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I'm just back from Readercon 27, the annual convention that I've been to more than any other, and for which (a while back) I served on the program committee for a few years. At this point, Readercon feels like a family reunion for me, and it's a delight.
Here, I simply want to riff on ideas from one of the panels I participated in.
Friday, I was on my first panel of the convention, "Nonfiction for Fiction Writers", with Jonathan Crowe, Keffy Kehrli, Tom Purdom, Rick Wilber. It was good fun. I'd taken lots of notes beforehand, because I wasn't really sure what direction the panel would go in and I wanted to be prepared and to not forget any particular favorites. Ultimately, and expectedly, I only got to mention a few of the items I was prepared to talk about.
However, since I still have my notes, I can expand on it all here...
First, I started thinking about useful reference books and tools. One of the things I talked about on the panel was the need I have to get some vocabulary before I begin to write anything involving history, professions I'm not highly familiar with, regions I don't know intimately, etc. I will make lists of words and phrases to have at hand. To create such a list, I spend lots of time with the Oxford English Dictionary, with specialized dictionaries (and old dictionaries — Samuel Johnson's is invaluable, but I'm also fond of the 1911 Concise Oxford Dictionary), with texts from the era or profession I'm trying to write about, and with a book I got years ago, the Random House Word Menu, a highly useful book because it arranges words in a way reminiscent of the old Roget's thesauruses (the ones not arranged alphabetically), but different enough to be uniquely useful. (For that matter, an old thesaurus is highly useful, too, as you'll find more archaic words in it. My preference is for one from the late 1940s.) Finally, I'm fond of The People's Chronology by James Trager, which is a year-by-year chronology from the beginning of time to, in the most recent edition, the early 1990s. Being written by one person, it's obviously incomplete and biased toward what he thought was important, but what I find useful in it is the sense of scope that it provides. You can get something like it via Wikipedia's year-specific entries, but it's nice to be able to flip through a book, and I find Trager's organization of material and summary of events interesting. Chronologies specific to particular people can be fascinating too, such as The Poe Log.
I'm also fond of old travel guides and atlases. I still have the Rough Guide to New York City that I bought before I went to college there in 1994, and I treasure it, because it reminds me of a city now lost. I've got a couple editions of Kate Simon's New York Places & Pleasures. (For London, I have a 1937 edition of William Kent's Encyclopedia of London.) Similarly, old atlases are a treasure trove; not only do they show lost places and borders long shifted, but they demonstrate the ways that people have thought about borders, geography, knowledge, and the world itself in the past. See Peter Turchi's Maps of the Imagination for more on that.
That's it for the really useful reference stuff in general (individual projects often have their own specific needs for reference material). To see how I've put some of these things to use, check out the penultimate story in Blood, "Lacuna". Now for some encounters with interesting nonfiction...
One of the greatest joys in nonfiction reading is to be reading something just for information and then to discover it's wonderfully written. On the panel, I said that when I was studying for my Ph.D. general exam, I decided to strengthen my knowledge of Victorian England by skimming some of Peter Ackroyd's gigantic biography of Dickens. But once I started reading, I didn't want to skim. Ackroyd's sense of drama mixes perfectly with his passion for detail, and the book is unbelievably rich, eloquently written, and so compelling that it all but consumed my life for a couple of weeks.
Since Readercon is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror convention, I mostly thought about books to help such writers with their work. SF writers often obsess over "worldbuilding", which I put in quotation marks not only because I'm skeptical of the term, which I am, but more importantly because what such writers mean by "worldbuilding" varies. (For one quick overview, see Rajan Khanna's 2012 piece for Lit Reactor.) My own feelings are at least in sympathy with statements from M. John Harrison, e.g. his controversial 2007 blog post on "worldbuilding" as a concept and his brief note from 2012, wherein he writes: "Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies, it isn’t deftness or economy. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass." The simplicities of SF are one of its great aesthetic and ethical limitations, even of the most celebrated and complex SF (see my comments on Aurora for more on this; see Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and Pynchon's Against the Day for exemplary models of how to make complex settings in the baggy style; for short fiction, see Chekhov). Too often, SF writing seems to seek to replace the complexities of the real world with the simplicities of an imagined world. This is one of my complaints about apocalyptic fiction as well: when the history of the world we live in provides all sorts of examples of apocalypse and dystopia at least as awful as the ones SF writers imagine, what does that suggest about your made-up world?
Anyway, that all got me thinking about books that might be useful for someone who wanted to think about "worldbuilding" as something more than just escape from the complexities of reality. There are countless historical books useful for such an endeavor — even mediocre history books have more complexity to them than most SF, and analyzing why that is could lead a writer to construct their settings more effectively.
I said on the panel that if I could recommend only one history book to SF writers, it would be Charles Mann's 1491, which other people on the panel also recommended. While I'm sure there's academic writing that is richer than Mann's popular history, the virtue of his book is that it's engagingly written and thus a good introduction to a subject that can, in fact, be mind-blowing for a reader raised on all sorts of myths about the Americas before Columbus — some of which seem to have informed a lot of SF. (Really, Mann's book should be paired with John Reider's essential Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.)
A very different approach to the complexities available in a single year is James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which I didn't get a chance to mention on the panel. It's one of my favorite books about Shakespeare for reasons well stated by Robert McCrum in an Observerreview when the book came out:
The story of 1599 ... is an enthralling one that includes the rebuilding of the Globe; the fall of Essex; the death of Spenser; a complicated publishing row about the Sonnets; the sensational opening of Julius Caesar; rumours of the Queen's death; the completion of a bestselling volume of poetry, The Passionate Pilgrim; and finally, the extraordinary imaginative shift represented by the first draft of Hamlet.
Partly, 1599 is a rediscovery of the worlds that shaped the poet's development and which, in his maturity, were becoming lost — the bloody Catholic past; the deforested landscape of Arden; a dying chivalric culture. Partly, it is a record of a writer reading, writing and revising to meet a succession of deadlines.
The writer and his world, as seen via the lens of a single year.
Then there is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898by Edward G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, which is unbelievably rich. There are countless books to read if you want to think about how to imagine cities and their histories; this is one that has long fed my imagination.
Writers might find productive ways of working through the problems of history, subjectivity, and literary worlds by reading David Attwell's J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, which is one of the best explorations of an individual writer's process and manuscripts that I know, and one that offers numerous techniques for thinking your way out of the traps of "worldbuilding".
On another day, if someone were to say to me, "I want to write an immersive SF story in an imagined world, so what should I read?" I would be as likely to start with Noël Mostert's Frontiers as I would be with 1491 or another book. I first learned about Frontiers from Brian Slattery, and though I have read around in it rather than read it front-to-back, its range and depth are utterly apparent. It tells of the history of the Xhosa people in South Africa. It is particularly valuable for anyone interested in writing some sort of first-contact story.
A caution, though: It's important to read people's own chronicles and analyses of their experiences, not just the work of outsiders or people distant in time from the events they write about. For instance, don't miss the Women Writing Africa anthologies from the Feminist Press. Be skeptical of distant experts, even the thoughtful and eloquent ones.
Along those lines, a nonfiction book I would recommend to any writer is Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, which I much prefer to his more famous Orientalism. Among the highly influential writers of the theory era, Said is, I think, hands down the best stylist and the least in need of a vociferous editor, so reading Culture and Imperialism is often simply an aesthetic pleasure. But more than that, it brings to fruition ideas he had been developing for decades. This is not to say I think he's always right (what fun would that be?) -- his reading of Forster's Passage to India seems to me especially wrong, as if he'd only seen David Lean's awful movie -- but that he provides tools for rearranging how we think about imagination, literature, and politics. If you want to contribute to the culture around you, you ought to know what that culture does in the world, and think about how it does it. If you want to create imaginary cultures, then you ought to spend serious time thinking about how real cultures work. There are countless other writers who can help along the way, including ones who stand in opposition to Said, but as a starting point, Culture and Imperialism works well.
For US writers especially, I must also add Mark Rifkin's Settler Common Sense, a book I read earlier this year, and which made me want to go back to a lot of 19th century American lit that I don't have time at the moment to go back to. It's a kind of intellectual sequel to Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (another must-read), but it expands the scope beyond the black/white binary, which, as Rifkin notes, "tends to foreground citizenship, rights, and belonging to the nation, miscasting Indigenous self-representations and political aims in ways that make them illegible."
Also well worth reading are two books by Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes and A History of Bombing, both interesting at a formal level, but also for what they discuss. These are short books, but accomplish more both aesthetically and intellectually than most SF.
