Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Recommended for ages 10 and up.
Carolyn Meyer's series The Young Royals has examined the youth of many of history's most prominent royal female figures, including Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, and Cleopatra. It's perhaps inevitable that she would turn her attention to the most important female queen of the 19th century, a figure so prominent she gave her name to an entire historical period, Queen Victoria. The book spans from 1827, when Victoria was eight years old, to 1843, by which time Victoria was a young queen with three children.
Meyer tells her story through diary entries based on Victoria's own diaries, which she began keeping at the age of thirteen. (Note: in 2012, the entire contents of these diaries were made available online). T As Meyer explains in an afterword, these diary entries were written in the knowledge that they would be read, at first by her mother and governess, and later by historians. Meyer uses her imagination (and research of course) to describe what Victoria is really feeling, but incorporates many of Victoria's stylistic quirks, such as an affection for writing in all capitals or underlining dramatically, to give the feel of her actual diaries.
I really enjoyed this novel, and felt it did a terrific job of capturing Victoria's strong personality and opinions, both as a young girl and as an adult. We learn many details of Victoria's daily life, from her strained relationship with her mother and her advisor, Sir John, to her attachment to Dash, her mother's King Charles Spaniel. Even when you're a privileged princess, you don't necessarily get your way, and Victoria's wishes are often thwarted by her mother or court intrigue. Even when she becomes queen, her struggles with her mother are not over, although Victoria takes control of many aspects of her court, including her personal household. In addition to dealing with all the intrigues of court life, Meyer also takes us into Victoria's confidence as she is wooed by and eventually weds her cousin Albert, the love of her life. Even with Albert, however, there were inevitable conflicts, as the young couple tried to adjust to their different roles--queen, sovereign, wife, and mother, and prince consort, husband, and father.
An afterword provides additional information on the rest of Victoria's life and other historical notes, as well as a bibliography and a list of related websites to visit.
Those who read this novel should certainly get a copy of the DVD of The Young Victoria, the beautifully realized 2009 film starring an elegant Emily Blunt as the young monarch. Another appealing novel for young readers with the young Victoria as a prominent character is Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela Maccoll (Chronicle, 2010).
Disclosure: advance copy provided by publisher.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Recommended for ages 7-12.
Those looking for an attractive book on Picasso for young readers should check out Jonah Winter's picture book, Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!, released in February of 2012 and illustrated by the versatile Kevin Hawkes (I'm a big fan of The Wicked Big Toddlah, Library Lion, and A Pig Parade is a Terrible Idea, among others). This book focuses on the early years of Picasso's career. In a highly creative and appropriate opening, the first 2-page illustration shows a bucolic country landscape, a peaceful scene with hills, cows, blue sky and puffy white clouds. But turn the page, and "BLAM!", the young Pablo is depicted literally bursting through the canvas, almost like a superhero artist, paintbrush in hand. Winter and Hawkes together capture the magnetic force of Picasso's creative personality, with a lively text suited for students in elementary school. Many will identify with Picasso's rebellious personality, as he skips from one style to another and one country to another in what seems a blink of an eye (or in this case the turn of a page). Actual paintings of Picasso, listed at the end of the book, are worked into Hawkes' illustrations, while Picasso's contemporaries proclaim in cartoon-style text bubbles their opinions of Picasso's work.
We see Picasso's style evolving to become ever more abstract, and share in the shock of the crowd at the exhibition of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, now considered one of his greatest works. But despite his early success, Picasso refuses to stay still artistically, and disdains his neighbors, who shout collectively at him during one very funny two-page spread, "Just behave, Pablo Picasso!", as they point their fingers at him. Picasso, of course ignores them, becoming a "force of nature...the most original artist of his time."
An afterword provides more background on Picasso's life.
This book would fit very well into a discussion of creativity and different ways of seeing the world, as well as promoting discussion of perseverance in the face of criticism.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Picasso: I the King, Yo el rey, by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (Amazon Children's Publishing, 2012)
Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Pablo Picasso was probably the most famous and most influential artist of the 20th century. His long and storied career encompassed not only painting, but also sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, poetry, photography, and set design. Many books for young people have been published on this great figure, including two in 2012: Picasso: I the King, Yo el rey, by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, illustrated by Caldecott-winning artist David Diaz (Amazon Children's Publishing, 2012), and Just Behave, Pablo Picasso!, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Arthur A. Levine, 2012). A review of the latter title will appear in my blog tomorrow.
Many parents and even teachers don't always realize that picture books are not just for young children. Carmen T. Bernier-Grand's new biography in verse about Pablo Picasso is a perfect example. The author has written a number of biographies in verse (her most recent was on Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso), and that format that seems particularly appropriate for an artist like Picasso. Bernier-Grand does not white-wash Picasso's personality, and the tales of his womanizing and infidelities are clearly not suitable for young children. In her poem "Gold Crowns," she writes: "As paint is to brush, women are to Picasso's art." Moreover, the tragic events of his life are depicted, such as the early death of his beloved sister and the terrible bombing of Guernica that inspired one of Picasso's most famous paintings.
