Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Review of Stormy Seas, by Mary Beth Leatherdale

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Stormy Seas

Stories of Young Boat Refugees

by Mary Beth Leatherdale
illustrated and designed by Eleanor Shakespeare

Annick Press, 2017. 64 pages.

Stormy Seas is in large picture book format – but the large amount of text on each page presents information for upper elementary age children. There are striking illustrations on each page, usually incorporating photographs – getting the information across with charts and maps as well as text.

This book tells the individual true stories of five young people who were refugees and traveled by boat: Ruth, 18 years old in 1939, leaving Germany; Phu, 14 years old in 1979, leaving Vietnam; José , 13 years old in 1980, leaving Cuba; Najeeba, 11 years old in 2000, leaving Afghanistan; and Mohamed, 13 years old in 2006, leaving Ivory Coast.

For each young person, the book describes their journey, explaining why they were desperate enough to leave, the frightful conditions of their boat journey, and each story ends up with what happened to them after their journey. All of the journeys were much longer than I ever would have realized – the narrative includes the time they had to spend to get on the boat in the first place.

Most of the journeys didn’t have a happy result when they landed, either. Ruth’s ship of German Jewish refugees got turned away from Cuba and had to sail back to Europe. Phu and his family got put in a refugee camp. José and his family were shocked by the neighborhood in New York City with its poverty and drugs. Najeeba was held in a detention center in Australia for 45 days. Mohamed ended up homeless in a train station in Rome for awhile.

There’s nothing like stories and faces to give you empathy. This book does provide numbers of refugees and gives statistics. But the individual stories put faces to those numbers in a way that will stick with the reader.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of This Land Is Our Land, by Linda Barrett Osborne

Monday, August 28th, 2017

This Land Is Our Land

A History of American Immigration

by Linda Barrett Osborne

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016. 124 pages.
2017 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist
Starred Review

I heard Linda Barrett Osborne speak at the awards ceremony for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Awards. She commented that her book wasn’t as timely when she began writing it in 2013. The facts in the book go up to 2015, but I do hope that her publisher comes out with an updated version before long. Though we may need to see how the next few years go.

The history of immigration in America is fascinating. In her talk, the author surprised us with facts such as that Benjamin Franklin didn’t want too many Germans to immigrate, and immigrants from Asia were not allowed to become citizens until 1952.

This book covers more than 400 years of immigration in America – and it’s surprising how similar attitudes have been over the years. In the introduction, we read what George Washington wrote about discouraging immigration, and then the author says this:

Both of these ways of looking at immigration – openness to all or restrictions for some – are part of our heritage. In the early twenty-first century, we still debate who and how many people should be allowed into our country, and if and when they should be allowed to become citizens. Some Americans think of the United States as multicultural, made stronger by the diversity of different ethnic groups. Others think that there should be one American culture and that it is up to the immigrant to adapt to it. Still others have believed that some immigrant groups are incapable of adapting and should not be permitted to stay.

Americans whose families have lived here for some time – whether centuries, decades, or just a few years – often discount their own immigrant heritage. They look down on newcomers from other countries. Indeed, far from inviting Lazarus’s “huddled masses,” our laws, policies, and prejudices have often made it difficult for many immigrants to enter the United States or to find themselves welcome when they are here.

This Land Is Our Land explores this country’s attitudes about immigrants, starting from when we were a group of thirteen English colonies. Until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which kept Chinese workers from immigrating to the United States, there were no major national restrictions on immigration – therefore, there were no illegal immigrants, or what we now call “undocumented aliens”: people from foreign (alien) countries who have no official papers to enter the United States.

The author quotes from a letter by Benjamin Franklin about the many Germans settling in Pennsylvania in 1751. (Some of those were my ancestors!)

Now imagine the same words today, with “Mexican” substituted for “German.”

As they came, settled, and endured, each immigrant group went through a remarkably similar experience. They left their countries to escape poverty, war, starvation, or religious and political persecution – or for economic opportunity. As foreigners who came from different cultures and often spoke languages other than English, they faced prejudice from groups that were already here. They seemed to threaten American customs and values established as early as the 1600s. Often, they were denied jobs and housing. They did the hardest and least well paid work. Yet they saved money and made homes here. Immigrant men brought over their wives and children; immigrant children brought their siblings and parents. Families reunited. Whole communities left their country of birth and regrouped in America. The children and grandchildren of immigrants, born here, spoke English. They absorbed American attitudes and ways of living. They grew in numbers and gained political power.

