Review of America Redux, by Ariel Aberg-Riger

America Redux

Visual Stories from Our Dynamic History

by Ariel Aberg-Riger

Balzer + Bray, 2023. 294 pages.
Review written July 4, 2023, from a book sent to me by the publisher.
Starred Review
2024 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist
2023 Kirkus Prize for Young Reader’s Literature Winner
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Teen Nonfiction

Finishing this book on July 4th was wonderfully appropriate, though because it’s eligible for the Morris Award, I can’t talk about it yet, which is frustrating.

America Redux is a book of visual American history for teens. What do I mean by visual history? The author and artist took mostly public domain images from the time periods of the stories she discusses and made collages. Then she hand-lettered the story on the collages.

The history here isn’t told in consecutive order. The author takes twenty-one issues that still affect us in America today and gives the history of that issue. Some go back farther than others. Some don’t have obvious implications today (though most do), but are fascinating stories.

The book is a quick read, a delight to the eyes, and incredibly interesting. I wished almost every chapter was longer – but the author has a list of resources in the back, sources of quotations, and where you can look to explore the topic more. So she gives enough to completely suck you in. Also enough to give you conversation at parties! Just last Sunday, I began talking about urban SROs – Single-Room Occupancy dwellings – how common they once were and how cities cracking down on them in the 1970s drove up the price of housing. I learned about it in this book.

This book is hard to resist. Its bright colorful images pull your eyes to the page. This is not a textbook or a replacement for a textbook, but it focuses on history you won’t necessarily learn about in school – things like freeways getting built through land owned by minorities, Sam Colt and his genius marketing abilities (paid product placement with his guns in paintings!), the history of squelching immigration, propaganda and the American Revolution, Mustafa Al-Azemmouri – a Black Muslim explorer of the Americas, the Eugenics movement and forced sterilization, Love Canal and the pollution still all around Niagara Falls – and so much more.

If the topics sound random, they felt a little random, not necessarily related to one another or in any particular order. But each one was so fascinating, I completely forgave the author for that. I came away from this book knowing much more about American history and with my curiosity piqued to find out yet more.

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arielabergriger.com
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Review of Hidden Systems, by Dan Nott

Hidden Systems

Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day

by Dan Nott

RH Graphic, 2023. 264 pages.
Review written September 29, 2023, from a book sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2023 National Book Award Longlist

Hidden Systems is graphic novel format nonfiction about some essentially important – but hidden things. In three sections, the author explains, with diagrams and drawings, how the Internet works, how electricity works, and how our water systems work.

It’s interesting that the topics are approached in the opposite order from the subtitle, which is also the opposite order from how they were developed in the real world. But taking a present to the past approach does get the information across.

At the front of the book, the author talks about what hidden systems are and how he learned about them by trying to draw them. Because so much is invisible, the metaphors we use to describe them are important. Here’s a bit from that introduction, which has a small picture accompanying each line.

A hidden system is something we don’t notice
until it breaks.

But when these systems are doing what they’re supposed to,
they become so commonplace
that we hardly see them.

Hidden systems are in the news all the time.
Usually when something dramatic happens.
(especially if something explodes)
But by overlooking hidden systems the rest of the time,
we take for granted the benefits they provide for some of us,
and disregard the harm they cause others.
These systems structure our society,
and even when they’re working,
are a source of inequality and environmental harm.

Something I appreciated about this look at the Internet, Electricity, and Water Systems is that he showed the big picture, too – how these things are physically hooked up and connected around the world.

There was a lot I didn’t know about each system: The importance of data centers for the internet, almost all the physical aspects of the electricity grid, and our frequent use of dams to run the water system.

Okay, this summary doesn’t do the book justice. Let me urge you to read it – and look at it – for yourself. (So much is communicated by the drawings!) The story of how humans have built these systems helps us think about what ways we could modify them to better work with our earth.

As he finishes up (accompanied by pictures):

We often just see the surface of our surroundings,
but by understanding these systems more deeply,
we can form our own questions about their past and future.
The answers to these questions can help us not only fix these systems
but also reimagine them –
creating a world that’s more in balance with the Earth
and that provides equitably for all people.

dannott.com
RHKidsGraphic.com

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Review of The Other Pandemic, by Lynn Curlee

The Other Pandemic

An AIDS Memoir

by Lynn Curlee

Charlesbridge Teen, 2023. 164 pages.
Review written December 4, 2023, from a library book.

In The Other Pandemic, Lynn Curlee tells his own story, as a young gay man in the 1980s — when his friends and his community started dying.

He begins by setting the stage with what it was like for him to grow up as gay in the 1960s, then talks about starting his career as an artist in New York City. He talks about the connections he made and the friendships he built — and then his friends started getting sick. After several years, his own life partner passed away from AIDS.