Instead, I would highly recommend this book for middle school, high school, and adults who'd like to explore Picasso's life and work in a beautifully illustrated, easy-to-read format. Because Picasso's life is told through free-verse poetry, much must be left out, but a narrative-style three page essay at the end of the book fills in many of the details, as does a comprehensive chronology of his life. Backmatter also includes a glossary, bibliography, and source notes. David Diaz is a perfect match for illustrating Picasso's life, and the pages seem to glow with deep colors. While his illustrations are representational (no cubist illustrations of Picasso's life!) they have an abstract, stylized quality about them, with a simplification of form that is typical in other books Diaz has illustrated. Photos of some of Picasso's most famous works such as Guernica and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon are included, integrated into the text.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
Two years ago I did a blog post on my top books for the 8 nights of Hanukkah. This year I am revising that list a bit to include some recent titles (and I have removed a few older ones that are now, alas, difficult to find). The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins on Saturday, December 8 at sundown. Because the Jewish calendar is based on the moon, the holidays fall at different times on our calendar each year. These Hanukkah stories are wonderful to share with children of any faith! This year I am very excited to be presenting a Hanukkah storytime, complete with a lesson on dreidel spinning, at the public library where I work. Here are some of my favorite Hanukkah stories to read aloud:
Hear Eric Kimmel read the story himself at this link.
For another take on Hanukkah favorites for kids of all ages, I recommend the Jewish Library Association's new Hanukkah Read-up, a printer-friendly list of recommended titles for different ages.
Monday, December 3, 2012
Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert, by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion Books, 2012)
Newbery-honor winning novelist Gary D. Schmidt and Caldecott-winning illustrator David Diaz together have created a beautiful and moving portrait of Martin de Porres, a 17th century Peruvian saint. I was completely unfamiliar with this remarkable individual, an illegitimate child both to a former African slave and a Spanish conqueror. He grew up in poverty until the age of eight, when his noble father came from Ecuador and took Martin and his sister Juana back with him to raise. Later apprenticed to a doctor-barber, Martin showed a talent for healing and a religious calling. But the local prior, prejudiced against Martin's dark skin, would not let him to train to be a priest. Instead, he became a servant at the monastery. Martin's talent for healing dogs and befriending animals of all kinds began to be known, and the local people as well as the monks soon began to ask Martin to doctor them. Eventually he was allowed to take vows as a priest, and he continued to work miracles as the "rose in the desert."
Schmidt's lyrical text and Diaz' beautifully realized illustrations combine to make this a stellar offering for those looking for inspirational stories about saints or other religious figures to share with their children. Diaz illustrations are rendered with a flat, stylized method and are colored with rich, jewel-like tones. Many of the illustrations have a dream-like quality suited to rendering the miracles described in the text.
Like Saint Francis of Assisi, Martin was known for his work with animals and with the poor. Unlike Saint Francis, however, Martin came from an underprivileged background himself. A brief Author's Note tells the reader that Martin was made a saint in 1962, the first black saint in the Americas. He is now known as the patron saint of interracial relations, social justice, those of mixed race, and animal shelters.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Nonfiction Monday Book Review: The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, by Michelle Markel (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2012)
As an art history major in my former (and more and more distant!) college days as well as a lover of children's literature, I am inevitably drawn (no pun intended!) to picture book biographies of famous artists.
The life and art of French artist Henri Rousseau are vividly brought to life in a recent release by author Michelle Markel and illustrator Amanda Hall. Rousseau is best known for his post-impressionist paintings depicting jungle scenes, although he never left France. Rousseau, we learn from Markel's succinct yet poetic text, wants to be an artist, even though he is 40 years old, a toll collector, and has never had any art training. "Why? Because he loves nature. Because when he strolls through the parks of Paris, it's like the flowers open their hearts, the trees spread their arms, and the sun is a blushing ruby, all for him."
With no money for art lessons, Rousseau studies the paintings at the Louvre, photographs, illustrations, animals at the zoo, and leaves, plants and flowers from the local botanical garden, where he is particularly enraptured by the tropical plants. Although his work is ridiculed by the art critics, Henri perseveres, spending all his money on art supplies and supplementing his income by giving music lessons. Although the art establishment continues to belittle his work, several younger artists, including the already well-known Picasso, eventually recognize his talent. Now, of course, his paintings are in museums world-wide, and he is recognized as an artistic genius.
The illustrations by Amanda Hall pay tribute to Rousseau's "primitive" style, with its flattened shapes, vivid colors, detailed leaves and plants, and unusual perspective. Many of the illustrations draw directly on Rousseau's paintings for inspiration, and adults will recognize some of his most famous works such as "Sleeping Gypsy." Even the endpapers echo Rousseau's easily recognizable style, with its jungle leaves, flowers, and animals. To better emulate the feel of Rousseau's paintings, Hall worked in watercolor and acrylics. She also incorporates some of his famous friends into her illustrations, and in the afterword a key is provided to see who is who in those spreads.
