Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Review: The Port Chicago 50

PortChicago50While two titles do not qualify as a trend, I’d say Sheinkin has a knack for bringing under-the-radar stories from WWII to life and light. After his scientists-and-spies thriller depicting the race to build or steal the world’s first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin revisits the wartime Forties in The Port Chicago 50, about the Port Chicago explosion (also bomb-related!) and the remarkable fallout that forced the US Navy to confront the systemic racism within its ranks.

To tell the story from the perspectives of the Port Chicago 50, a group of black sailors who boycotted their unsafe and segregated work conditions, Sheinkin trawled through court documents and scores of interviews to stitch together this uniquely personal account.

“We had expectations to go to sea on a big Navy ship,” recalled Spencer Sikes, still a teenager when he enlisted. Instead, to keep the Navy segregated, black sailors ended up at Port Chicago in California, where the officers giving orders were white and the crews handling the bombs were black. Worse, the men were expected to load explosives onto Pacific-bound ships without any prior training; the officers made a game out of betting on which crews could load the fastest. The pressure was so bad, Sikes was convinced he’d perish on the pier and never see his mother again. (more…)

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wild thingsReading Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature was the perfect way to cap off 2014. Written by children’s book bloggers Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta (who passed away shortly before the book was published), it offers an insider’s look at the kidlit world in all its absurdity: scandals! book-banning! in-fighting! In short, it’s about how the adults behind the children’s book industry behave like adults, instead of the angelic, bunny-loving writers that many grown-ups imagine them to be.

“With this book we hope to dispel the romanticized image of children’s literature, held by much of the public, of children’s authors writing dainty, instructive stories with a quill pen in hand and woodland creatures curled up at their feet,” says the Wild Things! authors in chapter one.

Having set the ground rules, Bird et al plunge into the juicy anecdotes: the author who killed her mother with cutlery; the bawdy, sexist book written by the Berenstain Bear series authors; Roald Dahl’s years as a British spy–which involved seducing a congresswoman to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Not all the stories are meant to shock. Some, like the backstory of how Jerry Spinelli got his start in writing, are awkwardly hilarious. Others show missed opportunities–like how an editor’s mistake deprived the world of a Maurice Sendak-illustrated version of J.R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In its best moments, reading Wild Things! is like listening to a master storyteller spin tales about storytelling giants. (more…)

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The Matter of Who’s Who?

Presentation1Lisa and I were chatting the other day about book recs, and she mentioned a non-fiction YA that she really enjoyed, Pure Grit: How WWII Nurses in the Pacific Survived Combat and Prison Camp,by Mary Cronk Farrell. The title alone has me hooked already. I’m a sucker for anything that combines medicine (this story screams sepsis, dengue fever, and malaria), guts (literal and figurative), women’s war efforts, and the Pacific theater (which is almost always overshadowed by the European front) into a narrative that sheds light on unknown or forgotten moments in history.


Lisa’s only complaint–because there were so many accounts to piece together, she had trouble keeping track of all the people mentioned in the book. You could call it the Game of Thrones syndrome, where you’re not sure if you should invest in remembering characters because its uncertain whether they will reoccur. Only one doesn’t feel guilty about it in Thrones because they’re fictional…


I asked Lisa to think of a case of non-fiction where recalling who’s who was not an issue, and she offered Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb as a notable example. To be fair, Lisa has taken at least twice as many chemistry and physics classes as the average Bomb reader. Niels Bohr, Heisenberg (of Uncertainty Principle fame), Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer aren’t just part of her vocabulary, they were the scientific superstars of countless textbooks.


Which is all a very long-winded way to wonder…do you have trouble keeping track of the many main players in non-fiction accounts?

What are some steps you take as a reader to keep all the persons being referenced straight?

What are some things authors can do to help you out? Which non-fiction books in particular worked for you?

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I’m thrilled to be participating in this year’s YA non-fiction panel for Round Two of the Cybils! I’m especially looking forward to some great reads and stimulating discussions with fellow panelists Terry Doherty, Brenda Kahn, Teri Lesesne, and Susan Van Hecke, as well as YA non-fiction organizer Gina Ruiz.

Last year, the very worthy Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, was declared the winner. Who will take home the prize this year?

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Hole in My Life

842087Katherine Applegate may be the first Newbery award winner who’s written romance novels, but I bet Jack Gantos is the only one who spent time in a federal prison. Hole in My Life tells the story of how Gantos smuggled 2,000 pounds of hashish to New York and his resulting prison sentence—”the bleakest year of my life.”

It all starts when Gantos is 19 and living on his own with no adult supervision. Faced with unlimited freedom, Gantos takes to drinking and smoking weed. When he’s sober, he tries to write. But nothing he writes sounds good, so he looks for inspiration in famous literary haunts. He doesn’t find it at Hemingway’s old house, and nothing changes when he rejoins his family in St. Croix, or when he helps a crazy man sail to New York with contraband drugs. Gantos tries to keep a ship’s log, then becomes depressed when he realizes he’s achieved nothing great in his life. He doesn’t start writing in earnest until he’s locked in a cell wth no paper but the blank space between the lines of The Brothers Karamazov. (more…)

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Started: 8:30pm Friday

Ended: 8:30pm Sunday

6.25 hours reading

1.25 hours blogging/commenting etc.

