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<<October 2016>>
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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: NonFiction, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 2,335
1. Ernie Pyle in England

Ernie Pyle in England. Ernie Pyle. 1941. 215 pages. [Source: Bought]

First sentence: A small voice came in the night and said, “Go.” And when I put it up to the boss he leaned back in his chair and said, “Go.” And when I sat alone with my so-called conscience and asked it what to do, it pointed and said, “Go.” So I’m on my way to London.

Premise/plot: Ernie Pyle in England was first published in 1941. It gathers together Ernie Pyle's newspaper columns from his time--three or so months--in England (and Ireland and Scotland). (He was an American journalist.) At the time the book was published, America had NOT yet entered the second world war.

My thoughts: WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME THIS BOOK EXISTED?! Seriously. I've gone all these years of my life not knowing about Ernie Pyle?!?!?! This one was a PERFECT fit for me. I love to read about England. (I do. I really do.) And I love to read about World War II. If you love history, this one may prove quite satisfying. And if you love human-interest stories, then this one will certainly satisfy!!!

I found it fascinating, entertaining, compelling, charming.

A ship carries people out of reality, into illusion. People who go away on ships are going away to better things.
Our bathtub has three faucets, one marked cold, and two marked hot. The point is that one is a little hotter than the other. I don’t know why it’s done this way. All I care about is that one or the other should give off hot water; and they really do — plenty hot. But our radiator does not have the same virtue. It is a centuries old custom not to have heat over here. All radiators are vaguely warm; none is ever hot. They have no effect at all on the room’s temperature. I’ve been cold all over the world. I’ve suffered agonies of cold in Alaska and Peru and Georgia and Maine. But I’ve never been colder than right here in this room. Actually, the temperature isn’t down to freezing. And it’s beautiful outside. Yet the chill eats into you and through you. You put on sweaters until you haven’t any more — and you get no warmer. The result is that Lait and I take turns in the bathtub, I’ll bet we’re the two most thoroughly washed caballeros in Portugal. We take at least four hot baths a day. And during the afternoon, when I’m trying to write, I have to let the hot water run over my hands about every fifteen minutes to limber them up. I’m telling the truth.
My new English friends wanted to know what America thought; and they told queer bomb stories by the dozen. “You’re a welcome sight,” they said. “We’ve all told our bomb stories to each other so many times that nobody listens any more. Now we’ve got a new audience.”
London is no more knocked out than the man who smashes a finger is dead. Daytime life in London today comes very close to being normal.
Some day when peace has returned to this odd world I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges. And standing there, I want to tell somebody who has never seen it how London looked on a certain night in the holiday season of the year 1940. For on that night this old, old city was — even though I must bite my tongue in shame for saying it — the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire. They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.
And Big Ben? Well, he’s still striking the hours. He hasn’t been touched, despite half a dozen German claims that he has been knocked down. Bombs have fallen around Trafalgar Square, yet Nelson still stands atop his great monument, and the immortal British lions, all four of them, still crouch at the base of the statue, untouched.
Londoners pray daily that a German bomb will do something about the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. If you have ever seen it, you know why.
Apparently the national drink in England is a beef extract called Bovril, which is advertised everywhere, like Coca Cola at home. Yesterday I went into a snack bar for some lunch. I asked the waitress just what this Bovril stuff was, and in a cockney accent that would lay you in the aisle she said: “Why sir, it’s beef juice and it’s wonderful for you on cold days like this. It’s expensive, but it’s body-buildin’, sir, it’s very body-buildin’.” So I had a cup. It cost five cents, and you just ought to see my body being built.
If I were making this trip over again I would throw away my shirts and bring three pounds of sugar. 
You can hardly conceive of the determination of the people of England to win this war. They are ready for anything. They are ready to take further rationing cuts. They are ready to eat in groups at communal kitchens. Even the rich would quit their swanky dining rooms without much grumbling. If England loses this war it won’t be because people aren’t willing — and even ahead of the government in their eagerness — to assume a life of all-out sacrifice.
Don’t tell me the British don’t have a sense of humor. I never get tired of walking around reading the signs put up by stores that have had their windows blown out. My favorite one is at a bookstore, the front of which has been blasted clear out. The store is still doing business, and its sign says, “More Open than Usual.”
One of the few things I have found that are cheaper here than at home is a haircut. I paid only thirty cents the other day in the hotel barbershop, and since then I’ve seen haircuts advertised at fifteen cents. I’m going to get a haircut every day from now on — enough to last me for a year or two.
It was amazing and touching the way the Christmas spirit was kept up during the holidays. People banded together and got up Christmas trees, and chipped in to buy gifts all around. I visited more than thirty shelters during the holidays, and there was not a one that was not elaborately decorated.
I probably wouldn’t have slept a wink if it hadn’t been for the bathroom. I discovered it after midnight, when everybody else had gone to bed. The bathroom was about twenty feet square, and it had twin bathtubs! Yes, two big old-fashioned bathtubs sitting side by side with nothing between, just like twin beds. Twin bathtubs had never occurred to me before. But having actually seen them, my astonishment grew into approval. I said to myself, “Why not?” Think what you could do with twin bathtubs. You could give a party. You could invite the Lord Mayor in for tea and a tub. You could have a national slogan, “Two tubs in every bathroom.” The potentialities of twin bathtubs assumed gigantic proportions in my disturbed mind, and I finally fell asleep on the idea, all my fears forgotten.
It is hard for a Scotsman to go five minutes without giving something a funny twist, and it is usually a left-handed twist. All in all, I have found the Scots much more like Americans than the Englishmen are. I feel perfectly at home with them.
Pearl Hyde is head of the Coventry branch of the Women’s Voluntary Services. It was Pearl Hyde who fed and clothed and cheered and really saved the people of Coventry after the blitz. For more than a week she plowed around in the ashes of Coventry, wearing policeman’s pants. She never took off her clothes. She was so black they could hardly tell her from a Negro. Her Women’s Voluntary Services headquarters was bombed out, so she and her women moved across the street. Her own home was blown up, and even today she still sleeps in the police station. Pearl Hyde is a huge woman, tall and massive. Her black hair is cut in a boyish bob. And she has personality that sparkles with power and good nature. She is much better looking than in the film. And she is laughing all the time. She was just ready to dash off somewhere when I went in to see her, but she tarried a few minutes to tell me how good the Americans had been with donations.
It is against the law to leave a car that could be driven away by the Germans. You have to immobilize your car when you leave it, even though you might be walking only fifty feet away to ask a policeman for directions. In daytime, just locking the doors and taking the key counts as immobilization, but at night you have to take out some vital part, such as the distributor.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. New Voice & Giveaway: Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Donna Janell Bowman is the first-time author of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A Horse that can read, write, and do math?


