Review of I Am an American, by Martha Brockenbrough with Grace Lin, illustrated by Julia Kuo

I Am an American

The Wong Kim Ark Story

written by Martha Brockenbrough
with Grace Lin
illustrated by Julia Kuo

Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 36 pages.
Review written January 14, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This nonfiction picture book simply and clearly explains an important case in the history of American immigration and citizenship.

I like the way it begins, showing a loving mother holding her son:

Long ago, a boy was born in an apartment above a shop in San Francisco.

His name was Wong Kim Ark — and he believed something that would change this country.

I am an American.

The book tells about the neighborhood in Chinatown where he lived and shows the boy growing up. It shows the community prospering. But then when hard times hit, many blamed the Chinese and laws were passed that Chinese people could not become citizens.

But Kim Ark was born in America and considered himself an American. His parents moved back to China, but the first time Kim Ark had ever been to China was when he visited them. Only seventeen, he went back to California and lived with his aunt and uncle, working as a cook.

Laws got stricter. He wanted to visit his parents again. To follow the law, he found three white witnesses to sign a document swearing he was born in California and was an American. But when he returned, authorities locked him up on a ship for more than four months. Friends had to file a lawsuit to win his freedom — and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The book makes this decision interesting and talks about both sides of the argument — with a happy result. The last page of the main text shows children of many different skin tones running toward the viewer with the Golden Gate Bridge behind them.

But Kim Ark’s victory means that today, every child born in the United States and its territories is an American, too…
no matter what language your parents speak,
what you look like,
or what you believe about God.

If you’re born in the United States or its territories, you belong here, and it’s your right to call yourself American.
It’s your right to call this home.
Always.

This is a lovely presentation of a complicated topic, presented in an engaging way for children.

marthabrockenbrough.com
gracelin.com
juliakuo.com

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Review of A Thousand Sisters, by Elizabeth Wein

A Thousand Sisters

The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II

by Elizabeth Wein

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2019. 388 pages.
Review written March 18, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2019 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

Did you know – I certainly didn’t – that during World War II (called “The Great Patriotic War” there), the Soviet Union had three entire Air Force regiments of women? This book tells their story.

Here’s part of the Prologue that tells what you’ll find here:

It’s the story of three regiments of aviators, only three out of a thousand aviation units fighting for a common cause. Along with a scattering of individual women who served in the Soviet Air Force alongside men, the young aviators in these three regiments were the only women of any nation who flew combat missions during World War II.

Some of these soldiers flew as many as eighteen combat missions in a single night.

Some of them perished in flames.

Some of them worked in the dark, feeling their way blindly, in cold so fierce their hands froze to the metal tools they held as they made sure their companions were able to fly.

Almost all of them were in their teens when they went to war.

This is the story of a generation of girls who were raised in the belief that they were as good as men, and who were raised to believe that it was their destiny to defend their nation in battle.

It’s the story of a thousand young women who grew up inspired by Marina Raskova and who were ready to follow her into the air.

It’s the story of a generation of young people who learned to work with the wind – those who soared and those who came back to earth.

This is the story of a thousand sisters fighting and flying.

This is an exciting story, though it was also a little bit bewildering. In the first place, I had a hard time keeping straight the various Russian names. The author did a good job helping by often using nicknames, but there were a lot of people to keep track of. There were many exciting and dangerous situations during the course of the war, and many of the most prominent characters died before the end of the book.

I even had trouble keeping track of the difference between the three regiments and which women were in which regiment. One regiment flew Pe-2s and another flew Po-2s, which kind of melded in my mind. It was good to give the overall picture of how the war was going, and I think the author actually did a good job explaining the differences, but the scope was so grand, I’d start to lose track.

Still, I was very surprised by how much Soviet women did during World War II – and saddened that they stopped getting chances to fly afterward. This book is full of death-defying situations and incredible hardships that these women overcame. I’ve read a lot about World War II, but I never had any idea about these stories.

The scope is grand and it is hard to grasp it all, but I still think the author did a wonderful job making the information accessible. Maybe a list of characters at the front would have helped, or more pictures of individuals. (Spoiler: The three on the cover all die before the end!) My problem may actually have been that I read it too quickly, during a day on Sick Leave during the Covid-19 crisis. I may not have been paying enough attention, because she did explain well at the beginning the differences between the three regiments and did keep mentioning which regiment she was talking about.

An epic war story – about women who fought for their country, and fought well.

elizabethwein.com

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

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Review of Give Us the Vote! by Susan Goldman Rubin

Give Us the Vote!

Over 200 Years of Fighting for the Ballot

by Susan Goldman Rubin

Holiday House, 2020. 124 pages.
Review written April 8, 2020, from a library book

Give Us the Vote! opened my eyes about the history of voting in the United States. Sure, I knew that African Americans needed a Constitutional amendment before they could vote, as did women. What I hadn’t realized is that it’s still always been a battle to have free and fair elections.