I would have liked to see some reproductions of Rousseau's actual paintings in the afterword, but these can easily be found online for those who would like to explore further the fascinating works of this self-taught artist.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Newbery-award winning novelist Karen Cushman is an expert writer of historical novels for youth, and is particularly drawn to tales set in "merry old England." I use this phrase a bit ironically, since one of the features of Cushman's writings is that she does not shirk from describing the hardships of life at that time, particularly for those children in the lower classes. Her newest book differs from all her past novels by featuring a boy as a protagonist rather than her usual feisty girl heroines.
The novel opens by introducing its hero as follows:
"Will Sparrow was a liar and a thief, and hungry, so when he saw the chance to steal a cold rabbit pie from the inn's kitchen and blame it on the dog, he took it--both the chance and the pie."
We learn that Will, not yet thirteen, has had a hard life, having been sold by his father to the innkeeper for free ale. With the threat of being once again sold to London to be a chimney sweep, Will runs away, preferring the dangerous life on the road, in which he must scrounge for food and some kind of shelter from the cold,` to a sure early death as a "climbing boy." What kind of future faces our hero, besides an empty belly?
Will meets up with all kinds of colorful characters on his travels in Elizabethan England, including a quack of a doctor who recruits Will to serve as his stooge, a blind juggler, and a cranky dwarf, and quickly learns to trust no one. Will manages to attach himself to a group of entertainers who perform at fairs, an Elizabethan freak show that includes a unicorn skull and a sea monster. He even makes a few friends, including Duchess, the world's smartest pig, who performs tricks and even is learning to understand French, her owner, Samuel Knobby, and Grace, a young girl with a hairy face who is billed as a live monster in the show of wonders. As we might expect in a book for young readers, Will, who is friendless and penniless at the beginning of the tale, ultimately finds a family of sorts, one of his own choosing, among the misfits of the fair.
I have to say that this was not among my favorite of Cushman's novels; the story simply didn't engage me the way Midwife's Apprentice, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, and others of her work have. I'm not sure exactly why, but I think that the story is not paced as well as some of her other books and I was not as drawn to the character of Will as to some of her earlier protagonists. As always, however, she is skilled at creating an authentic historical setting, and the reader is drawn into the world of the Elizabethan fair, including its smells and sounds. She liberally sprinkles her text with Elizabethan-sounding phrases, such as "certes" to provide some local color as well.
While this book is likely to appeal to those youngsters who are drawn to historical stories, I would be more likely to recommend others of Cushman's titles to a young reader before this one.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
Book Review: The Elephant from Baghdad, by Mary Tavener Holmes and John Harris, illustrated by Jon Cannell (Marshall Cavendish Children, 2012)
Here at the Fourth Musketeer, I am highlighting new historial picture books in honor of National Picture Book Month. Authors Mary Tavener Holmes and John Harris seem to be expert in finding true but quirky animal stories from long ago to bring to new audiences via the picture book format. Following their charming picture book A Giraffe Goes to Paris is this new account of an unlikely friendship between a very rare albino elephant and the Emperor Charlemagne in medieval Germany.
This improbable but true story is told in the voice of a monk who chronicled Charlemagne's life in the 9th century. The elephant, Abu, was a gift from Harun, the caliph of Baghdad, a great Muslim leader whom Charlemagne sent emissaries thousands of miles to meet. Evocative two-page spreads show the magnificence of the city of Baghdad, with its beautiful buildings, libraries, scholars, and golden palaces with peacocks wandering in the gardens. When the Europeans finally set off on the long journey home, they carry many fine gifts from the caliph to his fellow ruler, including a magnificent clock. But the most magnificent gift of all was the elephant Abu, who led a caravan filled with treasures. Upon arriving in Germany, Abu and his keeper were invited to live in Charlemagne's palace, and his image began to appear throughout Charlemagne's empire. He even wore armor and was led into battle!
Holmes and Harris write their story so that no prior knowledge of Charlemagne or this period of history is required to appreciate this fantastic tale. As in their earlier book together, this book skillfully combines watercolor and ink illustrations with photographs of historical medieval art works. It's an excellent friendship story for animal lovers or those interested in history.
An authors' note gives further information on the monk Notker the Stammerer, who they imagine narrating the story, as well as background on the elaborate mechanical clock given as a gift by Harun to Charlemagne. Unfortunately, the clock no longer exists. The note also provides information on the sources used to research and write this story.
Monday, November 5, 2012
Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane's Musical Journey, by Gary Golio (Clarion, 2012)
National Picture Book Month is the perfect time to highlight this new book by author Gary Golio, who adds John Coltrane to his growing collection of picture book biographies of musical greats. Earlier books, reviewed here on the Fourth Musketeer, profiled Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. While these musicians might not seem like typical fodder for children's picture books, this format, with its striking and inspirational illustrations, is in fact ideal for stimulating young people's interests in these iconic musicians.
The book's title page features the following quote from Coltrane: "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...I want to speak to their souls." We first meet John Coltrane as a young boy, in North Carolina in 1938, listening to his grandfather preaching on a Sunday morning about the power of the Spirit. John's life was "like a little slice of heaven," with plenty of food, games, and a loving family surrounding him. His father, an amateur musician, filled the house with his singing and tunes from his ukulele and violin.
