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February’s Notes from The Horn Book is zooming toward subscribers’ inboxes faster than a speeding bullet. In this month’s newsletter you’ll find recommended reading for Black History Month, Valentine’s Day, and more, with
- five questions for Rick Bowers, author of Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate (plus Adventures of Superman radio show audio!)
- more books on race in American history
- life science nonfiction for primary grades
- highly anticipated chapter books
- YA on love (and love lost)
Don’t miss it—sign up here or view it online.
I was pleased to see that the 2012 Newbery committee displayed such excellent taste in its choice of a winner (Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt), and that for one of only two Honor Books it chose a book (Eugene Yelchin’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose) I thought no one but us had even read much less loved. And I would be remiss in my big-sister responsibilities if I did not share the fact that the Junior Library Guild went twelve for twelve in having previously selected for its subscribers the winners and honor books for the Newbery, Caldecott, and Sibert Medals.
At hbook.com, you can find a complete list of all the ALA winners and what the Horn Book loved, liked, and, eh-not-so-much, among them. What did you think?
Editor in Chief
Send questions or comments to email@example.com
Five questions for Rick Bowers
Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate by Rick Bowers, National Geographic, 12 years and up.
Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers, National Geographic, 12 years and up.
Black & White: The Confrontation Between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor by Larry Dane Brimner, Boyds Mills, 12 years and up.
Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love written by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack Jr., illus. by Randy DuBurke, Chronicle, 10 years and up.
Nonfiction for primary-age readers
Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and the Food Web in Our Backyard written by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld, illus. by Priscilla Lamont, Knopf, 5–8 years.
North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration written by Nick Dowson, illus. by Patrick Benson, Candlewick, 7–10 years.
Talk, Talk, Squawk!: A Human’s Guide to Animal Communication written by Nicola Davies, illus. by Neal Layton, Candlewick, 7–10 years.
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution written by Laurence Pringle, illus. by Steve Jenkins, Boyds Mills, 9–12 years
Chapter books you’ve been waiting for
Ivy + Bean: No News Is Good News written by Annie Barrows, illus. by Sophie Blackall, Chronicle, 6–9 years.
Gooney Bird on the Map written by Lois Lowry, illus. by Middy Thomas, Houghton, 6–9 years.
Friends: Snake and Lizard written by Joy Cowley, illus. by Gavin Bishop, Gecko, 7–10 years.
Kindred Souls by Patricia MacLachlan, Tegen/HarperCollins, 7–10 years.
Young (adult) love
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Poppy/Little, 14 years and up.
Why We Broke Up written by Daniel Handler; illus. by Maira Kalman, Little, 14 years and up.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Dutton, 14 years and up.
Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff, Carolrhoda Lab, 14 years and up.
photo: National Geographic
Rick Bowers’s previous book, Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. The journalist and historian’s latest offering is another compellingly told and meticulously researched account of events surrounding the civil rights battle. Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate uses the appeal of popular culture to illuminate social movements, mass media, and historical research. The result is a complex history of organizations guided by both ideology and profit, people both well-meaning and flawed, and shifts in popular sentiment. Along the way, Bowers demonstrates how a historian works, digging past myths, examining original archives, and reaching tentative conclusions about what happened and why.
1. You went deep into archives on the battle over civil rights to write your last book, Spies of Mississippi (discussed here). Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan is about the intersection of that history with superhero pop-culture. How much did you have to learn about the world of comics?
Rick Bowers: I had to immerse myself in the history of comic books in general and in the Superman character in particular.
Superman was first dubbed the “champion of the oppressed” and only later became famous as the champion of truth, justice, and the American way. The original Superman had a strong social conscience that led him to thwart wife beaters, corrupt politicians, greedy industrialists, foreign dictators, and Nazi spies.
Spawned during the FDR years, Superman was a super New Dealer who stood up for the little guy and believed we could all work toward a better world. He reflected the ideals of the New Deal and the hopes and aspirations of immigrants.