Most of the books I thought of and discussed on the panel were, in some way or another, about history, since the construction of history and memory is an obsession of mine. But I had one book about science on my list, though never got the chance to recommend it: Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling, a book that will challenge a lot of what you probably think you know about biology and gender. (On the other hand, the book has been influential enough that the common sense about gender and biology has shifted since it was published, so who knows.) Even if you are familiar with some of what Sexing the Body argues about biology, it's valuable for the stories it tells about science and scientists. Indeed, this is something that makes it hugely useful to science fiction writers, even if they're not especially interested in gender: it demonstrates some ways that science is made.
Finally, I see in my notes a list of essayists I am always happy to read: Virginia Woolf, Samuel Johnson (for the construction of his sentences), Guy Davenport, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Carole Maso, Barry Lopez, William H. Gass, and Samuel Delany.
There are, of course, many others, and on another day I would make completely different lists and different recommendations, but these are the books and writers that come to mind now.
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War of Two. John Sedgwick. 2015. Berkley. 432 pages. [Source: Library]
I definitely enjoyed reading John Sedgwick's War of Two: The Dark Mystery of the Duel Between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and Its Legacy for America. I thought it did a good job chronicling the lives of both founding fathers. The attention is rightly divided between the two men. Readers learn not just about politics and war but also more personal affairs such as family and home life.
Part one is titled "The Roots of the Hatred." Part two is titled "The Battle is Joined." Part three is titled "To the Death." Part four is titled "And Then There Was One." Each chapter title seems to be taken from a direct quote from a primary source.
I was familiar with the basics of this story having listened to Hamilton a couple dozen times. I think anyone interested in learning more would profit from reading this one.
From the introduction, "Hamilton came to America alone at sixteen, a penniless immigrant, from the West Indian island of Saint Croix, the only one of the original Founding Fathers not born on the continent" (xxii). And, "As for the illegitimate Hamilton, Adams derided him as "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler" (xxii). And, "Hamilton could take four hours to say what Burr could say in thirty minutes" (xxii).
From chapter five, John Adams on New Yorkers [like Hamilton], "They talk very loud, very fast, and altogether. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer they will break out upon you again and talk away." (38)
From chapter six, "Hamilton was primarily a man of action, driven to achieve; his strongest feelings stemmed from ambition, and indignation when his aspirations were not met." (44)
From chapter eight, "As Hamilton listened to the speakers bellowing into the wind, he found the arguments against the British to be surprisingly feeble, and, unable to wait his turn, he started to speak up, unbidden, from the middle of the crowd, first timidly, unsure, and then proudly, firmly; and finally he could not stop, bringing forth a great tumbling river of argument that washed over the crowd. At nineteen, Hamilton was not the most prepossessing speaker, or the most fully voiced, but he was the most persuasive--forceful, compelling, assured--and somehow all the more so for being so boyishly slender and obviously young." (54-5)
From chapter eleven, "Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette, all three of them young, brash, brilliant, and glamorously handsome, quickly formed a three-way attachment that was unusual by the standards of a ragtag army." (85)
From chapter thirteen, "Hamilton was a man on the prowl and had been ever since he was a teenager...No wonder Martha Washington named her frisky tomcat Hamilton." (98)
From chapter fifteen, "To Hamilton, Angelica was sunshine itself. The relationship revealed a gushing enthusiasm for a woman that ran the gamut from playfulness to desire and back again. From the first, he was so taken by Angelica, and so bad at concealing it, that many people assumed they were the lovers." (110)
From chapter twenty-four, "And so it began: From that moment forward, as in the army, Washington would depend on Hamilton as he depended on no other. He would never make a significant decision without Hamilton's advice, often doled out in ten-thousand word installments, his quill flying, and he would never question that advice, no matter how it turned out. Washington had plenty of wise men in his circle--Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Edmund Randolph, James Madison, all but the last of them in his cabinet, and all of them older, some substantially so--but it was Hamilton he turned to, over and over. He emerged as Washington's alter ego, the first among equals." (176).
There came a point when I stopped flagging all the passages that I liked/loved/found interesting.
The book is compelling and I definitely recommend it.
Best in Children's Books, Volume 31. 1960. Nelson Doubleday. 160 pages. [Source: Bought]
Let's go vintage! This title is the thirty-first volume in a long series of books called Best in Children's Books. It was published in 1960 by Nelson Doubleday. It blends fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry. It has many contributing authors and illustrators.
Lewis and Clark: Explorers of the Far West by Smith Burnham with illustrations by Edward Shenton. This is an excerpt from Hero Tales from History (1922, 1930, 1938). If there is a politically incorrect buzzword related to Native Americans--this story has it in abundance: savage, powwow, red men, peace-smoke talk, redskins, red braves, war dance, peace dance, scalp dance, snake dance, papoose, etc. There are better stories of Lewis and Clark to share with young readers these days.
Tattercoats by Joseph Jacobs with illustrations by Colleen Browning. This little story reads like a fairy tale. It even has a little romance.
Singh Rajah and the Cunning Little Jackals by Mary Frere with illustrations by Edy Legrand. This is an excerpt from Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends Current in Southern India (1898). This is an animal story about a LION who is tricked by a family of jackals who don't want to be eaten--they are the last animals in the jungle. What I like best about this story are the color illustrations.
The Middle Bear by Eleanor Estes with illustrations by Phyllis Rowand. This is an excerpt from The Middle Moffat (1942). The Moffats are in a play for charity. The play is The Three Little Bears. It's quite charming.
Chips, The Story of a Cocker Spaniel (1944) by Diana Thorne and Connie Moran with illustrations by Phoebe Erickson. This is a sweet though predictable story of boy meets dog.
The Picnic Basket by Margery Clark with illustrations by Maud and Miska Petersham (1924). This is an excerpt from The Poppy Seed Cakes. This one is illustrated in color. And the illustrations are very interesting--bright and colorful. If you enjoy vintage work, then these illustrations will prove appealing. The story itself is about a boy and his Auntie going on a picnic together. There are plenty of twists and turns in this one!
Windy Wash Day and Other Poems by Dorothy Aldis with illustrations by MAURICE SENDAK. The poems come from All Together (1925, 1926, 1934, 1939, 1952). I like the inclusion of poetry. I really like the poem "Naughty Soap Song."
Just when I'm ready to Start on my ears, That is the time that my Soap disappears. It jumps from my fingers and Slithers and slides Down to the end of the Tub, where it hides. And acts in a most diso- Bedient way AND THAT'S WHY MY SOAP'S GROWING THINNER EACH DAY. (86)
Go Fly a Kite is a nonfiction piece by Harry Edward Neal with illustrations by Harvey Weiss. I found it boring, you may find it instructional.
Salt Water "Zoos" is another nonfiction piece. No author is given credit. It is essentially about large aquariums and oceanariums. (This book was published several years before the first Sea World opened. My guess is it used to be a lot harder to see dolphins and sharks and the like.) The focus is on Marineland of Florida.
Cornelia's Jewels by James Baldwin with illustrations by Don Freeman. This one is short and historical in nature. The overall tone is very sweet with a focus on family. Cornelia's "jewels" are her two boys.
Three Seeds by Hester Hawkes with illustrations by Hildegarde Woodward (1956). This story is about a boy and his garden. The setting: the Philippines. Luis, the hero, misses his father who works in Manila most of the time. He can only come visit his family once or twice a month. One week he brings home a package of American seeds. The packet must have had a hole, however, because only three seeds remain. (The title spoils it all doesn't it?) The boy has hope, however, and with the help of a kind neighbor, the three seeds are planted...and from those three seeds comes a promising future.
Let's Go to Iceland and Greenland. This is a sad little feature, again no author is given. Readers do get five photographs and one map.
Best In Children's Books. Volume 6. 1958. Nelson Doubleday. 160 pages. [Source: Bought]
Let's go vintage! This title is the sixth volume in a long series of books called Best in Children's Books. It was published in 1958 by Nelson Doubleday. It blends fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry. It has many contributing authors and illustrators.
The Story of Early America by Donald Culross Peattie, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. This is an excerpt from A Child's Story of the World (1937). Honestly, I think I enjoyed the illustrations more than the text. Readers should know two things 1) These two chapters do not hold up to the test of time. They didn't age gracefully, in other words. 2) They contain passages with the potential to offend in varying degrees.
When Columbus landed, some naked red men on the shore ran away. After a while their childish curiosity got the better of them, and they came stealing out to meet the newcomers. (10)
He saw that these people were much more simple-minded than criminals from the jails of Spain. (11)
They were so evidently savages, and not the rich, civilized people that he expected to meet in India. So he called these men Indians, and so they have been called ever since, though of course our redskins have nothing to do with the real people of India. (11)
So the Spanish, Portuguese, and English sent ships to Africa to capture the jungle Negroes. They were thrown into boats and brought to America. The Negroes had powerful bodies. They did not mind the intense heat. They were afraid of the white men, and knew that they could never escape back across the sea. So they bent their backs to the hard labor and tried to be cheerful. They made good slaves. (23)
In the northern states slavery soon died out. One reason for this was that, in the North, factories and not farming were the important way of making money. Intelligent men were needed to work in factories. The Negroes, fresh from jungle life, were not ready for such work. But in the South, where tobacco, cotton, and rice were rich crops which all the world was clamoring to buy, the Negro slave could work better than the free white man. He did not have to use his head, but only his muscles. (31-2)
The Very Little Girl (1953) is by Phyllis Krasilovsky and illustrated by Ninon. This is a charming, delightful, very unoffensive little piece about a little girl who slowly but surely finds herself growing up.
