Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Time Travel Book Review: Warped, by Maurissa Guibord (Delacorte, 2011)

Debut author Maurissa Guibord's time travel novel has lots of elements likely to appeal to her target teen readers:  a gorgeous cover, plenty of romance, adventure, danger, humor, suspense, an evil witch, a handsome nobleman, a unicorn, dragon, giant snake, a quaint bookshop setting--and oh yes, time travel!  Well, I never said "realism" was one of the elements!

The story centers on Tessa, a "normal" teenage girl who discovers there's something weird about an old unicorn tapestry her bookseller father bought at an auction, mixed up in a box of old books.  The unicorn looks fierce, not like the cuddly rainbow ones of her girlhood, and when she's near it, she begins to have strange dreams of a hunt in a long-ago forest in a distant land.  But when she accidentally pulls a thread on the tapestry, a handsome young man appears--William de Chaucy--who's been under the enchantment of an evil witch for more than five centuries.  Their destinies are somehow linked together--and mixed up with the Fates, the three sisters who control the life threads of all humans.  Tessa must somehow return some missing threads--but can she do it and keep the irresistible William alive in the 21st century?

Teens who enjoy historical fantasy are likely to devour this juicy and fun read, which will answer many important questions, such as the following:  do charmingly arrogant 15th century noblemen like pizza?  You'll have to read this to get the answer, and to discover the many twists and turns in the book's plot.

Other blog reviews include:
A Backwards Story
Dreaming in Books
Life after Twilight
Teen Book Fanatics
The Allure of Books
Frenzy of Noise
Young Adults Book Central

Disclosure:   Review copy provided by publisher

Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Lamp, by Susanne Dunlap (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.  
Release date:  April 12, 2011

Susanne Dunlap is fast becoming one of my favorite YA historical fiction authors; her third novel for teens, In the Shadow of the Lamp, follows the adventures of 16-year Molly Fraser, as she joins the nurses traveling with Florence Nightingale to the far-off Crimean war. As the novel opens, Molly loses her job as a chambermaid in one of London's aristocratic mansions when she is unjustly accused of stealing.  With no letter of reference, there are few respectable options open to her for employment.  Although she is too young and inexperienced to gain employment as one of Miss Nightingale's corps of nurses, by her wits she manages to sneak aboard their ship.  When she is found out, the very imposing and strict Miss Nightingale is impressed by Molly's determination to redeem herself and decides to give her a chance to be trained on the job.  She warns her that at the first sign of familiarity with any man, she'll be sent packing! 

But somehow we know romance will be in Molly's future (this is a YA novel, after all).  And not only one handsome young man is after her, but two:  Will with the kind eyes, the valet who follows Molly by enlisting in the British army; and Dr. Maclean, a Scottish doctor at the hospital who Molly is intensely attracted to.   And Molly finds friendship, too, with another young nurse, Emma.  Molly begins to earn the respect of the other nurses when she helps take care of all the ones suffering from seasickness during the ocean voyage to Turkey.  Soon they land, and she is amazed by the sights, sounds, and smells of Scutari, where they arrive shortly after the famous charge of the Light Brigade has produced hundreds of casualties, soon to arrive by ship.  But when the nurses arrive at the hospital, it's Molly's cleaning and mending experience that comes in handy--the place is filthy, filled with giant rats and lice,with overflowing latrines and piles of mending and washing to be done.

Dunlap makes sure to share some of Nightingale's philosophy of nursing, which was not just to do with giving medicine and bandages.  As strange as it seems to us now, her message was revolutionary at the time:  provide the sick and wounded with fresh air, warmth, and food, so that their bodies would heal.  She soon whips the hospital in Scutari into shape, securing supplies such as beds, fresh straw for mattresses, linens, even curtains to shield the patients from each other when the doctors were performing surgeries.  We see her through Molly's eyes, visiting the wards at night with her famous lamp, making sure the men were safe. 

Can Molly make something of herself as a nurse?  Will she be able to handle the hard work, the horrible sights and smells of the hospital, and Miss Nightingale's strict rules of behavior?

Once again Susanne Dunlap has created an incredibly sympathetic character as her protagonist.  Young Molly is far from perfect but is the type of young woman you'd want on your side in a difficult situation--like being at a battlefield hospital far from home.  This book combines romance, adventure, and history with an appealing plot and characters with teen appeal.  A great pick for public or school libraries!

In conjunction with reading this book, it might be fun to rent the 1985 TV miniseries biopic on Florence Nightingale, released on DVD in 2009, and starring former Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith and Timothy Dalton (available from Amazon, Netflix, and possibly your local library). 

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Women's History Month Book Review and Giveaway: Eliza's Cherry Trees: Japan's Gift to America, by Andrea Zimmerman and Ju Hong Chen (Pelican Publishing, 2011)

Recommended for ages 7-12.  

In the midst of the worst disaster to strike Japan since World War II, it's somehow poignant to recall, through this new picture book, an early gesture of friendship between the two countries:  Japan's gift of cherry trees to the nation's capital.

But do you know the story of how that gift came about?  Andrea Zimmerman's book tells the story of a remarkable woman, Eliza Scidmore, who in the late 19th century, led a life of high adventure, writing about her travels all over the world for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including National Geographic, where she was the first woman journalist.  She was a photographer as well, and took pictures for the Smithsonian.  She even wrote the first guidebook to Alaska.  But she particularly fell in love with Japan and its people, studying Japanese art and learning to speak the language.  Especially struck by the beauty of Japanese gardens, she called their cherry trees "the most beautiful thing in the world."