I didn’t realize, for example, that we didn’t have a secret ballot until the early 1900s. Before that, people would buy and sell votes – and they could follow up depending on how the person voted. But even after that, it was still possible to bully people at the voting booth or try to exclude people from voting.

All the way through the 1850s, people voted with their voice. (Or I should say, men voted with their voice.)

The earliest method of voting was voicing one’s choice in public. A citizen would literally stand up and say who he was voting for or raise his hand. This made intimidation easy. Around Election Day, candidates plied voters with rum, wine, and beer to win their votes, or bribed them with food and money. Since only property owners could vote, candidates often bought “freeholds,” or temporary land rights, from large landowners. They gave these rights to landless men, and returned the deeds to the real owners after the election. Sometimes corrupt candidates would even pay voters not to vote so that they could win a majority.

This book covers the battle to gain the right to vote for many different groups, as well as the many different kinds of cheating that people have used successfully over the years our country has been a nation. One popular method is getting fake people to vote or the same people voting many times. But then another technique is stealing and destroying ballots and/or replacing them with fake ones. Getting the count correct is another whole area of danger. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t until the Civil War when soldiers wanted to vote that absentee ballots were allowed, and it was a big area of controversy, including new ways of committing voter fraud.

Gerrymandering is mentioned, with both old and recent examples from both parties. The author mentions a 2019 Supreme Court case that decided that this is an issue for elected branches of government to decide, not the federal courts.

This book is geared to teens, so it includes the movement to change the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen during the Vietnam War – and the current wish of some to bring it down to age sixteen.

Many people agree that high schoolers care about local and national problems and should be allowed to vote. Studies prove that teenagers can gather and process information, weighing pros and cons as well as most adults. Research conducted by FairVote shows that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are as informed and engaged in political issues as older voters. If they start voting in their teens, they are more likely to make voting a lifelong habit and increase voter turnout.

Books like this will help young people realize we can’t take for granted our rights to fair and free elections.

HolidayHouse.com

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Review of Africa, Amazing Africa, by Atinuke, illustrated by Mouni Feddag

Africa, Amazing Africa

Country by Country

by Atinuke
illustrated by Mouni Feddag

Candlewick Press, 2021. First published in the United Kingdom in 2019. 78 pages.
Review written April 26, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This wonderful oversized picture book tells the reader all about Africa. The information is arranged by region, and every single African country gets a page with colorful pictures and information about what makes that country special. The details are given with a clear fondness for the continent, and the introductory page for each region includes ways to say “Welcome!” in the many languages spoken there.

I was hoping that reading this book would make me a better Worldle player. (In Worldle, you see the outline of a country and try to guess the name. Hints tell you which direction the answer is in and how far away from your guess.) I’m not sure I remembered all the information I read, but it gave me appreciation for the wide-ranging variety of climates and landscapes and cities and people found in Africa. If I still had school-age kids, this would be a fun book to leave out for them to browse at will.

Here is a bit from the Introduction. You can get a taste of how enthusiastic the author is about Africa.

Writing this book has been an adventure. I wanted to write it so that I could share the things I find exciting about Africa. But while I was working on it, I found out a zillion more really exciting things.

Did you know that the first human beings to walk this earth were African? They went on to populate the whole planet. So we are all from Africa originally!

Did you know that Africa is gigantic? It is as big as Europe, the United States, Mexico, India, and Japan all put together! . . .

Africa is changing all the time: new countries are being created or swallowed up, old traditions are being lost and new ones developing. This book can only give an idea of what Africa is like in the moment that I am writing. So enjoy this book for what it is: a tiny glimpse into this wonderful continent.

I could not squeeze everything that I know and love about Africa into this book. There is room to say only two or three things about each country. But I hope this book will make you want to find out more about the most amazing continent on the planet!

I learned so much reading this book about modern Africa!

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Review of Galloping Gertie, by Amanda Abler, illustrated by Levi Hastings

Galloping Gertie

The True Story of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse

by Amanda Abler
illustrated by Levi Hastings

Little Bigfoot (Sasquatch Books), 2021. 48 pages.
Review written February 19, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Galloping Gertie tells the story of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that collapsed in 1940 only four months after it opened.

To keep the book from being too somber, it gives us the point of view of a boy named Dale Wirsing. He could see the bridge from his house and walked across it once with his parents. The windy day of the bridge’s collapse was Dale’s birthday. As a kid, he thought it was an incredibly exciting event to watch the bridge twist in the wind and eventually blow apart.

The book gives plenty more background, both in the text itself and in the back matter.

A local engineer, Clark Eldridge, had designed the bridge to be lightweight and flexible . . . perhaps a little too flexible.