The Elephant's Child (1900) by Rudyard Kipling. Illustrated by Henry C. Pitz. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this one. This is probably one of the main reasons I bought this book. In this story, readers learn about how the elephant got his trunk. A lot of spanking is involved! And the Elephant's Child isn't only the recipient of the spanking. This one makes a GREAT read aloud. While I would never, ever, ever read aloud The Story of Early America, I would share The Elephant's Child. Kipling has a way with words. "Great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River." I enjoy the characters. Especially the elephant, the crocodile, and the snake.
Poems of the City (1924) by Rachel Field, illustrated by Harvey Weiss. A selection of eleven poems by Rachel Field. Poems include "Skyscrapers," "Good Green Bus," "The Pretzel Man," "The Ice-Cream Man," "The Stay-Ashores," "The Animal Store," "City Rain, "Pushcart Row," "Chestnut Stands," "Taxis," and "At the Bank." My favorite was "The Ice-Cream Man."
The next story is The Shoemaker and The Elves by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm illustrated by Fritz Kredel. This is the traditional story. The illustrations are something. And it is an illustration from this story that is on the cover of this book.
A Child's World in ABC by Mary Warner Eaton, illustrated by Charlotte Steiner. This piece was written specifically for this book. I liked this one well enough. I liked the illustrations especially. But that doesn't mean it aged well.
Your Breakfast Egg is by Benjamin C. Gruenberg and Leone Adelson. Illustrated by Leonard Kessler. This was first published in 1954. It is an excerpt from YOUR BREAKFAST AND THE PEOPLE WHO MADE IT. Essentially it is a nonfiction piece celebrating "modern" and "scientific" advances in how chickens are kept, raised, etc. Celebrate the fact that your hens no longer have to go outside and find their own food to eat! Rejoice that now--day and night--they are kept inside cages and are fed with "all kinds of grains and other foods that are good for them." This chapter made me shudder. I had read about this in The Dorito Effect, of course, as one of the many illustrations of what is wrong with food. But this is a period-piece, if you will, showing how silly we can be.
Life in the Arctic and This is Italy are short nonfiction pieces with no given author. Both include a few photographs.
The Saddler's Horse by Margery Williams Bianco, illustrated by Grace Paull, is a short story about a saddler's horse and a cigar-store wooden Indian having a runaway adventure together.
Dick Whittington and His Cat is adapted from James Baldwin and illustrated by Peter Spier. I read a picture book by Marcia Brown (1950) last year and really enjoyed it. This story is nice, nothing unexpected, but nice.
Concluding Thoughts: The book is "flawed" in some ways in that a few of the pieces in this one reveal an America with a very different value system. But it's an opportunity to celebrate how far we've come in understanding one another as well. Some pieces sit "heavy" and others are just very light delights.
I'm starting to fall in love with nonfiction. It started years back with a book that looked at history through the lens of the oak tree.
Then there were books by Bill Bryson, a favorite author. One looks at history through the lens of our homes, and another focuses on a single amazing year in history.
Just recently, I finished listening to a history traced by what we've been drinking.
In my Audible wish list are now histories focused on salt and cod, seeds, potatoes, food, and innovations. Suddenly, I can't get enough of this way of thinking about history! One of most prolific writers of this kind of history, Mark Kurlansky, has adapted two of his most popular books for adults into picture books. Next year, I intend to read more nonfiction aloud to my fifth graders. I'll start with these two!
Hypertrophic Literary (AL) is open to submissions for upcoming issues. Looking for pieces that evoke a physical reaction, make readers feel something: joy, nausea, shock, desperation. Open to submissions of poetry, fiction, excerpts, and nonfiction. Hypertrophic accepts work in all genres and “[doesn’t] care who you are, if you’ve been published before, if it’s your first book or seventy-fourth.”
SlashnBurn is “an anti-art arts journal seeking to publish and bring attention to work outside the conveyor belt work coming out of most workshop-based MFA programs.” Currently accepting submissions in fiction, flash fiction, comics, creative nonfiction, memoir, poetry, reviews, and blended-genre. No hard genre work. High-concept is fine, but grounded in real human conflict and action. Deadline: Rolling.
Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizieliński (@hipopotam) started a revolution here in the UK, with the publication by Big Picture Press back in 2013 of their now famous Maps. With that beautifully produced book we started to see something of new departure for children’s non-fiction, with publishers realising that there was an appetite for gorgeously illustrated and finely produced information books which didn’t look or feel like school textbooks.
Since then we’ve seen several new non-fiction imprints established, dedicated to bringing us eye-catching, unusual and sumptuous non-fiction for children and young people, such as Wide Eyed Editions and 360 Degrees. This is great news, especially for younger children who report choosing to read non-fiction (42% of 7-11 year olds) almost as much as they do fiction (48.2% of 7-11 year olds, source), though you’d never guess this from the imbalance in titles published and reviewed.
It’s wonderful to see the return of the founders of the non-fiction revolution with a new title, Under Earth, Under Water, a substantial and wide-ranging exploration of what lies beneath the surface of the globe.
Split into two halves, allowing you to start from either end of the book by turning it around to explore either what lies beneath the earth, or under the oceans, this compendium of startling facts and quirky, fresh illustrations makes the most of its large format (a double page spread almost extends to A2), with great visual and verbal detail to pour over and a real sense of going down, down, down across the expanse of the pages.
The Earth pages cover everything from burrowing creatures to plant life in the soil, via extracting natural resources to industrial underground infrastructure. Tunnels, caves, digging up fossils and plate tectonics are all included in this rich and varied buffet brought together though a simple concept – simply exploring what is underneath our feet.
The Water pages explore aquatic life right from the surface down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, ocean geography, human exploration with the aid of diving equipment, the history of submarines and even shipwrecks.
Lavishly produced, with gorgeously thick paper it is a delight to hold this book in your hands. Wonderful design, featuring lots of natural reds and browns in the Earth section and soothing shades of blues and green in the Water section, ensures exploring the diverse content is a visual treat as much as it is a spark for thinking about the world around us in new ways.
My only question mark over Under Earth, Under Water is the lack of an index. Maybe this makes it more like a box of treasures to rummage in and linger over, the sort of space where you can’t be sure what gems you’ll dig up. Although perhaps not a resource from which to clinically extract information, Under Earth, Under Water offers a great deal to explore and a very enjoyable journey to the centre of the earth.
There’s so much we could have “played” in Under Earth, Under Water. We toyed with making submarines, visiting caves, planting seeds to watch roots grow, but in the end the animal burrows won out, and we decided it was time to make our own. This began with papier mache and balloons…
…which when dry were set into a cardboard box frame, and surrounded by layers of “soil” i.e. different coloured felt, to recreate the layering of different soil and rock types.
Then the burrows needed filling! Sylvanian families came to the rescue, along with nature treasures gathered from the garden.
And soon we had a dollshouse with a difference! (Can you spot the bones and other archaeological finds waiting to be dug up from the soil??)
Whilst making our underground burrow we listened to:
Reading Above and Below by Patricia Hegarty and Hanako Clulow. This books explores similar territory to Under Earth, Under Water – but for slightly younger children – and makes great use of split pages.
Print & digital journal Litro Magazine (UK) is accepting submissions for its October issue. Theme: India and the Global South. Accepts short fiction, flash/micro fiction, and nonfiction (memoir, literary journalism, travel narratives). Length: 4000 words max. Deadline: August 18, 2016.
Whether it’s looking at changes in equipment or comparing playing styles then and now, this high-interest book provides opportunities for fans to analyze different aspects of the game. Emerson 4th and 5th graders are loving this book. Here's one student's favorite page -- showing the way baseball gloves developed from the 1880s to present day.
Great layout, photographs and illustrations engage kids and help them see the progression of the game over the past 150 years. The information is detailed, but broken into short chunks that kids can absorb.
Excellent photographs will draw kids in, but it's really the text that will keep them coming back for more. Even die-hard fans will learn new aspects of the game's history, equipment and players.
Check out this full review by my friend Brenda Kahn over at Prose & Kahn to read more about this new Sports Illustrated baseball book. She calls it "a fine addition to any collection. The clean layout provides an organized, humorous journey for the eyes."
