Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Review: Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Illustrator Eugene Yelchin's first novel, Breaking Stalin's Nose, is a brilliantly conceived expose of the horrors of life in Stalin's Russia, seen through the eyes of a very naive young boy.  And since the book was recently recognized with a Newbery Honor, it is likely to make it onto the shelves of school and public libraries around the country.

Ten-year old Sasha has been dreaming of being a Soviet Young Pioneer ever since he can remember, and he can recite all the Young Pioneer laws by heart. He loves Comrade Stalin like a revered grandfather, but when the long-anticipated ceremony to be inducted into the Young Pioneers is finally to take place, everything seems to go wrong.  When his father is taken away by the police, arrested as an enemy of the people, Sasha slowly begins to wonder if everything he has learned about Stalin and the Soviet state is a lie.

With its naive, optimistic narrator, this book reminded me very much of Morris Gleitzman's Once, John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed. Like the heroes in those novels, Sasha's naivete manages to be somehow funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Through his eyes, we see the incongruity of the Soviet propaganda and the realities of life in a society where even children were encouraged to inform on their parents.

Although there are many novels for children about World War II, there are few about Stalin's Russia, and this book definitely fills a gap in the literature.   Despite the sophisticated subject matter, the simplicity of the language in the book is suitable for children in elementary school, and would work well as discussion for a book club as well. Yelchin provided the dramatic graphite black and white illustrations for the book as well as the text.

An author's note provides some background on Stalin's reign of terror, and, paradoxically, how few people of Yelchin's generation (he grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1960's) were aware of the scale of Stalin's crimes, which were carried out in secrecy.  There is also an excellent website for the book, which allows users to click on various images to learn more about Stalin, Sasha's dad, the Young Pioneers, Sasha's school, Lubyanka Prison, and other topics dealt with in this slim but powerful book.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: In Trouble, by Ellen Levine (Carolrhoda Lab, 2011)

Recommended for ages 14 and up.

Abortion is a topic few YA authors dare to broach in their books, and this reality alone would be enough reason for me to applaud award-winning author Ellen Levine's 2011 young adult novel In Trouble.  But the book has plenty of merit as an unsentimental look at the hard choices (or lack thereof) teens confronted when they became pregnant in the 1950's.

The film noir style cover, portraying a lonely teenaged girl waiting late at night on a deserted street, sets the stage for this dark novel set in 1956 New York, when choices for young girls who got themselves "in trouble" were limited indeed.  The author tells the story of best friends Jamie and Elaine, who both find themselves with unwanted pregnancies while in high school.  However, the pregnancies are ultimately dealt with in very different ways, with a sensitive portrayal of how two different families dealt with this difficult situation.

Note:  some spoilers....

Elaine has a steady boyfriend already in college, and is sure that he will marry her when she tells him about the pregnancy.  Jamie's circumstances, on the other hand, are slowly unveiled by the author through a series of nightmares as the reader realizes that she was date-raped by a friend of her sophisticated Manhattan cousin.  Jamie's family is already under plenty of stress, since her dad has just been released from prison, having been convicted for refusing to answer questions during the McCarthy hearings.  But when they discover her circumstances, her family steps up, even helping her find a doctor who will do an abortion, despite abortions being illegal at the time.  Elaine, on the other hand, is sent to a home for unwed Catholic girls, where she is pressured to give up her baby for adoption despite her wishes.

In Trouble is based on dozens of interviews Levine conducted, and although the characters are fictional, each event in the book actually happened to someone.  In an author's note, Levine explains why she felt compelled to tell Elaine and Jamie's stories.  "If we don't know what has happened, we can't appreciate our choices today and what we might lose if laws are changed," she writes.  She explains that although we might think things are totally different today, with the availability of legal abortion, in 87% of U.S. counties you can't get a legal abortion, because there's no doctor who will do it.