That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. 

Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This question ties so perfectly into my belief that there’s a piece of us in everything we write.

In 2006, I read a book about Beautiful Jim Key, authored by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow 2005/Harper Paperbacks 2006). It was a given that I would be drawn to a horse book. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where life revolved around raising, training, and showing horses, and caring for the myriad livestock and other animals. I have always been an animal lover, and I know firsthand how powerful the human-animal bond can be—how the combination of time, trust, and affection can create such synergy that you can practically read each other’s minds.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.
That kind of relationship bonded William “Doc” Key and his horse, Beautiful Jim Key. While the horse was what drew me to the story, I was immediately awed by Doc. His greatest historical contribution was an unmistakable message about kindness, in a time of extreme racial prejudice, and brutal treatment of animals.

How could I not love the story of a man who overcame so much to make a real difference in the world?

Thanks to Doc, “Jim,” the horse, became a sort of poster child for the emerging humane movement, while Doc overcame injustices, broke racial barriers, and helped change the way people thought about and treated animals. Doc was awarded a Service to Humanity Award, and Jim was awarded a “Living Example” award.

So, back to your question, Cyn, about what inspired me to write this story—it spoke to my heart. I dived into research with zeal.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

There were a number of challenges to writing this story, but three that most stand out:

First, the research. It was claimed that Beautiful Jim Key could read, write, calculate math problems, compete in spelling bees, identify playing cards, operate a cash register, and more. I had to get to the bottom of how this could be possible.

I used the adult book as my jumping off point, but I wasn’t satisfied to rely solely on somebody else’s research.

This is a story that straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, so I read a great deal about the period, including slavery, the Reconstruction Era in the distinct regions of Tennessee, the history of the humane organizations; the related World’s Fairs, Doc’s business interests, etc.

Emotionally, the most difficult part was reading about how animals were treated in the 19th century, and, more importantly, how enslaved people were often treated with similar brutality. Only a tiny fraction of my research appears in the book’s back matter, but it all deeply affected my approach to the story.

I visited the Shelbyville (TN) Public Library and skimmed through their microfilm. Then I spent some time at the Tennessee State Archives, donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling scrapbooks from the BJK collection.

During that 2009 trip, I also visited the humble Beautiful Jim Key memorial in Shelbyville, TN, and Doc’s grave site at the Willow Mount Cemetery. (I might have shed a few sentimental tears.) We then tracked down what I think was Doc’s former property, though the house is long gone.

