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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Reviews, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 4,952
1. Aaron Eiland’s Picture Book Featured On Kickstarter

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2. Brené Brown & David Levithan Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

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3. Review: Mix “Stand By Me” and “River’s Edge” With Super Heroes You Get Plutona

A super hero falls in the woods and the sound turns the lives of five kids upside down.

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4. Between You and Me

Get it?

Get it?

I believe it was Joan who prompted me to get myself in the library hold queue for Between You and Me by Mary Norris and I am glad I did! Norris has spent over thirty years as a copy editor for The New Yorker. She has stories! She also knows her grammar. Although she frequently recognizes that New Yorker style and the grammar everyone else uses don’t always align. And yes, she reports people being afraid her at parties, worried they are going to say something incorrect and that she will judge them. Norris insists she has no time or inclination for that malarky yet however reassuring she tries to be, there are some who can’t believe she isn’t silently ripping them to shreds.

A pity too because if she is anything in person like she is in her book, she has a great sense of humor. Though as a grammar geek she does have issues as anyone who is geeky about something will. Like the time she read Light Years by James Salter. She had been hearing about how good he is for a long time and finally decided to read one of his books. She loved it but was pulled up by one sentence, particularly a comma in that one sentence, that seemed to her unnecessary. It bugged her so much she wrote him a letter asking about it. Salter kindly wrote back to her and explained why he used a comma where he did and Norris was completely satisfied with his answer. How many of us would write an author about a comma?

The book is part memoir, part grammar lesson, and sprinkled with the occasional hint of annoyance over all the mistakes people make on a daily basis. There is an entire chapter on “you and I” versus “you and me” and why most of the time “you and me” is the correct usage. Another chapter discusses the problem of there being no gender non-specific pronoun in English that accounts for he and she, him and her, forcing people into terrible grammar contortions and even prompting many to suggest such near atrocities as “ne, nis, nim” or “shi, shis, shim” or “mef” or “hu.” She acknowledges most people have thrown in the towel and settled for “they” and “their” and while she can manage to not be too upset by “they,” “their” is completely unacceptable in her book.

Other things we learn are the correct usage of “which” and “that.” While I was reading it I felt I would never forget the rules but if you ask me right now I will mumble something about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses and oh, I’m sorry, I have to go take this phone call. I know I get these mixed up all the time but it is hard to make myself care. Should I?

One of my favorite chapters is on dashes, semicolons, and colons. I love dashes and once, long ago, after reading all of Emily Dickinson’s poems over the course of a month, I became a dash maniac. I have since tempered my usage but —oh! — I love them so. I used to be terrified of semicolons and would do my best to avoid any sentence that might need one. But a few years ago I read something, I can’t remember what, that gave me the confidence to start using them. And once I began I decided I really like semicolons even if I am never actually certain whether I am using them correctly. In her chapter Norris does a marvelous analysis on how Henry James uses semicolons. You will not be surprised to know he is absolutely brilliant at it. I am shy about colons and will probably always remain so. I had a writing teacher once drill into my head that a colon was like a big neon sign and that if I ever used one, what came after it had better be good. I guess you could say my shyness of colons stems from a fear that I could never say anything good enough to justify a neon sign. Norris is more reassuring on the matter but I believe I have been scarred for life.

At times I felt like Norris comes across a teeny bit condescending and know-it-all. Perhaps given her position at the New Yorker she really does know it all, but no one likes that especially when it comes to grammar. She has a light, breezy style and is witty and funny, but sometimes her jokes fell flat with me, particularly in her chapter about profanity. However, Between You and Me is overall a fun and enjoyable book that includes some of the most pleasant grammar lessons I have ever had. I highly recommend it should you ever need something to fill an empty spot in your TBR pile.


Filed under: Books, Reviews, Writing Tagged: Grammar, Mary Norris

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5. Review of Tender Morsels

tender-morselsstar2Margo Lanagan Tender Morsels
435 pp. Knopf 10/08 isbn 978-0-375-84811-7 $16.99 g
Library edition isbn 978-0-375-94811-4 $19.99
(High School)

Raped repeatedly by her father and, after his death, brutally gang-raped by village youths, fifteen-year-old Liga determines to kill herself and her baby. Instead of dying, the two enter a parallel world; a place without aggression, fear, or pain. There Liga raises her two daughters, Branza and Urdda. As the girls grow, strangers visit Liga’s heaven—a “stumpety” little man intent on magical riches; two bear-men who have wandered in from Liga’s former village’s seasonal fertility festival. They pique young Urdda’s curiosity, and she finds her way back to the real world. Her discovery ruptures Liga’s safe but stagnant heaven forever but results in a fuller life for all three women. Lanagan’s poetic style and her masterful employment of mythic imagery give this story of transformation and healing extraordinary depth and beauty. The characters’ earthy folk dialect tethers Lanagan’s fantasy firmly to very real physical and psychic experience even as the lyrical narrative voice (“Morning came, sweet as new milk spilling up the sky, all dew and birdsong and bee-buzz”) intensifies its fairy-tale atmosphere. At the same time, Lanagan offers up difficult truths—and complicated, human characters—that are as sobering as they are triumphant.

From the September/October 2008 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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6. Review: We Believe the Children

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980sby Richard BeckPublicAffairs. 2015. Review copy via NetGalley.

It's About: A look at the child abuse prosecutions of the 1980s.

The Good: We Believe the Children was the cry of the media, prosecutors, and families during the prosecutions and lawsuits of the daycare child abuse allegations of the 1980s.

I was in law school in the late 80s; I remember studying the varying ways that children were being questioned, and how their testimony was being presented in court. I remember thinking, how could children lie about such things? Why would they?

We Believe the Children gives answers to those questions, and not answers that are very comforting or easy. At this point, I think many familiar with these cases and the time know about some of the "why", about doctors and therapists and police and prosecutors and family members who, at best, weren't equipped to investigate such claims and, at worst, made it worse with leading questions, faulty science, and almost abusive questioning tactics of very young children.

Beck discusses those things, but also puts what was happening in the context of the times.Why, for example, was it so easy for people to believe? He points to fear, yes, but also the bigger context of politics -- it was easier for people to believe that the danger of abusers was outside the home (in the daycares, in places which employed those of lower socioeconomic standings), and to link those dangers to changing family structures (the "danger" came from the child being outside the home, in a daycare, so while the parent (ie mom) was not doing what she should).

How does memory work? What does it mean, to repress a memory? What is multiple personalities, is it real, and how does that contribute to what people think about child abuse and what children say?

This book is not an easy read; and the consequences of what happened in 1980s are still ones we live with, and not just in terms of the individuals on all sides of the investigations and prosecutions. Not just the people sent to jail, or the children subject to problematic questioning. It lingers in today's reactions that demand more than allegations; look at happened the last time "we believe" became a tagline. It's also still around in how people view daycare and parenting, as well as how child abuse is viewed, prosecuted, and treated.