I believe this is an important novel for young people, particularly girls to read; unfortunately, I'm not sure it will be widely purchased by school and public libraries.  Despite the fact that Levine has won many awards for her work, including a Caldecott Honor for Henry's Freedom Box, few of the library systems in my area (Southern California) have purchased it, although the novel came out in September.  Whether this is because of the controversial subject matter or limited budgets, I can't say, but I hope librarians will not be reluctant to add this to their collections because the book deals with abortion.  It is a gripping story that deserves to be on the shelves.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: An Elephant in the Garden, by Michael Morpurgo (Feiwel and Friends, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

British author Michael Morpurgo, who's written more than 100 books for young people, is currently in the limelight as the author of War Horse, the World War I novel on which the current Steven Spielberg film and hit play are based.  His most recent book to be published in the U.S. (October 2011) is another moving story of a family and an animal in wartime, this time set during the Second World War and involving a somewhat more unusual animal--an elephant.

Inspired by historical truth and the author's self-professed love of elephants, this novel tells a story within a story; a young boy named Karl visits his mother at the nursing home where she works in present day England.  He's the only one who takes seriously an elderly woman named Lizzie (Elizabeth) when she tells him about Marlene, the elephant that lived in her garden.  When Karl and his mother sit down to listen, Lizzie spins the extraordinary saga of her life as a young girl in Dresden, at the time of World War II.  Her mother worked at the zoo there, and sought permission from authorities to bring a lonely orphaned elephant to stay with them each night, walking her to and from the zoo each day from the garden outside their home.

When Dresden is fire bombed by a savage Allied air raid attack, Elizabeth takes to the roads along with Mutti (her mother), her little brother, Karli, and their beloved, gentle, and wise four-year old elephant, Marlene, named after movie star idol Marlene Dietrich.  They are joined on the roads by thousands of other bewildered civilian refugees, who have seen their city turned into ashes.  Knowing that the Russians are closing in on Germany from the East and the Allies from the West, the family decides to take its chances with the Americans and the British forces by heading west.

On their journey to safety, they meet Peter, a young Canadian navigator who's been shot down and is being pursued by German police.  Lizzie is consumed with guilt by her immediate attraction to this handsome enemy, and despite the fact that her mother is filled with hatred toward the soldiers who bombed her beautiful city to smithereens, Peter soon becomes a member of their ragtag family.  However, their lives are filled with danger since Peter could be arrested at any moment by German police and sent to a POW camp.  And it's pretty hard to travel without being noticed when you're travelling with an elephant in tow...will Lizzie and her family make it to safety?  And what will happen to Marlene?

The author uses different fonts so that young readers are not confused by the time shifts between Lizzie's story during the war and Lizzie's conversations with Karl and his mother.  At less than 200 pages, this is a quick read for strong readers and a relatively easy book for reluctant readers as well.  The well-paced story is sure to appeal to both those who love animal stories and readers looking for an adventure story or historical fiction.  I particularly admired the way that Morpurgo shows the way the war impacted ordinary German civilians; for example, the rise of Hitler causes a rift between different members of Lizzie's family, some of whom support Hitler and others who think he's an abomination.  We also see  the manner in which the Allied bombings affected everyone, from the children to Peter, the Canadian bomber, who although the enemy, is kind to Lizzie and her family.

Morpurgo is one of the U.K.'s most beloved children's authors, but is not immune to criticism; McDonalds in England is handing out free copies of his books with their Happy Meals, as part of a special promotion for the release of War Horse in England.  Despite the fact that all of Morpurgo's royalties are going to charity, this promotion has been criticized as encouraging childhood obesity (see the article below for further details).

McDonald's UK Switches Out Happy Meal Toys For... (huffingtonpost.com)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Review: Bambino and Mr. Twain, by P.I. Maltbie (Charlesbridge, 2012)

Recommended for ages 5-12

Release date:  February 1, 2012

Author P.I. Maltbie returns to the theme of famous individuals and their pets--a subject she visited in her 2008 book Picasso and Minou--in her newest picture book.  In this story, we meet Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, a sad old man who has lost his beloved wife, Livy, and is living like a recluse in his house on 5th Avenue in New York City.  His daughter's cat, Bambino, keeps him company as he spends more and more time in bed, refusing to accept invitations from people he's convinced will be expecting to meet the witty author Mark Twain, rather than a grumpy old man.