At the back of the book, after the main story, he’s got photographs and loving tributes to eleven friends who died of AIDS. This book helps the reader understand the pain and fear of that time for gay men. He highlights the non-response of the government for many years and hopes we’ve learned something about dealing with pandemics.

Here’s an excerpt from the Epilogue:

An entire generation of gay men was decimated by AIDS, and the survivors were forever changed. We came from every walk of life: businessmen, architects, teachers, doctors, bartenders, lawyers, plumbers, actors, contractors, musicians, salesmen, designers, factory workers, composers, deliverymen, artists, athletes, and more. There had always been outspoken homosexual individuals who lived their lives openly, and throughout the entire twentieth century there was a thriving underground gay subculture, particularly in the big cities. But before Gay Pride, the vast majority of gay people were invisible. They lived their daily lives in the closet because of homophobia. While there were activists before, it was an entire generation that came of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s that asserted and then openly lived the idea that gay people should be proud of who we are, and not ashamed of our natural orientation. We were the generation that refused to hide in the shadows and insisted upon equality….

If only Americans could learn from the experience of the gay community and stop wasting time floundering in denial and wallowing in hatred. Throughout the AIDS crisis, the movement for equality and acceptance continued, but it was temporarily overshadowed by the challenge of coming to terms with the horrific carnage. Out of this struggle the AIDS generation of gay people made a community forged in pain and sorrow, tempered by compassion, and eventually resulting in a newfound strength and purpose.

This book was eye-opening for me because I was a college student in the early 1980s and had no idea this was going on. Lynn Curlee telling his own story gives a window into the lives of people who didn’t have the luxury of ignorance.

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charlesbridge.com

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Review of You Can’t Say That, compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus

You Can’t Say That

Writers for young people talk about censorship, free expression, and the stories they have to tell.

compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus

Candlewick Press, 2021. 220 pages.
Review written September 13, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

I’m not completely sure what took me so long to get this book read, but in 2023, the topic of censorship seems even more timely than it was in 2021. This book helps teens understand what censorship takes from them.

Leonard Marcus here collects interviews with thirteen distinguished writers for young people whose books have often been banned. Those writers are Matt de la Peña, Robie H. Harris, Susan Kuklin, David Levithan, Meg Medina, Lesléa Newman, Katherine Paterson, Dav Pilkey, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, Sonya Sones, R. L. Stine, and Angie Thomas.

This is an examination of censorship from authors’ perspectives. Here’s a part from the introduction:

Here, then, from thirteen accomplished authors for young people are fresh perspectives on why writers write their books in the way they choose, regardless of the consequences; and on what can happen to a book once the author lets go of it and it enters the public square of our country and world’s wildly divergent panoply of ideals, beliefs, and expectations.

Here, too, is a chance to examine at close range what it means when any person or group, however well intentioned, seeks to limit the writing or reading lives of others.

I ended up reading this book little by little, one author interview at a time, getting inspired by each one’s passion for art and creativity. I think this look into their hearts will give anyone pause who wants to pull books from shelves.

Here’s something from former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Katherine Paterson:

When the Berlin Wall fell and Communism seemed to be on the wane, I turned to my husband and said half in jest, “Now they’ll start coming after me.” He didn’t know what I was talking about, so I explained, “There are people who have to have an enemy.” For a while after that, I did see more challenges to my books.

May this discussion of young people and art and on bringing difficult topics to young people shed light on the world of ideas and the power of reading.

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Review of 83 Days in Mariupol, by Don Brown

83 Days in Mariupol

A War Diary

by Don Brown

Clarion Books (HarperCollins), 2023. 128 pages.
Review written September 15, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

Don Brown has written several graphic novels about several awful historical events. I’ve reviewed The Great American Dust Bowl and Drowned City about Hurricane Katrina. I’ve read another he wrote about 9/11. When I picked up this one, I was shocked to realize it had been long enough ago for him to write and publish a graphic novel about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Specifically, this book is about the 83-day siege of the Ukrainian City of Mariupol that began February 24, 2022.

This graphic novel describes what it was like for civilians in a city under siege, how they fought back, how some escaped, and how some survived.

It’s not a happy story by any means. Mariupol is still under Russian occupation today.

At the back, there are three pages of source notes and five pages of Selected Bibliography. As in his other books, Don Brown has done the research to let teens know what it was like to live through this disaster. So although this is not a happy story, it is a true story and an important story. The graphic novel format makes the story accessible to everyone, including teens and older kids. I hadn’t realized how little I knew about it until I read this book.