It also raises the questions of how people believe what is reported in the here-and-now, without reflection. Truth be told, there are some things in the book that I've read before and agree with, but other points, well, I had a bit more skepticism about. I'd want to look more into, before agreeing a hundred percent.

We Believe the Children also made me think of novels, of fiction that is based on current events and "torn from the headlines" stories. Books that used these stories as parts of plots or motivations.



Other reviews: The New York Times review; The Guardian review.




Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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7. Ms. Marvel, No Normal

cover artMs. Marvel Volume 1, No Normal by G. Willow Wilson (story) and Adrian Alphona (artist) made me giddy happy it was so much fun. I completely understand why it won a Hugo Award last week and I am very much looking forward to reading more of the story.

And about that story.

Kamala is sixteen and wishes she were someone else. Her family is Muslim and from Pakistan. She is not allowed to go to parties or go out on dates with boys. Her parents are liberal as far as they can be but even that is too strict for Kamala who wants to fit in and be like everyone else. She loves the Avengers and dreams of being Captain Marvel.

One of the popular girls at school invites her to a beach party and Kamala sneaks out of the house to go only to discover when she arrives that the point of her being there is to serve as the butt of jokes. She runs off and the city is overtaken by a mysterious mist. In the mist Kamala is visited by Iron Man, Captain America, and Captain Marvel. She is granted her wish to be Captain Marvel who tells her that things will not turn out the way she thinks they will.

And it’s true. As Kamala tries to figure out her new super powers and how to use them to help people she often misreads situations and causes more harm than good. But with the help of her best friends, Nakia and Bruno, Kamala learns a few important lessons about friendship, helping others, and being herself. The latter is of course the most important lesson of all because it isn’t until Kamala understands that she can’t be Captain Marvel but only ever herself, everything else comes together. And thus she becomes not Captain Marvel but Ms. Marvel.

By the end of the story she has made a daring rescue and gained a nemesis as well as been grounded by her parents. It’s hard to fight evil when you’re grounded, but I expect Kamala will figure it out.

I’ve never thought of myself as a comic kind of reader and while I enjoy The Avengers films and Agent Carter and Agents of Shield, I have not been especially interested in reading the comics. But Ms. Marvel while on the fringe of the superhero comic world, is her own story that is also outside of all the already known superhero stories. That to me makes it fresh and interesting especially because she is not your average kind of superhero. More fun and adventures ahead!


Filed under: Graphic Novels, Reviews

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8. Monday Mishmash: 8/31/15


Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.

Here's what's on my mind today:
  1. First Day of School  My daughter went back to school today. :( I miss her already.
  2. Editing  It's probably no shock that my plate is full with edits this week.
  3. Recovering From Knee Injury  In case you didn't see my posts on FB and Twitter last week, I fell on the treadmill and now both knees look like I'm trying to audition for The Walking Dead—as a zombie of course. They're healing now, but ouch!
  4. Our Little Secret  I'm SO excited for this release on September 15. Like SO excited. I love this book, and it's gorgeous thanks to the amazing team at Limitless Publishing. I have a lot planned for the month of September to celebrate, so stay tuned.
  5. Writer Wednesday Topics  My posts from the other side of the submissions desk seem to be popular, so I thought I'd ask you if there's anything you'd like me to talk about in my Wednesday posts. What do you want to know about as far as submitting to editors?
That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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9. R.J. Palacio and Ivan Doig Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

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10. SEPTEMBER UPDATE!

It's back to school time!    September promises to be filled with fun theater, exhibitions, and mo'! EXHIBITS! ATLANTA, GA SERIOUSLY SILLY: THE ART & WHIMSY OF MO WILLEMS is on view at the HIGH MUSEUM in Atlanta, GA! The exhibit is based on the 2013 solo show at the Eric Carle Museum, with added original work and cool interactive stuff. Don't miss it! I'm very excited about the

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11. Review of the Day: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

NestThe Nest
By Kenneth Oppel
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4814-3232-0
On shelves October 6th

Oh, how I love middle grade horror. It’s a very specific breed of book, you know. Most people on the street might think of the Goosebumps books or similar ilk when they think of horror stories for the 10-year-old set, but that’s just a small portion of what turns out to be a much greater, grander set of stories. Children’s book horror takes on so many different forms. You have your post-apocalyptic, claustrophobic horrors, like Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien. You have your everyday-playthings-turned-evil tales like Doll Bones by Holly Black. You have your close family members turned evil stories ala Coraline by Neil Gaiman and Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. And then there are the horror stories that shoot for the moon. The ones that aren’t afraid (no pun intended) to push the envelope a little. To lure you into a false sense of security before they unleash some true psychological scares. And the best ones are the ones that tie that horror into something larger than themselves. In Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest, the author approaches us with a very simple idea. What if your desire to make everything better, everyone happier, released an unimaginable horror? What do you do?

New babies are often cause for true celebration, but once in a while there are problems. Problems that render parents exhausted and helpless. Problems with the baby that go deep below the surface and touch every part of your life. For Steve, it feels like it’s been a long time since his family was happy. So when the angels appear in his dream offering to help with the baby, he welcomes them. True, they don’t say much specifically about what they can do. Not at the beginning, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? Anyway, there are other problems in Steve’s life as well. He may have to go back into therapy, and then there are these wasps building a nest on his house when he’s severely allergic to them. A fixed baby could be the answer to his prayers. Only, the creatures visiting him don’t appear to be angels anymore. And when it comes to “fixing” the baby . . . well, they may have other ideas entirely . . .

First and foremost, I don’t think I can actually talk about this book without dusting off the old “spoiler alert” sign. For me, the very fact that Oppel’s book is so beautifully succinct and restrained, renders it impossible not to talk about its various (and variegated) twists and turns. So I’m going to give pretty much everything away in this review. It’s a no holds barred approach, when you get right down to it. Starting with the angels of course. They’re wasps. And it only gets better from there.

It comes to this. I’ve no evidence to support this theory of mine as to one of the inspirations for the book. I’ve read no interviews with Oppel about where he gets his ideas. No articles on his thought processes. But part of the reason I like the man so much probably has to do with the fact that at some point in his life he must have been walking down the street, or the path, or the trail, and saw a wasp’s nest. And this man must have looked up at it, in all its paper-thin malice, and found himself with the following inescapable thought: “I bet you could fit a baby in there.” And I say unto you, it takes a mind like that to write a book like this.