They often acted toward immigrant groups that came after them with the same kind of prejudice and discrimination that their families had encountered when they first moved here.

This Land Is Our Land does not attempt to answer all the questions and solve all the problems associated with immigration. Rather, it looks at our history to provide a context for discussion. If we examine the way Americans have responded to immigrants over time – and the responses have been startlingly similar and consistent – we gain an insight into immigration issues today. Why do we sometimes invite immigration and sometimes fear it? How much does race play a part in whether we accept new immigrants? Does the legacy of our country’s origin as a group of English colonies still shape our attitudes?

This book also presents the experiences of immigrants who left their home countries to start a new life here. How did their expectations and aspirations match the realities of living in the United States? How was the experience of different groups affected by racial prejudice? How did they eventually succeed, if they did, in becoming Americans?

You can see that the author has big ambitions for this book – but I believe she succeeds.

Now, you may guess that she does have an agenda in presenting this background, and I think that agenda shows when she talks about how we all have immigrant ancestors – except for Native Americans. But her point is well taken. As she says in the Epilogue:

Do we treat them as fellow human beings, with respect and compassion – the way we wish our immigrant ancestors had been treated, no matter who they were, no matter which country they left to pursue the American Dream?

This book got an award from the Young Adult Library Services Association, and my library has it in the Juvenile Nonfiction section. The target audience seems to be upper elementary and middle school students, perhaps through high school. There are plenty of historical photographs included as well as copies of old documents. The large, wide pages make it seem a little younger – but there is enough information packed onto those pages, even with largish print, that older readers won’t feel talked down to – if they pick the book up.

It does seem like a good time to know about the history of immigration in America – this book is a good way to bring yourself up to speed. Our country’s attitudes haven’t changed a whole lot over the years – but it’s good to know that those immigrants we did welcome to our shores over the years are the very people who have helped to make our country great.

abramsyoungreaders.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Your Presidential Fantasy Dream Team, by Daniel O’Brien

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

Your Presidential Fantasy Dream Team

by Daniel O’Brien
illustrations by Winston Rowntree

Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016. 264 pages.
Starred Review

I had a whole lot of fun booktalking this book in the local elementary schools this year. I never realized a book about the presidents could be so much fun.

Here’s how the author explains the premise:

I can’t predict the future. So I’m not saying that several years from now, robots will rise up and attempt to overthrow humanity and it’ll be up to you to travel through time and assemble a Presidential Attack Squad to defend America. But I am saying that we’d all feel really stupid if at least one of us wasn’t prepared for such an event. If you’re ever tasked with organizing the Dream Team of Presidents, this chapter will probably be more helpful than any other chapter in any book, ever.

Whether you’re forming an action team to defend the planet or just putting together a group of presidents to pull off some kind of grand scheme, every good team needs Brains, Brawn, a Loose Cannon, a Moral Compass, and a Roosevelt. I’ve included my best recommendations for all these positions, but you should feel free to pick your own.

He proceeds to tell about the presidents, rating them in terms of brains, brawn, loose cannon, moral compass and whether they’re a Roosevelt(!). But the fun in reading this book is his irreverent tone and over-the-top descriptions. I’m afraid this book was far more entertaining than Ken Burns’ worthy and lovely picture book of presidents, though that one would probably make a better resource for reports.

He includes scandalous and surprising facts such as Ulysses Grant was a drunk, and Andrew Jackson had so many bullets in his body, contemporaries said he rattled like a bag of marbles when he walked.

Kids liked hearing this description of President Woodrow Wilson:

During this time, Wilson grew suspicious of even his closest friends (something historians later attributed to undiagnosed brain damage). He went days without sleeping and his brain slowly started deteriorating, which, like everything at this point, only made Wilson angrier and more stubborn. Determined to win public support for the League of Nations, Wilson decided to go against the orders of his wife, doctors, and basic common sense, and toured the country to give speeches that would rally people to his side. He rode all over America, coughing and sneezing and being fed predigested foods (the only foods he could eat) by day, and giving rousing speeches by night (sometimes five in one day). He delivered his speeches with closed eyes, shaking hands, and a weakened voice. With his wheezing, sleeplessness, strained mumbling, rapidly failing body, and singular, obsessed focus, it’s not completely uncalled for to label Woodrow Wilson our first zombie president.