Given all that history it figures that the Man of Steel would one day take on the men of hate. Superman was shaped as a force for openness and fairness and a positive future for all. The K.K.K. was openly anti-Semitic, hostile to liberal democracy, and wanted to turn the clock back.
2. The Superman radio shows at the center of your book were featured in Freakonomics in 2005, but then that book’s authors retracted the story as a myth. How did you go about finding out what most likely happened?
RB: I had the advantage of beginning my research in the wake of the Freakonomics kerfuffle. That debate suggested that the popular version of events was probably not one hundred percent accurate and challenged me to find the most important facts.
Sure enough, numerous documents showed that the basic story of Superman vs. the K.K.K. was true but that certain fabrications had become accepted as fact and had muddied the historical record.
This required me to establish the core facts and stick to those.
FACT 1: In 1946 the producers of The Adventures of Superman radio show aired a sixteen-part series entitled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” It pitted the Man of Steel against a thinly veiled version of the K.K.K. that fooled no one. The series was wi
Food chains, Arctic migration, animal communication, and evolution: four new picture books for young readers take on some complex and fascinating topics.
In Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld’s Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and the Food Web in Our Backyard, narrator Alice tells readers how her family grows edible plants, raises chickens, and interacts with a variety of living things in their backyard garden. Information about composting, plant life cycles, food chains and food webs, and nutrition is included; science-savvy cartoon chickens directly address readers throughout, explaining underlying facts. Priscilla Lamont’s cheery illustrations portray the changes over the growing season. (5–8 years)
North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration by Nick Dowson introduces young readers to the Arctic’s part-time residents: those that migrate to the region for the summer months in the Northern hemisphere, including whales from Mexico, narwhals from Europe, Canadian caribou, snow geese, and terns from Antarctica. Patrick Benson’s luminous watercolor with pen and pencil illustrations, spread out beautifully on the oversized pages, capture the graceful movements of the migrating groups as they pass through lower latitude forests, oceans, and skies. (7–10 years)
Nicola Davies’s Talk, Talk, Squawk!: A Human’s Guide to Animal Communication presents the ways in which animals communicate through the use of color and pattern recognition, smells, sounds, and chemical exchanges. Her friendly, conversational tone makes the complex ideas remarkably clear and understandable, and Neal Layton’s cartoon illustrations, complete with humorous communications from the anthropomorphized animals, neatly underscore the important scientific messages in each section. (7–10 years)
For a middle-grade audience, Laurence Pringle’s Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution traces developments in the fields of geology and biology that led to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as well as subsequent discoveries. Pringle’s accessible explanations of such concepts as natural selection and genetic mutations are woven through the book. Color photographs and diagrams of flora and fauna accompany the text, as well as Steve Jenkins’s wonderfully detailed cut-paper animal illustrations and portraits of scientists. (9–12 years)
Two works of nonfiction about the struggle over civil rights in the South and one historical-fiction graphic novel set at the turn of the previous century offer middle school readers context on race in this country.
Rick Bowers’s 2010 book Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement is an intriguing look at how the supporters of segregation — in the form of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission — gained and enforced their considerable power. Chronologically ordered, the volume climaxes with James Meredith’s enrollment in the University of Mississippi in 1962, a story Bowers tells with journalistic immediacy. Appended documents from the actual commission allow the evidence to speak for itself. (12 years and up)
Black & White: The Confrontation Between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor by Larry Dane Brimner (a 2012 Sibert Award honor book) looks at 1950s and 1960s Birmingham, Alabama, a city that earned its nickname “Bombingham.” At the heart of the violence were the often bloody confrontations between the forces of K.K.K. target Reverend Shuttlesworth and segregationist Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene Connor. Brimner’s well-researched text relies on a variety of primary-source documents, including FBI files and oral histories, to chronicle events. The many well-captioned photos and pull-quotes enhance the presentation. (12 years and up)
Comics and race take center stage in Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love, a graphic novel by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack Jr. Nat Love, a contemporary of Billy the Kid, was born a slave in 1854 Tennessee and eventually gained his freedom. An expert in breaking any horse, Nat won acceptance as a cowboy and mastered sharpshooting, driving, and roping. While the fictional story uses maps, letters, and longer stretches of prose, the book knows when to rely on Randy DuBurke’s vivid, well-paced color illustrations to move the story forward. (10 years and up)
There’s nothing like a familiar protagonist, setting, and illustrations to make easing into a new book a smooth ride for young readers. Two of these chapter books are entries in popular series; one is a sequel to an award-winning book from New Zealand; and one, while not part of a series, will be sure to attract fans of its well-loved author.
