Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

I tend to save my reviews for the books that are truly great, but I’ve read too many wonderful books lately to review them all. So consider this the cliffnotes version: 3 mini-reviews for books that deserve a place on your shelf.

1. What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb

Mo Wren loves Fox Street. It’s the only home she’s ever known: Mo loves the neighbors (well, most of them anyway), she loves her creaky, cozy house with the plum tree in the backyard, and there’s always the call of the ravine—a scraggly wood that passes for wilderness, where Mo is sure she’ll find a real fox, if she looks hard enough. It seems like Mo’s life will never change. Until her best friend becomes snobby. And scary old Mrs. Starchbutt* takes a sudden interest in Mo. Worst of all, someone wants to buy the Wrens’ house, and now Mo has to contemplate a life away from Fox Street.

Read this book if: you remember being ten years old and finding the world changing around you. Mo is the perfect age to start moving out of childhood, and she hangs on as long as possible, resisting the new thoughts crowding in her head. This is the summer she starts thinking about money, her father’s imperfections and the happiness of others. Fox Street has the perfect blend of reality and charm. The neighbors are quirky without being Dead End in Norvelt ridiculous, and there’s a real sense of community that reminds me of Lucky’s Hard Pan. What’s not to like about that? (more…)

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The British cover for Dead End in Norvelt (thanks to Fuse #8 for the tip): so much better than ours.

Um, wow. So Dead End in Norvelt got the Newbery! It was, as Jen predicted, a dark horse triumph. And while I’m still sad at the lack of recognition for Sir Gawain, Okay for Now and Amelia Lost, Gantos’ win makes me positively gleeful. We don’t often get laugh-out-loud funny Newbery winners: The Higher Power of Lucky often made me smile, as did The Tale of Despereaux. But I have to go back to Holes (1999) to find one that made me laugh. Norvelt packs enough humor to transform the most reluctant readers into bookworms (the title of this post references one of the more memorable scenes), and that may be the greatest prize of all.

As for the other award winners (full results from today’s ALA Youth Media Awards here), here are some scattered thoughts:

  • This seems to be the year where books won in unexpected categories. After all the Newbery/Caldecott agonizing over Wonderstruck, it was great (and so fitting!) to see it win a Schneider Family Book Award. Same with Drawing from Memorys Sibert Honor and I Want My Hat Back! in the Geisel category. It all seems so obvious in retrospect.
  • Breaking Stalin’s Nose (Newbery Honor book) reminds me of Moon Over Manifest from last year–something totally unexpected, which I’m now quite looking forward to.
  • I’m ecstatic to see the Printz Committee honor The Returning. This is one of those books that reels you in slowly and doesn’t let go, but the slow pacing means it could use an awards-push to generate publicity.
  • Okay for Now got recognition for the audio book. I’ve always wondered about Doug’s voice–I imagine it’s either quite deadpan or darkly sarcastic. Now’s a good time to find out.
  • Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul won a well-deserved Coretta Scott King Award, though I’d hoped for Bird in a Box to get an award as well.
  • I haven’t read A Ball for Daisy or Blackout, but Me…Jane and Grandpa Green both deserve as much recognition as they can get.
  • Susan Cooper’s Margaret A. Edwards Award! I feel so lucky to have discovered her books this year (or rather re-discovered after a failed attempt to start the series years ago), and even had the chance to meet her during The Exquisite Conversation.

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Review: Blizzard of Glass by Sally M. Walker (Nov. 2011)

(See more book reviews from this week’s Nonfiction Monday roundup at Great Kid Books and 100 Scope Notes).

On December 6, 1917, a munitions ship collided with another ship in the waters off Halifax, Canada. The resulting explosion killed some 2,000 people and leveled buildings for miles around. As the city reeled from shock, an oncoming blizzard hampered relief efforts. In clear, gripping prose, Walker tells the story of that terrible day through the eyes of five families who lived through—and were forever changed by—the disaster.

This is a book I simply couldn’t put down. The tension built gradually in the first few chapters as Walker introduces the families going about their normal business—kids walking to school, mothers dressing toddlers, fathers working by the docks—none of them suspecting how a combination of bad luck and miscommunication would lead to the largest man-made explosion until the atomic bomb. By the time Walker described what the families were doing just before the explosion, I was practically biting my nails: (more…)

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Review: Charles and Emma: the Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (Jan 2009. A 2010 Printz Honor book and National Book Award Finalist)

See more book reviews from this week’s Nonfiction Monday roundup at Geo Librarian.

In 1838, when Charles Darwin was 29, his father told him to lie to his future wife. The problem was a religious one: Charles Darwin had begun working on his theory of evolution and although he wasn’t an atheist, he no longer believed that a divine being had created life. And that was pretty radical in Victorian England.

Luckily for Darwin, and the future of science, he ignored his father’s advice. Charles Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, a deeply religious woman who was dismayed—but respectful—of Charles’ religious doubts. Emma became Charles’ greatest critic: she pointed out flaws in his scientific research and edited his (long, sometimes confusing) prose. Nor was it a one-sided relationship: Emma had Charles read certain Bible passages that she hoped would reawaken religious belief. He read them carefully, and later, in his old age, he wrote that it was possible to be both a theist and evolutionist.

Over 150 years later, when we still see controversy over the teaching of evolution in high school science, it’s astounding to think that the Darwins handled their struggles with such mutual respect. (more…)

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Somewhere between the cooking, eating and socializing, I intend to steal some quality reading time. Here’s what I hope to get through by the end of the week:

I wish I could make spine poems like these wonderful compositions, but the best I can hope for is that the warrior sheep will find a flint heart in their quest, and that Charles and Emma find their lives changed by a girl in need of some serious painkillers. We’ll see how that works out.