The book only includes past presidents who have already died, so we don’t have the gift of finding out how this irreverent historian would approach our first president. (I’m thinking “Loose Cannon” is his strongest field.)

In conclusion, Daniel tells kids that the reason he wrote this book is “to teach you that history is much cooler than they tell you it is in school.”

It’s safe to say this is one of the most entertaining history books I’ve ever read.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of March, Book Two, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

March, Book Two

written by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin
art by Nate Powell

Top Shelf Productions, 2015. 187 pages.
Starred Review

I’m embarrassed I hadn’t read this book yet. I meant to, but graphic novel isn’t my preferred format, so I didn’t get around to it. But I loved March, Book One. So when March, Book Three, swept the 2017 Youth Media Awards with four wins, and I got a copy signed by John Lewis, I knew I needed to catch up.

This volume continues John Lewis’s story, still framing it against the background of Barack Obama’s inauguration.

In this book, John Lewis joins the Freedom Riders. They face tremendous violence and are arrested many times. Throughout, he remains committed to nonviolence – even in the face of violence. They wouldn’t post bail and give money to a segregationist state, but took the consequences of their actions.

I misspoke in my review of the first book. The “March” of the title is not the March on Washington, but an intended march from Selma to Montgomery to protest for voting rights. They were met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama state troopers in a bloody confrontation.

In this second volume, they did cover the March on Washington, where John Lewis was one of the keynote speakers – and the only keynote speaker of that march who is still alive.

The book ends with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The violence was escalating.

I like the way Barack Obama’s speech is quoted before the bombing is shown. “Mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.” Some of the sacrifices weren’t so long ago.

This isn’t ancient history, but so far, these events happened before my birth. I appreciate having the story laid out for me. It’s moving to see what peaceful, nonviolent protest can accomplish.

A timely message.

topshelfcomix.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, by Caren Stilson

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Sachiko

A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story

by Caren Stilson

Carolrhoda Books, 2016. 144 pages.
Starred Review
2016 National Book Award Longlist
2017 Sibert Honor Book
2016 Cybils Award, Middle Grade Nonfiction
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Children’s Nonfiction

This book is what the title says it is: The story of a survivor of the Nagasaki atom bomb.

Sachiko Yasui was six years old when the bomb fell on her city. The book first sets the stage, briefly explaining how the war was going and American attitudes toward the Japanese at the time. Throughout the book, background information is inserted with spreads on darker-colored pages, so it’s clear they are background. But we’re given a detailed, hour-by-hour account of what happened in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Of course Sachiko and her family lost their home. But one by one, she also lost all her family members.

The first to die was her two-year-old brother, who had a wooden stick go through his head in the initial blast. All of the girls Sachiko was playing with at the moment the bomb went off also died. Her other two brothers took longer to die of radiation sickness.

Fortunately, Sachiko had her parents to take her out of the city and to help her survive and to put her in school. Though years later, it was cancer that took their lives, a result of the radiation from the bomb.

Sachiko herself suffered from radiation sickness and was bullied in her new school because she lost her hair and had scaly skin. I do like the way the author weaves in stories of those who inspired Sachiko: Her father revered the teachings of Gandhi; Sachiko got to see Helen Keller when she visited Japan; and she was impressed by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was a long time before Sachiko was ready to tell her story, but since 1995, she has traveled around the world, especially speaking to students, and promoting peace.

Sachiko also tells young people that, as she was inspired by Helen Keller, she hopes to inspire them. “I’ll try to speak about how strong you can be as a human being when you encounter difficulties in the future.”

This book is illustrated with plenty of photographs and presents a powerful and important story, in a way that young people can understand and that will move anyone’s heart.

May her words be true: “What happened to me must never happen to you.”

hibakushastories.org
lernerbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

hamilton_largeHamilton

The Revolution

Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical,
With a True Account of Its Creation,
And Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Grand Central Publishing (Hachette), 2016. 288 pages.
Starred Review

This book is magnificent! Now I really need to figure out a way to get to see the musical.