This kind of onsite research, along with old photos and local news accounts, allowed me to imagine the setting of Doc’s hometown. Back home, I collected binders-full of newspaper articles, playbills, and promotional booklets. Through these, I got a feel for how people thought about Doc and Jim.

And, most importantly, I found some of Doc’s explanations for how he taught the horse. What became clear was, though we may never know exactly how the horse was able to do so many remarkable things, the countless news reporters and professors who tried to prove trickery or a hoax, never found anything beyond “education.” Jim only rarely made mistakes.

Ultimately, what Doc and Jim did for the humane movement is even more significant than what the horse performed on stage.

Originally, I had planned the story for middle grade audiences until my agent (who wasn’t my agent yet) suggested that I try a picture book version. I already had half of the chapters written by this time, so I was aghast at the thought of starting over. And I didn’t know how to write a picture book biography. I spent the next two years analyzing and dissecting a couple hundred picture book biographies to figure out how they work.

I decided to blog about some of my craft observations, using the platform as a quasi-classroom for myself and anyone else who might happen upon my site.

Many, many, many drafts later, I had a manuscript that attracted the attention of a few editors. Lee and Low was the perfect home for Doc and Jim.

There was a built-in challenge in writing this story about a formerly-enslaved African American man. Because I don’t fit any of Doc’s descriptors, it was doubly important that I approach the subject with respect and sensitivity.

I couldn’t merely charge through with the mindset that I’m just the historian sharing documented facts.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

It is so exciting to finally be crossing the threshold into this new role. The past nine years, which is how long I’ve had the story in my head and in my heart, have felt like the longest-ever pregnancy.

There’s a mixture of joy, relief, and fear during this delivery stage. Fortunately, so far, very nice starred reviews have praised the book, and each reviewer wisely sings the praises of Daniel Minter’s spectacular lino-cut acrylic art.

As I think ahead to marketing and promotion, I’m planning for the Oct. 15 release, the Oct. 23 launch party, and how the book might raise awareness of the need for more kindness in the world—not only toward animals but toward each other.

From my very first draft, nine years ago, I knew I’d revive the original Beautiful Jim Key Pledge—originally signed by two million people during Doc and Jim’s time.

I plan to incorporate the pledge into my author presentations, and it will be downloadable from my website soon. I also hope to align with some humane organizations to help them raise awareness.

I have two more books under contract, several others on submission or in revision, and a novel-in-progress.

In 2018, Peachtree Publishers will release En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, followed in 2019 by King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Such is the author’s life, right? We write, we rewrite, we revise, we sell, we wait, we celebrate, then we do it all over again. Because we can’t imagine not writing something that moves us. And we can’t imagine not writing for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Book Launch! Join Donna Janell Bowman at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at BookPeople in Austin. Donna will be speaking and signing.

Fundraiser: Step Right Up and Help The Rescued Horses of Bluebonnet Equine Human Society: "They are horses, donkeys, and ponies that are helpless and hopeless. And they are hurting. The lucky ones land at Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. Under the loving care of professional staff and volunteers, the animals are medically and nutritionally rehabilitated, then placed with trainers to prepare them for re-homing/adoption." See also Interview: Step Right Up Author Donna Janell Bowman by Terry Pierce from Emu's Debuts.

Enter to win two author-signed copies of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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3. Darwin And More on 7-Imp

Julie Danielson has done a lovely roundup of art and early sketches from DARWIN and a few other cool picture books over at her blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Check it out! ♡

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4. Fashion Rebels

Fashion Rebels. Carlyn Cerniglia Beccia. 2016. 176 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Today, we take for granted that Lady Gaga can wear slabs of meat or Kermit the Frogs affixed to her skin and call it a dress.

Premise/plot: Love fashion? Love history? Love pop culture? Young readers (8+) should find plenty to love in Carlyn Cerniglia Beccia's newest book, Fashion Rebels. After a short premise ("Why Fashion Matters," and a short quiz ("Who is Your Style Icon?"), the journey through history with fashion icons as our guide begins. From history, readers learn about Cleopatra VII, Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Dolley Madison, Coco Chanel, Anna May Wong, Josephine Baker, Katherine Hepburn, Frida Kahlo, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. From today, readers learn about Ellen DeGeneres, Madonna, Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Michelle Phan, Tavi Gevinson, and more. In addition, there are special articles and activities. For example, readers can read about "The Story of the Little Black Dress" and learn how to "Try a Classic Audrey Hepburn French Twist."

