo Rescue, and LaFayette and the American Revolution was selected for an honor. Both books are appropriate for the middle school segment of the young adult spectrum.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Dark Game

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories
by Paul B. Janeczko

published by Candlewick Press
248 pages

Publisher's description:

Ever since George Washington used them to help topple the British, spies and their networks have helped and hurt America at key moments in history. In this fascinating collection, Paul B. Janeczko probes such stories as that of Elizabeth Van Lew, an aristocrat whose hatred of slavery drove her to be one of the most successful spies in the Civil War; the "Choctaw code talkers," Native Americans who were instrumental in sending secret messages during World War I; the staggering engineering behind a Cold War tunnel into East Berlin to tap Soviet phones (only to be compromised by a Soviet mole); and many more famous and less-known examples. Colorful personalities, daring missions, the feats of the loyal, and the damage of traitors are interspersed with a look at the technological advances that continue to change the rules of gathering intelligence. From clothesline codes to surveillance satellites and cyber espionage, Paul B. Janeczko uncovers two centuries’ worth of true spy stories in U.S. history.

My comments:

This book has not been on the shelf since it arrived at the library. I think the design and topic of the book have everything to do with this. In a departure from the typical coffee table book design of many nonfiction titles published for young adults, its sized and shaped like a novel. The jacket design plays on the sexy-dangerous appeal of spies. The novel-ish design continues inside, where text dominates the pages.

Six chapters cover the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War and domestic moles. The chapters are further divided into two main sections separated by two smaller "special" sections. A black and white cross-hair* motif decorates the the chapter headings and the special sections. There are quite a few images interspersed throughout the text including portraits of famous spies, intercepted messages and even a diagram of a listening device used to bug an ambassador's house in Moscow.

The writing overall is strong, but some sections are stronger than others. In Chapter 3, I was amazed by the section "Sabotage on U.S. Soil." There were details about World War I here that I had never read about before, like the blasts at Black Tom Island. The World War II story of double agent Juan Pujol (in Chapter 4) was similarly amazing. It was great to read about female spies like Mata Hari (was she a double agent?), Elizabeth Van Lew and Rose O'Neale Greenhow. The story of the Berlin Tunnel in chapter five is also fascinating. During the section on the Culper Spy Ring in the Chapter 1, however, I became a little frustrated that Janeczko focused more on speculation about spies' personal relationships than what they actually did to help win the revolution. The section on the Zimmerman Telegram in Chapter 3 also lost me a little.

One of my pet peeves with nonfiction are simple errors that render the factual infromation inaccurate or confusing. I found one such mistake in Chapter 5 that could have been easily fixed. It appears on page 180 in a paragraph about the effects of high altitude flight on the human body, and the special suits that were designed to protect U-2 pilots from drops in air pressure. Low pressure can cause the human body to expand, which is potentially fatal. The paragraph does a good job of explaining how inflatable tubes inside the pilot's suit would expand to protect the pilot if the pressure dropped; except for the first sentence. In the first sentence, instead of "low pressure" it says "high pressure." Maybe the sentence originally said "high altitude", which would also have been correct. This is an unfortunate mistake in an overall very enlightening and engaging book. Hopefully it will be fixed for a paperback edition.

While it is a fast and easy read, the book seems to assume that anyone venturing to the pages beyond the final chapter knows what they're doing. Back end materials include source notes, photography credits, a comprehensive index and a bibliography. The sources listed in the notes can all be found in the bibliography, which includes a blend of older and newer titles.

Official YALSA Award Finalist

*definitely not a surveying symbol

Monday, January 10, 2011

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Announced!

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel is the winner of this year's Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults award! The announcement was made during the Youth Media Awards at ALA's Midwinter meeting in San Diego.

“From the cover art and the interior design to the compelling personal narrative, this is a pearl of a book,” said YALSA Nonfiction Award Chair Don Latham. (quote found on the YALSA Hub blog). I think this book does feature the most eye-popping design of the year.

I was surprised that They Called Themselves the K.K.K. was shut out of the awards (other than receiving a YALSA Nonfiction honor as a finalist). It had gotten some Printz and Newbury buzz, as well.

A full list of the Youth Media Award honors and winners is included in this press release on the ALA website.

Now that the 2011 award has been announced, it's time to look ahead to 2012. All books published from November 2010 through October 2011 will be eligible, and the list of books in the column to the right will change soon to reflect that. Anyone with suggestions is invited to submit them here! Sugar Changed the World, Tom Thumb, The Notorious Benedict Arnold and Unraveling Freedom are the ones that have caught my eye so far. What other new and upcoming nonfiction books are catching people's interest?

Your comments?