Baseball fans love comparing stats to get a handle on how their favorite teams and players are doing. Braun introduces kids to the math behind the stats with this clear, high-interest introduction covering everything from basic batting averages to slugging and fielding percentages. Full of up-to-date stats and photos.
Look through this preview on Google Books to get a sense of the math and text -- I think this will be right for 4th and 5th graders, although some younger students will definitely enjoy reading this, perhaps with more parent support.
Examples are current, up-to-date stats. I especially like how the text explains both the math and the significance of the stats. Braun really captures the excitement of the game, and the way that stats help fans compare players.
If you're looking for a baseball math book for younger fans, you might check out The Math of Baseball, by Ian Mahaney.
The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers, Time, Inc. (via BlueSlip Media) and Capstone Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.
I always love to find a new nonfiction sports book to add to our sports basket, so I bought this one when I saw it. Sports Illustrated for Kids seems to publish stuff that is really interesting for kids. I figured (just by the cover) that kids would like Baseball: Then to Wow! but when I opened it I realized how packed it was with single-page spreads that I could use for mini lessons and small group instruction too.
The visuals in this book are BRILLIANT. Every page focuses on a different topic and then shows how things have changed over the years. Some pages, show a timeline--for example the page on Catcher's Masks starts in the 1870s and goes decade by decade showing what they looked like and some facts about them over the years. Another page, The Five-Tool Player compares two players in a Then and Now table. Mickey Mantle and Mike Trout.
I don't know a lot about baseball but this book is engaging as a reader because of the amount of information and the way it is displayed. There is a lot for kids in this book. First of all, I think they will just enjoy it for the book that it is. It is a great read packed with fascinating info. As readers, they can learn a lot about how to read visuals--there is such a variety of visual information that I can see using several pages in lessons as we learn to navigate nonfiction. I also think as writers, they'll want to try some things out. I have lots of kids who write about sports and start out in pretty traditional ways. This gives them new ways to think about how they might best share information with readers.
This book is packed with information as well as real photos, artifacts, maps and more. It is definitely going to be one of my go-to nonfiction texts next year. (If you go to the book on Amazon, you can "Look Inside" and see some of the visuals.)
If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, you may have noticed the STEAM-y new trend in nonfiction children’s books.
No, I’m not talking about romance novels, it’s STEAM—Science Technology Engineering Art and Math. From picture books to middle grade, to YA, STEAM topics are hot right now.
The STEAM books can include biographies and histories of scientists, artists, and engineers, but also topics that range from the simple: Miranda Paul’s book Water is Water (Roaring Brook, 2015). It gives a beautiful and lyrical explanation of the water cycle for young readers.
Kids are naturally inquisitive. They are always asking how things work, why things happen, and where things come from.
Tap into your kid-side and find a topic that you’re curious about. Then dig deep and look for the cool aspects of it. Kids love trivia. See if you can find something that will make your reader say, “Hmmmm…. I didn’t know that.” Or “Wow! That’s so cool!”
For example: Your brain can store up to 2.5 petabytes of knowledge—That’s like 300 years of T.V. shows!
2. Think like a kid
Kids want to understand so when explaining things, break complex ideas into simple ones. The best way is to use kid-friendly examples, something that taps into the knowledge they have.
For instance, instead of saying something is 10meters tall, say it’s 3 stories high.
One hundred twenty yards becomes as big as a football field.
A nanoparticle is 100,000 times smaller than the edge of a piece of paper.
3. Talk like a kid
Use kid-friendly language. Activate your words! Use short sentences to amp up the excitement or tension. Use longer sentences for explanation to make sure your readers understand the concepts you want to get across. Then mix things up. Put short sentences after long sentences. Add endings like, “Now that’s tiny!” or “Bet you didn’t know that.” It makes your tone more exciting and conversational.
4. Be gross like a kid
Sometimes the best way to capture your reader with science is to gross them out. They are, after all, kids.
For example: Did you know that in one day, your feet can produce more than 1/4th of a gallon of sweat. (P- Ewww!)
5. Tap into a kid’s imagination
Children have very vivid imaginations. By using fun rhyming, rhythmic language, and amazing descriptions, you will grab their attention and get them to think. You can also fill your book with awesome illustrations and photographs to get your reader to visualize what is happening in the book.
Following these tips may help you to STEAM into nonfiction with your own books!
Jennifer Swanson is a self-professed science geek and the author of over twenty-five nonfiction and fiction books for kids. She is the author of Brain Games (NGKids, 2015) and the forthcoming Super Gear. Her book How Hybrid Cars Work (The Child’s World) received a starred review from Booklist and also a Top 10 Books for Youth 2012 Award from Booklist Online.
Several of Jennifer’s other books have received “highly recommended” reviews from the National Science Teacher Association, as well as School Library Journal. Her favorite saying to her students is to “notice the science all around you.”
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” … Of more than 400,000 pilots trained / by the CPTP, only 2,000 are black; / less than half of a percent. / Yet 2,000 dreams of flight / are finally off the ground.” Today I’ve got a bit of art from Carole Boston Weatherford’s newest book, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, […]
If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, Lolita, or Wuthering Heights, you may recognize the phrase. It’s used to describe a narrator who isn’t telling you or can’t tell you the whole story. They could be naïve or they could be intentionally... Read the rest of this post
The title is our first collaboration and Jeffery's publication debut. The book, which includes a detailed timeline and links to primary sources, connects to both the language arts and social studies curricula.
You Can Fly had a long incubation period. The egg may have been laid during a family trip to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The earliest version of the text was for a picture book written in second person.
After I was unable to sell that manuscript, I sat on the egg for a few more years. Then I began re-envisioning and reshaping the manuscript as a poetry collection for middle grades-up. I switched the point of view to first person under the title "The Last Tuskegee Airmen Tells All." Still not satisfied, I changed to third person. Finally, I settled on second person.
Around that time, Jeffery came on board. During a summer internship in children's book illustration, he created digital art to accompany my poems. We sold the package, but just before the book was about to hatch, the flight got cancelled.
Carole & Jeffery in 2000
I began to wonder if the book would ever leave the nest. I continued to revise the manuscript and to add poems. Jeffery and I decided to scrap the digital art in favor of scratchboard illustrations.
Armed with a revised manuscript and sample drawings, we sold the package to Atheneum.
In the subsequent year, Jeffery completed the illustrations and I added a few new poems.
In mid-April, Jeffery and I received our comp copies.
Our first book together finally has wings.
Fly, little book, fly!
Author & Illustrator Interview
Jeffery and I recently interviewed each other about You Can Fly.
Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?
Carole: The Tuskegee Airmen's saga moved me personally. It is powerful—historically, politically and emotionally. I thought the story begged for a poetic treatment.
Carole: You were a serious gamer growing up. Did gaming influence how you illustrated the battle scenes?
Jeffery: Yes, absolutely. I had lots of residual visual references from battles across galaxies. I played everything from Halo to Call of Duty.
Jeffery: When did you first notice my artistic talent?
Carole: Your kindergarten teacher prodded you to finish coloring and work up to potential. By third grade, I was concerned that you were doodling planes, cars, weapons and anime characters in your notebook rather than paying attention.
Around middle school, I realized that your drawings were good. I put you in studio art classes, starting with cartooning. By high school, you were taking private art lessons with the assistant principal who became a mentor.
Carole: What is your favorite illustration from the book?
Jeffery: My favorite is of the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. It's a closeup scene from their historic rematch.
Jeffery: What's yours?
Carole: The one where two planes on a mission have bombed an enemy aircraft. The explosion is so animated; like a comic book.
Jeffery: What is your favorite poem from the book?
Carole: It's "Head to the Sky," the first poem in the book and also the first that I wrote—early on when the project was envisioned as a picture book. "Head to the Sky" reflects the power of a dream fueled by self-determination.
Carole: Tell me about your first flight.
Jeffery: I had a window seat and was looking outside. As the plane sped down the runway, I said, "We're blasting off!"
Carole: That was hilarious. Well, your career as a children's book illustrator is off to a flying start. How did it feel when you first saw the printed book?
Jeffery: Like a child at Christmas.
From the promotional copy: I WANT YOU! says the poster of Uncle Sam. But if you’re a young black man in 1940, he doesn’t want you in the cockpit of a war plane. Yet you are determined not to let that stop your dream of flying. So when you hear of a civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, you leap at the chance. Soon you are learning engineering and mechanics, how to communicate in code, how to read a map. At last the day you’ve longed for is here: you are flying! From training days in Alabama to combat on the front lines in Europe, this is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the groundbreaking African-American pilots of World War II.