Each chapter is a few pages in length. Each chapter concludes with a style reference page and some general tips. For example, Anna May Style = blunt bangs, exotic eyes, red lipstick and nail polish, and high collars. And Anna May's Style Tips = comb your hair instead of brushing it. Don't wash your hair every day. Massage vegetable oil into scalp and hair (coconut oil is the best) as a conditioner. The book has plenty of information and some inspiration as well.

My thoughts: I really like this one. I do. I think the layout is great. It's a good reference. Readers may not be WOWed by each and every fashion icon. Chances are they'll be drawn to some, and, feel 'meh' about a few. But overall, it's a fun and appropriate fashion guide for young readers. I really love the illustrations.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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5. And Then, This Happened!


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6. The Grand Tour

The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones. Rich Kienzle. 2016. 288 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Would he or wouldn't he show up?

Premise/plot: The Grand Tour is a biography of George Jones that seeks to balance a focus on his life and on his music. The author takes on the role of music critic and biographer. In the prologue he explains his approach, "Jones's life and music are inseparable. The music often triumphed even during his worst personal moments. His evolution from twangy imitator to distinctive new voice, from influential vocalist to master of his craft, is as important as his personal failings. Exploring that musical side--how he found songs and recorded them; the perspectives of the public, those involved in creating his records, and Jones himself--is pivotal to understanding the story. I've attempted to take the long view, examining not only his life and the events that shaped him from start to present, but simultaneously exploring his immense musical legacy, all in a clear chronological context." (13)

My thoughts: I started listening to George Jones' music this summer. And what I loved, I really, really LOVED. So I was curious to pick this new biography up at the library. I picked it up as a new fan and not an expert, so perhaps keep that in mind. But I enjoyed this biography very much. I think I might have appreciated aspects of it even more if I was familiar with more of his albums, more of his songs.

The prologue of this one had me hooked. Here is how the author describes Jones' voice: "The voice was raw nerve put to music...Yet above all that was his consummate ability to explore pain, sorrow, heartbreak, and emotional desolation." (9)

It was an often absorbing read full of highs and lows. I would definitely recommend it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. Make Your Nonfiction Stand Out

The days of writing dry, pedantic nonfiction books are long gone.


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8. Agatha

Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie. 2016. 130 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: These novelists will stoop to anything for some attention!

Premise/plot: Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie is a graphic novel for adults and perhaps even young adults, if they have read Christie's mysteries and can't get enough! I would say this one is primarily for fans of Agatha Christie. If you've never read Christie, if you've never met Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, then this isn't the way to be introduced to them. Trust me. What readers get are snippets of Christie's life.

The graphic novel opens in 1926 with the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie. It then flashes back to the beginning, to tell a more traditional life story. The flow of this one is start-and-stop. More like you're flipping through a stack of photographs of a person's life than actually taking the time to read a narrative biography.

One sees Agatha Christie as a writer--haunted in a way by her creations. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple especially have a way of popping up and interacting with Christie. One also sees her as a world-traveler, a wife, and a mother. One catches the barest of glimpses of Christie during World War I and World War II.

My thoughts: I read the HUGE autobiography of Agatha Christie a year or two ago. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED, LOVED it. Found it absolutely fascinating. Perhaps a little rambling for those who aren't big readers, but, just about perfect for me. This is very condensed and abbreviated.

That being said, I am glad I read this one. I liked it. I may not have loved, loved, loved it. But it is an entertaining read.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. Types of Nonfiction Picture Books

There are many ways to structure and write a nonfiction picture book.


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10. Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth. Vera Brittain. 1933. 688 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.

Premise/plot: In 1933, Vera Brittain published her autobiography, Testament of Youth, which covers the years 1900 to 1925. Much of the book focuses directly on the Great War (aka World War I) and its immediate aftermath. During the war, Vera Brittain left her university studies (Somerville College, Oxford) and became a nurse (V.A.D.). She worked as a nurse in England and abroad. (I believe she nursed in France and Malta.) Many of her friends actively served during the war. And those closest to her--including a brother and a fiance--were killed. She wrote honestly and openly about how brutal and devastating the war was, about how the war changed her and there was no going back after peace was declared.

When the book is not discussing the war, it often turns to education, politics, and social issues. Vera Brittain definitely was a feminist. She had VERY strong opinions on women's rights. But she didn't just speak out and speak up about women. She also was a voice for the poor and working class. She saw a lot of injustice and wanted to change the world.

Vera Brittain loved to be a lecturer or guest-lecturer. She had a LOT to say, and wanted to be HEARD wherever she went. This wasn't always the case. She was unhappy with certain groups--or clubs--that didn't value women's opinions and treat women as intellectual equals.