This is not, however, a good choice for audiobook listening. That’s how I started it, hoping maybe they’d include some clips from the show. Nope. (Only some bars as an introduction.)

The book itself has wonderful material added to the text about the musical. It includes the complete libretto, with large photographs. Most pages of the libretto, in fact, are superimposed over or printed next to large format photos of the actors singing that particular song. The libretto is peppered with notes from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

They tried to include these things in the audiobook. There are two “additional” CDs. One includes pdf files – of the libretto, perhaps with photos. (I didn’t check.) The other is Lin-Manuel Miranda reading the notes. But since the notes are simply read – out of context, not in place in the libretto (Presumably where they go on the libretto is in the pdf.) – you’re going to want to read them, anyway.

Now, I had listened to the first two CDs before I went on vacation. While in California, my sister played for me the wonderful cast album, which gave much more context to what I had listened to. When I got back, my hold came in on the print form of the book – and I learned that the words of the songs are all written out – right next to the information about writing and casting that song. So I switched to the print form and read the words to all the songs, with notes and with pictures, in the right order along with the chapter about writing that song and what it meant in context.

The story of writing and casting the musical and all that it means in America today and why it’s such a phenomenon is the subject of this book.

Here’s a section from the Introduction where Jeremy McCarter explains the plan of the book.

It tells the stories of two revolutions. There’s the American Revolution of the 18th century, which flares to life in Lin’s libretto, the complete text of which is published here, with his annotations. There’s also the revolution of the show itself: a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding, that lets us glimpse the new, more diverse America rushing our way. The fact that Lin wrote the show largely in sequence means that this book can trace the two revolutions in tandem. The story of the show’s creation begins at the White House on May 12, 2009, when he performed the first song for the first time. It ends with opening night on Broadway, August 6, 2015, just after he completed the final scenes of the show.

The story is fascinating – both the story put into the musical and the story of the creation of the musical. I have now also placed a hold on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Here’s a section from a chapter about Ron Chernow’s help in the writing of the musical:

He walked into a rehearsal studio in the Garment District and was, by his own admission, “shocked” by what he saw. The men who were going to sing the roles of Washington, Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers were black and Latino. Not being a rap listener, Ron hadn’t given much thought to the fact that the people best able to perform the songs that Lin had been writing might look nothing like their historical counterparts.

Lin and Tommy saw no difficulty in making this imaginative leap. In fact, they raised it to a principle. As Tommy would state it again and again in the years that followed: “This is a story about America then, told by America now.”

Within five minutes, Ron was carried away by what he heard. He became what he calls a “militant” defender of the idea that actors of any race could play the Founding Fathers.

Just having all the words of the songs is by itself a reason to get the book – because the songs are packed with information. Having read the whole thing, I’m planning to buy myself a copy of the cast album and listen to it all again – I will catch so much more.

There’s all kinds of background information here about casting the show and putting it on, but one of my favorite chapters was about special performances they did for local high schools – and the energy that the teachers harnessed and brought back to the classroom. They included some exciting stories about the students engaging with the material.

Then they ended the chapter talking about what will happen when Hamilton is licensed to be performed in schools.

Its subject matter will appeal to history teachers, its array of juicy roles will appeal to young actors, and its mélange of musical styles will appeal to almost everybody. In a given school year, they imagine, that might mean 600 or 700 student productions around the United States.

What will it mean when thousands of students step into these roles at age 15 or 18 or 20 – roles that have changed the lives of the original cast members, who encountered them at a significantly later age? Leslie says that playing a Founding Father has made him feel newly invested in the country’s origins, something that always seemed remote from his life as a black man in America. “The empathy that requires, the connections you make, the lines you draw between the things you want and the things they wanted, that you love and they loved, I never found all that connective tissue before this show.”

Lin hopes those student productions will strive for the diversity of the original production, the ethnic mix that makes Hamilton look like a message beamed back from Future America. It means that whatever impact the show might have on Broadway, and however long it might run, the biggest impact won’t be in New York: It’ll be in high school and college rehearsal rooms across America, where boys learn to carry themselves with the nobility of George Washington, girls learn to think and rap fast enough to rip through “Satisfied,” and kids of either gender (Lin isn’t doctrinaire) summon the conviction of John Laurens, the freedom-fighting abolitionist, who sings, “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.”