The last page of the main text has a background of smoke telling us this:

The city of Mariupol is ruined. Ukrainian officials estimate that the brutal 83-day siege killed 20,000 civilians and destroyed 90 percent of the city. The World Health Organization warns it could now face outbreaks of cholera. Remaining residents are forced to work for the Russians in exchange for food while cats and dogs feast on corpses.

This book shines light on an ongoing atrocity. I recommend reading this book not for pleasure, but for awareness.

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Review of Nearer My Freedom, by Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge

Nearer My Freedom

The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself

by Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge

Zest Books, 2023. 216 pages.
Review written August 30, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

From the note at the back:

This book is a novel-length series of found-verse poems crafted from Olaudah Equiano’s original autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in March 1789.

What this means is that they took Olaudah Equiano’s written words and cut out passages — leaving behind a novel in verse.

The style for books written in 1789 was far more verbose than books written today, so the method they used renders a dense and difficult autobiography into a gripping and accessible verse novel.

Olaudah Equiano was born in Africa and kidnapped into slavery. He ended up working on British ships and eventually was able to purchase his own freedom. He continued to work on ships, but was still in danger of being enslaved again. He became an abolitionist and wrote the story of his life to further the cause.

The book begins in Africa. He and his sister were both captured at the same time. Then he traveled all over the world, both when he was enslaved and when he was free. He even went on an expedition into the Arctic hoping to find a passage to India that way. The ship was almost destroyed by ice, and they concluded the idea wouldn’t work out.

Here’s an example from when he was kidnapped:

One day when none of the grown people were nigh
two men and a woman got over our walls,
seized my dear sister and me.
No time to cry out, or make resistance.

They stopped our mouths,
and ran off with us into the woods.
They tied our hands and carried us
as far as they could, till night came.

The authors used his words, but pared it down into a modern verse novel. There are several sidebars explaining historical context. The result is a riveting and quick-reading account of what life was like as a British seafaring enslaved person in the eighteenth century.

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Review of Banned Book Club, by Kim Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada, art by Ko Hyung-Ju

Banned Book Club

written by Kim Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada
art by Ko Hyung-Ju

Iron Circus Comics, 2020. 198 pages.
Review written September 22, 2020, from a library book

I didn’t realize until I’d finished the book that this is a graphic memoir, not a graphic novel. Even thinking it was a novel, I realized I had no idea that free speech had been suppressed in South Korea in 1983. This book points out that I need to separate out nonfiction for teens from my children’s nonfiction page – this has gritty and difficult material, more suitable for teens and adults than children. [Note: I’m posting this much later, and did, in fact, make a page for Teen Nonfiction.]

The setting is South Korea, 1983. Yes, that’s South Korea, not North Korea. I had to go back and check. Hyun Sook was a teen wanting to start college. Her mother didn’t want her to go because there had been student protests, which were being stopped by the government. Her father was supportive, so she does head off to school, trying to separate herself from the protesters.

Sure enough, when Hyun Sook gets to college, she tries to stay out of trouble. She even joins a Masked Folk Dance Team to do something that’s not political. But she learns that they do folk dances with stories that have political ramifications and are a cover for protests. Then the friends she makes on the team pull her into a Banned Book Club with a contact at a bookstore who gets them banned books.

I was amazed at the range of books that they were not permitted to read. Both western literature and Communist literature from North Korea were on the list. There is a spy in the group, and some of her friends get arrested and beaten and she herself gets interrogated by police and I won’t say more about the plot to not give spoilers. I will say that I was shocked by basic freedoms that were violently repressed.

The book ends with a reunion of the Banned Book Club in 2016. We learn about the history of fascism in South Korea when one of her friends outlines the protests he’s been part of since 1983. In 2016, they were protesting for the removal of a president who was the daughter of the dictator they protested against in 1983.

A note on the final page tells us what happened after the close of this book:

In March 2017, President Park Geun-Hye was impeached, removed from office, and imprisoned for corruption. The final vote was struck by her own judges, many of whom she had personally placed in office. A special election was held, and the new president was Moon Jae-in.

This book is frightfully timely and tells a true story of fascism that is not from 1930s Germany. It makes the reader value their freedom to read and freedom to speak up. May we never let those go. Please don’t tolerate book banning, whatever the excuse.

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

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Review of Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies, by Robert Black

Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies

by Robert Black

Royal Fireworks Press, 2022. 127 pages.
Review written January 8, 2022, from my own copy.

Edward Lorenz and the Chaotic Butterflies is a short but thorough biography of one of the founders of Chaos Theory.

Edward Lorenz got interested in meteorology because that happened to be where the U.S. War Department could use his mathematical skills when World War I started.