But when Bambino jumps out the window into the busy city, in pursuit of a squirrel, the celebrated author offers a reward for his return.  Soon people from all over the city appear with cats and kittens of every description for Mr. Twain, even offering to lend him their own pets.  Reporters came too, to write about Twain's missing pet.  Will the "prodigal cat" return?

This is a delightful picture book for elementary school students.  Since children generally love animals, they will easily identify with how the cat Bambino enriches Twain's life, and how when he goes missing it mobilizes the author's fans.  An author's note at the end of the book provides further details on Twain and his household, including Bambino.  The author also provides a brief bibliography of books about Mark Twain.  Suggestions of further reading for young people would have been valuable as well (the titles offered seem to all be for adults).

Illustrator Daniel Miyares, in his second illustrated book for young people, uses mixed media and digital techniques to create striking illustrations for this tale.  The images are stylized in a manner which makes them appear like collage or papercutting, and the muted colors with the glowing lighting provide a nostalgic quality to the pictures.

This book would be nicely paired with another picture book on Mark Twain published last year, The Extraordinary Mark Twain, According to Suzy, by Barbara Kerley (Scholastic, 2010).

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Author Interview: Kristin Levine, author of The Lions of Little Rock

Kristin Levine

I am delighted to welcome author Kristin Levine to The Fourth Musketeer.  Kristin was kind enough to answer some questions for me and the Fourth Musketeer readers about her newest historical fiction novel, set in Little Rock in 1958.

Q:  The Lions of Little Rock is your second historical fiction novel.  What draws you particularly to writing historical fiction for young people?

As a child, I often found history class really boring, I think because I could never relate to long lists of dates and events.  But once I found a person to latch onto, I suddenly found history fascinating (and much easier to remember).  So I guess I like writing historical fiction because it's the kind of books I enjoyed reading when I was in school.

Q:  Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write a novel set in 1958 in Little Rock--the year after the historic integration of the "Little Rock Nine." 

My mother lived in Little Rock until she was nine.  If her family hadn't moved away, her older sister would have been in the sophomore class at Central High School in 1957 when the Little Rock Nine integrated the school.  My aunt said she's always wondered what it would have been like to have been at Central during that time. So I was actually planning to write about 1957, but when I went to Little Rock to conduct interviews, the people I spoke to talked more about 1958-1959 when all the high schools were closed and no one could go to school.  I had never heard about the school closings, even though they'd happened in my home state of Virginia as well.  I decided that since there were already so many great books about 1957, it would be more interesting to write about the so-called "lost year" instead.

Q:  Your main character, Marlee, is painfully shy--so much so that saying five words aloud at school feels like a major accomplishment.  You write with such sensitivity in her voice; was she modeled on someone you know?

Yes, when I was in junior high there was a girl who almost never spoke.  I believe she had some sort of a sp­eech impediment.  Once I tried briefly to be friendly to her, but when she didn't respond right away, I went back to simply ignoring her like everyone else.  I've always wondered what would have happened if I'd tried a little harder.

I'm not shy at all in person (in fact, I love to talk), but sometimes I do feel really shy when posting things online.  I see other people posting all these cute, clever things on Facebook and I don't know how they do it.  I'll obsess for 20 minutes over a status update, then decide that maybe someone could misunderstand me and be offended and end up not posting anything all.  Maybe it has to do with being a writer and feeling like everything I write has to be just right.  (And yes, I've spent way too much time figuring out how to answer these questions!) 

In any case, like Marlee I'm trying to get better at participating in discussions, especially online, and not just lurking in the background.

Q:  In researching Little Rock in the late 1950's, what was one aspect of  life at that time that particularly surprised you?