When Eliza returned home to Washington, she came up with the idea of planting these special trees in the nation's capital.  For years her plans met with plenty of "no's" from Washington bureaucrats; it wasn't until she got the support of the president's wife, Mrs Taft, however, that the trees could be sent.  It wasn't an easy process--the first trees that arrived were diseased, and had to be burned.  Three thousand new trees were sent, however, and were finally planted in March of 1912. [In 1965, 3,800 more trees were accepted as a gift by then First Lady Lady Bird Johnson.]

The trees not only beautified the city, they became an important symbol of peace and friendship between countries.  A famous National Cherry Blossom Festival draws thousands of visitors each spring in Washington.  As part of a number of projects underway to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the original gift, the National Park Service will be sending cuttings from the original trees to the Japan Cherry Blossom Association to be planted in Japan (see article in The Japan Times).

The book features lovely illustrations by Chinese artist Ju Hong Chen.  Back matter includes a timeline, with further biographical details about Eliza Scidmore. An attractive website has also been set up on Scidmore, with a teacher's guide and other resources relevant to the book. 

Other blog review:

Dad of Divas

Andrea Zimmerman's recent interview on NPR's show Here and Now can be found at this link.  

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Would you like to win a copy of this beautiful picture book for your home or school library?  If so, please leave a comment below with your e-mail address.  A winner will be chosen by random number generator on March 31, 2011 and will be notified by e-mail.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Women's History Month Book Review: Flesh and Blood So Cheap, by Albert Marrin (Knopf Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Friday, March 25 is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire, one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.  Quite a few books for young people have been published on the topic, both historical fiction and non-fiction.  The most recent, just released this spring by award-winning non-fiction writer Albert Marrin, brings the tragic events of that spring afternoon to life by setting the fire in a sweeping historical narrative that encompasses not only the events that led up to the fire, but what happened afterwards.

In a moving preface, Marrin sets the stage for the disaster, describing the beautiful spring day as would have been experienced by Frances Perkins, then a 31-year old social worker (later the first female cabinet member under FDR) who witnessed the disaster first-hand, changing the course of her life forever as she became committed to ensuring that such preventable tragedies would never happen again.

As Marrin points out, the Triangle Fire is part of a much larger story--the story of the greatest mass immigration in history, when millions of impoverished immigrants, mostly Italians and Russian Jews, poured into New York City and elsewhere.  More than 3 out of 4 people lived in poverty, and work in factories and elsewhere was often dangerous--with no safety net such as we take for granted today.  In some detail, with abundant archival photographs and maps, he discusses the reasons this immigration took place, with extreme poverty and natural disasters (including a devastating tsumani in Sicily) forcing millions of Italians to leave their homeland, while poverty and religious hatred pushed the Jews from Russia's Pale of Settlement.  Marrin describes in detail the culture immigrants found once they arrived--not streets of gold, but tenements, squalor, and hard work.

Clara Lemlich, an early union leader
To establish the context for the fire, he also describes the growth of the ready-to-wear industry in New York and the improvements in garment-making technology and changing women's fashions that led to the decline in sweatshops and the rise of the factory.  With jobs moving to factories, suddenly it was easier to form unions, and the same year the Triangle Waist Company opened, so did the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.  In 1909, the "uprising of the 20,000" united garment workers in the largest strike by women ever seen until then, finally forcing the public to take notice.  The women's reform movement, led by the wealthy women of the Mink Coat Brigade, provided important support for the strikers.

Was the Asch Building, where the Triangle Factory was housed, a disaster waiting to happen?  Not at first glance--the building was modern and fire-proof, built of steel and concrete, equipped with fire alarms and fire hoses.  The New York fire department was highly trained and nearby.  But safety precautions weren't cost effective for factory owners--sprinklers cost money, fire drills were a waste of time, and workers were considered expendable.

Although the building was fireproof, the contents were not--including the highly flammable fabric, and of course the people inside.  No one knows exactly how the fire started--probably from a cigarette butt tossed into a scrap bin--but within seconds the fire was out of control.  The details are well-known; those who were able to take the stairs from the 8th floor got out alive, yet the 9th floor stairway was locked, trapping those inside.  Workers on the 10th floor, or those who reached it from below, were able to survive by getting to the roof and then over to the next building, but in the meantime those trapped leaped to their deaths, many of them ablaze.  Of 500 employees who report that day, 146 perished, mostly young girls.

Frances Perkins as a factory inspector, c. 1911
Marrin does an excellent job describing the aftermath of the fire as well; outraged citizens' impassioned protests led to the formation of The New York Factory Investigating Commission, which carried out the state's most thorough study of worker safety and health done to date.  Frances Perkins was the chief investigator, and after four years of investigations, the legislature passed 34 groundbreaking new laws, ordering fire extinguishers, automatic sprinklers, fire drills, proper sanitary conditions, and more, as well as hiring 123 full-time inspectors to make sure that these laws were enforced.

Alas, the days of sweatshops and unsafe factories and not behind us, despite these efforts.  In his final chapter, Marrin discusses the "new" sweatshops of New York, where the workers are largely Asian immigrants and Hispanics, and the abysmal conditions of garment factories in the developing world, where conditions much like those at the Triangle Factory continue to exist, leading to disasters such as the 2010 fire at the Garib and Garib Sweater Factory in Bangladesh, which killed 21 workers.