What’s on your Thanksgiving reading list?

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Review: Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin (Feb 2011)

The Triangle Fire. Say those words and you might recall a vague memory from high school history class. It’s not the kind of thing you can forget: in 1911, a fire broke out in a New York City factory, killing 146 workers, most of them young women. They were trapped on the top floors of a ten-story building with narrow exits and no sprinklers. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than burn alive, and until September 11, 2001, the Triangle Waist Company Fire was the worst workplace tragedy in New York City history.

Sometimes the aftermath of an event is as important as the event itself. Albert Marrin uses the fire as a starting point to write about major social and labor reform. The book begins with a brief scene from the day of the fire. Marrin then jumps back to explain the circumstances that led up to that tragedy. He writes about immigrant life in the city’s tenements, labor strikes and unions. Ironically, the Triangle Fire was preceeded by one of the most successful strikes in American history. Workers won major concessions in that strike, yet it wasn’t enough to prevent the ensuing tragedy. It took a catastrophe to prompt significant improvements in workplace safety. Today, much of what we take for granted—fire escapes, child labor laws, accessible exits—are direct legacies of the Triangle Fire. (more…)

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Review: Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein by Susan Goldman Rubin (published Feb. 2011).

Picking up from yesterday’s post on poetic genius, I’ve selected another biography to review, this time of the musical kind. Leonard Bernstein—conductor, composer, concert pianist—is a giant in the classical music world (and in America in particular). But I don’t envy Rubin’s job: how do you convey musical genius on the printed page?

Rubin goes for the casual approach. Her writing isn’t poetic, but reading the book is like chatting with a pal over lunch. Rubin packs the pages with anecdotes and photos until you feel you’re flipping through a thick family scrapbook.


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May I have a word with you? Or two? Just a few will do. This is a recommendation, not a review, for aspiring writers and for anyone who’s read a book so mindbogglingly good, it left you wondering how the author wrote it. 

Word After Word After Word, by Patricia MacLachlan, is not just a beautiful story, it’s also a writing guide. When author Ms. Mirabel comes to teach Lucy’s fourth grade class, she explains that she writes to “change her life” but “people write for other reasons” and “all these reasons are good reasons.” Lucy also wants to change her life, but she’s convinced she has nothing to write about except sadness. As the class learns the basics of storytelling (landscape and setting shape character) and get the inside scoop on writing (outlines are silly!), Lucy discovers her reason for writing: to express what’s too hard to say out loud. MacLachlan provides snippets of the children’s “writings” and they’re simple but good. Thanks to this book, I feel encouraged to write unabashedly as well, although I wish the words would “whisper in my ears” as audibly as they do in MacLachlan’s.

Lois Lowry’s autobiography, Looking back: A Book of Memories, is like poring over her family album as she reminisces over a cup of tea. Paired with family photos (Lowry was a really cute toddler), the glimpses are often personal but not intrusive, funny, wistful, sad, a bit philosophic and evocative at times. Lowry describes her snapshots as perpetuating pieces of a kinetic sculpture, one memory leading to another, until one see the threads between them: Lowry, a shy but sharp observer even at a young age; family dynamics, especially those between sisters; the importance of keeping memories, both good and bad. Fans of Lowry’s books will especially appreciate seeing how moments in her life become a nesting ground for the stories we treasure. I also enjoyed the tender timey-wimey moments where Lowry imagines her younger self conversing with her mother when she was also at that age. Because until someone invents a functional time machine, our memories will have to suffice both for looking back, and forwards as well. That’s enough stories to last a lifetime, really.

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All things bats and beautiful
For all the attention they get in the media (vampires!, Batman!, rabid winged rodents!), to say that bats are misunderstood is a massive understatement. Neither menacing nor a pest, these winged creatures-more closely related to primates than to rodents-are integral to our planet’s health. For starters, they were excelling at the nightly pest control business long before the Caped Crusader. One little brown bat can catch 1,000 mosquito-size insects in a single hour!

Once we’ve been reassured with some basic bat facts, author Mary Kay Carson invites us into Bracket Bat Cave, which hosts a mammoth colony of mother-and-pup Mexican free-tailed bats, for the inside look. Bat scientist Merlin Tuttle is our guide. He’s been interested in bats since he was nine; as a teenager, he observed gray bats around his home and realized his guidebook was wrong–they do migrate! Through his research and the foundation of Bat Conservation International (BCI), Merlin hopes to reshape our preconceived notions of bats through education and photography, including a stunning picture of a lesser long-nosed bat hovering, wings aloft in an invert arc, over a giant saguaro cactus flower (photos by Tom Uhlman). (more…)

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Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman (writer) and Beckie Prange (illustrator).

It’s hard to like bacteria. They’re smelly and slimy and cause a lot of disease. Sure, some help us digest food, but they don’t exactly inspire poetry…which is why Ubiquitous is so remarkable.

ancient, tiny
teeming, mixing, melding
strands curled like ghostly hands
winking, waving, waking
first, miraculous

Sidman’s book celebrates the lowliest of creatures: beetles, ants, coyotes, crows. They’re worthy of our notice because they’re survivors and opportunists and scavengers. And they are admirable because they’re an evolutionary success—compared to them, humans are a flicker in the span of earth history (look at the endpapers to see what I mean. Let’s just say that there’s nothing like geologic time to make you feel insignificant).


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