When the wind blew, the center span bounced up and down. The men who built the bridge nicknamed her “Galloping Gertie.” People said they could see the cars ahead of them disappear and reappear as they drove across her. Others claimed it was like riding a roller coaster!

We are presented with the drama of the day of collapse, and how the few people on the bridge before it shut down did make it to safety (but alas! not the dog). The bridge designer, being local, had driven across the bridge early that morning and actually watched its destruction.

I knew about the bridge because of an exhibit on bridges at the St. Louis Science Center – where our family used to go frequently with my kids. It had a video running of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse and claimed the reason was due to resonance — so I was interested in the discussion at the back that said experts now believe the collapse was due to aeroelastic flutter. I also enjoyed the terms to search for on YouTube and I again watched the bridge collapse.

This subject could be very grim, but this author and illustrator make it dramatic, compelling, and fascinating.

LeviHastings.com
sasquatchbooks.com

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Review of Opening the Road, by Keila V. Dawson, illustrated by Alleanna Harris

Opening the Road

Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book

by Keila V. Dawson
illustrated by Alleanna Harris

Beaming Books, Minneapolis, 2021. 40 pages.
Review written April 7, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Opening the Road is a picture book that explains in simple and understandable language how Victor Hugo Green saw injustice and inconvenience and turned it into an opportunity.

First, in several spreads the book lays out the situation:

Black motorists were told:
No food . . .
No vacancy . . .
No bathroom . . .
for Black people.

White American travelers could stop at any roadside restaurant, hotel, or restroom.

But Black Americans had to pack cold food, blankets, and pillows for sleeping in the car . . . and a make-do toilet.

Then it tells how Victor saw a Kosher Food Guide put out by a Jewish newspaper and wondered if he could make a book with similar information for Black Americans.

So Victor asked his friends and neighbors in Harlem where they safely dined, shopped, and played in the city. Victor worked as a mail carrier. Along his postal route, Victor asked folks about places that were welcoming to Black people too.

It tells how The Negro Motorist Green Book took off and expanded so Black travelers took it with them to safely travel the country. I like the detail that black female entrepreneurs rented out rooms in their homes in cities with no hotels willing to rent to Black people. The discrimination turned into an opportunity.

A lovely and interesting picture book about a pertinent and inspiring bit of history.

beamingbooks.com

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Review of Call and Response, by Veronica Chambers

Call and Response

The Story of Black Lives Matter

by Veronica Chambers

Versify (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021. 152 pages.
Review written October 22, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

When I checked out this book, I wasn’t sure I’d actually read it. But once I got started, I couldn’t stop. It’s got informative, detailed, and current information about the Black Lives Matter movement, including the widespread protests of Summer 2020. A project with The New York Times, the book is packed with photographs that keep the reader engaged.

I learned so much when reading this book, not only about the Black Lives Matter movement, but also about the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. The author placed current events in the context of an ongoing struggle.

I also learned about what goes into an effective protest. There was a short section about the roles of marshal, bike patrol, frontline, street medics, supplier, and legal observer. This is a book about history – recent history plus background – but it is also a book about ways that individuals can work for justice and change.

With all the pictures, this book took me longer to read than I expected. But the pages are large (the better to hold large photos), and a whole lot of information is presented in creative ways.

Whether you’re critical or supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, this book will help you understand what they are trying to accomplish and how they rose to the moment.

The final chapter is titled “Never Too Young to Lead,” and features young leaders of various movements, including the Civil Rights movement in the sixties and the Black Lives Matter movement today, but also young people like Greta Thunberg against climate change and the Parkland survivors against gun violence – leaving kids with inspiration to find ways to step out and get involved.

veronicachambers.com
hmhbooks.com

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Review of Powwow, by Karen Pheasant-Neganigwane

Powwow

A Celebration through Song and Dance

by Karen Pheasant-Neganigwane

Orca Book Publishers, 2020. 82 pages.
Review written June 12, 2020, from a library book

This lovely book, which is lavishly illustrated with colorful photographs – explains the history of Powows, their important place in Indigenous culture, and the author’s own experiences with them.

I didn’t realize that they are a relatively new kind of celebration, although based on traditional dances that were almost lost.

The chapter “The Origins of Powwow Culture” begins this way:

The first powwow that took place on my home reserve, Wiikwemkoong, was in 1960. Powwow culture was quite new to Indigenous communities back then, because until 1951 it had been illegal for Indigenous Peoples in Canada to practice their culture and ceremonies, which included dance. As well, because my parents had attended Indian residential school, where they were always shamed for their Indigenous identity, there wasn’t much Indigenous culture or tradition in my home. As a young child, before I went to the powwows, my only understanding of what Indian meant was from those Hollywood “cowboy-and-Indian” shows on TV.

She explains how the governments of Canada and the United States made it illegal to celebrate Indigenous traditions and tried to force Indigenous peoples to assimilate and become like the people around them. Some native ceremonies and traditions were lost or almost lost.