Marrin writes:  "School textbooks usually focus on "famous" names--kings, presidents, politicians, generals--as the shapers of history.  Yet these are only part of the picture.  The names of others, often equally important, seldom get the recognition they deserve...It is as if they had never existed."  In this volume, Marrin takes an important step toward rectifying their invisibility.

Indeed, this book represents the best in narrative non-fiction for young people (or for adults who would like a succinct introduction to the history of the event and the issues raised).  I have already seen some pre-Newbery buzz for this title, and I feel sure that the Sibert Award Committee will be taking a close look at it as well.  It's a must-have for school and public libraries, and an excellent book for adults looking for an introduction to this topic as well as young people.

For other online reviews, see:
Publisher's Weekly, Kiss the Book, Richie's Picks, Book Faerie, Planet Esme.

Many on-line resources as well as books for young people are available on the topic of the Triangle Fire.  Please see my post from earlier this year on Esther Friesner's outstanding new historical fiction title, Threads and Flames, for more details.

Also please surf over to Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month on March 25 as well, when we will be publishing a moving essay by novelist Esther Friesner about the Triangle Fire and much more.  It gave me goosebumps, and I'm sure you will be touched as well by her reflections.

Among the slew of on-line stories appearing relating to the anniversary, the New York Times City Blog is publishing an excellent series of articles which will appear all this week.  Here are some of the links to date:

Remembering the Triangle Fire, 100 Years Later (this link includes information about events and exhibits going on in New York City)
In a Tragedy, a Mission to Remember
Triangle Fire:  A Half-Hour of Horror
Ask About Labor Laws and Unions in the Fire's Wake
Unnamed Triangle Waist Company Victims Identified
The Liberating Shirtwaist

Poster from the HBO documentary
Several new documentaries on the topic are airing this spring:  HBO has Triangle:  Remembering the Fire, and PBS' American Experience recently aired Triangle Fire, which can be watched on-line at their website.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nonfiction Monday/Women's History Month Book Review: Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic, by Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor (Simon & Schuster, 2011)

Recommended for ages 5-10.  

There are no shortage of books for young people about aviator Amelia Earhart--everything from picture books to longer biographies.  So do we really need another book about Amelia?  I'd answer with a resounding "yes"; this new release by Robert Burleigh, which came out just in time for Women's History Month,  is a terrific addition to what is already in print. 

On his website, Burleigh comments that no matter what his topic (he has written over 30 books), he likes the book "to convey the feeling of immediacy, of being there--whether there is flying an airplane, hitting a baseball, or painting a picture."  In his newest book, just released in February, he has indeed succeeded admirably in making us feel that we're right there with Amelia on her dangerous 1936 solo flight across the expanse of the Atlantic ocean.

This handsome picture book opens with Amelia about to take off on May 20, from Newfoundland. The text is evocative and poetic, almost in free verse. "The plane swoops like a swallow/over dark puddles and patches of tundra...Amelia Earhart lives for this moment: to follow the wide horizon that never ends!" We see Amelia's red Vega plane already far in the distance, as small figures on the ground wave goodbye.

The writing is full of suspense as danger strikes--a raging storm. "The friendly night becomes a graph of fear: a jagged line between where-I-am and not-quite sure." Will Amelia be able to pilot her plane across the vast ocean to safety?

This time Amelia will land safely in the Irish countryside, startling some cows in the pasture, as a farmer comes running to greet her. But the happy ending is particularly poignant, since we know as we read this story that another flight--her attempt to fly around the world just five years later--won't end as happily for Amelia.

The book includes an afterword with brief biographical information, a bibliography, list of famous quotes by Amelia, and recommended internet resources.

Award-winning artist Wendell Minor has contributed stunning gouache and watercolor paintings for this new book, which you can explore further in the book trailer below. The endpapers, colored in an old-fashioned sepia, show details about her Lockheed Vega 5B, which she dubbed the "little red bus" and also a map depicting her flight across the Atlantic. I was particularly struck by the artist's dramatic use of light; as Amelia flies over the ocean in the darkness, many of the two-page spreads are illuminated by lightning over the ocean.

Disclosure: Review copy provided by publisher.

Other blog reviews:
Where the Best books Are
Round Table for Kids
BookLoons Review
Children's Book Round-up (Chicago Sun Times)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Women's History Month Book Review: When Molly was a Harvey Girl, by Frances M. Wood (Kane Miller, 2010)

Recommended for ages 8-12.  

I was excited to pick up an autographed copy of this delightful historical fiction book for children at ALA-Midwinter in San Diego, since it had been on my radar for a while but I hadn't managed to get a hold of the book.   I was not disappointed in this fall 2010 release set in the Wild West in the 1890's that's a perfect choice for Women's History month.

When young Molly and her older sister Colleen are left penniless after their father's death, Colleen decides to answer an advertisement for the following:  "Young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, eighteen to thirty, to work in Harvey Eating Houses."  Although Molly's only thirteen, with her hair up and dressed to look older, she and Colleen are hired and sent from Illinois to far-off Raton, New Mexico--the ends of the earth as far as Molly is concerned, and to an area she is convinced is full of Western desperadoes with evocative names such as Rattlesnake Sam and Cockeyed Frank!