One of my students checked out Animal Groupsby Jill Esbaum from the library a few weeks ago. When I flipped through it, I knew it was a book I'd want for the classroom. There was just enough text on a page for my students to move beyond merely reading facts. Plus I loved the umbrella that pulled this book together--the things we call groups of different animals.
When I spent a bit more time with the book, I realized that this would also be a great mentor text for informational writing. I am always struck by the quality of the writing in many of the NG Kids books. The writing in this book can definitely be used to study the craft of nonfiction and each page is a short enough piece to be used on its own in a mini lesson for this study.
The word choice is what stood out to me at first. The vets the author chooses are great for helping kids choose specific verbs in their writing. Lines like "parents dive for dinner" and "Flitting through sunshine" are on each and every page. Are there are also phrases that will give kids options for nonfiction writing beyond just writing facts. The page on sea otters starts out "The ocean is a perfect playground for sea otters...." and "They hang upside down, wings folded, awaiting the warmth of the morning sun."
As readers, the book is organized in a way to support readers--good headings, Did You Know? boxes with extra information, a map at the end of the book, and a list of animal groups not included in the main text.
This book is filled with interesting information and great nonfiction writing. I think kids will love it as readers and also as growing writers. So glad to have a copy for the classroom! It looks like Jill Esbaum has several other nonfiction books and I am definitely going to check them out as I think her writing is great for middle graders to study and learn from!
I am always looking for good new nonfiction series that are accessible to my 3rd graders. I recently received a copy of OCEAN ANIMALS from the newish Animal Bites series from Animal Planet. It looks like it will be a perfect fit for 3rd and 4th graders.
The book is filled with amazing photos so it will definitely attract readers--it is one they will pick up on their own. And there seems to be just the right amount of text on each page. Each page contains more than a few facts but not so much text that the book becomes overwhelming for young readers.
The book's text features are color-coded so readers are directed to a key on the Table of Contents page. There are several categories covered in the book and the colored tabs alert the reader to which umbrella topic is being discussed on a page. Topics like "Where They Live", "How They Live" and "Big Data" are some of the categories. There are also some pages that focus on one type of animal to get more information.
The book has a good progression so can easily be read from cover to cover over a few days. But the pages also stand alone so each page can be read alone and there are lots of mini lesson possibilities form the stand-alone pages. This is a good series to use to share various ways to read nonfiction and the ways the various nonfiction text features are used to help share information.
There are a few other books in this series and I am anxious to see if my kids like them as much as i think they will. I definitely have plenty of series about animals but many of my 3rd graders could read about animals every day and still want to read more! They are a sturdy paperback book so they seem like they will hold up well in a classroom.
The other books in the series include Polar Animals, Farm Animals and Wild Animals.
My daughter has been encouraging me to adopt a vegetarian diet. I do make an effort to eat meatless often, but a completely vegan or vegetarian diet takes a certain amount of commitment that I've never been willing to expend. Recently, this same daughter (she is both environmentally conscious and persuasive) talked me into watching the documentary, Cowspiracy. (I challenge you to watch this and not be affected.) In any case, The Forest Feast for Kids landed on my shelf in time to take advantage of my renewed interest in vegetarianism. Good timing, Forest Feast!
From the whimsically painted watercolor endpapers and chapter title pages to the lusciously photographed finished recipes, The Forest Feast for Kids is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. These are recipes that are as beautiful to present as they are healthy to eat.
Contents in this generously sized book contain cookbook standards - table of contents, index, introduction, and pages of helpful hints and cooking techniques. The chapters run the gamut of gastronomic needs: Snacks, Drinks, Salads, Meals, Sweets, and Parties. Each chapter contains about six recipes, each one displayed on across two pages. The left page has a painted recipe title, simple instructions in a large typewriter font, handwritten notes offering serving hints, "cut into wedges and enjoy hot!" , and hand-drawn arrows pointing to the appropriate ingredient photo (not every child may recognize a cilantro leaf or bay leaf). Photos are not insets or bordered, they are part of a lovely integrated palette of ingredients and text. Beautiful photos of the finished dishes appear on the facing page.
Simplicity of ingredients (most recipes have only four) combined with attractive presentation make these recipes irresistible not only to young chefs, but also to harried caregivers who would love to put a healthy, attractive meal on the table, but have trouble finding the time. I know that I'll be making Strawberry-Cucumber Ribbon Salad soon!
I've never seen the adult version of the same book. I'm willing to bet that it's equally wonderful!
Obituary: James Cross Giblin by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Publisher, editor, and award-winning children’s book author James Cross Giblin died on Sunday, April 10, following a long illness."
Goodbye, Jim by Roger Sutton from Read Roger at The Horn Book. Peek: "Back before it was even a Thing, Jim was writing narrative nonfiction about the damnedest things–windows, milk–and had the gift for conveying his own enthusiasm for his topics to readers who never knew they could find, say, chairs, so interesting."
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When you read enough children’s books published in a single year, folks tend to believe that you’ve an ability to spot trends in the general literature. Trend-spotting is easy enough when you’re dealing with picture books (hot in 2016: Bears rampaging through picnics and blobfish!) but books written for older readers are trickier. I think I’ve hit on at least one incredibly popular trend for the current year, however: Overwhelming depression and sadness. Whether it’s baby foxes are getting their legs blown off in landmines, dads being deadbeat, or girls falling down wells, 2016 is officially The Year of the Hankie. So you can imagine the glee with which I devoured Samurai Rising. “A samurai fights for honor and survival in a real-life Game of Thrones,” reads the blurb for the book (minus the torture and nudity, of course). In producing a fantastic look at the true story behind Japan’s most famous samurai, Turner doesn’t just cheer up an otherwise depressed literary year. She highlights a figure too long ignored in America. Say goodbye to boredom. Say hello to crazy-eyed heroics and an anti-hero for the young masses.
On the book’s title page is written a small alert. “WARNING: Very few people in this story die of natural causes.” No lie, just fact. This is the story of Minamoto Yoshitsune. A boy who “could not yet walk when his father left him a lost war, a shattered family, and a bitter enemy.” Yoshitsune’s father (not the brightest samurai of all time) throws away his family’s comfortable existence protecting Japan’s Retired Emperor when he decides to kidnap the guy instead. Swiftly defeated by his rival Taira Kiyomori, the man’s son, little Yoshitsune, is spared but eventually sent to train as a monk. Determined to win back his family’s honor, the boy runs away and with the help of a friendly lord becomes a full fledged samurai. Not a moment too soon either. Forces are brewing and Yoshitsune’s older brother Yoritomo needs his brother’s help to revolt against Kiyomori’s reign. Through it all, Yoshitsune doesn’t just show the heart of a warrior. He shows he has the guts and brains to carry out even the craziest campaign. But with trouble brewing at home, it may be his own family that proves the deadliest enemy of all. Author’s Notes, Time Lines, a Glossary, Chapter Notes, and a Bibliography appear as well.
I was at a conference recently where the terms “creative nonfiction” and “narrative nonfiction” got tossed about like so many ping-pong balls. These terms are generally produced when someone writes a work of nonfiction that reads like a novel. In order to do this and yet still retain even a modicum of historical accuracy, the author in question must bend over backwards to get everything right. Fifty-whopping-two pages, or so, at the back of the book are dedicated to Turner’s chapter notes alone. Here you’ll find every quotation and historical detail cited (Turner also writes an intro to these notes, marking this as the first time I’ve ever seen an author sell the reader on reading them, since who could resist trying to figure out, “why Yoritomo didn’t use ninjas”?). As for Turner’s writing, you forget almost instantly that this is a work of nonfiction. This is both a good and bad thing. Good, because it proves to young readers that there’s more to nonfiction than what you’ll find in a textbook. Bad because life, unlike fiction, doesn’t always adhere to our understanding of narrative rise and fall. When Minamoto’s enemy Kiyomori died without ever having confronted Yoshitsune, I was momentarily baffled. Of course Turner, skillful as she is, is able to naturally call upon Yoshitsune’s older brother as the new enemy, and it’s done with slow, exquisite care.
When you’re watching a musical, the songs have to serve the story. You can’t just have characters burst into a melody without a reason. Likewise, a nonfiction book can be laden with facts, but only if they serve the narrative to its best advantage. Turner has all kinds of tricks up her sleeves, and integrating facts into the story is one of her greater strengths. She can move from the story of Yoshitsune learning how to be a samurai to a description of the brilliant work of engineering that is a samurai’s armor or sword with aplomb.