But at the age of 12, John lost his two grandfathers, his grandmother, and his father in rapid succession. Turning to music for consolation, he was fortunate to receive a used alto sax, which he soon took everywhere, practicing for hours and hours. Moving to Philadelphia, he began playing with big bands and blues groups, and absorbing the music of jazz greats like Charlie "Bird" Parker. Although he was achieving success, life on the road was lonely, and John turned to alcohol and drugs for company, turning away from his spiritual underpinnings. Soon "he had to choose, between the dead end of drugs or a life rich with music." Will he find the strength to get clean and regain his inspiration?
Golio's narrative features Coltrane's spiritual journey front and center, in which he used music in his attempt to "unlock the mysteries of life." Coltrane's spiritual explorations culminated with his masterpiece, A Love Supreme, which Golio poetically describes as the "song of the human heart reaching up to heaven."
In addition to being an accomplished author, Golio is a licensed therapist who specializes in treating addiction problems, which may be part of the reason he feels comfortable interpreting the stories of musicians such as Coltrane and Hendrix for young people. The book's afterword includes a note on musicians and drug use, in which Golio explains that while musicians are no different from other people who use alcohol and drugs to deal with their emotions, they may be even more vulnerable to addiction due to the demands of touring and performing and the belief many artists have that drugs can make a person more "free" or "creative."
|one of the stunning illustrations from Spirit Seeker|
Golio has a gift for expressing music with words, just as Coltrane turned feelings into sounds. But it is impossible to discuss this work without highlighting the outstanding illustration by Rudy Gutierrez, a Pura Belpre Honor-winning artist who has also designed album covers and clearly has an affinity for music. In an artist's note, he explains that he fasted for two weeks and meditated, much as Coltrane did when he composed A Love Supreme, to seek inspiration for illustrating Golio's tribute to Coltrane. The illustrations include acrylic paintings and mixed media pieces done with colored pencils, crayons, and acrylics. The dream-like compositions, dramatic movements and use of contrasting and complementary colors evoke the energy of Coltrane's music. Many of the spreads from the book can be seen on Gutierrez' website.
For more on this book, check out Gary Golio's interview in School Library Journal at this link.
Friday, November 2, 2012
While there are many, many books about Helen Keller targeted at young readers, Deborah Hopkinson and Raul Colon have added to these riches with a lovely picture book biography that focuses on the intense relationship between Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
Hopkins intersperses her narrative, which begins on the day when Annie Sullivan came into Helen Keller's life, with excerpts from Annie's own letters to her friend and former teacher, Sophia Hopkins. We see Helen throwing a violent tantrum, her dog running away from her: "Helen was like a small, wild bird, throwing herself against the bars of a dark and silent cage." But Annie, who fought her own battle against blindness, understood that Helen needed discipline, and "prepared for battle." She and Helen moved into a small house on the family's property, and Annie helped Helen accept rules and teaching. But how could she teach her language? Hopkinson explains the manual finger alphabet used by Annie, and provides drawings of the hand positions for each letter in the text as well as explaining how Annie tried to teach Helen the names of familiar objects. When Helen finally grasps the concept of words at the water pump, as cool water splashed on her hand, the world of language quickly opened up to her. Sullivan writes about Helen on April 5, 1887: "A new light came into her face."
Hopkinson shows us Helen as a very bright child, giving many examples of how she put together words. We even see Helen running and jumping with joy on their walks. Annie also taught Helen to read using Braille and how to write using a special braille typewriter. The book concludes with a letter written to her mother on a short trip with her father.
The book is beautifully illustrated by award-winning artist Raul Colon, whose gentle, water-colored earth-toned illustrations capture the special relationship between these two remarkable women. Back matter includes a few suggestions for further reading and a selection of websites to learn more about Annie and Helen. Endpapers feature some of the many photographs of Helen and Annie. The author also includes an author's note, which provides some basic biographical information on both women.
I would highly recommend this picture book to share in a classroom or at home; it only covers a brief period in the relationship between Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, but this book could easily be supplemented with other volumes for those young people who want to learn more about this famous teacher-pupil relationship.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
Last year was the inaugural year for the Picture Book Month celebration, and events were held throughout the world celebrating the importance of picture books for all ages. Sadly, many parents feel as soon as their kids can read chapter books, they are too old for picture books. Nothing could be farther than the truth! Take this month to recommend some great picture books for all ages to kids in different age ranges. Unfortunately, I believe that the growth of Accelerated Reader in the schools has added to the problem, since picture books only give ".5" credit, despite the fact that they may have more sophisticated content than chapter books.
The website, PictureBookMonth.com, features essays from “Picture Book Champions. Each day in November, a new essay is posted from a different author, a similar format to the Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month blog that Lisa Taylor and I have organized the past few years. A downloadable promotional kit is now available as well as certificates, posters, and bookmarks.