Because trains at the time didn't offer meal service, Frank Harvey had founded a chain of restaurants along the Santa Fe lines, offering good food and a hot meal at a reasonable price.  The educated, respectable young women hired from all over the country were a key part of the "brand," and made waitressing into a respectable profession.  Girls were paid a salary, provided with room and board, and subject to strict rules about behavior with the largely male customers, curfews, and uniforms.  Most came for adventure--and to find a husband, too.

Harvey girls at work
When Molly first sees the highly efficient Harvey girls at work, she's exhausted just by watching the waitress's "Herculean efforts."  Molly muses that the young woman "accomplished more in a half hour than Molly had ever accomplished in a day."  But soon both Molly and her sister are more than adequate as waitresses.  Molly, though, still hopes to get back to Illinois, and develops a scheme to get her sister married to one of their customers, Mr. Latterly, a traveling salesman who admires her attractive sister.  In the meantime, Molly develops a friendship with the magnificent French cook, Gaston, who teaches her about cooking, and his helpers, Josiah, who's part Indian, and Susana, who introduces Molly to Mexican culture.  And let's not forget Genius Jim--a notorious outlaw, who also weaves in and out of the story, providing an amusing surprise ending.

Will Molly's schemes work to get her back to her old life in Illinois, or will she stay out West with her new-found friends?

I found this book to be thoroughly charming; the protagonist, Molly, is a character girls will identify with, as she struggles to act like an "adult" even though she is only thirteen.  It's a great story to explore a little-known aspect of women's history; the Harvey restaurants provided a career opportunity for respectable girls in an era when there were very few options.  In addition, as a secondary story, we see the racism and prejudice that existed in the West between different ethnic groups, who were not supposed to mix socially, through Molly's friendship with Josiah and Susana.

Author Frances Wood used her own family history as the basis for this story, since as she reveals in an author's note, her great-grandmother, Jennie, became a Harvey Girl in 1887.  Although her ancestor left no diaries or letters about her Harvey Girl days, the author used other books on the Harvey Girls in her research, and a brief bibliography is provided.

Several other books for young readers have been published on the Harvey Girls.  For another novel for middle grade readers, you can check out Harvey Girl, by Sheila Wood Foard (Texas Tech University Press, 2006).  There is also a charming paper doll book (I see a great gift combo--paper dolls and this novel):  Far From Home:  West by Rail with the Harvey Girls Paper Dolls by Lesley Poling-Kempes.

Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls
And of course, while on the subject of the Harvey Girls, we can't forget the famous Judy Garland MGM musical The Harvey Girls, with the celebrated song and dance number, "On the Atchison, Topeka, & the Santa Fe," which won the Oscar for Best Song in 1946.

For more about the Harvey Houses on the web, including photos of surviving restaurants, click here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Nonfiction Monday/Women's History Month Book Review and Giveaway: The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Real Princesses

As a princess-lover myself from way back, I was excited to read about a new series of picture-book biographies aimed at readers in upper elementary school, The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Real Princesses, from Goosebottom Books.  The brain-child of author Shirin Yim Bridges, this series focuses on strong-willed, independent women who exercised power in a time when power was usually restricted to men.  All volumes in this series are illustrated by San Francisco artist Albert Nyguyen.

There are currently six separately-sold fact-filled volumes, each a fascinating picture book biography of a different real-life princess.  The volumes include a multi-cultural group of princesses who also represent different times in history:  Isabella of Castille, Hatshepsut of Egypt, Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Persia, Artemesia of Caria, Nur Jahan of India, and Sorghaghtani of Mongolia.  They would be an excellent fit for public or school libraries and despite their 24 page format, provide detailed text that would offer plentiful material for school reports.

They are also a good fit for young people who enjoy historical fiction biographies of royalty such as Scholastic's The Royal Diaries series.

Today I will share with you highlights of two of these books.

Isabella of Castille by Shirin Yim Bridges (Goosebottom Books, 2010):   Isabella of Castille is perhaps best known to young people as the queen who sponsored Christopher Columbus' expedition to find a trading route to Asia.  Bridges points out that unlike in fairy tales, where princesses get rescued by princes and then "swept away to a 'happily ever after'" Isabella made a "happily ever after" for herself.  She had a sad childhood, living in exile with her mother after her father died and her half-brother took the throne.  But when she becomes heir to the throne of Castile, she refuses all the suitors her half-brother presents, wanting to marry Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon, instead.  Bridges explains in accessible language the politics behind royal marriages, and how despite everything, Ferdinand and Isabella fell in love.  She provides details of their stormy marriage, Isabella's coronation, her leading the Castillian army into battle, her clothing, her children, and more.  The author also does not gloss over negative aspects of Isabella's legacy, including the infamous Spanish Inquisition, launched under her reign, and the high price native populations paid for the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Sorghaghtani of Mongolia by Shirin Yim Bridges (Goosebottom Books, 2010)  Sorghaghtani, a princess from one of the tribes north of China, was married at a very young age to one of the sons of Genghis Khan, who at the time was the conquerer of half the world.  We learn about the Mongol court's traditional nomadic lifestyle, living in round tents, and requiring over 100 carts to move their possessions every few months to find better pasture for the animals.  Like others of her tribe, Sorghaghtani was independent and capable, and when her husband dies, she becomes the ruler over all his lands.  Her wise rule was based on cooperation, tolerance, and mutual respect, and her third son, Kublai Khan, went on to absorb her lessons as he completed the conquest of China.