Even with all this, Turner’s working at a natural disadvantage. Her story is set in the 12th century. Source material from that time? Not exactly copious. So she relies upon informed speculation, i.e. what a character may have seen or may have considered in one scene or another. A number of years ago I read a book called Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron which was a true history of a child who lived in the wild and was brought back to “civilization” near the end of the French Revolution. The author leaned heavily on a plethora of “probablys” which is no crime. Honestly, it informs the reader as to what they do or do not know. Still, it can prove distracting if too many are clustered in one spot. The only time I found myself irked in a similar way here was around the beginning of the book when Minamoto and a gold merchant were avoiding the samurai. From “the homey smell of wood smoke probably drew the weary travelers to wayside inns” to “The teenage runaway probably watched, mouth agape, as entertainers performed the popular tales of his time”, I found my willingness to go along with Turner’s speculations stretched, if never quite broken. Fortunately it’s the only time in the book I found Turner’s reliance on probability too overt. For the most part, she does a fine job of keeping everything copacetic.
I was also taken with the humor of the book. Judicious use of it in any nonfiction title is a delicate art. Here, the author has the advantage of time (no one’s going to read about the beheadings of the 1100s and think “Too soon!”). So when she pulls out lines like “News of severed heads travels fast,” you can’t but help but admire the wordplay’s moxie. Ditto, “If things went badly, Kiso had the usual samurai backup plan: kidnap the Retired Emperor” (this line works better after you see how many times the poor guy gets kidnapped in the course of his life – a calming retirement it is not).
The inclusion of Gareth Hinds’ art in the book was good planning on someone’s part (mostly likely Art Director Susan Sherman, according to Turner’s Acknowledgements). Though he’s illustrated the occasional title for other authors (Gifts from the Gods) generally Gareth sticks to his own graphic novel adaptations of classics like The Odyssey or Beowulf or King Lear. A meticulous hand, Hinds’ interstitial art keeps the narrative moving without distracting from it. And while it did have the odd personal problem of making me really want a Minamoto Yoshitsune graphic novel (ahem ahem!), for the most part I think it’ll be of greatest use to those students that need a little visual stimulation with their descriptive texts.
Here’s a pretty basic question for the book: Is Minamoto a hero? The comparison to Game of Thrones on the book’s blurb isn’t all that wrong. Things get pretty ethically dicey in the midst of power plays and wars. Honestly, coming out of this book I had particular sympathy for two people in particular and neither one of them was Minamoto. Minamoto’s heroism in terms of bravery cannot be called into question, but if we’re trying to figure out why he comes across as sympathetic, a lot of that can be attributed to our innate sense of fairness, or lack thereof. He starts off clawing his way up, already at a disadvantage thanks to dear old dad, and then just when everything seems to be working out for him his own brother stabs him in the back (figuratively and nearly literally). He deals decently at times, establishing law and order at critical moments. Then again, he’s not against lighting the occasional peasant village on fire like some insane 12th century version of streetlights. And so I say to teachers and the leaders of bookgroups, if you are doing this book with a group of kids and you need a topic of discussion, just ask this: What is a hero? You’re bound to get some pretty interesting answers after the kids read this book.
As I write this review, the hottest musical on Broadway right now is Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It seems to me that we’re seeing a lot of narratives right now that discuss scrappy youngsters, eager to make their mark on the world, no matter the cost to themselves or others. So hey, if you need an idea for a new musical, have I got a book for you! Bringing to the attention of American kids new historical heroes from cultures they may not have any familiarity with is a difficult proposition. Turner and Hinds tackle the challenge with a kind of manic glee. The end result is infinitely readable and downright fun. So pile on the other tear-drenched novels for the kiddos. As long as I have a plucky samurai kid not throwing away his shot I’ll be satisfied. More fun than it deserves to be and a great read.
Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight--and What We Can Do About It. Harriet Brown. 2016. 304 pages. [Source: Library]
I found Harriet Brown's Body of Truth to be a thought-provoking read. Did I agree 100% with everything she said on every page? Probably not. But did she give me something to think about, something to consider, something to take away from reading the book? Definitely.
True or false: Our society is obsessed with weight, and, has been obsessed with weight for decades. This obsession has its dangers no matter your size at the moment.
True or false: Health is important, without a doubt, we should all strive to be healthy--healthier. But is it right--is it accurate--to say that your health is completely determined by a number on the scale or by your BMI?
I think every person--every woman especially--could probably relate to this book. Whether you end up agreeing with it or not, I think it's worth reading. Harriet Brown is one more voice in the conversation about obesity. And some readers will no doubt disagree with her conclusions.
She challenges readers to consider the fact that the number on the scale--the size clothes you wear--may not be "the determining factor" in your overall health, in predicting how long your life will be. Thin does not automatically mean healthy. Fat does not automatically mean unhealthy.
She also challenges readers to consider a few things.
She has PLENTY to say about diets and dieting. Diets don't work most of the time. If by "most of the time" you mean keeping the weight off your body for longer than a few months. Every time you "diet" you end up weighing more than you started. As frustrating as that is, she insists that diets damage your health, the way your body is able to function. She suggests that maybe just maybe "fat people" tend to be unhealthy because they've spent so many years dieting. Of course, that's just one theory. She's not saying she has ultimate proof of this.
95% of people gain back every pound they lose on a diet. Most gain a few extra pounds. Each time you start out to diet, your body has a harder time of getting it off, and a harder time of keeping it off. 5% of people are able to keep the weight off for three to five years. But most do not. I consider these fighting words! (I will be in the 5%. I will do whatever it takes to be in the 5%.)
Stressing about weight could also be a contributing factor to poor health, she argues. Stress is not good for you. We know that. People who spend decades obsessing about their weight, dieting on and off, never happy, always hating their bodies, are decidedly more stressed than people who aren't this occupied, this obsessed with their weight.
Being active is good. People who feel good about their bodies, and "accept themselves" as they are, are more likely to be active, to exercise. If you spend a lot of time beating yourself up about how you look, how "big" you are, hating yourself for eating, hating yourself for gaining weight, hating yourself for failing, then, she argues that you are less likely to be active, to exercise, to make an effort. Is this the kind of statement that IS true or does it just sound true? One point she makes in the book is that you can be classified as overweight and obese on the BMI chart and STILL be active and fit.
People come in all shapes and sizes. A healthy "right" weight for one person may not be a healthy, "right" weight for another person. We do not all have to weigh the same--around the same--to be healthy. For example, 160 may be "just right" for one person, one person's best effort at "thin and healthy." It is difficult to judge health by appearances. One should never assume that a thin person has healthy eating habits and a fat person doesn't. You cannot tell WHO is a vegetable-eater based on appearances alone.
By all means, strive for health in your life. But don't stress with numbers, with comparing yourself with others, with this racing after ultimate perfection. Be you. Be a healthy-you. But don't try to be someone else's idea of healthy.
Some people read the book, I believe, and see the premise: She's telling me I never have to diet again and that I'm healthier if I don't diet. Oh happy day, let's go to the all-you-can-eat buffet.
I don't see it in those terms exactly. I see instead: health is hard to define, and, it isn't so black-and-white as your BMI, or, your number on a scale. How do you feel? How active are you? Is your weight holding you back from living life? Or is your obsession with weight holding you back from living life? What can you let go of? What should your focus be on instead?
I agree that guilt and shame and name-calling are not good motivators to lose weight and keep it off. I know that the only true-and-right motivation has to come from within. And without that inner motivation, it's a waste of time, effort, energy. And without that inner motivation, without that true deep-down commitment you probably are just making yourself unhealthier in the long run by dieting.
Am I pro-dieting? Am I anti-dieting? That's oh-so-tricky.
I personally define diet differently than most, and a lot differently from the author. I see diet not as "what I eat in order to lose weight, or, what I restrict myself from eating in order to lose weight" but as "the food I regularly eat." My advice is simple: NEVER GO ON A "DIET" THAT YOU WOULDN'T WANT TO BE ON FOR LIFE. You could easily eliminate a lot of diets that way. It isn't just losing the weight. It is maintaining and keeping the weight off. (And as one contributor said, maintenance takes up a lot of mental real estate.) If you eat "diet food" the moment you start eating "real food" or "normal food" again, the weight comes back on. You don't need to diet. You need to commit to changing the way you eat not for weeks, not for months, not for years, but for life.
Have you read this one? What did you think?
We're in the midst of an epidemic, one that's destroying both the quality and the longevity of our lives. It affects not just us but our children, and likely their children, too. And while this epidemic has been around a while, it's growing at an alarming rate, not just here but around the world. You'd be hard-pressed to find a twenty-first century culture that didn't struggle with it. I'm not talking about overweight or obesity. I'm talking about our obsession with weight, our never-ending quest for thinness, our relentless angst about our bodies. Even the most self-assured of us get caught up in body anxiety: 97% of young women surveyed by Glamour magazine in 2011 said they felt hatred toward their bodies at least once a day and often much more.
We're so used to that constant inner judgment, we don't even think to question it.
Many of us spend a lot of our waking hours on a hamster wheel of self-loathing. We're screwed up about food, too; one recent survey found 75% of American women report disordered eating behaviors.