She explains how powwows began as those laws were relaxed, and they continued to evolve.

Powwow culture has changed a lot in the last few decades, and there are now many different kinds of powwows, from smaller, traditional, local ones held on reserves and reservations to large competition powwows that take place in stadiums and casinos.

Traditional powwows don’t cost anything to attend. Competition powwows sometimes charge an admission fee. Some powwows focus just on the songs and dances, but others include other activities, like rodeos, fashion shows, music awards, midway rides and dance “specials” – exhibitions of dances from specific regions or peoples. But no matter how small or large the powwow, it is still the same in spirit. It’s still a celebration through song and dance, and it’s public and open to anyone, even people who have no experience. People go to powwows to have a good time – to hear the songs and dance or watch the dancers, see friends, share meals, tell stories and remember the past.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on certain traditional types of dances that are regularly performed at powwows. Most of them are specifically for different groups of people, for example Women’s Traditional Dance, Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance, and Women’s Jingle Dress Dance. Not only in this chapter, but throughout the book are wonderful photos of beautiful outfits worn for these dances. There’s a chapter about other things you’ll find at powwows and traditions for powwows in different regions.

I actually once attended a powwow – in Germany, of all places. I wish I’d had this book then, to better understand what I was seeing. Whether you can attend a powwow or not, this book offers upper elementary children and up a beautiful celebration of Indigenous culture and traditions.

orcabook.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 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 Fallout, by Steve Sheinkin, read by Roy Samuelson

Fallout

Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown

by Steve Sheinkin
read by Roy Samuelson

Listening Library, 2021. 8 hours
Review written 2/22/22 from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2022 Young Adult Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

Fallout is a nonfiction book about the Cold War, leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Steve Sheinkin takes a storyteller’s approach, telling you the stories of key figures, including many I’d never heard of before. Among others, these included a U2 pilot who got shot down over Russia, a Russian spy who tried to establish a network in New York City beginning soon after World War II, a paper boy who found a nickel that had been hollowed out to hold microfilm, and a Russian chief of staff of a submarine fleet who ordered a submarine captain and first officer not to launch a nuclear torpedo — after the world thought hostilities were ended, but the sub hadn’t heard about it.

The book is gripping and engaging and full of facts from witnesses. Although it takes place before I was born, I remember the climate when nuclear war seemed highly likely, even doing a drop and cover drill at my desk as a child, and being told by my parents that you could never trust the Russians.

Steve Sheinkin begins right after World War II and the development of bombs whose destructive force is hard to even imagine. He progresses through the space race and the rise of Castro and the development of the U2 program to fly over the Soviet Union. We hear about Khruschev’s ruthless rise to power as well as John F. Kennedy’s.

The one catch to this amazing audiobook is that my timing wasn’t good. I listened to it as Putin was threatening to invade Ukraine. Learning how several lucky coincidences saved us from World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and learning that all-out nuclear war would mean the end of human life on earth as we know it — all made it disturbing to have Russia threatening war again, even in a different part of the world.

stevesheinkin.com
listeninglibrary.com

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Review of The Wedding Portrait, by Innosanto Nagara

The Wedding Portrait

The Story of a Photograph and Why Sometimes We Break the Rules

by Innosanto Nagara

Triangle Square, 2017. 36 pages.
Review written August 5, 2020, from a library book

The Wedding Portrait is a picture book about activism for kids. It’s all framed by the author’s wedding portrait, which was clipped from a newspaper and features armed guards beyond the happy couple.

The author explains things in a way a child can understand:

We usually follow the rules. But sometimes, when you see something wrong – more wrong than breaking the rules, and by breaking the rules you could stop it – you may decide that you should break the rules.

Then he talks about various people in history who have broken rules to stand up for what’s right. He covers Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks fighting segregation; Indian people making salt in defiance of the British empire; the U’wa people in Colombia standing up against oil drilling on their land; a boycott by farm workers of tomatoes; and other forms of Civil Disobedience.

Eventually, he comes to himself and his wife, who met at a protest and decided to get married at a protest against nuclear weapons.

The author defines terms along the way and provides a wide variety of examples. It’s all framed with that wedding portrait, and there’s an epilogue following up by talking about different ways of taking action.

In current times, children may have a lot of questions about protests, and this book beautifully explains why people sometimes think it’s right to break the rules.

I do like the inclusion of this paragraph in the middle of the book:

Now. I’ll bet all this is giving you some ideas, isn’t it? Do you think some of the things that you do when you’re not following the rules should be considered civil disobedience? Do you think hiding under the bed to avoid taking a bath is a kind of sit-in? Is refusing to eat your dinner a kind of boycott?

Maybe. (Maybe not.)

As you can see, this book gives you lots to talk about.

AisforActivist.com
sevenstories.com

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