At the time I was researching this book (late 2008) my mother was actively campaigning for Barack Obama.  It was funny to me that she was using the exact same canvassing techniques that were used during the 1959 school board election in my book.

I was also surprised by the "television classes" that were offered after the schools closed.  "Distance learning" seems like such a hot new topic right now, but I guess it really isn't such a new idea. 

Q:  Issues of racism and social justice are featured prominently in both in Lions of Little Rock and your earlier novel, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had.  Can you comment on what draws you to telling these kinds of stories? 

As a child, my parents were active in the pairing of my mainly white school with a mainly black school across town.  When I asked them why I had to be bussed, they told me what a great opportunity it was to be with other people who didn't look or act exactly like me. That made a huge impression on me.  To this day I believe that integration and diversity and social justice aren't important issues just for minorities, but for everyone. 

Q:  Can you tell us a little bit about any upcoming writing projects you are working on?

I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I'm going to do next.  I've always wanted to write sci-fi or fantasy, which at first seems like a big leap, but I guess it's really not.  In historical fiction, you're trying to create a time and place, just like you're creating a different world in sci-fi or fantasy.

But of course I also really enjoy historical fiction.  And now that I've based one book on my grandfather (The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had) and one book very loosely on my mother (The Lions of Little Rock) my father is clamoring that it's HIS turn for a book.  So there may be a book about a paperboy in Chicago in my future!

Q:  What books do you currently have on your nightstand (or are reading in your e-reader?)  Do you read largely children's books or adult fiction?

I read everything.  I tend to find an author I like (Robin McKinley, Christopher Paul Curtis, Charlaine Harris), and then read everything by that person.  Two YA books I enjoyed recently were Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Blood Wounds by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  My book club reads mainly adult fiction; In the Woods by Tana French was their last selection.

Q:  What are some of your favorite historical fiction titles for children and/or adults?

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis is one of my all-time favorite books.  As a child I enjoyed books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.  In 9th grade I loved long, historical novels like Shogun by James Clavell. 

Q:  With your background in screenwriting, are you also drawn to historical stories in the movies?  If so, do you have any recent favorites?

Yes, most definitely, though I'm afraid my suggestions aren't very recent.  With two small kids I'm afraid I don't get to the movies as much as I used to!

Lawrence of Arabia is one of my all-time favorite movies.  (If you can, please see it in a movie theater - it's even more impressive on a big screen.)  I became fascinated with T.E. Lawrence after seeing the film, read all about him, and when we were in England, even made my parents visit the small town where he is buried.

The Civil War series by Ken Burns also made a huge impression on me.  It aired for the first time when I was in high school.  The photos, stories and music made the war seem so personal, and for the first time I was really excited about learning US history.

In general I love historical films - even when they aren't super accurate.  I don't think that's their job.  I just like being inspired to learn more.  

Thanks so much, Kristin, for being interviewed at The Fourth Musketeer!  I appreciate your taking the time to visit.  

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: The Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2012)

Recommended for ages 10-14.

Check back tomorrow (Friday) for an interview with The Lions of Little Rock author, Kristin Levine!

Some books introduce you to a really special character.  Kristin Levine has done that with the protagonist of her new novel, The Lions of Little Rock, twelve-year old Marlee.  Marlee is a brilliant math student, who dreams of becoming a rocket scientist (although she wonders if it's only boys who can have careers in math).  But at school, Marlee is painfully shy, and is so nervous she's scared of saying anything in class.  Not surprisingly, it's difficult for her to make friends.  It's 1958 in Little Rock, and Marlee's starting middle school.  Her older sister, Judy, should be attending high school, but the governor has closed the schools rather than have them be integrated, even though nine African-American students had enrolled the year before (the famous Little Rock Nine).