Wasps are perhaps nature’s most impressive bullies. They seem to have been given such horrid advantages. Not only do they have terrible tempers and nasty dispositions, not only do they swarm, but unlike the comparatively sweet honeybee they can sting you multiple times and never die. It’s little wonder that they’re magnificent baddies in The Nest. The only question I have is why no one has until now realized how fabulous a foe they can be. Klassen’s queen is particularly perfect. It would have been all too easy for him to imbue her with a kind of White Witch austerity. Queens come built-in with sneers, after all. This queen, however, derives her power by being the ultimate confident. She’s sympathetic. She’s patient. She’s a mother who hears your concerns and allays them. Trouble is, you can’t trust her an inch and underneath that friendliness is a cold cruel agenda. She is, in short, my favorite baddie of the year. I didn’t like wasps to begin with. Now I abhor them with a deep inner dread usually reserved for childhood fears.

I mentioned earlier that the horror in this book comes from the idea that Steve’s attempts to make everything better, and his parents happier, instead cause him to consider committing an atrocity. In a moment of stress Steve gives his approval to the unthinkable and when he tries to rescind it he’s told that the matter is out of his hands. Kids screw up all the time and if they’re unlucky they screw up in such a way that their actions have consequences too big for their small lives. The guilt and horror they sometimes swallow can mark them for life. The queen of this story offers something we all can understand. A chance to “fix” everything and make the world perfect. Never mind that perfect doesn’t really exist. Never mind that the price she exacts is too high. If she came calling on you, offering to fix that one truly terrible thing in your life, wouldn’t you say yes? On the surface, child readers will probably react most strongly to the more obvious horror elements to this story. The toy telephone with the scratchy voice that sounds like “a piece of metal being held against a grindstone.” The perfect baby ready to be “born” The attic . . . *shudder* Oh, the attic. But it’s the deeper themes that will make their mark on them. And on anyone reading to them as well.

There are books where the child protagonist’s physical or mental challenges are named and identified and there are books where it’s left up to the reader to determine the degree to which the child is or is not on such a spectrum. A book like Wonder by R.J. Palacio or Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper will name the disability. A book like Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis or Counting by 7s by Holly Sloan won’t. There’s no right or wrong way to write such books, and in The Nest Klassen finds himself far more in the latter rather than former camp. Steve has had therapy in the past, and exhibits what could be construed to be obsessive compulsive behavior. What’s remarkable is that Klassen then weaves Steve’s actions into the book’s greater narrative. It becomes our hero’s driving force, this fight against impotence. All kids strive to have more control over their own lives, after all. Steve’s O.C.D. (though it is never defined in that way) is part of his helpless attempt to make things better, even if it’s just through the recitation of lists and names. At one point he repeats the word “congenital” and feels better, “As if knowing the names of things meant I had some power over them.”

When I was a young adult (not a teen) I was quite enamored of A.S. Byatt’s book Angels and Insects. It still remains one of my favorites and though I seem to have transferred my love of Byatt’s prose to the works of Laura Amy Schlitz (her juvenile contemporary and, I would argue, equivalent) there are elements of Byatt’s book in what Klassen has done here. His inclusion of religion isn’t a real touchstone of the novel, but it’s just a bit too prevalent to ignore. There is, for example, the opening line: “The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.” Followed not too long after by a section where Steve reads off every night the list of people he wants to keep safe. “I didn’t really know who I was asking. Maybe it was God, but I didn’t really believe in God, so this wasn’t praying exactly.” He doesn’t question the angels of his dreams or their desire to help (at least initially). And God makes no personal appearance in the novel, directly or otherwise. Really, when all was said and done, my overall impression was that the book reminded me of David Almond’s Skellig with its angel/not angel, sick baby, and boy looking for answers where there are few to find. The difference being, of course, the fact that in Skellig the baby gets better and here the baby is saved but it is clear as crystal to even the most optimistic reader that it will never ever been the perfect baby every parent wishes for.

It’s funny that I can say so much without mentioning the language, but there you go. Oppel’s been wowing folks with his prose for years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a cunning turn of phrase when you encounter it. Consider some of his lines. The knife guy is described like “He looked like his bones were meant for an even bigger body.” A description of a liquid trap for wasps is said to be akin to a, “soggy mass grave, the few survivors clambering over the dead bodies, trying in vain to climb out. It was like a vision of hell from that old painting I’d seen in the art gallery and never forgotten.” Or what may well be my favorite in the book, “… and they were regurgitating matter from their mouths and sculpting it into baby flesh.” And then there are the little elements the drive the story. We don’t learn the baby’s name until page 112. Or the very title itself. When Vanessa, Steve’s babysitter, is discussing nests she points out that humans make them as well. “Our houses are just big nests, really. A place where you can sleep and be safe – and grow.”

The choice of Jon Klassen as illustrator is fascinating to me. When I think of horror illustrations for kids the usual suspects are your Stephen Gammells or Gris Grimleys or Dave McKeans. Klassen’s different. When you hire him, you’re not asking him to ratchet up the fear factor, but rather to echo it and then take it down a notch to a place where a child reader can be safe. Take, for example, his work on Lemony Snicket’s The Dark A book where the very shadows speak, it wasn’t that Klassen was denying the creepier elements of the tale. But he tamed them somehow. And now that same taming sense is at work here. His pictures are rife with shadows and faceless adults, turned away or hidden from the viewer (and the viewer is clearly Steve/you). And his pictures do convey the tone of the book well. A curved knife on a porch is still a curved knife on a porch. Spend a little time flipping between the front and back endpapers, while you’re at it. Klassen so subtle with these. The moon moves. A single light is out in a house. But there’s a feeling of peace to the last picture, and a feeling of foreboding in the first. They’re practically identical so I don’t know how he managed that, but there it is. Honestly, you couldn’t have picked a better illustrator.

Suffice to say, this book would probably be the greatest class readaloud for fourth, fifth, or sixth graders the world has ever seen. When I was in fourth grade my teacher read us The Wicked Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden by Mary Chase and I was never quite the same again. Thus do I bless some poor beleaguered child with the magnificent nightmares that will come with this book. Added Bonus for Teachers: You’ll never have to worry about school attendance ever again. There’s not a chapter here a kid would want to miss.

If I have a bone to pick with the author it is this: He’s Canadian. Normally, this is a good thing. Canadians are awesome. They give us a big old chunk of great literature every year. But Oppel as a Canadian is terribly awkward because if he were not and lived in, say, Savannah or something, then he could win some major American children’s literary awards with this book. And now he can’t. There are remarkably few awards the U.S. can grant this tale of flying creepy crawlies. Certainly he should (if there is any justice in the universe) be a shoo-in for Canada’s Governor General’s Award in the youth category and I’m pulling for him in the E.B. White Readaloud Award category as well, but otherwise I’m out to sea. Would that he had a home in Pasadena. Alas.