Both books are amply illustrated with pen and watercolor illustrations, photos, and period paintings, include a glossary with advice on how to pronounce unusual names, as well as maps and a timeline of different princesses in the series, and a "what she wore" section.  A bibliography in each volume with suggestions for further reading and web resources would have been a useful addition.  

It is often very young girls who are obsessed with princesses; see Peggy Orenstein's new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter:  Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girly-Girl Culture (Harper, 2011) for more on this topic.  Nonetheless, the 9 to 13 year old crowd that these books are targeted to still has many princess worshippers, only instead of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty they now idolize Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, among others.  This series provides an alternative to what author Bridges calls the "all-too-pervasive message that girls should look pretty, sit around, and wait to be rescued by a prince."  And we can all say Amen to that!

For further information on this series, see the Goosebottom website as well as a very informative article from Publisher's Weekly, "Goosebottom Books Seeks to Empower and Entertain 'Thinking Girls.'"

Disclosure:  Review copies provided by publisher.

To enter to win one copy each of these two books for your home or school library, please leave a comment below with your e-mail address so I can contact you if you are the winner, and share with me the real-life princess (or queen) from history whom you find most fascinating (no fictional Disney princesses, please)!  The winner will be selected by random number generator on March 31, 2011.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Author Interview: Randi Barrow, author of Saving Zasha

Randi Barrow
Q:  I'm delighted to welcome today debut young adult novelist Randi Barrow.  Randi, thanks so much for joining us at The Fourth Musketeer.  Can you tell us a little bit about how you were inspired to write Saving Zasha?
A:  Thank you so much for having me! I love your site, and think you offer an incredible amount of information and fun for your readers. I was inspired to write Saving Zasha after a chance encounter with a Russian man. At one point he pulled out a picture of his black Russian terrier, telling me briefly about the hatred of all things German that existed in Russia at that time, including the dogs, and about the work of the Red Star Kennel.  For months before I met him I'd become completely engaged by WWII, especially Russia's part in it, so what he said left a big impression.  That was it.  I was like a kid asking myself, well, what if a German Shepherd wandered into that world at that time...what would happen?  I began writing without thinking too much about who I was writing it for, or about any commercial purpose.  I just wanted to see who I'd meet and what would happen!

Q:  Can you tell us about how you conducted your research for this book?  Did you travel to Russia to interview people or rely on library sources?  Did you spend time with German shepherds? 
A:  I loved doing the research for the book. Because the place, and time, and events were still so new to me I read, and read, and read, and watched every documentary I could find. I found so many other fascinating stories waiting to be told! There was no trip to Russia (unfortunately!) but I am lucky enough to know a few owners of German shepherds. They have a passionate love for the breed, and were very generous in sharing information and anecdotes with me.

Q:  I  got my first dog as an adult, and now can't imagine living without one.  Your book jacket tells us that when dogs entered your life a dozen years ago, the effect was profound.  Please tell us more about your canine friends and how they helped you develop the character of Zasha. 
A:  When I was growing up my family had a few dogs; a boxer, two St. Bernards, and even a poodle, briefly. Although I enjoyed them, I never owned a dog once I was an adult. That changed when I met a little terrier mix who lived in my neighborhood named Pretty. It was like she opened a door somewhere in my heart or brain and suddenly there was a room there I never knew existed! It was like I was seeing animals for the first time, their awareness, their intelligence, and how much we are alike. A few years later we rescued Manuel, a Chihuahua/mix, and my education continued. Zasha’s personality owes a lot to those two dogs. All three share the traits of being kind, loving, intelligent, and (I’m quite sure) in Pretty and Manuel’s case, can read minds and speak English.

Q:  Randy, this is your first published children's book; do you have others in the pipeline and if so can you give us a sneak peak at what they will be about?
A:  I am working on three other middle grade projects right now. One is about the experience of a boy during the siege of Leningrad. (my love affair with Russia continues!) Another has to do with the POW camps in America during the war, and a third takes place in 1964 and involves music. There are several other stories that take place during the war that I want to tell. 

Q:  Please tell us about your journey to becoming a published children's author while working as an adoption attorney.  Do you hope to one day give up your "day job" and write full-time?
A:  In 2002, while still working as an adoption attorney, I had an adult non-fiction book published called Somebody's Child. It explored adoption themes, including legal issues, and changing social attitudes. After that, I was writing adult fiction, again exploring adoption cases. But in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to write for a younger market, with the stories set in historical contexts. Until I closed my practice in 2006, and finished up my remaining cases, it just wasn’t possible to give the hours to fiction that it requires. My husband was generous and crazy enough to encourage me to take a few years off and write. It was only then that I had the time and focus to devote myself completely to writing.

Q:  I love to ask authors to share what they are reading; can you tell us what books are currently on your nightstand?  
A:  I always have several books going at a time. I particularly like biographies and history. Right now I’m reading DIAGHILEV, by Scheijen, about the great Russian impresario who commissioned and encouraged so many amazing works of art. I’m just starting LENI REIFENSTAHL: A MEMOIR.  There were many minor players like her in the story of WWII that have unbelievable stories, and pose important moral questions. I’m reading William Manchester’s THE ARMS OF KRUPP, which provides an intriguing background on the war. My reading list is sounding a little dark, isn’t it? I also love the Irish crime writers, like Declan Hughes, and Ken Bruen, and Stuart Neville for plain old fun. I’m leaving out all the books I read for research, but that gives you an idea.