Join the celebration by visiting www.picturebookmonth.com and by promoting picture books this month! Below is a calendar of the all the authors who will be included.
Posted by Fourth Musketeer at 10:54 AM
Monday, October 29, 2012
Author/illustrator Demi is well known for her gorgeous illustrated biographies for children, which range from volumes on Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Tutankhamun, and Marco Polo to biographies of religious figures such as the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad. The most recent entry in her series, just published this fall, is an examination of the iconic explorer Christopher Columbus.
I can still remember being in second or third grade and learning about the great explorer Christopher Columbus, who "discovered" America, sailing the ocean blue in 1492 with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Unfortunately, at that time, we learned little about the real Christopher Columbus, and in particular, about the cruelty, disease, and enslavement he brought to the initially friendly native population in the lands he "discovered" and claimed for the Spanish crown.
I'm not sure that today's elementary school students receive a more balanced view of the famous/infamous explorer, although my high school daughter's AP History textbook attempts to provide a more comprehensive viewpoint. In this gloriously illustrated new picture book biography, Demi also makes an effort to balance Columbus' legitimate accomplishments in navigation with the darker side of his story.
Demi's narrative is organized chronologically, in traditional biography style, and we learn how the young Christopher was fascinated at an early age by ships and sailors that arrived in the port of Genoa, where he was born. At fourteen Columbus left home to become a sailor, quickly becoming an expert in navigation, studying the stars and predicting weather. We learn that Columbus was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal, and learned to speak Portuguese and Spanish. He even sailed to Iceland and above the Arctic Circle.
But as we know, Columbus dreamed of more--of finding a route to the East by sailing west from Europe. But who would fund such a trip? After the Portuguese king turned him down, Columbus tried the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. Initially rejected by the monarchs' advisors, Columbus persevered and eventually Isabella was persuaded to outfit three ships for his expedition. It's hard to imagine the panic the sailors must have felt on such a long voyage--two months on the open sea. Demi's narrative makes us feel the joy the sailors felt on finally spotting signs that land was near--birds, crayfish, even a branch with fruit, and then the cry from an anonymous sailor of "Land!"
The aftermath of the dangerous voyage was not so happy. Demi writes that the natives were friendly but there was not much gold or other riches, and no great palaces. But the friendliness did not last, and the author points out that Columbus "disrespected their culture and treated them as no more than slaves." In her text and images, we see the natives being exploited by the Spanish, and how eventually the males were forced to give up their lands and work for the Spaniards. European diseases decimated those who were not killed by exhaustion, and hundreds of thousands died, virtually wiping out the native population of that part of the world.
Demi's biography gives us information on the rest of Columbus' career and life--including his triumphant homecoming to Spain and his other explorations for the Spanish crown. However, his mismanagement of the colonies led to his imprisonment and trial in Spain, and he lost his position as governor of Hispaniola. But Columbus would not retire! He continued to explore, reaching other islands in the Caribbean on his endless quest for a passage to the East.
Demi concludes that Columbus "died a magnificent failure," having destroyed the Taino culture and enslaved the islanders. "Yet he was one of the greatest navigators who ever lived...and his voyages had changed the face of the world forever!" Is that a bit like saying "Hitler was responsible for the murder of millions of people...but he was a great orator."????
While I would have liked to see even more of the text--or perhaps an afterword--devoted to how Columbus and his men treated the native population--I do give Demi credit for at least including this aspect of the explorer's life. It's a biography well worth reading, and at 64 pages, provides plenty of material for a report. Once again Demi outdoes herself with her illustrations, painted with Chinese paintbrushes and inks, gold overlays, and Italian marbled paper from Italy. The details in each illustration are beautiful and well worth plenty of time perusing. Back matter includes a splendid map showing Columbus' various voyages, and an author's note at the beginning of the book discusses her sources for this biography.
For a picture book on Columbus from the perspective of the Taino population, you may want to read Jane Yolen's Encounter (Sandpiper, 1996), beautifully illustrated by David Shannon (yes, the No, David author!).
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Why My 8-Year Old Son Won't Be Reading The Hunger Games
As the mother of an eight-year-old boy, I keep thinking that kids these days seem older and wiser than when I was growing up. And I don’t really mean that as a good thing. Though my husband and I make sure not to watch the news when our son’s in the room, being a curious and attentive kid, he catches snippets of the human existence anyway.
“What is a dirty bomb, mom?” he asked the other day. “Why are we having a war with Afghanistan?” he asked this morning. And then, indignantly, and on a regular basis, “Why can’t I read The Hunger Games. Everyone else is!”
As everyone knows, the world is getting smaller and smaller thanks to the Internet and Japanese manga and Justin Bieber. Kids are drawn to dystopian novels because they sense our fear about the state of the universe and the violence that seems to encompass everything these days. They have questions. They want answers.
And they deserve answers too.
For that reason, literature that deals with contemporary global events—books that allow children and teens to travel the world, and present real-world depictions of cultures both similar and different from our own—provide them with what they crave.