Children’s books come with lessons pre-installed for their young readers. Since we’re dealing with people who are coming up in the world and need some guidance, the messages tend towards the innocuous. Be yourself. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Friendship is important. Etc. The message behind The Nest could be debated ad nauseam for quite some time, but I think the thing to truly remember here is something Steve says near the end. “And there’s no such thing as normal anyways.” The belief in normality and perfection may be the truest villain in The Nest when you come right down to it. And Klassen has Steve try to figure out why it’s good to try to be normal if there is no true normal in the end. It’s a lesson adults have yet to master ourselves. Little wonder that The Nest ends up being what may be the most fascinating horror story written for kids you’ve yet to encounter. Smart as a whip with an edge to the terror you’re bound to appreciate, this is a truly great, truly scary, truly wonderful novel.

On shelves October 6th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus,

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12. Review of Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

sheinkin_most dangerousstar2Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret 
History of the Vietnam War
by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School, High School   Roaring Brook   361 pp.
9/15   978-1-59643-952-8   $19.99   g

Without a wasted word or scene, and with the timing and prowess of a writer of thrillers, Sheinkin takes on a spectacularly complex story—and makes it comprehensible to teen readers: how Daniel Ellsberg evolved from a committed “cold warrior” to an antiwar activist, and why and how he leaked the Pentagon Papers—“seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years”—which led to the Watergate Scandal, the fall of the Nixon administration, and, finally, the end of the Vietnam War. From the very beginning of his account, Sheinkin demonstrates the human drama unfolding behind the scenes; the secrecy surrounding White House and Pentagon decisions; the disconnect between the public and private statements of our nation’s leaders. Throughout, readers will find themselves confronted by large, timely questions, all of which emerge organically from the book’s events: Can we trust our government? How do we know? How much secrecy is too much? The enormous amount of incorporated primary-source documentation (from interviews with Daniel Ellsberg himself to White House recordings) means not only that readers know much more than ordinary U.S. citizens did at the time but that every conversation and re-enacted scene feels immediate and compelling. Sheinkin (Bomb, rev. 11/12; The Port Chicago 50, rev. 3/14) has an unparalleled gift for synthesizing story and bringing American history to life; here, he’s outdone even himself. Meticulous scholarship includes a full thirty-
six pages of bibliography and source notes; judiciously placed archival photographs add to the sense of time and place.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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13. Review of Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Flash Point/Roaring Brook)
While comprehensive in his synthesis of the political, historical, and scientific aspects of the creation of the first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin focuses his account with an extremely alluring angle: the spies. The book opens in 1950 with the confession of Harry Gold — but to what? And thus we flash back to Robert Oppenheimer in the dark 1930s, as he and readers are handed another question by the author: “But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?” Oppenheimer’s realization that an atomic bomb could be created to use against Nazi Germany is coupled with the knowledge that the Germans must be working from the same premise, and the Soviets are close behind. We periodically return to Gold’s ever-deepening betrayals as well as other acts of espionage, most excitingly the two stealth attacks on occupied Norway’s Vemork power plant, where the Germans were manufacturing heavy water to use in their own nuclear program. As he did in the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner The Notorious Benedict Arnold (rev. 1/11), Sheinkin here maintains the pace of a thriller without betraying history (source notes and an annotated bibliography are exemplary) or skipping over the science; photo galleries introducing each section help readers organize the events and players. Writing with journalistic immediacy, the author eschews editorializing up through the chilling last lines: “It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.” Index.

From the November/December 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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14. Review of The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the 
Fight for Civil Rights

Port ChicagoThe Port Chicago 50:
Disaster, Mutiny, and the
Fight for Civil Rights

by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School    Roaring Brook    190 pp.
1/14    978-1-59643-796-8    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-59643-983-2    $9.99

Sheinkin follows Bomb (rev. 11/12) with an account of another aspect of the Second World War, stemming from an incident that seems small in scope but whose ramifications would go on to profoundly change the armed forces and the freedom of African Americans to serve their country. The Port Chicago 50 was a group of navy recruits at Port Chicago in California doing one of the few service jobs available to black sailors at the beginning of the war: loading bombs and ammunition onto battleships. “All the officers standing on the pier and giving orders were white. All the sailors handling explosives were black.” When, as seems inevitable given the shoddy safety practices, there was an explosion that left more than three hundred dead, fifty men refused to go back to work, occasioning a trial for mutiny. Sheinkin focuses the events through the experience of Joe Small, who led the protest against the dangerous and unequal working conditions, but the narrative loses momentum as it tries to move between Small’s experience and its larger causes and effects. Still, this is an unusual entry point for the study of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement. Photographs are helpful, and documentation is thorough. Picture credits and index not seen.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Fight for Civil Rights appeared first on The Horn Book.

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15. Recommended Narrative Nonfiction: Young Adult

bausum_stonewallBausum, Ann Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights
120 pp. Viking 2015. ISBN 978-0-670-01679-2
Bausum begins with a detailed, nuanced exposition of the June 1969 Stonewall riots as a galvanizing moment for the gay rights movement, then traces the movement’s evolution (in a somewhat more cursory way) for the second half of the book. Bausum’s narrative integrity makes her conclusions about the persecution and resilience of the LGBTQ community all the more powerful. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Homosexuality; Activism

Superman Versus the Klu Klux KlanBowers, Rick Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate
160 pp. National Geographic 2012. ISBN 978-1-4263-0915-1
LE ISBN 978-1-4263-0916-8
In 1946, the producers of the Superman radio show deployed their character’s popularity in a campaign against bigotry. Bowers explains how he dug through myths, examined original archives, and reached tentative conclusions about what most likely happened and why. A complex history of organizations guided by both ideology and profit, people both well-meaning and flawed, and shifts in popular sentiment. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Visual Arts; Cartoons and comics; Ku Klux Klan; History, American; Heroes; Race relations; Prejudices; Radio

fleischman_eyes wide openFleischman, Paul Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines
204 pp. Candlewick 2014. ISBN 978-0-7636-7102-0
PE ISBN 978-0-7636-7545-5 Ebook ISBN 978-0-7636-7407-6
A wake-up call about the environmental crisis, the book homes in on five “key fronts” — population, consumption, energy, food, and climate — and explores historical and sociological contexts. Fleischman writes urgently, conversationally, and inspirationally, in a flow of ideas that can be dizzying. Yet none of the concepts is dumbed-down. A refreshingly opinionated approach to informed action. Reading list, websites. Bib., glos., ind.
Subjects: Pollution and Conservation; Global warming

fleming_family-romanovFleming, Candace The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
287 pp. Random/Schwartz & Wade 2014. ISBN 978-0-375-86782-8
LE ISBN 978-0-375-96782-5 Ebook ISBN 978-0-375-89864-8
Fleming has outdone herself with this riveting work of narrative nonfiction. Her focus here is not just the Romanovs, but the Revolutionary leaders and common people as well. The epic, sweeping narrative seamlessly incorporates scholarly authority, primary sources, appropriate historical speculation, and a keen eye for the most telling details. Two sixteen-page inserts contain numerous captioned photographs. Map, genealogy, and source notes included. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Europe; Romanov, House of; Nicholas II; Soviet Union; Biographies; Russia; Kings, queens, and rulers; Russian Revolution