Q:  In addition to being an attorney, you call yourself an amateur historian.  Can you tell us about your interests in history?  Are you especially a fan of historical fiction, and if so, do you have any favorites?
A:  The phrase “amateur historian” is the way, way, way more than generous description given to me by my editor at Scholastic. Granted, any work of historical fiction takes a tremendous amount of research, reading, and investigation. But when I think of “real” historians, and compare myself to them I am compelled to run and hide! I recently heard a historian/author talking about how excited he was when he came upon 147,000 pages of information on one small aspect of what he was researching. Now THAT is a historian.  There are so many aspects of history and historical figures I'd like to explore.  For the moment, I'm trying to keep it limited to the war, Russia in the first half of the 20th century, Stalin, and as many important figures related to these events as I can manage.  

I love historical fiction, although I don’t consider myself particularly well-read in that genre. The ones I’ve read in the last year that stand out are Sarah's Key, Jacob's Ladder, and The Pillars of the Earth. If anyone has some good recommendations, I’d love to hear from them.
Thank you again, Margo, for your interest in Saving Zasha, and for sharing your wonderful blog with us all.

Reminder:  If you would like to enter to win a copy of Saving Zasha, please leave a comment at yesterday's post about the book.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Book Review and Giveaway: Saving Zasha, by Randi Barrow (Scholastic, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

I love a good dog story, and was delighted to find a terrific dog heroine (and no, she doesn't die at the end!) in this new historical fiction perfect for middle schoolers by debut children's novelist Randi Barrow.  Don't forget to check The Fourth Musketeer tomorrow for a fascinating interview with Randi!

Set in Russia at the end of World War II, this page-turner opens as thirteen-year old Mikhail finds a dying soldier and his beautiful German shepherd in the forest near his house.  When the soldier doesn't make it, the family is faced with a dilemma--what to do with his dog, Zasha?  The Germans were so hated by the Russians at the end of the war that German dogs were shot in the street out of vengeance, and Mikhail and his family decide to hide Zasha to save her life.

Dogs of any kind or breed were a rarity in the Soviet Union right after the war--many had starved to death or been killed in combat after being trained to blow up German tanks.  The Russian army has realized that it needs dogs after all, and Zasha is in constant danger from armed dog thieves looking for dogs to sell on the black market, a nosy neighbor girl who secretly craves a dog for herself, and a Russian soldier who is charged with breeding a new Russian superdog at a nearby farm.  Mikhail and his family fall desperately in love with the loving, smart, and loyal Zasha.  They've lost so much in the cruel war, including Mikhail's papa, who's still missing--will they lose Zasha too?

This is a fast-moving adventure story that will have a broad appeal to both boys and girls; we can't help but fall in love with Zasha, and empathize with her new family.  Nothing is simple in wartime, including innocent dogs, who were trained as vicious guard dogs and made to sacrifice themselves in battle.  But we also see how Zasha has an incredible healing effect on this family, whose members have suffered during the war.

Black Russian Terrier
Although this story is fiction, the author includes an afterword on the breeding of the Black Russian Terrier, a hardy Russian dog which was bred after the war, mostly with dogs imported from East Germany because there were indeed hardly any dogs remaining in the Soviet Union.

A great read-along for this book would be Cynthia Kadohata's Cracker!  The Best Dog in Vietnam (Atheneum, 2007), the story of a young soldier's bond with his bomb-sniffing dog in the Vietnam war.

Giveaway information:  Scholastic has generously donated a copy of Saving Zasha for one of my lucky readers--to enter to win, please leave a comment below with your e-mail and the title of your favorite dog book (for kids or adults!)  The winner will be chosen by random number generator on March 20, 2011.  

Monday, March 7, 2011

Non-Fiction Monday/Women's History Month: Outstanding Picture Books for Children on Women's Suffrage (Part 5)

My series of outstanding picture books on women's suffrage concludes with the delightful title,

You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer!:  A Very Improper Story, by Shana Corey, illustrated by Chesley McLaren (Scholastic, 2000).  

The book grabs  us from the beginning with its opening line:  "Amelia Bloomer was NOT a proper lady," a two-page spread where we see Amelia tossing away a frilly purple dress, gloves and other accessories, because she thought proper ladies were silly.  We see her demonstrating for a woman's right to vote, starting her own newspaper, The Lily, which was all about women's interests.  But what Amelia particularly thought was silly were the ridiculous dresses women wore, which weighed as much as a dozen bricks, swept up mud and trash from the street, and were so wide they got stuck in doorways.  Even little girls had to wear dresses and couldn't run and play.  

It was Amelia's friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton's cousin, Libby, who first introduced Amelia to the idea of a new style, pantaloons that were worn under a shorter, lighter, and narrower dress.  Amelia made herself a matching outfit, and when she went out for a walk, the public was shocked!  But Amelia thought her new clothes were wonderful, and when she wrote about them in The Lily, women everywhere wanted patterns to make the new style themselves.  Soon the new style was known as Bloomers, after Amelia herself.  