1 finished book (Hattie Big Sky)

3 partly read books (Bilbo le Hobbit, Toms River, Applewhites at Wit’s End)

Total number of pages: 542 (includes 21 pages in French, which slowed my pace to a sluglike crawl)

Though I didn’t get to read as much as last year, this year’s #48HBC was just as fun. In fact, I’m going to keep reading so I can finish Applewhites tonight…thank you to Ms. Yingling for hosting the challenge, and  I hope to do this again next year.

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I was traveling when Battle of the Kids’ Books announced the Big Kahuna Winner, so I’m just absorbing the news now, and feeling very behind.

I’m going to join the mass chorus of those who are sad that Code Name Verity lost–even though I like No Crystal Stair quite a lot.

Still, CNV reminds me of last year’s Okay for Now–a zombie and a popular book that missed out on the golden sticker–so I thought CNV had a lock on the Big Kahuna Round.

But enough complaining. To the Battle Commanders–thank you for organizing another fantastic year of dueling books. BoB always introduces me to at least one great book I wouldn’t have read otherwise. Last year it was The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. This time it’s Moonbird and Temple Grandin.

And finally: through most of March, I managed to avoid the snooze button by checking the latest BoB results on my phone in the morning. Reading the judges’ comments always woke me up. Now that it’s over, I’m back to my lazy old ways…until next year, of course.

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1) It is truly the year of YA fiction and the YA judges. Round 1 has left a wake of non-fiction and middle grade spines in its wake. (Bomb is the only non-fiction book to prevail when pitted against fiction, YA or middle grade; Starry River is the only middle grade book to prevail against YA.)

2) In Round 1, 6 out of 16 books were YA, 6 out of 16 books were MG, and 4 out 16 books were non-fiction. Going into Round 2, 5 out of 8 books are YA, 2 out of 8 books are MG, and 1 out of 8 books are non-fiction. The percentage of YA has increased from 37.5% in Round 1 to 62.5% in Round 2; the percentage of MG has decreased from 37.5% in Round 1 to 25% in Round 2; the percentage of non-fiction has decreased from 25% in Round 1 to 12.5% in Round 2.

3) With YA dominating the field, the diversity of genres has decreased from the first round to the next. This makes future brackets less exciting, in my opinion.

4) As I understand college sports (which is barely, so feel free to correct me) Division I schools play other Division I schools, and so forth. If it is unfair to pit a Division I team against a Division III team, then why match middle grade against non-fiction against YA in the first round?

5) Instead, do a Liar & Spy vs Splendors and Glooms, and match YA against YA, non-fiction against non-fiction, and middle grade against middle grade in Round 1. It’s not affirmative action, it’s reducing inherent biases.

6) Then judges won’t have to reiterate ad nauseam how choosing one over the other is like picking “apples and oranges,” or resort to egalitarian politesse (until Round 2 or 3.) That should make Roger Sutton happier.

7) Unrelated, but could the judges stop doing in-depths summaries of the books? We’ve either read the books already, or we want to read the books, so it’s a lose-lose situation when the judges give away more than the basic premise.

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Armed with my mug o’ tea (naught but the finest Alishan high mountain tea leaves, of course), I attempt to divine the course of the 2013 SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Books. Behold my bracket:


Click for closeup =)


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School Library Journal’s BoB is one of my favorite events of the year. The mad scramble to read all 16 contenders, the howls of misery and delight (remember last year when a certain book lost via a coin toss?), and, of course, a spectacular opportunity to demonstrate my lack of divination powers. So here goes:

Round One

Bomb v. Wonder, judged by Kenneth Oppel: he seems to write adventure-ish books, so I’m going with Bomb.

Code Name Verity v. Titanic, judged by Margarita Engle: I can’t see Maddie and Queenie losing out in round 1, so I choose Code Name Verity.

Endangered v. Three Times Lucky, judged by Kathi Appelt: this one’s tricky. Three Times Lucky reminds me of Keeper, but in the spirit of unpredictability, I’m giving this one to Endangered.

The Fault in Our Stars v. Temple Grandin, judged by Deb Caletti: The Fault in Our Stars. Again, I can’t see this one losing out in round 1.


Jepp, Who Defied the Stars v. Starry River of the Sky, judged by Adam Gidwitz: to make up for the randomness of my Kathi Appelt call, I’ll go with Starry River, since it’s fairy tale-ish and more like Gidwitz’s books.

Liar & Spy v. Splendors and Glooms, judged by Franny Billingsley: Chime was creepy, and Splendors and Glooms is creepier than Liar & Spy, so that’s my pick…

Moonbird v. Seraphina, judged by Marie Lu: Seraphina, just because.

No Crystal Stair v. The One and Only Ivan, judged by Catherine Gilbert Murdock: The One and Only Ivan, in defiance of the Newbery Curse. (more…)

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