The Boys Who Challenged HitlerHoose, Phillip The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club
   198 pp. Farrar 2015. ISBN 978-0-374-30022-7
When Hitler invaded Denmark, teenaged Knud Pedersen (with his brother and some mates) used civil disobedience to pester the Nazis, inspiring a larger-scale Danish revolt. Hoose brilliantly weaves Pedersen’s own words into the larger narrative of wartime Denmark, showing how the astonishing bravery of ordinary Danish teens started something extraordinary. An outstanding addition to the WWII canon. Bib., ind. Websites.
Subjects: World War II; Denmark; Righteous Gentiles; Activism; Nazism

mcclafferty_fourth down and inchesMcClafferty, Carla Killough Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment
96 pp. Carolrhoda 2013. ISBN 978-1-4677-1067-1
McClafferty’s informative and useful book focuses on football to discuss the serious but historically trivialized condition of concussion. Starting with football’s beginnings, McClafferty details the game’s early casualties; the controversy over its growing presence as a college sport; and how it became entrenched in American culture. She then goes on to cover the neuroscience behind head trauma and the increased awareness of the dangers. Reading list. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Sports; Sports—Football; Human body—Brain

mitchell_freedom summer murders_170x227Mitchell, Don The Freedom Summer Murders
256 pp. Scholastic 2014. ISBN 978-0-545-47725-3
Ebook ISBN 978-0-545-63393-2
The murders of three young civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — are the focus of Mitchell’s absorbing book. He conducted interviews with friends and family members of the men, and provides a fascinating biographical sketch of each, along with a thorough account of the police investigation. This compelling book will grab you from its opening paragraphs and won’t let go. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Government, Economics, and Education; African Americans; Race relations; Civil rights; Murder; History, American; Activism

pinkney_rhythm ridePinkney, Andrea Davis Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound
166 pp. Roaring Brook 2015. ISBN 978-1-59643-973-3
As related by an irrepressible narrator called “the Groove,” this history of Motown smartly places the company and its hit records in the context of (mostly) 1960s America — and has a great time doing so. While the tone is generally peppy, the book gives due attention to the racism the company and its artists faced. An excellent discography and many photographs are included. Reading list, timeline. Ind.
Subjects: Music; African Americans; History—American

sheinkin_most dangerousSheinkin, Steve Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
361 pp. Roaring Brook 2015. ISBN 978-1-59643-952-8
With the timing and prowess of a writer of thrillers, Sheinkin takes on a spectacularly complex story — Daniel Ellsberg’s evolution from “cold warrior” to antiwar activist, and why and how he leaked the Pentagon Papers — and makes it comprehensible for teens. Sheinkin has an unparalleled gift for synthesizing story and bringing American history to life. Judiciously placed archival photographs appear throughout.
Subjects: History, Modern—Vietnam War; Crime; Government; Biographies; Ellsberg, Daniel

Courage Has No ColorStone, Tanya Lee Courage Has No Color, the True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers
148 pp. Candlewick 2013. ISBN 978-0-7636-5117-6
The World War II–era 555th Parachute Infantry Company, nicknamed the Triple Nickles, didn’t actually fight anywhere, as white soldiers didn’t want to fight alongside black soldiers. The book’s focus is wide: there are sections on segregation and stereotypes, Japanese American internment camps, Japanese balloon bombs, the Battle of the Bulge, and Operation Firefly, brought to life with archival photographs and Stone’s always clear prose. Timeline. Bib., ind.
Subjects: North America; Race relations; African Americans; Armed forces; Flight; Soldiers; History, Modern—World War II

From the August 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?

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16. Recommended Narrative Nonfiction: Intermediate

bartoletti_terrible typhoid maryBartoletti, Susan Campbell Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America
   230 pp. Houghton 2015. ISBN 978-0-544-31367-5
What was it like to be a servant, an immigrant, a woman in the early twentieth century? Bartoletti weaves the answers into the beginning of “Typhoid Mary” Mallon’s story — using Mary as a lens to view a wider swath of American society — then covers epidemiologist George Soper’s cat-and-mouse game of tracking Mary down. Excellent nonfiction with a novelistic trim size and narrative. Timeline. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Medicine, Human Body, and Diseases; New York (State); Diseases—Typhoid fever

Skull in the RockBerger, Lee R., and Aronson, Marc The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins
   64 pp. National Geographic 2012. ISBN 978-1-4263-1010-2
LE ISBN 978-1-4263-1053-9
Paleontologist Berger and son Matthew’s recent find gave scientists a nearly intact skeleton from a new species, Australopithecus sediba. Detailed accounts of advances in the field and the supporting technology are intertwined with the story of Berger’s not-always-straightforward career path. The book is enhanced by illustrative material, including photographs and striking facial reconstructions of these ancient ancestors. Reading list, websites. Glos., ind.
Subjects: Science—Prehistoric Life; Paleontology; Archaeology; Evolution; South Africa; Fossils; Anthropology

brown_drowned cityBrown, Don Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans
   96 pp. Houghton 2015. ISBN 978-0-544-15777-4
A comic-book format delivers the full force of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans. When the storm hits the city, Brown hits readers with the consequences: flooding, fear, desperation, death, and frustration. Meticulously documented facts and quotes from victims caption the commanding art. If a book’s power were measured like a hurricane’s, this would be a category five. Bib.
Subjects: Natural disasters—Hurricanes; Disasters; New Orleans (LA); Graphic novels

freedman_angel islandFreedman, Russell Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain
81 pp. Clarion 2014. ISBN 978-0-547-90378-1
Chinese poems translated by Evans Chan. Freedman’s slender volume on the history and importance of California’s Angel Island Immigration Station — the portal for Asian immigration to the U.S. — covers a lot of ground. He weaves a clear and straightforward narrative history with abundant quotations, excerpts from diaries and wall poems, and archival photographs. This is a clearly written account of a lesser-known side of American immigration history. Bib., ind.
Subjects: North America; Asian Americans; Angel Island (CA); Immigration; San Francisco (CA); Chinese Americans