Young readers are fascinated with the lives of their peers around the world. What do their schools look like? What do they eat for lunch? Do those kids go to parties and soccer games like me? While authors can draw in readers with portrayals of youth across the globe, we also owe it to them not to sugarcoat what are often disturbing truths.
The comment I hear most often regarding my tween novel Laugh with the Moon (Random House, 2012) is, “Why did Innocent have to die?” Interestingly, this question is asked by adult readers and not children. My answer is that I want my young readers to learn about malaria—a preventable disease that kills hundreds of thousands of children every single year— so that they can understand the world and work to improve lives.
I won’t let my son watch the news, because the stories aren’t formulated specifically for his young mind. And no, I won’t let him read The Hunger Games, because I don’t want him exposed to gratuitous violence when he’s not yet ready to analyze the deeper meaning of the story.
Still, I do encourage him to travel the world through fiction and nonfiction specifically designed to open his young mind to the disparities that exist between countries and expose him to the often overlooked gifts that materially poor, non-American youth have to offer.
Shana Burg is the award-winning author of Laugh with the Moon (Random House, 2012) and A Thousand Never Evers (Random House, 2008). You can follow her on her blog at www.shanaburg.com/blog, on Twitter @ShanaBurgWrites and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ShanaBurgWrites.
For readers of Laugh with the Moon, you can visit via a rural hospital in Malawi with the nonprofit World Altering Medicine by viewing this very special YouTube video:
For readers of Laugh with the Moon, you can visit via a rural hospital in Malawi with the nonprofit World Altering Medicine by viewing this very special YouTube video:
Monday, October 15, 2012
Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin (Flashpoint, 2012)
Although I love to read nonfiction, particularly about history, I can't say there are many books in this genre that I literally can't put down until I finish them because I am so engrossed in the story. Steve Sheinkin's latest work, Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, was one of those I drag to the bathroom with me. He makes the reader feels as if he or she is reading the newest thriller from James Patterson or Lee Child. Even adults are likely to find this book riveting, and it's a real winner for middle school or high school readers with an interest in history, spy stories, or technology. And last week, Bomb was one of 5 YA books nominated for the National Book Award!
Sheinkin likes to call himself a "recovering textbook writer," blaming the boring history textbooks used in schools for so many young people's dislike of history as a subject. He has, however, more than atoned for writing boring textbooks with his highly readable nonfiction works for kids, including The Notorious Benedict Arnold (Flash Point, 2010).
His newest masterful work of narrative nonfiction tells three simultaneous stories: American physicists realize the potential bomb-making power of atomic fission (splitting atoms in two) and with the backing of the US government, set up a top-secret research institute in an isolated campus in New Mexico to try to build--and test--an atomic bomb before the German physicists develop one; the Soviets try to steal the bomb from the Americans; and the Allies try to sabotage the German bomb project. It features a cast of colorful characters that no one could make up, complete with dozens of story lines organized by Sheinkin into a "cinematic style thriller." It's full of details sure to be fascinating to young people--i.e. did you know Oppenheimer's parents, worried about their very geeky and brilliant son's social skills (or lack thereof), sent him to sports camp, where he was mercilessly bullied by other campers?
Sheinkin consulted a impressive variety of sources for this book, and back matter includes detailed source notes that are organized by bomb race sources, character sources, and primary sources. Photo credits, quotation notes, and an index are also included. Check out an interview with Sheinkin about this book from School Library Journal. You can listen to Steve introduce his book and read an excerpt from it at the following link.
On another note, if you're a fan of Sheinkin's nonfiction, you should try out his hilarious graphic novels about Rabbi Harvey, a rabbi in the Wild West.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Author Gwenyth Swain brings stories of Ellis Island vividly to life through text and photographs in the beautifully rendered Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices. She uses poetry, monologues, and dialogues combined with a selection of archival photographs to help us imagine Ellis Island at various stages of its existence, beginning in the late 1500's with a poem by a native Lenni Lenape boy.
Prose introductions provide background on each period of Ellis Island's history, from the processing of its first immigrant in 1892 to its busiest period in the early 20th century and beyond. In moving free verse, Swain chronicles all aspects of Ellis Island's life, from the arrivals, complete with their hopes and dreams, to the dreaded inspections, in which families could be separated and detained in hospital's on the island or even sent back if they were deemed "likely to become public charges." She doesn't forget the various workers on the island, from the nurses and aid workers to the clerks, cooks, and Salvation Army volunteers, who are pictured handing out doughnuts to hungry immigrants.
In the 1920's, when Congress put limits on immigration, Ellis Island became a place mostly used for deportation rather than immigration, and eventually was abandoned after 1954. But in the preparation for the nation's bicentennial, interest in Ellis Island as an important historical landmark surged, and in 1990, after many years of renovation and fundraising, the island reopened as an immigration museum. Additional poems mark this more recent period of Ellis Island's history as well, ending with a poem from a National Park Service employee, who remarks about the many visitors:
...maybe they feel what I feel./The sense that,/after all these years,/spirits live here,/along with all their hopes and tears.This book would be perfect for a class performance as part of a unit on family history and immigration. There are many parts for boys and girls and only simple costumes--or no costumes at all--would be required.