Each of us thinks our obsession with weight and body image is ours alone.
As health--or at least the perception of health--has become a social and moral imperative, judging other people's health status has become not just accepted by expected.
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it--not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four, or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule your proximity to food, and your feelings. ~ Ellyn Satter
If each of us is willing to just consider the possibility that what we think we know about weight and health isn't as simplistic and clear-cut as we believe, we'd have the beginning of a truly constructive conversation.
Churchill: The Power of Words. Winston S. Churchill. Edited by Martin Gilbert. Da Capo Press. 536 pages. [Source: Library]
Churchill: The Power of Words is a compelling read for anyone interested in history, British history in particular. It isn't a biography exactly. Instead it's a chronological arrangement of (select) quotes taken from his writings and speeches that give you a sense of who he was. Each quote is introduced by Martin Gilbert. On the top left-hand corner, readers find the year, and, on the top right-hand corner, readers find Churchill's age. I found this layout to be wonderful. There are no chapters, no natural stopping places. I tried to use years as goal-setters. But once World War II started, I found it too compelling to read it just a year at a time. I read greedily.
I found it fascinating and thought-provoking.
One must never forget when misfortunes come that it is quite possible they are saving one from something much worse; or that when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision. (1896) p. 14
As I think Ruskin once said, 'It matters very little whether your judgments of people are true or untrue, and very much whether they are kind or unkind,'... (1899) p. 29
What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone? (1908) p. 63
We did not enter upon the war with the hope of easy victory; we did not enter upon it in any desire to extend our territory, or to advance and increase our position in the world; or in any romantic desire to shed our blood and spend our money in Continental quarrels. We entered upon this war reluctantly after we had made every effort compatible with honour to avoid being drawn in, and we entered upon it with a full realization of the sufferings, losses, disappointments, vexations, and anxieties, and of the appalling and sustaining exertions which would be entailed upon us by our action. The war will be long and sombre. It will have many reverses of fortune and many hopes falsified by subsequent events, and we must derive from our cause and from the strength that is in us, and from the traditions and history of our race, and from the support and aid of our Empire all over the world the means to make this country overcome obstacles of all kinds and continue to the end of the furrow, whatever the toil and suffering may be. (1914) p. 88.
To fail is to be enslaved, or, at the very best, to be destroyed. Not to win decisively is to have all this misery over again after an uneasy truce, and to fight it over again, probably under less favourable circumstances, and perhaps alone. (1915) p. 108
Before a war begins one should always say, 'I am strong, but so is the enemy.' When a war is being fought one should say, 'I am exhausted, but the enemy is quite tired too.' It is almost impossible to say either of these two things at the time they matter. (1918) p. 138
'What shall I do with all my books?' was the question; and the answer, 'Read them,' sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition. It is a mistake to read too many good books when quite young. A man once told me that he had read all the books that mattered. Cross-questioned, he appeared to have read a great many, but they seemed to have made only a slight impression. How many had he understood? How many had entered his mental composition? How many had been hammered on the anvils of his mind and afterwards ranged in an armoury of bright weapons ready to hand? Choose well, choose wisely, and choose one. Concentrate upon that one. Do not be content until you find yourself reading in it with real enjoyment. (1925) p. 178-9.
We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude which has befallen Great Britain and France. Do not let us blind ourselves to that. It must now be accepted that all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will make the best terms they can with the triumphant Nazi Power. The system of alliances in Central Europe upon which France has relied for her safety has been swept away, and I can see no means by which it can be reconstituted. (1938) p. 202
You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi Power, that Power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That Power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy. (1938) p. 203
Whenever we speak of 'bloodless war' it must not be supposed that it is not attended in every country in this anxious, melancholy time by strain, by loss, and, in some countries, by a very severe degree of privation and suffering among the mass of the population. Moreover, the bloodless war is becoming intensified. There is hardly a day when the papers do not show it is becoming intensified. The strains resulting from it will in this year, still more if it is prolonged, test not only the financial and economic strength of nations but the health of their institutions and the social structure of their civilization. (1939) p. 211-2
We must not underrate the gravity of the task which lies before us or the temerity of the ordeal, to which we shall not be found unequal. We must expect many disappointments, and many unpleasant surprises, but we may be sure that the task which we have freely accepted is one not beyond the compass and the strength of the British Empire and the French Republic... It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man. (1939) p. 224
Of all the wars that men have fought in their hard pilgrimage, none was more noble than the great Civil War in America nearly eighty years ago. Both sides fought with high conviction, and the war was long and hard. All the heroism of the South could not redeem their cause from the stain of slavery, just as all the courage and skill which the Germans always show in war will not free them from the reproach of Naziism, with its intolerance and its brutality. (1940) p. 233-4
Very few wars have been won by mere numbers alone. Quality, will-power, geographical advantages, natural and financial resources, the command of the sea, and, above all, a cause which rouses the spontaneous surgings of the human spirit in millions of hearts--these have proved to be the decisive factors in the human story. (1940) p. 236
You ask what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. (1940) p. 243
We are moving through a period of extreme danger and of splendid hope, when every virtue of our race will be tested, and all that we have and are will be freely staked. This is no time for doubt or weakness. It is the supreme hour to which we have been called. (1940) p. 259
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (1940) p. 264
We have but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime. From this nothing will turn us--nothing. (1941) p. 285
Secrets from the Eating Lab. Traci Mann. 2015. 272 pages. [Source: Library]
Traci Mann's Secrets From The Eating Lab is divided into four parts: "Why Diets Fail You," "Why You Are Better Off Without the Battle," "How To Reach your Leanest Livable Weight," and "Your Weight is Really Not the Point." In the book, Mann argues three things: diets do not work, dieting is bad for your health, being obese does not shorten your life.
The first subject she tackles is that diets do not work. Essentially, she argues that "there are two problems with saying these diets work: people don't lose enough weight, and they don't keep it off" (4). She argues that there is a huge discrepancy between how any (sane) person would define success, and, how the diet industry defines success. Sure, diets work if you lower the standards and measures of success enough. For example, a diet is "successful" if the dieter loses 5% of their body weight (their starting weight) and keeps it off three to six months. Does that sound like success to you? Say you weigh 250 pounds. Would losing 12 pounds and keeping it off three to six months...before gaining ten to fifteen pounds back...be your idea of success?
She spends some time discussing dieters expectations, how dieters themselves define success. She presents research from a study--not her own--that look at various weight goals: "Ideal weight," "dream weight," "goal weight," "acceptable weight," and "disappointed weight." Ideal weight is a now out-dated concept of a chart at the doctor's office telling you what you should weigh based on your gender, your height, your frame. Dream weight is self explanatory, I think! "Acceptable weight" is not their goal weight, where they really want to weigh at the end of their diet, but, it's a weight they could come to terms with being. "Disappointed weight" was defined as being less than their starting point, but, not enough to view as successful in any way. The study reveals that 47% fail to reach their disappointed weight. 20% reach their disappointed weight. 24% reach their acceptable weight. 9% reach their goal weight. I think you'll agree that there is a big discrepancy in how people selling diets define success and how people buying diets define success.
She spends equal amount of time talking about regaining weight lost during dieting. She writes, "the fact that diets don't lead to long-term weight loss isn't new to diet researchers. In 1991 researchers stated that "it is only the rate of weight regain, not the fact of weight regain that appears open to debate" (15).
One of her chapters focus on WHY diets don't work. She discusses our almost inescapable environment, our biology, and our psychology. One thing she mentions is that while you know you are on a diet, and, there is a purpose to your actions, your body itself doesn't. It thinks you are starving and goes into survival mode, making it increasingly difficult to lose weight and oh-so-easy to gain weight. But. It isn't just a matter of "survival." She talks genes. She writes that 70% of our weight is determined by our genes. There is nothing we can do with that 70% we've inherited. We may have some say on the remaining 30% of variables. You cannot make yourself fatter than your genes think you should be--and sustain it--and you cannot make yourself thinner than your genes think you should be--and sustain it. Every person has a set range--of about thirty or perhaps forty pounds--of what they can weigh naturally, comfortably without effort or stress.
In addition to going into survival mode, our body can turn our hormones--did you know that fat cells play a large role in producing the body's hormones?--against us.
And then there's metabolism. She writes, "When you lose weight, even if starvation has no effect on your metabolism, your body will still burn fewer calories, simply because it is now a smaller body to run. This means that the number of calories you ate to lose weight eventually become too many calories to eat if you want to keep losing weight." (23) Essentially, "A person who loses weight to reach 150 pounds, for example, is not the same physiologically, as a person who normally weighs 150 pounds. To maintain 150 pounds after dieting down to that weight, dieters must eat fewer calories per day than people who were 150 pounds all along (not to mention fewer calories per day than they ate to get to that weight) or else they will gain weight" (24).