Invincible MicrobesMurphy, Jim and Blank, Alison  Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure
149 pp. Clarion 2012. ISBN 978-0-618-53574-3
Tuberculosis has been a medical scourge through much of human history, and new drug-resistant strains keep the threat of a pandemic always on the horizon. This book brings young readers up to speed with a scientific explanation of the microbe as well as medical and social histories of the disease. Despite disparate elements, the information comes together cohesively for an engaging read. Illustrations and photographs are included. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Medicine, Human Body, and Disease; Diseases—Tuberculosis; Microbiology; Epidemics

Heart and SoulNelson, Kadir Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
   108 pp. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray 2011. ISBN 978-0-06-173074-0
The unnamed narrator of this graceful and personalized overview of African American history provides a sweeping account that covers history from the Colonial era to the present day. Each page of text is accompanied by a magnificent oil painting, forty-seven in all, including six dramatic double-page spreads. The illustrations, combined with the narrative, give a sense of intimacy. A tour de force. Timeline. Bib., ind.
Subjects: History—North America; African Americans; Slavery; History, American

silvey_untamedSilvey, Anita Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall
   96 pp. National Geographic 2015. ISBN 978-1-4263-1518-3
Foreword by Jane Goodall. This accessible account of Goodall’s life explores her nontraditional entry to scientific fieldwork; the attention from the National Geographic Society that made her famous; her work ethic and innovative scientific methods; her efforts to reform the use of chimpanzees in research laboratories; and current technological advances in primate research. Silvey accompanies her main narrative with informative text boxes and vivid photographs. Map, timeline. Bib., ind.
Goodall, Jane; Animals—Chimpanzees; Scientists; Women—Scientists; Women—Biographies; Animal behavior

From the August 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?

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17. Recommended Narrative Nonfiction: Picture Books

applegate_ivanApplegate, Katherine Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla
40 pp. Clarion 2014. ISBN 978-0-544-25230-1
Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Applegate introduces picture-book readers to the true story that inspired her Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan. In poetic prose she describes gorilla Ivan’s early life in Africa; his dramatic capture; his time on display in a shopping mall; and his transition to the Atlanta Zoo. Karas’s mixed-media illustrations — in his warm and unaffected style — are at once straightforward and provocative.
Subjects: Mammals; Animals—Gorillas; Zoos; Shopping malls

bang_buried-sunlight_170x209Bang, Molly and Chisholm, Penny Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth
48 pp. Scholastic/Blue Sky 2014. ISBN 978-0-545-57785-4
Illustrated by Molly Bang. Bang and Chisholm explain the production and consumption of fossil fuels, along with the consequences of all that energy use: climate change. The sun serves as narrator describing the relationship between photosynthesis (plants) and respiration (animals) and energy; a slight imbalance produces fossil fuels. Bang’s illustrations brilliantly represent the chemistry: bright yellow dots of energy against a deep-blue background hover over their producers.
Subjects: Earth Science; Energy; Astronomy—Sun; Global warming; Fossil fuels

bryant_right-word_170x231Bryant, Jen The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
48 pp. Eerdmans 2014. ISBN 978-0-8028-5385-1
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Apt language and ingenious imagery combine to tell the life story of Peter Mark Roget, creator of the thesaurus. Bryant’s linear telling follows Peter closely, expressing his curiosity, sensitivity, and populist spirit in language both decorous and warm. Clever book design and visionary illustration add layers of meaning. Sweet embellishes her own gentle watercolors with all manner of clippings and realia. Reading list, timeline. Bib.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Language—Vocabulary; Great Britain; Roget, Peter Mark; Books and reading

george_ galápagos georgeGeorge, Jean Craighead Galápagos George
40 pp. HarperCollins/Harper 2014. ISBN 978-0-06-028793-1
Illustrated by Wendell Minor. The author asks readers to extrapolate from the life cycle of a single female Galápagos tortoise, Giantess George, to the development of the species as a whole. She and other tortoises are swept away to different islands in a storm; over thousands of years, they evolve into different subspecies. Minor’s painterly illustrations showcase the changing setting and the magnificence of the tortoises. Reading list, timeline, websites. Glos.
Subjects: Reptiles and Amphibians; Galápagos Islands; Animals—Tortoises; Evolution

heos_iflyHeos, Bridget. I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are
   40 pp. Holt 2015. ISBN 978-0-8050-9469-5
A fly argues why he should be the science-class representative for insect life cycles instead of the overexposed butterfly. A skeptical class grills him about unsavory habits (garbage-eating, disease-spreading). Eventually convinced that “Flies rule!,” they capture the fly for study, and he changes his tune. Cleverly skewering elements of the typical animal book, this take on insects is refreshing, amusing, and scientifically accurate. Bib., glos.
Subjects: Animals—Flies; Life cycles; Science—Insects and Invertebrates

mattick_finding winnieMattick, Lindsay Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear
   56 pp. Little, Brown 2015. ISBN 978-0-316-32490-8
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. A boy’s mother tells him the story of his great-great-grandfather, owner of a baby bear named Winnie, and the circumstances that led to another boy, Christopher Robin Milne, befriending Winnie — inspiring that boy’s father to write some children’s tales. Mattick, the storytelling mother in this book, embellishes her family’s history with evocative, playful language, matched by the period warmth of Blackall’s carefully composed images.
Subjects: Animals—Bears; Milne, A. A.; Family—Mother and son; Toys; Authors; Biographies

petricic_my family tree and mePetričić, Dušan My Family Tree and Me
   24 pp. Kids Can 2015. ISBN 978-1-77138-049-2
Reading from front to middle, we meet the narrator’s paternal line through five generations. From back to middle are portraits of the maternal line. And in a glorious middle double-page spread we see the whole extended family and can trace and invent individual stories. Petričić’s gift for caricature is used joyfully in this celebration of ancestry, showing one family’s variations and particular beauty.
Subjects: Social Sciences—Families, Children, and Sexuality; Genealogy

Separate Is Never EqualTonatiuh, Duncan Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
40 pp. Abrams 2014. ISBN 978-1-4197-1054-4
In 1947 the Mendez family fought for — and won — the desegregation of schools in California. Tonatiuh uses a child’s viewpoint to succinctly capture the segregated reality of Mexican Americans. The straightforward narrative is well matched with illustrations in Tonatiuh’s signature style, their two-dimensional perspective reminiscent of the Mixtec codex but collaged with paper, wood, etc. to provide textural variation. An author’s note with photos is appended. Bib., glos., ind.
Subjects: Government, Economics, and Education; Schools; Hispanic Americans; Civil rights; Mendez, Sylvia

From the August 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?

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18. On Elizabeth Bishop

She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling.

coverSo begins Colm Tóibín”s wonderful little book, On Elizabeth Bishop. The book is one of those pocket-sized books, has generous margins, and is only 199 pages long. That probably doesn’t sound short, but believe me, it is. Because Tóibín has such a beautiful, smooth, creamy voice. He is thoughtful and meditative. And while he makes thought-provoking observations, they are delivered so softly that you find yourself wrapped up in them like a cozy blanket and mulling them over before you even realize how interesting it all is.