Also of interest perhaps, Brittain shares her experiences as a writer--her journey to publication and her thoughts on the literary world.

The very last chapter is a relief--after spending so many chapters distancing herself from humanity by focusing on POLITICS and WORLD AFFAIRS--focuses instead on her deep friendships and ultimate marriage. She struggled a lot with the idea of marriage. Can she marry and still be a feminist? Can she marry even though she has every intention of staying a career woman? Can she marry even though children are the very last thing (almost) on her mind? She spent so long speaking out against marriage and traditional roles for women, that she is almost ashamed and embarrassed that she fell in love.

My thoughts: It was REALLY long. Overall, I thought it was slightly uneven. It was at times quite fascinating and compelling, but, then at times it was also quite sluggish and boring. There would be pages that definitely kept me reading and kept me caring. I will say that the movie did a great job condensing the book and capturing the spirit of it. Not that the movie is 100% faithful to the book. (No movie is).

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think--which is fundamentally a moral problem--but be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process; it brings to the individual far more suffering than happiness in a semi-civilized world which still goes to war, still encourages the production of unwanted C3 children by exhausted mothers, and still compels married partners who hate one another to live together in the name of morality. (40)
I am inclined to believe that provincial dances are responsible for more misery than any other commonplace experience. (51)
Most of us have to be self-righteous before we can be righteous. (56)
How curious it seems that letters are so much less vulnerable than their writers! (124)
Even my work-driven uncle at the bank wrote a long letter, enclosing a fragment of philosophy which had recently come to England from the French trenches: "When you are a soldier you are one of two things, either at the front or behind the lines. If you are behind the lines you need not worry. If you are at the front you are one of two things. You are either in a danger zone or in a zone which is not dangerous. If you are in a zone which is not dangerous you need not worry. If you are in a danger zone, you are one of two things; either you are wounded or you are not. If you are not wounded you need not worry. If you are wounded you are one of two things, either seriously wounded or slightly wounded. If you are slightly wounded you need not worry. If you are seriously wounded one of two things is certain--either you get well or you die. If you get well you needn't worry. If you die you cannot worry, so there is no need to worry about anything at all." (306)
It seems to me that the War will make a big division of 'before' and 'after' in the history of the world. (317)

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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11. Monopolists

The Monopolists. Mary Pilon. 2015. Bloomsbury. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: One day during the depths of the Great Depression, an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow retreated to his basement.

Premise/plot: Love Monopoly? Hate Monopoly? Mary Pilon's The Monopolists is a fascinating read to be sure. Who invented Monopoly? Who did NOT invent Monopoly? Why does it matter?

The Monopolist tells the story of the woman who invented the game, a game with two very different sets of rules. She didn't call her game 'monopoly' but 'The Landlord's Game.' The general game board concept and rules of play were hers. This was in 1904. In her community, it became quite popular, even an obsession of sorts. So much so that it spread across the nation as one person--or one couple--would teach another and another and another and another. People would create their own homemade game boards. The rules were taught but not written down. For decades, people were playing this game, loving this game. It wasn't a game you could buy at the store, though. 'The Landlord's Game' wasn't the only real-estate game that predates Parker Brothers' Monopoly. The game Finance also did. It also being offspring of Lizzie Magie's original game. Though I think perhaps by that time, it had just one set of rules. Charles Darrow, the man whose name would be associated with the game MONOPOLY, was taught the game by friends. He later claimed he invented the game. The couple who taught Darrow spent a lot of time in Atlantic City with the Quakers who LOVED the game and changed their own game boards to reflect their lives. These place names would stay with the game and be the names that we come to associate with Monopoly. The rules, the layout of the game board, the place names, all were essentially handed to Darrow ready-made.

Most of this book focuses on a lawsuit in the 1970s and early 1980s. Parker Brothers was trying to stop one man--Ralph Anspach--from selling his own game, a game called ANTI-MONOPOLY. Anspach was an economics professor, I believe. It would take a lot of time, effort, stamina, and courage to stay in the fight.

My thoughts: I really enjoyed this one. I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would. I don't love playing Monopoly, but, I found the game-playing culture of the twentieth century to be FASCINATING. There is something to be said for people spending time together around a table and actually talking and having fun doing the same thing. This was written in an engaging way. I'd definitely recommend it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. LEGO Knights & Castles

LEGO Knights & Castles. 2016. Scholastic. 64 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Knights and Castles is one of the first books in a Lego-themed nonfiction series published by Scholastic. The series is being marketed as "a Lego adventure in the real world."