The book is framed by two performances for President Obama, and there are reflections at the end that communicate part of why this musical is so inspiring.

Unless Lin made the whole thing up – and nobody has said that he did – it suggests that however innovative Obama’s speeches and Lin’s show might seem, they are, in fact, traditional. They don’t reinvent the American character, they renew it. They remind us of something we forgot, something that fell as far out of sight as the posthumously neglected Alexander Hamilton, who spent his life defending one idea above all: “the necessity of Union to the respectability and happiness of this Country.” Obama’s speeches and Lin’s show resonate so powerfully with their audiences because they find eloquent ways to revive Hamilton’s revolution, the one that spurred Americans to see themselves and each other as fellow citizens in a sprawling, polyglot young republic. It’s the change in thought and feeling that makes all the other changes possible.

The Obama presidency will end in January 2017, but the show that shares so much of its spirit will keep running. At the Rodgers that night, the president all but anointed Hamilton as a keeper of the flame. His “primary message,” he said, was to remind people of the need to keep hoping and to work together, but “this performance undoubtedly described it better than I ever could.” The most important affinity that Hamilton will carry into its future isn’t a specific message, though, political or otherwise: It’s an underlying belief in stories, and their power to change the world.

Good community organizer that he is, the president knows that stories can be an engine for empathy, and a way to show people what they share. It’s why he introduced himself, in that first big speech in 2004, by telling his own story. In the years to come, some of the many, many kids who are going to see and even perform Hamilton will be newly inspired to tell their stories too. Every time they do, the newly kaleidoscopic America will understand itself a little more.

“I can do that,” they’ll say. And if they’re like Alexander Hamilton, they’ll add, “And I can do it better.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of We Will Not Be Silent, by Russell Freedman

Thursday, August 18th, 2016

we_will_not_be_silent_largeWe Will Not Be Silent

The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler

by Russell Freedman

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2016. 104 pages.

Here’s a large-format nonfiction book, with photographs on every spread, about a group of German students who defied Hitler by writing and distributing pamphlets that denounced him. The original founders of the group were executed for their “crimes.”

The Preface neatly summarizes what this book covers:

In 1942, when World War II was in its third year, leaflets began to appear mysteriously in mailboxes all over Nazi Germany. Someone would open an envelope, pull out a leaflet, take one look, then turn and glance around nervously to make sure no one was watching. A person could not be too careful. Anyone caught with a seditious leaflet was marked as an enemy of the state and could land in a concentration camp, or worse.

Neatly typed, run off on a mimeograph machine, these documents were headed “Leaflets of the White Rose.” They assailed the Nazi “dictatorship of evil,” denounced Adolf Hitler as a liar and blasphemer, and called on the German people to rise up and overthrow the Nazi regime.

Where were these inflammatory leaflets coming from? Who was the White Rose? Was more than one person involved? The Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, organized a special task force to hunt down those responsible. A reward was offered for information leading to their “speedy arrest.”

I like when a nonfiction book for children has information I don’t know myself. I’d never heard the story of Hans and Sophie Scholl and the movement they founded. It’s good to read about Germans who didn’t fall for Hitler’s lies. These ones gave their lives for it.

In a gruesome note, I’ve read a lot about concentration camps, but I hadn’t realized that Hitler’s favorite method of execution of his enemies was the guillotine. These students were actually beheaded when they were caught – but their movement continued. Today there is a memorial and museum about them at Munich University, where they were students.

This book is accessible to kids, with so many relevant photographs throughout the book. It also presents a wealth of information for anyone of any age who’s interested in true acts of heroism.

hmhco.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M. T. Anderson

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

symphony_for_the_city_of_the_dead_largeSymphony for the City of the Dead

Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

by M. T. Anderson

Candlewick Press, 2015. 456 pages.
Starred Review
2016 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist

I’m not sure why this book is marketed for young adults rather than old adults, except that it’s super interesting, contains lots of photographs, and isn’t written in tiny print. The story doesn’t pull any punches or hide any of the horrors of war, nor does it focus on the time in Shostakovich’s life when he was a young adult. But yes, it’s interesting for young adults, as any well-written narrative nonfiction would be.