The book includes an author's note with detailed biographical information about Amelia Bloomer, whose life changed forever when Elizabeth Cady Stanton moved to Amelia's town, Seneca Falls, New York, making Seneca Falls the center of the women's movement.  In the author's note, we learn that women's clothing at the time typically weighed between 20 and 40 pounds!  We also learn about the considerable resistance to bloomers; Amelia and other reformers eventually stopped wearing bloomers because they didn't want the women's movement "reduced to a battle over clothing."  

As Corey notes in her conclusion, "Today women and girls can wear whatever they want.  Perhaps it wouldn't be that way, though, if all those years ago Amelia Bloomer hadn't had the courage to be "improper" and to take a stand for something she believed in." 

I can't discuss this book without drawing attention to the charming French-style very chic illustrations by multi-talented fashion designer/artist/children's book illustrator Chesley McClaren.  Painted in vibrant colors in gouache, the illustrations seem to jump and dance across the pages, capturing the freedom that Amelia and her friends must have felt in their new, less restrictive outfits.  

This is a terrific tale to share with young girls today, who take for granted their freedom to wear whatever they please--whether it means dressing like a princess or being comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt.  It was not so long ago that girls weren't allowed to wear pants to school, after all.  Amelia Bloomer would be proud to see that women and girls can be as comfortable (or not comfortable, in 4 inch heels!) as they choose today.  

"Bloomers" from Amelia's era
And on Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month today, reflections on women's history ("So Many Women, So Little Time!)  from award-winning children's author Tanya Lee Stone!  Don't forget to check it out!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Women's History Month: Outstanding Picture Books for Children on Women's Suffrage (Part 4)

Hilary Rodham Clinton, of course, was not the first woman to run for president.  But did you know that way back in 1884, years before women won the right to vote, a daring woman ran for president, and even received thousands of votes?

Ballots for Belva:  The True Story of a Woman's Race for the Presidency, by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Courtney A. Martin (Abrams, 2008), tells this remarkable story in an easy-to-follow picture book format, which can be enjoyed by all ages.

After working as a teacher and starting a suffrage group, Belva Lockwood decided she wanted to be a lawyer at age 39.  But no law school would admit a woman in those days, except the newly formed National University law school.  Belva enrolled there with fourteen other women, but was one of only two who finished the courses, since the women were made to feel uncomfortable by the male students.  But when she finished, the school refused to give her a diploma, and she had to petition President Ulysses S. Grant, who was also president of the law school, in order to receive it.

Belva was a woman who accomplished many "firsts."  She was the first woman to practice law in federal court and the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.  She was an activist for women's rights who tried unsuccessfully to get the Republican Party to put women's suffrage on its official platform. In frustration at being ignored, she realized that there was no legal basis preventing women from running from office, even though they couldn't vote.  And in 1884, she was nominated by the Equal Rights Party of the United States.  She selected another woman, Marietta Stow, as her running mate, and began campaigning across the country, working hard to raise money and organize supporters.

Although she was ridiculed by the press and even by many of her fellow suffragettes, Belva persisted.  And indeed, she won 4,711 votes, cast in nine different states, despite the fact that some vote counters threw away ballots with her name on them, not believing anyone would vote for a woman.   This made her the first woman to run for president who actually got people to vote for her--and men, since they were the only ones voting at the time.  [An earlier female presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull, ran in 1872, but had to drop out before the election due to lack of funds.]

Belva was certainly ahead of her time, believing that some day a woman would occupy the White House as president and proving that women had the determination and courage to campaign for the position.

The book includes an author's note, glossary of terms, a useful timeline of women's suffrage in the United States, and a selected bibliography.

Bardhan-Quallen offers us an inspiring story of a true pioneer in women's rights, one that would be a terrific story to share with young girls today.  The book is handsomely illustrated as well, with attractive two-page spreads that give a monumental quality to Belva's story.

For another book on Belva for young people, see:

Belva Lockwood:  Equal Rights Pioneer, by Jill Norgren (Twenty-First Century Books, 2008), a biography for grades 5-9 that covers many more interesting episodes in Belva's life, including her work on behalf of Native Americans and the International Peace Movement.

And today on Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month, don't forget to read a fascinating post from author Ann Bausum about the anniversary of the Grand Picket for Voting Rights!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Women's History Month: Outstanding Picture Books for Children on Women's Suffrage (Part 3)

Today's Women's History Month book focuses on the story of Esther Morris, the first woman to hold public office in the United States.

I Could Do That:  Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, by Linda Arms White, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter.  Melanie Kroupa Books, 2005.

This delightful picture book tells the story of a pioneer for women's rights, Esther Morris, whose story was completely new to me.  We first meet Esther as a determined six-year old, who meets each new challenge by piping up with the refrain, "I could do that," whether it's making tea, sewing, taking care of her younger brothers and sisters when her mother dies, or opening her own hat shop at a time when it was unusual for young women to own their own business.

When her first husband dies, she can't claim his land in Illinois because women weren't allowed to inherit from their husband.  She later remarries and moves to the Wyoming Territory, where women were scarce, outnumbered six to one by men!  She opens another hat shop, but also helps deliver babies, nurse the sick, and do whatever else needed doing on the frontier.  When the territory holds its first elections, she gets a commitment from the male candidates to introduce a bill giving women the vote in Wyoming, and didn't let them forget their promise.  In 1869, Wyoming women indeed got the right to vote, before any other state or territory in the country.  When the county's judge resigns in protest, Esther takes over his job as justice of the piece, the first woman in the country to hold public office.  White's version of Esther's extraordinary story ends triumphantly with Esther casting her first vote in an election.  Like the Smith sisters whom I wrote about yesterday, Esther did not live long enough to be able to vote in a presidential election.