She also looks at stress. That shouldn't come as a surprise--that stress makes you gain weight, and, that all diets involve a good amount of unavoidable stress.
She next turns to self-control or will power. And debunking the myth that the way to best control weight is to use will power.
In the second part of her book, Mann focuses on several things. First, that diets are in fact bad for your overall physical health. They leave you in worse shape than you were originally--in terms of health, not exactly appearances. Second, that one's health is not a matter of how much or how little one weighs. There are a lot of factors and variables in being healthy. One's weight is just a small factor, and, not the most important factor. She acknowledges--at some point--that unless you're in the 6% that qualify as Obese Class III--you are not at any more risk for a shortened lifespan than a normal weight person. Being stressed is bad for your health. Smoking is bad for your health. Being inactive is bad for your health. You can be healthy and overweight. If you're active and overweight. If you're an active, nonsmoker who is overweight. Third, diets aren't just bad for you physically. Diets are also bad for your mental and emotional health. Perhaps IF and only IF diets were successful--you could lose the weight AND keep it off forever, it would be "worth" doing for your health. But since 95% of diets end in you weighing more (and more and more and more and more) than when you first went on the diet, you'd be better off not dieting. (Consider how many people have dieted by the time they're in high school. People spend decades of their life dieting. Each diet that fails ends up harming your body, your health.)
The third part of the book focuses on smart regulation principles for helping readers reach their own leanest livable weight. There are twelve strategies in all shared through five chapters. I'll share just a few to give you an idea of what to expect:
Encounter Less Temptation By Creating Obstacles
Make Healthy Foods More Accessible and Noticeable
Be Alone With A Vegetable
Eat with Healthy Eaters
Don't Eat Healthy Food Because It's "Healthy"
Turn Healthy Choices Into Habits
Don't Eat Unhealthy Food For Comfort
The fourth and final part of this one focuses on being okay with your body AND striving to be healthy with the body you have. Part of being healthy is to be as active as possible, to make exercise a part of your daily routine. Her message is not exercise to lose weight and lose weight so you become model-thin. Her message is that exercise is good for your health: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and, PHYSICALLY. Even if you don't lose a pound, exercise is worth doing. Don't equate exercise with reaching your dream weight or goal weight. Focus on health for health's sake. She shares three reasons why everyone--no matter their weight or shape--should exercise. She writes, "Exercise prevents death. Not forever, of course, but it does increase your life span" (170).
I personally would have loved it if Mann's book had included research on gut flora--or microbiomes--as to how it relates to health and weight. I do believe--strongly believe--that a happy gut is the key to health and happiness. And when your bad "buggies" outnumber your "good buggies" then your weight is definitely effected! The gut rules your brain, essentially--in terms of *what* you eat and *how* you feel. I'd love to read a book--or article--discussing what this might mean--or does mean--in terms of sustainability. If your body no longer "craves" and feels "hungry" are you more likely to keep the weight off? You might not ever be model-thin. But could a healthy gut keep you from regaining the weight you lost?
Eat Fat, Get Thin. Why The Fat We Eat Is the Key to Sustained Weight Loss and Vibrant Health. Mark Hyman. Little, Brown. 400 pages. [Source: Library]
I almost wish that Eat Fat, Get Thin had been divided into two books. One book presenting the historical overview, the scientific research, and the essential philosophy behind the concept of eating fat to lose weight. The other book presenting his 21 day weight-loss plan. The first book which I imagine consisting of Part I and Part II (How Did We Get Into This Big, Fat Mess? and Separating Fat From Fiction), I would have given three stars. The second book which I imagine consisting of Part III and Part IV (The Eat Fat, Get Thin Plan and Eat Fat, Get Thin Cooking and Recipes), I would have given one star--or perhaps two--if I'm generous.
The premise of this one is simple. Fat has been demonized. It has been made the 'bad guy' by scientists, doctors, nutritionists, the government, the media, the food industry. But, Hyman argues, fat isn't all bad. Not all "fat" is created equal. Good fat far from being the 'bad guy' is the hero. Good fat is the hero we need as a country to rescue us from the obesity crisis. (So what is good fat? Think avocados, almonds, walnuts, olive oil, coconut oil, flax and chia seeds, olives, grass-fed beef, etc.) Diets high in good fat will help you lose weight, but, there is a catch. You have to give up eating a diet high in carbs and sugars. And you can never go back. Of course, I can't imagine *wanting* to go back. But still. That's one of those things you should know before spending time with this book.
The opening chapters are very readable. I think his writing becomes more complicated and complex in the second part. He returns to being readable in the third part, but, unfortunately he's switched from being an authentic-sounding doctor, to being an infomercial salesman.
I felt each page was saturated in a sales pitch. And also that there was a lot of 'product placement' going on as well. With every turn of the page, I heard a loud ka-ching, ka-ching. For example, buy this $70 spoonk acupressure mat; buy these $200 sheets that "ground" you to the earth's energy; buy these $50 light bulbs, etc. And that's not even mentioning the hundreds of dollars per month you'd be spending to buy all his "must-have" supplements. (Only PGX Fiber will do.) And then there's the cost of food. If he got paid a penny for every time he tells you to only buy organic, he'd be very, very rich. And he urges you to only buy organic, grass-fed, free-range, super-special meat. (You know, the stuff that costs you--at the very, very least $7 a pound but closer to $10 a pound.) Since his "diet" has you eliminating all beans and legumes--a cheaper source of protein to be sure--your only other option is organic, free-range, omega-enriched eggs. And these aren't as "cheap" as regular eggs.
I agree that it is best for your health, for your weight to give up refined/processed foods high in carbs, high in sugar, high in preservatives and additives. I agree that good fat is great for you. And if you can afford to strictly follow his plan down to every, single little detail, then perhaps you really will lose weight--a good amount of weight even...
But the book is new. Even if his 1000 participant trial run was on his plan a year ago, I don't think there's enough "evidence" that his plan is guaranteed to lead to "sustained weight loss." It simply hasn't been long enough to see if anyone who uses his 21-day plan is able to keep the weight off for five years or more! (Which is what 'sustained' weight loss is all about. 95% of the weight lost on "diets" and "plans" is not sustainable.) It would be interesting to see how 'successful' the plan is five years from now. (Though I have a small feeling that if participants gained the weight back, it would be seen as being their own fault for not following the plan 'well' enough.)
So what else should you know?
That the 21 day plan is the minimum, that, "the plan" is for however long it takes you to lose the weight you want to lose, need to lose. So your "21-day plan" might last a year or more.
While on the 21 day plan, the restricted food list is very, very, very long.
No processed food, no exceptions.
Maximum of 2 cups per day--tea or coffee--unsweetened. He recommends adding coconut oil to coffee for your breakfast.
No (refined) vegetable oils. (Think: canola, corn, soy, sunflower, etc.)
No grains, no exceptions. (I could totally see why giving up gluten would be advisable. But this includes healthy grains like quinoa, steel-cut oats, brown rice.)
No beans, no exceptions.
Nothing sweet (not just sugar, not just high fructose corn syrup, but all artificial sweeteners (including stevia) and all natural sweeteners (agave, honey, maple syrup).
Also you're only allowed small allotments of fruit (half a cup per day). But *only* lemons, limes, kiwi, and watermelon. I may have forgotten the whole list. But it did not include peaches, pears, apples, grapes, strawberries, bananas, oranges, cherries, plums, pineapples, you know, the things you think of when you think FRUIT.
Small portions of "starchy" veggies (1/2 cup to 1 cup at a time, but, only 4 times a week) This includes beets, celeriac, parsnips, pumpkin, rutabaga, sweet potatoes, turnips, winter squash.
When you're ready to go off 'the diet plan' he has you transition to a "Pegan" diet that is a combination Paleo and Vegan. Some things are permanently gone forever and ever from your diet. Other things get added back into your diet in small increments, small portions, occasionally. You can add some dairy back in, for example, "locally sourced cheese from grass-fed, heirloom cows."
Dietary fat speeds up your metabolism, reduces your hunger, and stimulates fat burning. (16)
Dietary fat helps you reduce your overall calorie intake, not increase it. (17)
Dietary fat, and saturated fat specifically, does not cause heart disease. (17)
Dietary saturated fat raises the good kind of LDL and raises HDL (the "good cholesterol"). (17)
Dietary fat improves brain function and mood and helps prevent dementia. (17)
Food is not just a source of energy or calories. Food is information. It contains instructions that affect every biological function of your body. It is the stuff that controls everything. Food affects the expression of your genes and influences your hormones, brain chemistry, immune system, gut flora, and metabolism at every level. It works fast, in real time with every bite. This is the groundbreaking science of nutrigenomics. (56)