Things seem to be improving for Marlee when, much to her surprise, a new girl at school, Liz, comes to eat lunch with her and soon becomes her friend.  Liz and Marlee are even working together on an oral presentation for school, and Liz is helping Marlee gather the courage to speak in front of the entire class. But when the big day comes, Marlee is devestated to find out that Liz is not returning to West Side Junior High--and it's for a shocking reason.  It turns out that Liz is African-American, but has been "passing" for white.  When her identity is discovered, she must withdraw from school.

Although Marlee's mother is shocked by what she sees as Liz' betrayal, Marlee can't help missing her friend.  Can Liz and Marlee still be friends even though it's become dangerous for them to even be seen together?

This novel is an excellent pick for tweens and middle school students, exploring serious issues of prejudice within the context of a story of two girls' friendship that students that age will easily identify with.  The lions of the title live in the zoo not far from Marlee's house, and she hears them roaring sometimes at night.  But the title also refers to the courage that Marlee and Liz demonstrate by fighting the prejudice that was so much a part of their milieu in 1958 Little Rock.  Marlee even lies to her family to meet Liz secretly, not thinking that it might be dangerous for Liz and her family for the girls to see each other.  The secondary characters in this novel, including Marlee's sister, parents, and their African-American maid Betty Jean are just as skillfully drawn as the two protagonists, and enrich the story as well.  I would particularly recommend the book for mother-daughter or library book clubs, since the subject matter and the characters' response to their situations would make excellent material for discussion.

The Lions of Little Rock is also being released in audiobook.  Check out an excerpt here.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: The Cats in the Doll Shop, by Yona Zeldis McDonough (Viking, 2011)

Recommended for ages 7-10 (could be read aloud to even younger children)

I have a soft spot for both animal stories and doll stories, so I was eager to read Yona Zeldis McDonough's newest book, The Cats in the Doll Shop.  While this book is a sequel to her earlier novel, The Doll Shop Downstairs, it can easily be read without having read the first book.

Set in 1915, a few years after the first story, this book returns to the cozy world of the Breittlemann family, who live upstairs from their small doll factory which supplies to New York's legendary toy store FAO Schwarz.  The three sisters, eleven-year old Anna, her more sophisticated now teenaged sister Sophie, and nine-year old Trudie, are about to experience big changes in their lives when their cousin Tania comes to live with them from Russia.  Anna is particularly excited because Tania is just her age; she even makes Tania a special doll just for her as a welcoming gift. But when Tania arrives, she is withdrawn and shy, even hoarding food in her bed.  As Anna and her sisters struggle to understand their new cousin's behavior,  Anna also tries to help a stray cat and her kitten who live around her building, but her father has a firm "no pets" policy.  Soon Anna discovers that Tania has a special relationship with the cats--and the cats might just help her adjust successfully to her new home.

Set in a world of Jewish immigrant families highly reminiscent of the classic Sydney Taylor All of a Kind Family series, this is a charming and heartwarming story that is perfect for ages 7-10 and could be enjoyed by younger children as a read-aloud.  The story is complemented by black and white drawings by Heather Maione which capture the nostalgia of the period.  The book includes a glossary of Yiddish terms and a timeline.

An interview with the author, editor, and illustrator recently appeared in the blog The Whole Megillah.  You can read an excerpt from the novel on the author's website.  The first book in this series, The Doll Shop Downstairs, was honored with a Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Book of 2009 and was also nominated as one of the New York Public Library's 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, 2009.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: Behind the Masks: The Diary of Angeline Reddy, Bodie, California, 1880 (Dear America), by Susan Patron (Scholastic, 2012)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Newbery-award winner Susan Patron turns to the Wild West in the newest entry in the re-launch of Scholastic's popular Dear America series.  Set in the frontier town of Bodie, California, at the height of its  Gold Rush boom, this novel introduces us to plucky fourteen-year-old Angeline, who doesn't believe that her father, the town's criminal lawyer, has been murdered. In fact, she's willing to sneak into the town's funeral home to take a peek in the casket just to prove it's not him.  When her hunch proves right, she's the one who has to investigate the mystery this book revolves around:  just where is her Papa?