Back matter includes source notes, a bibliography which includes websites, films, books, articles, and interviews, an index, and suggestions for going further in exploring the themes of this book. Swain's website will also offer an extensive teacher's guide (available soon).
Monday, October 1, 2012
Book Review: A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero, by Marissa Moss (Amulet Books, 2012)
Laurie Halse Anderson once wrote in her blog that she preferred to call her historical books "historical thrillers" rather than "historical fiction," given that many kids and teens associate historical fiction with BORING. However, it's not every historical fiction title that can be justly called a "thriller." With A Soldier's Secret, Marissa Moss definitely joins the club of historical thriller writers for teens. Based on the true story of Civil War hero Sarah Edmonds, who enlisted in the Union Army as Frank Thompson, this is one story so full of incredible twists and turns that readers will be compelled have to finish it just to find out what happens.
In this novel, Moss returns to explore in greater depth Sarah Edmonds' life, which she portrayed in the lively 2011 picture book biography Nurse, Soldier, Spy. When we meet Sarah at the opening of this novel, it's the spring of 1861, and she has been living as Frank Thompson, a traveling book salesman, for more than three years. Writing in the first person, Sarah fills the reader in on her back story growing up on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada, with a cruel and abusive father; when her father is about to force her into an unwanted marriage, Sarah cuts her hair, dresses as a boy, and runs away, ending up in the United States.
But of course Sarah is a woman, and living in close proximity with so many eligible young men, the inevitable happens--she develops romantic feelings for a fellow soldier, fantasizing about him. Eventually her feelings are so strong, she asks for a reassignment, next serving as a postmaster delivering letters to the troops. Soon she is recruited as a Union spy, where her skill at disguises comes in very handy. She even "disguises" herself as a woman for one of her assignments!
While there are hundreds of documented cases of women disguising themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, Sarah was the only woman to be recognized by Congress as an honorably discharged soldier, with rights to back pay and pension, and the only woman allowed to join the association for Civil War veterans. At her death she was granted a military funeral and buried in a cemetery for Civil War veterans.
Moss' well-researched novel is based in part on Sarah Edmonds' own memoir, as well as many other sources on women in the Civil War and the Civil War in general. Moss includes extensive back matter, including background on Sarah Edmonds, brief biographies of Union Army officers, a brief Civil War timeline, which includes annotations for battles in which Frank/Sarah participated, and selected bibliography.
This is a terrific novel for middle schoolers or high schoolers, male or female. It offers great action, suspense, twists, and star-crossed romance that should intrigue even reluctant readers of historical fiction.
Sunday, September 30, 2012
I feel very lucky to get this job, since the job market for librarians, particularly here in California, remains very tight. I am planning to keep blogging about historial fiction and children's nonfiction here at the Fourth Musketeer, and Lisa at Shelf-Employed and I are already thinking about Year 3 of Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month, so stay tuned!
Posted by Fourth Musketeer at 9:11 AM
Monday, September 24, 2012
Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, by Doreen Rappaport (Candlewick, 2012)
In a stunning work of nonfiction for young people, award-winning author Doreen Rappaport has just published an ambitious new work profiling little-known true stories of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, a book that took her six years to research and write. Her extensive research for this project included interviews with some of the survivors whose stories are told in this volume.
This is a massive topic for a book for young people, but Rappaport manages to make it comprehensible by dividing her story into discrete sections and concentrating on a selection of individual stories. The first section, titled Realization, deals with the years up until the beginning of the war, when Hitler came to power. The second, Saving the Future, discusses brave Jews who smuggled Jewish children to safety in Holland, Belgium, France, and the forests of the Soviet Union. In part three, Rappaport examines resistance stories from the ghettos, not only the famed Warsaw ghetto uprising, in which a few thousand Jewish fighters held off the might of the Nazi army for nearly a month, but organized escapes from the Vilna ghetto and secret magazines penned by children in Theresienstadt. Other chapters discuss resistance in the concentration camps and partisan warfare conducted by Jewish resistance fighters against the Nazis.
As Rappaport notes in her introduction, few of these remarkable and heroic stories are known to the general public. Even in Jewish families, we generally learn that Jews went to the gas chambers like "lambs to the slaughter." In this volume, she takes pride in showing that stereotype is untrue, and that there were many Jews who defied and resisted the Nazis in a variety of ways.
These many amazing stories include that of 14-year old Idel, who escaped not once but twice from a labor camp in Belorussia, finally succeeding in tunneling out of the camp with the help of other inmates, after which he reaches the partisan Jewish group governed by the Bielskis, who were hiding out in the forest. Rappaport even includes an incredible story of a revolt of the Sonderkommandos, the Jewish prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers and the crematoriums. Although their elaborately planned revolt ultimately failed, they did succeed in blowing up one crematorium.
Handsomely designed and abundantly illustrated with dozens of archival photographs and maps, both from the war years and after, the book is supplemented with extra material on Rappaport's website, including conversations between the author and some of the survivors she profiles and links to other resources for studying the Holocaust.