On Elizabeth Bishop is criticism but not of the academic sort. It is a book written by someone who loves Bishop’s poetry and wants you to love it too. He delves deeply into a number of poems but even if you haven’t read them he does not leave you lost. Because while he delves Tóibín also brings up patterns and images and techniques that range across Bishop’s work. He’ll say things like how what Bishop does not say in a poem is oftentimes as important as what she does say. And then we are looking at “The Moose” and Tóibín is picking it apart, pointing out the gaps, providing us with biographical information and context, and suddenly you understand why “The Moose” is one of Bishop’s most famous poems.

Tóibín also uses other poets and other forms of art as a way to see the poetry in a richer light. He writes of Marianne Moore, poet and mentor to Bishop, and the friction that would arise between them because Moore wanted Bishop to write like her but Bishop continued to develop her own style and voice. Tóibín compares the two writing of Moore’s poems:

They were close to certain pieces by Stravinsky, all brass and disturbed tones, unashamed of their own noise, or indeed paintings by Kandinsky, unashamed of their own swirling colors, whereas Bishop’s poems had the sad gaiety and inwardness and sparseness of Weborn or Mondrian or Klee.

And without reading either Moore or Bishop you get an idea of what their poetry is like and understand that Moore was never going to succeed in making Bishop into her very own Mini-Me.

The book has an overall effect of a long, intimate conversation, one you don’t want to end but reluctantly have to conclude. If you want to know more about Elizabeth Bishop, do read this book. Heck, if you are a fan of Tóibín’s you will probably like the book too and finish it wanting to read Elizabeth Bishop. And if you think he could never convince you to read poetry, allow me to say, Tóibín is very persuasive.


Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews Tagged: Colm Tóibín, Elizabeth Bishop

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19. The Tenderness of Thieves by Donna Freitas

The Tenderness of Thieves by Donna Freitas is the tale of Jane and her seventeenth summer - and of the tragic crime which happened just months before, in February, when Jane was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though pelted with summer sun and surrounded by a supportive mother, three close friends, and one very interesting boy, Jane cannot escape the shadow of that night, with details revealed in short bursts throughout the novel, shared between chapters.

It is difficult for me to review this book without spoiling it, because what I most want to discuss is the big reveal, something I predicted immediately upon reading the summary on the book jacket. What complicates this story for me and what accounts for my reaction to the ending isn't only because I could see the ending coming, but also because I have a strong reaction to those who actively withhold the truth from others. Please note that I am not referring to the narrator here; Jane is not an unreliable narrator in any way. She tells her story in first person past tense throughout the book, and she's very honest.

What I will tell you openly is this: I liked the book overall because of how it was written. The narration relates the protagonist's emotions and thoughts very well, ensuring that important moments and decisions are deeply felt. The title is perfect, the pacing is good, and the characters are clear. I will not be surprised if and when this book is made into a movie, because the story will translate easily to film. (If you're looking for a screenwriter, I'm available!)

I also want to give kudos to cover designer Danielle Calotta for giving the title text angles and energy that I think Saul Bass would appreciate, layered over an image which well-captures both the beach setting and the lonely, haunted girl. (Image attributed to Shutterstock; name of artist or piece unknown.) Those who like the sand between their toes will enjoy the many scenes that take place at the beach, and how Jane and her mother welcome the sand into their home.

Put The Tenderness of Thieves in the hands of those who like books by Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti, and especially those who like Tara Altebrando (The Pursuit of Happiness, What Happens Here).

My favorite passages in this book include:

I was holding things together the best I could, leaning into my new visibility like it might prop me up. But it's dangerous when we let boys fix the broken parts within us. It makes us vulnerable. It scars us for life. - Page 5

A camera catching the split second when a girl suddenly becomes someone worth seeing. - Page 67

The beach, swimming, everything around me was magic. It could heal all things. Protect me from danger. - Page 100

"It's not your job to save anyone," she said. "Not even if you fall in love with them." - Page 185

"...because little girls should start out life with auspicious names so they could one day grow up to be young women who would make their own marks on the world." - Page 253

"...I imagined the possibility...a chameleon of a girl who morphed and shifted with each new significant experience, one of them tragic, certainly, but others surprising, even thrilling. I liked this thought, that I didn't have to be defined by tragedy, that though sadness and loss might be written onto my skin, there were other things that could be written over it..." - Page 280

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Review: This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas
Review: Gold Medal Summer by Donna Freitas
Interview: Donna Freitas (2012)
Interview: Donna Freitas (2010)

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20. Review: We Are Eltingville

Evan Dorkin brings the tale of four mean-spirited, socially-incapable, pop-culture-obsessives to an end.

3 Comments on Review: We Are Eltingville, last added: 8/19/2015
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21. Review of Daylight Starlight Wildlife

minor_daylight starlight wildlifeDaylight Starlight Wildlife
by Wendell Minor; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary   Paulsen/Penguin   32 pp.
5/15   978-0-399-24662-3   $17.99

In his signature representational artistic style — detailed, luminous, and pristine — Minor compares and contrasts diurnal and nocturnal animals. The opening double-page spread establishes the pattern. The creatures introduced are shown in a meadow, with half of them appearing in the daytime on the verso and the others bathed in soft moonlight on the recto. On the following pages, Minor depicts an animal (a butterfly, for example) or group of animals (such as woodchucks) active during the daytime hours; a corresponding illustration, most often on the facing page, shows a related animal or animals (such as a lunar moth or skunks) active at night. Minimal text echoes the movements in each of the gouache illustrations: “Chubby mother woodchuck and her cubs waddle out to munch in the meadow,” while in the nighttime counterpart, “Fearless mother skunk leads her litter through the field to find a midnight snack.” Diurnal animals are depicted first, then their nocturnal counterparts, except on the final double-page spread. Here, a horizontal illustration of nocturnal raccoons faces right to close the book, while below, daytime turkeys travel in the opposite direction. Readers have two options: either follow the raccoons and cut off the lights for bedtime, or follow the turkeys back to the beginning of the book and read it again. A list of “Fun Facts” about the featured creatures is appended.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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22. Jennifer Weiner and Gregory Maguire Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

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23. Review of the Day: Moletown by Torben Kuhlmann

Moletown1Moletown
By Torben Kuhlmann
North/South Books, Inc.
$17.95
ISBN: 978-0-7358-4208-3
Ages 4-6
On shelves October 1st

Cautionary tales for kids who can’t do a darn thing about the original problem. It’s sort of a subgenre of its very own. As I hold this lovely little book, Moletown, in my hands I am transported back in time to the moment I first encountered The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A child of the 80s, my youth was a time when scaring kids straight was an accepted educational technique utilized in everything from environmental protection to saying no to drugs. The film version of The Lorax bore this out and gave me some nice little bite-sized psychological scars for years to come. These days we don’t usually go in for the whole learning-through-fear technique. Even picture books that sport a message are more prone to be mildly sad than anything else. What makes Moletown so very interesting then is its inclination to tap into popular tropes in our own history, then turn them ever so gently on their heads. The end result is a book where you might easily lose sight of the bigger picture, until that final moment when everything becomes horribly clear.