What I liked about this one:

I enjoyed the nonfiction narrative. Both the main, flowing narrative that is simple and quick paced. And the overflow of facts found in the text of the side bars, asides, captions, etc. There is plenty of information packed into this one. And it's all appropriate for the elementary audience.

I enjoyed the layout. I liked the use of photographs, illustrations, and bright, bold colors. The book is designed to be appealing to readers. I think it works. It certainly looks nothing like the nonfiction from thirty or forty years ago.

I enjoyed two out of the three Lego features. I enjoyed the "Build it!" and Build it Bigger!" feature. I enjoyed the "Play it!" feature.
p. 15 Build it! Build a tournament area for your jousting knights!
p. 16-7 Play it! Find out about the stories of King Arthur's knights. What amazing adventures will your knights have? Do your knights argue, or are they friends? Is there a wizard in your knight world? Who is your most evil knight?
p. 29 Build it! Build a hospital for the Order of St. John to work in.
While I enjoyed the build it and play it features in Lego Planets, I really LOVED these two features in this one. I also found the narrative to be more compelling. (But that could be my love of history talking!!!)

What I didn't quite enjoy:

The illustrated Lego minifigures. I think there comes a point in your life where you grow up and grow beyond the kind of dialogue that these minifigures engage in. The speech bubbles are heavy on bad jokes and jests. It's just squirmy to read the text as as an adult. Kids, the intended audience, might have a complete different reaction.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. LEGO Planets

Lego Planets: A Lego Adventure in the Real World. 2016. Scholastic. 64 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Planets is one of the first books in a Lego-themed nonfiction series published by Scholastic. The series is being marketed as "a Lego adventure in the real world."

What I liked about this one:

I enjoyed the nonfiction narrative text. The main narrative text keeps things moving. Just a few sentences per page. Each two-page spread features more text: side bars, charts, captions for photographs, etc.

I enjoyed the layout. Big, bright, bold, colorful photographs.

I enjoyed two out of the three Lego features. Some spreads include a "build it" feature. Other spreads include a "play it" feature.
p. 37 Build it! Your astronauts need a space base. Design a space station. Here are some of the important partss. Solar panels. Living quarters. Docking station. Viewing window. Laboratory. Radiator.
p. 19 Play it! Take your astronauts to the Moon and help them explore. What will they find?
p. 26 Play it! Take your rover and astronauts to Mars! It's a whole new world of adventure. What will they find on the Red Planet? Will they be safe?
What I didn't really like:

I mentioned liking two out of the three lego features of this one. The third feature, the one that predominates the book, is the dialogue between Lego minifigures. These conversations are found in speech bubbles and are heavy on bad jokes. They add no intelligence to the book, in other words.

They are illustrated minifigures, by the way.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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14. The Hole Story of the Doughnut

The Hole Story of the Doughnut. Pat Miller. Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch. 2016. HMH. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Few remember the master mariner Hanson Crockett Gregory, though he was bold and brave and bright. But the pastry he invented more than 166 years ago is eaten daily by doughnut lovers everywhere. This is his story.

Premise/plot: Readers learn the true story behind the creation of the doughnut. Also how that story got embellished through the years into something more of a legend.

My thoughts: I liked it. I really did. I can't say that I loved, loved, LOVED it. But it was lively, engaging, entertaining, not particularly moralistic or educational. I don't remember picture book biographies being this entertaining when I was a child. So it's easy to recommend.

Text: 3.5 out of 5
Illustrations: 4.5 out of 5
Total: 8 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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15. What Are The Summer Olympics

What Are The Summer Olympics?  Gail Herman. Illustrated by Stephen Marchesi. 2016. 112 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed reading Gail Herman's What Are the Summer Olympics? This short little nonfiction book for young(er) readers (think elementary school) covers all the basics. It provides a nice, little overview of the Olympics. Readers don't learn all there is to know about any one sport--or event--but readers learn a little bit about many of the most popular events. The chapters are actually arranged decade by decade. Each chapter typically covers two or three sports.

For example, the ninth chapter focuses on the 1980s. That chapter covers the U.S.A's boycott of the 1980 games, introduces readers to Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics), Carl Lewis (track), and Greg Louganis (diving).

Because over a hundred years worth of sports history is covered in this little volume, there isn't a lot of depth and substance. The book is a little over a hundred pages in length. BUT the book has a lot of illustrations.