The book begins with a prologue that piques the reader’s curiosity. The first scene is of a Russian agent smuggling a small box of microfilm to an American agent in 1942. The microfilm has come through Tehran, Cairo, and Brazil on its way to New York City. The contents of the microfilm? The Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Why had the Soviet government arranged so carefully for this piece to be shipped to the West across battle lines, across a Middle East that was swarming with Fascist tanks, across seas festering with enemy subs? How could it possibly be worth it?

And who was the composer of this desperately sought-after score? Dmitri Shostakovich spent the first several months of the Siege of Leningrad trapped in that city under fire, writing much of his Seventh Symphony in breaks between air raids. He had first announced that he was working on the piece over the radio in September 1941, just a few weeks after the Germans had started shelling the city. . . .

This is a tale of microfilm canisters and secret police, of Communists and capitalists, of battles lost and wars won. It is the tale of a utopian dream that turned into a dystopian nightmare. It is the tale of Dmitri Shostakovich and of his beloved city, Leningrad. But at its heart, it is a story about the power of music and its meanings – a story of secret messages and doublespeak, and of how music itself is a code; how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy; how it allows us to whisper between the prison bars when we cannot speak aloud; how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, “Whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.”

M. T. Anderson does tell the story of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and thoroughly explains why it was so important and why symphony orchestras all over the world wanted to perform it. But more than that, he tells the life story of Dmitri Shostakovich and the story of St. Petersburg, the city of his birth, later called Leningrad. This story requires telling the story of Communism coming to Russia, with the rise of Lenin and Stalin. And then it tells the story of World War II, and how at the outset Stalin believed Hitler’s promises and eliminated Russian military leaders who told him otherwise.

The majority of the book, though, is about the Siege of Leningrad, during which Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Symphony. This siege lasted 872 days – the longest siege in recorded history. Hitler had decided he didn’t need to attack the city – it could be starved.

The story is not pretty. The author doesn’t shy away from the deaths – and the cannibalism. Shostakovich was evacuated from the city before the end of the siege, but the author still fills us in on what was happening in Leningrad where Shostakovich’s sister was still living. Especially poignant is the story of the musicians who were still alive in Leningrad assembling to perform the Seventh Symphony.

Eliasberg [the conductor] remembered that night for the rest of his life. (It was to be the high point of his career.) “People just stood and cried. They knew that this was not a passing episode but the beginning of something. We heard it in the music. The concert hall, the people in their apartments, the soldiers on the front – the whole city had found its humanity. And in that moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.”

Naturally, while reading this book, especially the description of the symphony, I had to look up a performance on the internet and listen. Knowing the background made it far more meaningful.

Notes in the back explain the difficulties associated with piecing together this story. As M. T. Anderson asks, “How do we reconstruct the story of someone who lived in a period in which everyone had an excuse to lie, evade, accuse, or keep silent?” This book is an amazing piece of scholarship wrapped up in a gripping narrative and sprinkled with an abundance of photographs.

If you are at all interested in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the fate of musicians and artists under the Soviets, the rise of Communism in Russia, World War II and the Russian Army, or the City of Leningrad, you can’t find a more absorbing way to learn more than reading this book.

candlewick.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation, by Peggy Thomas and Stacy Innerst

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

thomas_jefferson_grows_a_nation_largeThomas Jefferson Grows a Nation

by Peggy Thomas
illustrations by Stacy Innerst

Calkins Creek (Highlights), Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 2015.

I expected this picture book to be about Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. Yes, that’s included. But what I didn’t expect was all the information about Thomas Jefferson as a farmer and as a scientist studying agriculture.

There’s an amazing and amusing extended story right toward the beginning. Thomas Jefferson got into a sort of competition with a French naturalist, Count Buffon, who wrote a book claiming that America’s very wildlife showed it to be an inferior continent.

The wildlife was inferior, he said. “Shrivelled.” “Diminished.” Sheep were “meagre, and their flesh less juicy.” A jaguar was no bigger than a beagle, and dogs were “mute.” The New World, he argued, had nothing as grand as an elephant, and the weather produced an infestation of lowly reptiles and insects.

Thomas Jefferson worked hard to set the record straight. He even had a moose carcass shipped to him in France!