But it's not easy to get to the truth in this practically lawless gold rush town; Angeline is just plain "weary of the recklessness and danger of Bodie," a settlement filled with Chinese immigrants, saloons, brothels, miners, vigilantes, and a troupe of actors known as the "Horribles."   In order to find her father, she get some help from several friends, Ellie and Ling Loi, an American-born Chinese girl, Ling Loi, who's been raised in a brothel by the proverbial prostitutes with a heart of gold.  There's a hint of romance, too, between Angeline and an attractive bank-clerk-detective-actor, and even a ghost story revolving around a long-dead child.  The story is written in the first-person diary format of the other books in this series, but differs from other Dear America novels that I have read in that I would call it more of a mystery than traditional historical fiction.  The author provides plenty of colorful historical details of life in a frontier town, from the awful realities of a trip to the dentist to the petty small-town prejudices and gossip.  It's an action-packed, rip-roaring tale that should appeal to girls as well as boys and makes a good addition to school and/or public libraries.

Like all the Dear America books, this novel includes an epilogue of what happened to the characters and a section with historical notes about the town of Bodie in 1880, historical photos and maps. Back matter also includes a section on how to make a 19th century style mask from strips of muslin.  An author's note from Patron explains how she became interested in the history of Bodie after visiting the town, located near Yosemite.  The "ghost town," which at the height of its boom in the 1880's had 10,000 residents, is now a National Historic Site and a California State Historic Park.

Disclosure:  review copy provided by publisher.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Blog Tour/Book Review: In Darkness, by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury, 2012)

Recommended for ages 14 and up.

Release date:  January 17, 2012

Fourteen-year-old Shorty is in trouble--bad trouble.  One minute he's in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound, and the next thing he knows, he's in the dark, buried alive in the rubble of the Haiti earthquake.  Shorty's grown up the slums of Haiti, in appalling conditions of incredible violence, gangs, drugs, poverty, and oppression.  But now he faces something even worse.

"In darkness, I count my blessings like Manman taught me.  One, I am alive.  Two:  There is no two."

To keep himself sane as he lies dying, Shorty relives his brief and troubled life, as he lies in a coffin of rubble, dreaming of water, surrounded by dead and stinking bodies, hearing people shouting for survivors, but unable to make himself heard.  He tells us about how he and his beautiful twin sister were delivered by Aristide himself, how his adored sister was taken from him by gangsters, how his father was brutally murdered in front of him.  His story is mixed up with that of politicians and well-meaning white relief workers who come to Haiti hoping to do good.  We see how a "good" kid who was bright and eager goes "bad," getting sucked into a cycle of violence by joining the gangsters who kill without mercy but also pass out food aid and pay school fees.

Lake merges into Shorty's story another tale of Haiti--one from long ago--the story of a slave named Toussaint l'Ouverture, who led the only successful slave rebellion in the 1790's--another tale of violence, brutality, carnage, revolutionary idealism, voodoo, and power.  As Shorty lies dying in the rubble, somehow his spirit mixes with Toussaint's and the two of them are connected on some mysterious spiritual level. Are they connected by the ancient stone that contains the spirits of the ancestors?  Will Toussaint's indomitable spirit help keep Shorty alive long enough to be rescued from the rubble?

This powerful and unforgettable story of both present-day and long-ago Haiti is a gripping story you will find hard to put down.  Not easy to read and digest because of the many violent and disturbing scenes, Lake nonetheless manages to jump back and forth with great ease between Shorty's first person account and the third-person story of the historical Toussaint L'Ouverture, peppering his narrative with creole words and phrases.  This is a stirring book that seems to capture the tragedy of Haiti.  I would recommend it equally to adults and to teens, and apparently in the UK the book is being published for both audiences.