Is it as FUN as Horrible Histories' Flame?!?! Sadly, no. But the book and song go VERY well together. The book, of course, covers A LOT more than any song parody could ever do it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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16. Let Your Voice Be Heard

Let Your Voice Be Heard: The Life and Times of Pete Seeger. Anita Silvey. 2016. HMH. 112 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Pete Seeger became the most important folk singer of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But he might have chosen a very different path. Although his grandfather made a fortune from sugar refining in Mexico, Pete became an advocate for underpaid workers. Though he came from financial privilege, he identified with those who had to make a living. He fought for the oppressed and poor all his life.

Premise/plot: Let Your Voice Be Heard is a biography of Pete Seeger written for children. (I'd say eight to twelve, if I had to put a label on it.) The biography is great at putting Pete Seeger's life into context for better understanding. Perhaps the author wanting to keep this one short and accessible for her audience, did not fully cover his life and music. It is not an exhaustive book on the subject. But a good, basic introduction.

My thoughts: I definitely found this one to be fascinating. I knew next to nothing about Pete Seeger before picking this one up. (I'm certainly no expert in folk music. My only familiarity at all coming from the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary.) I thought it was very well-written.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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17. Melissa Manlove: Facts Meets Feelings - Narrative Nonfiction

Kate Messner (L) and Melissa Manlove (R)
Melissa Manlove is an editor at the legendary Chronicle Books in San Francisco. She acquires nonfiction for all age groups, and fiction for ages 0-8—mostly visual books.

Often nonfiction writers want to portray a clear view of the world with logic. The problem is that human beings respond to the world with their emotions.

Good nonfiction speaks to the heart and to the head.

We need to learn to jump from fact to feeling. As soon as your gut recognizes something that's important, the brain remembers it. "As humans we are very different from each other in the facts of our lives. But we are alike in our feelings."

"Narrative arc is about the journey from one state to another. It is about transformation." Sometimes it's about the character, and sometimes it's about the narrator who's transformed by information.

She gave us a few examples of how this works in books.

"Fear comes from knowing something terrible is happening but not seeing all of it," she said. That's dread—so that's how you'd make something scary. (See Katherine Roy's NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS for a glorious example of moving from fear to wonder.)

Don Brown's DROWNED CITY, about New Orleans, takes us from dread to frustration to resolve.

JOSEPHINE by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson, takes us on Josephine's transformation from fear and anger to hope and pride and triumph. There is a universality in her reaction as well as a uniqueness.

OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW by Kate Messner and Chris Silas Neal explores the isolation of being on top of snow and builds connection to creatures keeping safe in pockets beneath it.

Nonfiction helps us understand ourselves and the world around us—and can change the world. "Humans are good at thinking," she said. "The thing we're even better at is caring."

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18. Fiction to Nonfiction and the New Mashups in Between

Four industry stars with four different points of view talked to us about groundbreaking nonfiction.

  • Steve Malk is a literary agent at Writers House, representing some of the biggest names in the business.
  • Susan Campbell Bartoletti writes poetry, short stories, picture books, and novels and nonfiction for young readers. 
  • Linda Sue Park is a Newbery Award winner (for A SINGLE SHARD), and the author of a NYT bestseller called A LONG WALK TO WATER as well as WING & CLAW and YAKS YAK.
  • Elizabeth Partridge has written more than a dozen books, including MARCHING FOR FREEDOM and biographies of Woody Guthrie and Dorothea Lange.

Susan Campbell Bartlett's career opened up when she started to do nonfiction. She learned everything she needed to know about nonfiction in a great 11th-grade English class: taking notes, research, writing. She's written about growing up in coal country, Hitler youth, the Irish potato famine, and the Ku Klux Klan, and Typhoid Mary.

Some of the best advice she's ever received, from Patti Lee Gauch, is to reach inside of yourself and find a personal story.

Linda Sue Park loves writing historical fiction, and she loves grounding it and basing it in fact. She writes stories like she cooks: there is no recipe. Her tinkering, especially with real life events she works into her books, makes the narratives better. She ended up writing fiction because she loves to change things.

A LONG WALK TO WATER is one of her mashups. It's historical fiction based on the true story of a friend of hers who was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. She interviewed her friend for hours and read his own writing. But the part of his life that she was writing about happened more than 20 years ago, so to make it a dramatic narrative, she wrote in scenes and added dialogue. Even though she interviewed him and got quotes from him, she considers the reproduction fiction. It's recreated from old conversations, and she doesn't think it's truly nonfiction to work this way.

Linda Sue also makes composite characters out of multiple people. Their stories are true, but the combination makes it fiction. Readers have been moved by the book nonetheless, and have raised more than $1.5 million for a water charity in Sudan. The realness of the book is what resonates with readers.