Extensive back matter includes: a pronunciation guide for the many foreign names and words in the text; a timeline of important dates from 1933 when Hitler takes power until the end of the war in 1945; source notes; a selected bibliography of books and websites, organized both as an overview and also chapter by chapter; photography and art credits; and an index. A study guide for Beyond Courage will soon be available on Rappaport's website.
This book is highly informative and readable for adults as well as students, and definitely belongs in all public and school libraries (at least high school and middle school). I will be incredibly surprised if we don't see this book--a model of outstanding nonfiction writing for young people--recognized during book award season.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Author-illustrator Marissa Moss has two excellent new historical fiction novels for young people out this fall: Mira's Diary: Lost in Paris and A Soldier's Secret. Today I will be reviewing the first of these, and a review of the Civil War historical thriller A Soldier's Secret will be coming next week in my blog.
In Mira's Diary, Moss creates a time travel story melding the exciting artistic world of 19th century Paris with the shocking political intrigue and anti-Semitism of the infamous Dreyfus affair. Although the Dreyfus affair is well known to those interested in French history, it's certainly not a topic most young people in the U.S. will be at all familiar with, and I applaud Moss for choosing to set her story around this important tale of corruption and scapegoats.
Our story begins when young Mira receives a strange postcard of a gargoyle from Notre Dame in Paris from her mother, who has been missing without any explanation for many months. Not only is the black and white postcard very old-fashioned looking, so is the faded French stamp. And "who sends postcards anymore?," wonders Mira.
With the postcard their only clue, Mira, her father, and her 16-year old brother take off to Paris, hoping to find her mother. They check into a quaint hotel in the Marais, Paris' historic Jewish quarter, before going off to explore the famous cathedral. Mira can't help looking everywhere for her mother, but it's not until she touches a gargoyle on the top gallery of the cathedral that she realizes she's been looking in the wrong century! Magically transported to April, 1881, Mira not only befriends a good-looking young man who turns out to be an assistant to the famous French artist Degas, she also finds herself embroiled in the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal that involved the French army and virulent anti-Semitism in the French military and society at large. Mira spots her mother several times, and receives several mysterious and secret notes from her. It's clear that her mother is in danger, and Mira must step up to try to keep Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, from being unjustly punished as a traitor.
This novel manages to mix very serious topics such as prejudice and anti-Semitism with an up-close look at late 19th century Parisian artistic life, letting us visit Giverny, Montmartre, the Impressionists Exhibition, and Parisian salons populated by famous artists such as Degas, Monet, Seurat, and Mary Cassatt. Moss even throws in a hint of romance between Mira and Degas' handsome young assistant Claude. Although readers will learn a lot about history and art through this book, they will also be entertained by the suspenseful story featuring a likable heroine who finds herself in a difficult--and certainly unusual--situation.
In the manner of her Amelia's Notebook series and her historical journals, Moss gives this new book the feel of a real journal or diary, from the cover with its mock journal binding to the charming small pencil sketches distributed liberally throughout the novel and the endpapers decorated with Mira's notes to herself, a map of France, and French vocabulary.
An extensive author's note provides a detailed explanation of the complexities of the Dreyfus affair (geared for tween readers) and the military corruption and anti-Semitism it exposed in 19th century Paris. Moss also provides brief notes on Paris in the late 19th century, the impressionist art movement, and author Emile Zola, who wrote the famous "J'accuse" newspaper article in favor of Dreyfus. A bibliography lists other resources and books consulted by the author.
Monday, September 17, 2012
Nonfiction Monday Book Review: The Amazing Harry Kellar: Great American Magician, by Gail Jarrow (Calkins Creek, 2012)
There are so many books about Harry Houdini for young people. I was delighted to discover this new, immensely readable and attractive biography of a contemporary of Houdini's, Harry Keller, equally or even more famous during his lifetime than Houdini but known these days only by insiders in the magic community.
Jarrow traces Kellar's life and career, which spanned half a century and five continents. After running away from home at the tender age of 10, he winds up living with a minister who wants to educate him to become a preacher. After attending his first magic show, however, Harry wanted nothing more than to go on the stage himself, and managed to get himself a job as a magician's assistant. His magic career took him all around the world, traveling by ship, train, stagecoach, or even on the back of a mule. Renowned for his elaborate illusions, variants of which are still performed today in Las Vegas magic extravaganzas, Harry never rested on his laurels, but was always looking for new and even more amazing illusions for his shows. Many of these fascinating illusions are described and pictured in this biography.
Special kudos go to the designer of this large format, full-color book, which incorporates many of Kellar's original posters, as well as fonts in the text that echo the look of the antique posters. Kellar's posters often featured him with devils and imps, thought to be the source of the magician's incredible powers. The book features many contemporary photographs as well as sidebars about diverse topics touched on in the text, such as magic history, spiritualism, and entertainment in Kellar's time. Back matter includes a timeline, source notes, a comprehensive bibliography, an index, and a list of resources such as websites, magician organizations, and DVD's.
|Kellar surrounded by imps and devils|