“The story of Moletown began many years ago.” A single solitary mole moves beneath a meadow to live. Not long thereafter he’s joined by other moles “And over time, life underground changed…” Before our eyes we see it. We see the vast construction projects taking place to make Moletown a livable community. We see the population explosion, the increased technological advances, and different transportation models. Life becomes busier for the moles, while outside in the meadow nature is taking a severe hit. The green is close to disappearing altogether, but turn to the last pages in the book and there we see evidence not just of change, but of the moles as a whole taking on the responsibility of their newly green again meadowlands.

Moletown3Kuhlmann initially burst upon the American picture book scene with the highly detailed Lindbergh, a story of a mouse with a yen for flight. A little bit The Arrival, a little bit An American Tale and a little bit steampunk via Beatrix Potter, it was his hyper realistic animals placed in extraordinary circumstances that stayed with young readers. In Moletown that level of detail and attention is there, but the moles have a far more cartoonish feel to them. This is not to say that they don’t look like moles, every inch of them. Yet Kuhlmann has simplified his hyper-realistic renderings of animals and traded that attention in for set designs and landscapes. Here he plays with perspective, plunging us down into the heart of the moles’ mining operation, the scaffolding twisting around and around, down and down. Sharp eyed spotters will note other spreads where the stop signs are shaped like mole claws and the trains go vertically as well as horizontally. The details are there to an elegant degree, but the feel is different from Lindbergh certainly (as is the length of the piece).

Moletown6One of the most amazing aspects of the book is the sense of time passing. In the early days of Moletown you see the immigrants arriving, looking very much like the European immigrants of the late 19th century. As time passes you see moles in Wright Brothers era caps, trench coats and fedoras of the 40s, a possible homage to the MTV image of the 80s (complete with Nintendo video game remotes), and finally the iPods and wind farms of the current age.

Many European artists find it difficult to break into the American market due to the fact that their art contains a distinctly “foreign” feel. Kuhlmann’s advantage here is that while it is easy enough to believe that the images in this story originated in Germany, there is nothing distinctly “other” about the book . . . at first. It’s only with multiple readings that you begin to notice the elements that probably could not have begun here in the States. For example, in more than one instance you’ll see a mole smoking. This is by no means the focus of the book, and you would have to look somewhat hard to find such moments, but I have seen American parents go ballistic over far lesser crimes in picture book illustration, so I’ve no doubt the occasional library patron will become incensed over what they believe to be the promotion of cigarettes. Other hints that the book is German? Well, I could be wrong but this may well be the only picture book you’ll find on the market today containing a two-page spread dedicated to accountancy.

Moletown4One interesting thing about the book is the fact that the ending that we so deeply desire is embedded not in the book itself but in its endpapers. The final text in the book reads, “Many generations later, the moles’ green meadow had completely disappeared. Almost.” Turn the page and rather than provide a verbal explanation, the book gives us a glimpse of a series of photographs alongside an article from The Moletown Times which reads, “Agreement on Green”. The pictures show steps taken to preserve the environment and restore the meadow. I didn’t mind this method of summing up the steps taken to correct the past. Yet more interesting to me, by far, was how the book lets the reader reach their own slow realization that the seemingly inevitable trudge of technological advances and population increases are, in fact, detrimental. That picture at the beginning of the book of the immigrants arriving in Moletown, to an American reader, strikes you as a symbol of freedom from oppression and hardship. And because Kuhlmann keeps the book almost entirely wordless from start to finish, the glimpses of the meadow in its downward slide towards decay are shown without commentary. It’s up to the reader to realize that something has gone very wrong. How many will actually make that leap will be interesting to see.

Finding books to compare this one to can be difficult. The overall feeling I got was like the one in The Rabbits by John Marsden. But where that was a story of a culture being systematically destroyed, this has a sweeter if no less destructive feel. The Lorax hits the same environmental notes, but Moletown is the subtler of the two since it makes the reader implicit in the enjoyment one derives from Moletown’s culture (and from the fact that it’s a world that feels very much like our own). The best way to describe the story is to say that it’s a combination of the two, with a hopeful endnote all its own. Like all imports, it runs its greatest risk in becomes a forgotten piece since it can’t win many of our American children’s book awards. That said, I have faith that teachers, parents, and students will find in it a new approach to tackling the tricky subject of mass consumption vs. environmental action. Explicit in its message. Subtle in its presentation. In short, a beaut.

On shelves October 1st.

Like This? Then Try:
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan
The Promise by Nicola Davies

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24. Review of Boom Snot Twitty: This Way That Way

cronin_boom snot twittyBoom Snot Twitty: This Way That Way
by Doreen Cronin; 
illus. by Renata Liwska
Preschool   Viking   40 pp.
6/15   978-0-670-78577-3   $16.99   g

On the opening endpapers of this gentle story, the unfortunately named Snot (a snail) is happily gathering blueberries and putting them in a basket. The title page shows Boom (a bear) and Twitty (a robin) each preparing for…something; Boom is packing a beach bag while Twitty readies her hiking boots. By the first page they are all set to go, but Boom wants to go one way, and Twitty the opposite direction. “‘Hmmm,’ said Snot.” Boom had his heart set on the beach, and Liwska softens the edges of her delicate-colored illustrations to show that Boom is imagining the sand and sun, just as on the next pages Twitty is imagining hiking up a hill. Each is determined to get his or her own way; Snot, meanwhile, sets off to find someplace that will satisfy all of them. Liwska’s drawings give each creature and object a fuzzy quality that adds to the feeling of coziness. Cronin’s usual rollicking humor is less in evidence here than is her way with spare, child-friendly text. This story of friends disagreeing but finding compromise, through the zen-like wisdom of Snot, will satisfy and perhaps enlighten readers, too.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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25. Monday Review: THE CHESS QUEEN ENIGMA by Colleen Gleason

Summary: This steampunk-paranormal mystery series is just plain fun. Three books into the Stoker and Holmes adventures and I'm still enjoying them immensely—prickly, socially awkward Mina Holmes; quick-tempered, impulsive, but brave Evaline... Read the rest of this post

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