The challenging nature of the subject represents quite a change of pace for British author Nick Lake, a children's book editor at Harper UK whose prior books were the Blood Ninja vampire trilogy aimed squarely at tweens.  Nick admits to a long-time fascination with Haiti that goes back to studying Creole at Oxford.  To learn more about Nick, check out this interview on Simon & Schuster's website and also the outstanding website for In Darkness, in which you can learn more about Haiti, Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian earthquake, get suggestions for further reading, see a book trailer with an interview with Nick, find out how you can help in the ongoing recovery, and even more! A reading group guide is also available here.

I was surprised to discover how few books for young people have been published on Toussaint L'Ouverture, one of the most inspiring characters in the history of the New World.  Young readers might look for

  • Open the Door to Liberty:  a biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, by Anne Rockwell (Houghton Mifflin, 2009); or 
  • Toussaint L'Ouverture:  The Fight for Haiti's Freedom, by Walter Dean Myers, with paintings by Harlem artist Jacob Lawrence (Simon & Schuster, 1996).  
There is also a well-reviewed documentary DVD available from PBS:  Egalite for All:  Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution.  In fact, Toussaint's epic story seems made for a Hollywood movie; entertainment industry buzz indicates that famed African-American actor Danny Glover has been working for years on a biopic/historical epic about L'Ouverture, but no word on when that film will be coming to theatres.  However, a French two-part television film on the topic is due to air in 2012, but no word whether the film will come to American audiences.

On the subject of the 2010 earthquake, several picture books for younger children have been published, including Eight Days:  A Story of Haiti, by Edwidge Danticat (Orchard Books, 2010), in which another young boy is trapped in his house for eight days after the earthquake; and Hope for Haiti, by Jesse J. Watson, in which a young boy finds hope in a soccer ball after the devastation of the quake.  Several nonfiction books suitable for school and public libraries have been released on the topic as well, including:  The Earthquake in Haiti (Essential Events series) by Anne Lies (Abdo Publishing, 2010) and Earthquake in Haiti-Code Red, by Miriam Aronin (Bearport Publishing, 2010).

Nick Lake
Lake is currently on a book tour in the States to promote In Darkness; if you're going to ALA Midwinter in Dallas, he'll be speaking at the USBBY talk on January 20.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Book Review: Promise the Night, by Michaela Maccoll (Chronicle Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Release date:  January 4, 2012

This new historical fiction title is inspired by the life of aviatrix Beryl Markham, the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West (considered more challenging than flying East because of prevailing winds).  Novelist Michaela Maccoll intersperses the story of Beryl's historic 1936 voyage with Beryl's life as a ten-year old growing up in what is now Kenya, where she lived with her English father on a horse ranch, her mother having abandoned them years before.  Her life as a child is filled with endless adventures--attacks by leopards, forbidden treks into the forest with a boy from the local tribe, Kibbi, who becomes her friend and teaches her to wrestle and track and hunt animals.  Indeed, she is virtually adopted by the native tribe who take her in as one of their own, allowing her to train to be a "warrior" despite her sex and accepting her as an honorary member of the Nandi tribe.

The novel jumps back and forth between the youthful Beryl's adventures both at home and later in boarding school and a variety of diary entries, fictitious press articles and interviews about her cross-Atlantic flight.  I found the parts in Africa much more engaging and vivid than the snippets about her flight; the two themes don't really seem to be tied together, since we don't learn about the beginnings of her interests in flight in the sections in which Beryl is a child.  However, Maccoll paints an appealing picture of an adventurous spirit who can't resist a dare, a girl who is more comfortable in boys' clothing and who longs to be a hunter of lions rather than a proper young English lady.  It's a good choice for those looking for a colorful adventure story that could appeal to girls as well as boys.

Those interested in learning more about the real Beryl can check out her memoir, West With the Night (North Point Press, 1982), which was praised by none other than Ernest Hemingway, who remarked about Markham's writing, "she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers,"
or the young adult biography Beryl Markham:  Never Turn Back, by Catherine Gourley (Red Wheel, 1997).

In addition, Maccoll includes an author's note providing further details on the real Beryl's life as well as additional suggestions for further reading.

Beryl Markham

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.