She's working on a mashup with several authors, including Jennifer Donnelly, M.T. Anderson, Candace Fleming and others about Henry VIII. It's called FATAL THRONE and will be out sometime after next fall.

Elizabeth Partridge loves to write biographies. She likes characters who are difficult. This gives grit and multiple layers to work. MARCHING FOR FREEDOM was a challenging book to write because her main characters were all earnest, hardworking, amazing kids and young adults. It's about the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and she wanted to choose a new POV from Martin Luther King Jr's. She found photographs of kids who'd participated in marches and tried to find names of people to interview.

A New Yorker article led her to some kids who'd taken part, and before long, she'd found six or seven kids, whom she interviewed in Selma. "If I wanted this to remain nonfiction, I would have to quote them exactly."

Steven Malk has always loved nonfiction. He was a history major in college, and when he gets to read away from work, he reads all nonfiction. Nonfiction has morphed and taken on a broader definition. There's room for more voices. "It's an interesting time." He talked about Deborah Wiles documentary novels REVOLUTION and COUNTDOWN. "She's doing something very unique."
Other writers/artists to watch are Deborah Hopkinson, Kadir Nelson, Eugene Yelchin and Matt dela Pena, Stephanie Hemphill (and more—he's an encyclopedia of books and creators).

He likes it when books open up conversations about what's fiction and nonfiction. He's a bit looser about it. As long as people are reading, that's a good thing. He grew up in his parents' bookstore, and wasn't snobby about what people were reading.

What's the line between fiction and nonfiction? 

Susan Bartoletti - a book like TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY is nonfiction. When Mary is thinking, Susan couches it in "might have thought." -

Linda Sue Park - "Facts don't interest me very much. I'm interested in truth." Facts are one tool to getting at the truth. At a Library of Congress event she met a man who wanted to read only fiction, because all nonfiction becomes untrue with future discoveries. This fascinated her, even as she depends on nonfiction writers' work to do their own.

Elizabeth Partridge - She has a hard line between fiction and nonfiction. "I will not make up anything. I will twist myself in knots to not make up something." The weather can be particularly difficult. But she's loving the mashups that are getting more and more out there. She loves how in LOVING VS VIRGINIA the author went inside the characters' heads and told the story in poetry.

"We think of nonfiction of being dry and dates and names and places. But if you can find the emotional spine of your book, it will be powerful."

Steve Malk - You need to own what you're doing. You can't say it's nonfiction if you're making up dialogue. If you say you're writing nonfiction but you don't have sources and you're making things up, it makes you look unprofessional. You need to be very clear to an agent or publisher what you're trying to do. Authors notes and backwater can be helpful, but you have to be able to articulate it for yourself when you are submitting. Don't leave that up to the publisher.

We're also starting to see nonfiction back matter in fiction books, Susan said. That's an interesting mashup.

You have to be honest with yourself about your research and what you're writing. You can't rely on your publisher to vet your work.

"If you're passionate for your topic, you want to get it right. You would be unsatisfied fudging it," Linda Sue said.

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19. This journal doesn’t care who you are (in a good way)

Hypertronic LiteraryHypertrophic 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.”

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20. Next Year's Readers: Sharing My New Nonfiction Passion

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!

by Mark Kurlansky, illustrated by S.D. Schindler
G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, 2006

by Mark Kurlansky, illustrated by S.D. Schindler
G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, 2011

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21. Nonfiction Plots

Just because you're writing nonfiction, doesn't mean you can get away without a story arc.


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22. Best In Children's Books, Volume 6

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.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. Best in Children's Books, 31

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
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.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. War of Two

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.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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25. Nonfiction for Fiction Writers

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 Observer review 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.

In my notes, I jotted down titles of a few other biographies that feel especially rich in the way they negotiate the connections between the individual consciousness and the wider world: Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee and Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith.

Then there is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by 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.

While I've got New York on my mind, I must recommend also George Chauncey's classic Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. It's a marvelous portrait of a subculture and how that subculture interacts with the supraculture. Similarly, Graham Robb's Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century is a good challenge to a lot of assumptions about gay history.

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.

It's important to consider the ways our assumptions are constructed, and if your a writer, that includes assumptions about writing, culture, and how certain styles and techniques are valued. For that, you could do worse than read The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl, and Workshops of Empire by Eric Bennett. The three books work well together, and draw on each other, creating a portrait of American literary institutions in the 20th century that are far from the objective tastemakers they sold themselves as being.

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.

Any writer could also benefit from thinking about the ways knowledge and writing disappear, and for that Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper is a good, if depressing, start.

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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