Esther's story is greatly enhanced by the wit and humor of the brightly colored folksy illustrations by Nancy Carpenter, who has illustrated numerous historical titles.  I particularly liked her use of a vibrant yellow as the background color for many of the two-page Wyoming spreads, which seemed to suggest the bright light, heat, and dust of the Wild West territory.  She also exploits Esther's great height (she was six feet tall, a giant among women--and men-- in that age) to great effect in many of the illustrations, as Esther towers over the men for whom she pours tea while they discuss the upcoming election.

An author's note with further information on Esther Morris and a list of resources, both print and web sites, to explore Esther Morris' story further.

And don't forget to check out Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month:  today a fascinating post from Chasing Ray about Dolly Shepherd, an early 20th century balloonist!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Women's History Month: Outstanding Picture Books for Children on Women's Suffrage (Part 2)

My second choice in my series of recommended picture books about women's suffrage is a 2010 release:

The Taxing Case of the Cows: A True Story About Suffrage, by Iris Van Rynbach and Pegi Deitz Shea, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Clarion Books, 2010)

Abby and Julia Smith of Glastonbury, Connecticut, were independent elderly ladies who ran their own farm, raising cows, and seemingly minding their own business, until 1869, when the town elders (all men) decided to raise taxes--on single female landowners only.  Abby insisted that they should have the right to vote on a decision that affected them--"taxation without representation!" they cried, much like their revolutionary war ancestors a hundred years earlier.  But Abby and Julia not only didn't have the right to vote, they didn't even have the right to speak up in a town meeting.  Their case became a cause celebre among women's rights advocates, and was written up in newspapers around the country.

The book provides a rather detailed account of the legal maneuvering, including the town taking the sisters' cows for collateral on their owed taxes to a neighbors farm, with the cows resisting every step of the way.  The sisters sued when the town took away their land for non-payment, and eventually won their case on appeal.  They toured the country, giving speeches and writing about women's rights.  Sadly, they did not live long enough to see Congress pass the 19th amendment in 1920.

This book is attractively illustrated with Caldecott winning illustrator Emily McCully's signature watercolors, which lend a nostalgic feel to the story.  Although this is a picture book, I would recommend this for older elementary school students (3rd through 6th grade), because of the relatively lengthy text and complexity of the story.  It would be a terrific read-aloud for women's history month for the classroom or at home, and could provoke a good discussion of the evolution of women's rights.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Women's History Month: Outstanding Picture Books for Children on Women's Suffrage (Part 1)

This year, I am excited to link up to the first official Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month celebration, organized by myself along with fellow blogger/librarian Lisa Taylor of Shelf-Employed.  Please make sure to check it out at  We will be having posts from a variety of authors and bloggers all month, including Kathleen Krull, Sue Macy, Carolyn Meyer, Tanya Lee Stone and more.  Don't forget to sign up to "follow" the blog or to receive the posts through RSS feeds or e-mail so you don't miss any of the sure-to-be terrific entries.

As part of my own celebration of Women's History Month here at The Fourth Musketeer,  I have read a variety of picture books on women's suffrage, having realized (much to my personal embarrassment!) how little I knew on a topic that is so central to women's history.  I don't remember ever learning anything much about this subject in school, so I have had to educate myself on this fascinating topic.  And what better way than with some fabulous picture books from contemporary authors!  All of these recommended titles are easily available through your local public library or bookstore.  My entry today is about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who for over fifty years played a leadership role in the women's rights movement.  

Elizabeth Leads the Way:  Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, by Tanya Lee Stone (Henry Holt, 2008).

In this book suitable for early elementary school-aged children, Tanya Lee Stone paints a colorful picture of one of the leading figures in the fight for women's rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Delightfully illustrated in a folk art style by Rebecca Gibbon, the story of Elizabeth's life is told in simple language that is accessible for the youngest readers.  The author begins with an illustration of Elizabeth Cady Stanton as an elderly woman, and draws us in right away with this provocative text:

What would you do
if someone told you
you can't be what you want to be
because you are a girl?

What would you do 
if someone told you
your vote doesn't count,

your voice doesn't matter
because you are a girl?

Would you ask why?
Would you talk back?
Would you fight...
for your rights?

Elizabeth did.

We see Elizabeth growing up, horrified by the injustices done to women, and committed to being able to do anything a boy could do, including excelling in Greek, French, math, and religious studies.  When she married Henry Stanton, an ardent abolitionist, she told him she wouldn't give up her name but would add his to her own.  Elizabeth became one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention, the first large-scale meeting discussing women's rights, particularly their right to vote.  She was widely criticized for her boldness, but as Tanya Lee Stone states in concluding her book,  "Elizabeth had tossed a stone in the water and the ripples grew wider and wider and wider....She changed America forever."  

An Author Note with additional biographical information and a list of sources are included.  

While this book doesn't provide lots of details on Elizabeth Cady Stanton's life, it is a good starting point for young readers to explore the beginnings of the women's movement.  Its attractive format and brief text are likely to create further interest in this pioneer of women's rights and her circle.

Later this month I will be reviewing an excellent new book (it will be published in May) for young people by Penny Colman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony:  A Friendship that Changed the World.