The book also covers Jefferson’s many experiments with different plants for farming, and his study of invasive pests. He practiced crop rotation and was interested in the science of farming. He even won a gold medal from the French Society of Agriculture for a device that improved plows.

When he was President and responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, it was only natural that he was also behind Lewis and Clark’s expedition, cataloguing the plants and animals of the new territory.

This is a nontraditional look at Thomas Jefferson, and made all the more interesting with the illustrations. Although it’s a picture book, there is plenty of text on each page, more suitable for upper elementary school readers. A fascinating presentation of the life of someone I thought I already knew about.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Tiny Stitches, by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman

Friday, July 15th, 2016

tiny_stitches_largeTiny Stitches

The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

by Gwendolyn Hooks
illustrated by Colin Bootman

Lee & Low Books, New York, 2016. 32 pages.
Starred Review

Tiny Stitches is the story of Vivien Thomas, the African-American medical researcher who developed the surgical procedure that saved the life of blue babies during the days of segregation and despite overwhelming prejudice.

Vivien always wanted to be a doctor. He saved money for medical school even as a child working with his father as a carpenter. But they lost all their savings in the Great Depression.

It wasn’t through going to medical school that Vivien got his opportunity. He interviewed for a job with medical researcher Dr. Alfred Blalock, and impressed him with his knowledge and intelligent questions. He got a job assisting Dr. Blalock, who gave him more and more research of his own.

Vivien’s surgical techniques improved with each operation. Just as he had learned to fit pieces of wood together seamlessly, Vivien learned to suture, or sew, blood vessels together seamlessly. Dr. Blalock was impressed by Vivien’s tiny stitches. Sometimes Vivien assisted Dr. Blalock with an experiment. On other days, Dr. Blalock assisted Vivien.

Vivien was happy working as a researcher, until he learned that his official job description was janitor. White men with the same duties and skills as Vivien were called research technicians and earned more money. Vivien was insulted. He was not a janitor. He told Dr. Blalock that he would not continue working unless he was paid the same as the other technicians. A few days later, Vivien noticed his paycheck was much better. He now earned about the same as the white technicians.

In 1941, Dr. Blalock became Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He took Vivien Thomas with him, where Vivien faced even more discrimination.

In 1943, Dr. Helen Taussig approached them with the problem of blue babies – babies born with a heart defect so that their blood didn’t get enough oxygen, and they died. Dr. Blalock assigned Vivien to research a method for operating on the babies.

Vivien had to develop new needles small enough to use on babies, and he tried the procedure out on animals. Dr. Blalock assisted Vivien only once during his experiments.

On November 29, 1944, Dr. Blalock tried the procedure Vivien had developed on a blue baby patient named Eileen. Dr. Blalock asked Vivien to stand on a stool behind him and guide him through the operation.

After that operation and others (also assisted by Vivien) were successful, Dr. Blalock and Dr. Taussig were highly acclaimed.

As news spread of Dr. Blalock’s success, two or three operations a week soon became two or three operations a day. Patients came from as far away as Europe to have the procedure. Vivien remained standing on the stool behind Dr. Blalock, coaching him through more than one hundred fifty operations.

The last double-page spread has a picture of Vivien in full academic regalia up on stage.

Vivien Thomas was not publicly acknowledged for his brilliant research and surgical talents until more than twenty-six years after the first blue baby operation. On February 27, 1971, the Old Hands Club, a group of doctors who had trained under Vivien, presented a formal portrait of him to Johns Hopkins Hospital. It is displayed across from Dr. Blalock’s portrait. In 1976, Johns Hopkins University awarded Vivien an honorary doctorate degree and appointed him to the faculty as Instructor of Surgery.

Although he never had the chance to attend medical school, Vivien’s research pioneered open-heart surgery on children. Today about forty thousand children are born each year with heart problems. Because of Vivien Thomas, these children now have a chance to live full and healthy lives.

This book isn’t flashy. The prose tells the story without frills. The pictures show a doctor at work. There’s nothing surprising or startling here.

But the story tells about a remarkable man who did outstanding work and saved lives – even without recognition.

gwendolynhooks.com
colinbootman.net
leeandlow.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Nonfiction/tiny_stitches.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?