In Ivy + Bean: No News Is Good News, the girls want some cash, and Bean’s dad suggests they create a newspaper about life on Pancake Court. After they successfully collect money from their neighbor-subscribers, the friends realize they had better go find some newsworthy stories — and do they ever. Like Ivy and Bean, author Annie Barrows and illustrator Sophie Blackall feed off each other’s creativity with hilarious results in this eighth entry in one of the funniest young chapter book series around. (6–9 years)
Gooney Bird on the Map, written by Lois Lowry and illustrated by Middy Thomas, is the fifth book in the series. With February break on everyone’s mind, the conversation in Gooney Bird Greene’s second grade class constantly turns to three students’ fabulous vacation destinations. In this story about a sensitive subject, big-hearted Gooney Bird predictably comes up with the perfect group project to help everyone happily refocus on schoolwork. (6–9 years)
In Friends: Snake and Lizard, the beguiling pair introduced in Snake and Lizard now share a burrow and are business partners, too, “Helper and Helper.” Different as their habits and appetites are, their relationship involves the ongoing negotiation that gives this chronicle much of its humor. The two bicker constantly; still, the outcomes are fair, reasonable, and often capped with a delightfully ironic twist. Gavin Bishop’s colorful spot art reinforces the affectionate characterizations and the humor in this wise and funny text by Joy Cowley. (7–10 years)
Though not part of a series, Kindred Souls will be warmly greeted by Patricia MacLachlan’s many fans. Ten-year-old Jake has a close relationship with his grandfather, eighty-eight-year-old Billy. The mysterious arrival of a stray dog that glues itself to Billy adds a touch of magic that hangs in the air after Billy’s death, when we hear a rumor of a stray dog turning up at an ailing woman’s home in the next town. These are time-sculpted themes, and MacLachlan gives them her particular stamp of plain speaking and poetry. (7–10 years)
Whether Valentine’s Day puts you in the mood for a heartwarming read or a heartbreaking one, these four new YA novels about love (and love lost) offer some of each.
In Jennifer E. Smith’s The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, Hadley misses her flight to London, where she’s grudgingly going to her father’s wedding. She meets Oliver, a charming Brit, on the next flight. Their in-flight bonding culminates in a mind-blowing kiss at the airport — and then Hadley loses Oliver in the crowd. This elegant romance features a determined heroine who’s not afraid to make her own destiny. (14 years and up)
Daniel Handler’s remarkable novel Why We Broke Up is written as a (very long) letter quirky narrator Min plans to leave on her ex-boyfriend Ed’s doorstep, along with a box of tokens of their relationship (illustrated sparingly by Maira Kalman). Through Min’s eloquent thoughts on the significance of each item, readers come to understand both why the couple broke up, and why that outcome is not what matters most in this story. (14 years and up)
Hazel has stage four cancer and doesn’t know how much time she has left. Augustus lost a leg to osteosarcoma but seems to be in recovery. After meeting in a cancer support group, the two quickly develop a relationship that’s as profoundly intellectual as it is emotional and physical. With its acerbic comedy, sexy romance, and meditation on life and death, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is funny, heartbreaking, and honest. (14 years and up)
In Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff, lines of sexuality and gender are intentionally blurred; connections in an alternative family of punk-rock street kids are strong and clear. Androgynous drummer Kid falls for guitarist Felix, but a devastating fire claims both Felix and their abandoned warehouse “home.” Though Kid feels lost without Felix, with another summer comes sweet-voiced singer Scout — and another chance at love. (14 years and up)