The book explains how the science of meteorology was developing as computers were developing. And when they tried to model the math of weather forecasting, it was so complex that those two things went together. In fact, because Edward Lorenz had a desk-sized computer in his office at M.I.T., he was able to notice things that other researchers had a harder time studying.

They talk about his initial discovery. He wanted the computer to repeat some calculations but go farther, so he started by typing in the results from already-calculated numbers. But the results the second time through were completely different. He realized that was due to a rounding error — he hadn’t printed out all decimal places of the solutions, so he was actually starting with slightly different numbers.

But why did slightly different starting numbers make a huge difference in results?

I like the way the book describes the equations he used as both unpredictable and stable. The equations are relatively simple, but the results vary wildly. The book even shows how you can do the same thing with a home computer (much smaller than a desk) and an Excel spreadsheet.

I did gloss over some of the equations, but I got the idea of how it all works, and I think students can do the same as me or dive in deeper if they want to know more.

A quick biography of a notable mathematician who started a whole new field of study and showed that not all of reality is linear and predictable.

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Review of The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson with Sarah Durand

The Code Breaker

Jennifer Doudna and the Race to Understand Our Genetic Code

by Walter Isaacson
with Sarah Durand

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022. Adapted from The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson, 2021. 320 pages.
Review written January 8, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review

This is the young readers’ adaptation of the book for adults by Walter Isaacson. Honestly, I had trouble with the density of this book, so I’m glad I read the young adult version! This was much slower reading than a typical young adult novel, and was packed with details and facts.

But despite the density, this is fascinating reading. The introduction begins with a story of a woman cured of sickle-cell anemia with gene therapy. Then they talk about some other possibilities of these techniques that came from breaking the human genetic code — learning how DNA and RNA work.

The book is the story of the career of Jennifer Doudna, who ended up being a pioneer in the field of gene-editing research and technology. But her story goes much deeper than simply one woman’s accomplishments. This is a section from the introduction:

Doudna’s life offers an up-close look at how science works. Her story helps answer: What actually happens in a lab? To what extent do discoveries depend on individual genius, and how has teamwork become more critical? And has the competition for individual prizes, money, and fame stopped people from working together for the common good?

Most of all, Doudna’s story conveys the importance of basic science, meaning quests that are curiosity-driven rather than geared toward immediate, practical results. Curiosity-driven research plants the seeds — sometimes in unpredictable ways — for later discoveries. For example, a few scientists decided to research basic physics simply because it excited them, and their discoveries eventually led to the invention of the microchip. Similarly, the findings of a handful of researchers who took an interest in an astonishing method that bacteria use to fight off viruses helped generate a revolutionary gene-editing tool that humans now use in their own struggle against viruses.

Jennifer Doudna is the perfect example of that brand of curiosity. Hers is a tale filled with the biggest of questions, from the origins of the universe to the future of the human race. Yet it begins with a sixth-grade girl who loved searching for “sleeping grass” and other fascinating phenomena amid the lava rocks of Hawaii, and who came home from school one day to find on her bed a detective tale about the people who discovered what they believed to be “the secret of life.”

The story in this book is very immediate, with the entire last section talking about using CRISPR technology to detect and fight coronaviruses.

I think it’s especially apt to adapt this book for young adults, since this technology will be something they’re growing up with. The entire last half of the book raises questions about ethics and the morality of editing the genes of humans and possibly our descendants. As more and more becomes possible, it is good to bring to young people’s attention the need to think about ethical concerns.

The science in this book is fascinating, and might end up being something very much a part of young people’s lives. I can’t say that it gave me a new understanding of gene editing, because saying I understand it would be exaggerating. But it at least gave me a new appreciation.

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Review of Seen and Unseen, by Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki

Seen and Unseen

What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams’s Photographs Reveal About the Japanese American Incarceration

by Elizabeth Partridge
illustrated by Lauren Tamaki

Chronicle Books, 2022. 124 pages.
Review written February 26, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review
2023 Sibert Award Winner

Seen and Unseen won the Sibert Award for the best informational book for children published in 2022. The book tells the story of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, especially looking at the testimony of three photographers.

Here’s the beginning of Dorothea Lange’s section:

In the San Francisco Bay area, Dorothea Lange was asked to photograph the roundup and forced relocation of all Japanese and Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Officials wanted documentary photos to show it was being carried out in a humane, orderly way.

Dorothea was horrified by the government’s plan. The prisoners would be held without charges filed against them and without the right to a trial. That was illegal in the United States. But there was a war on, and Japanese Americans’ rights were suspended.

Dorothea could have refused, but she ws eager to take the job. She wanted her photographs to show what the government was doing was unfair and undemocratic.

We see many of the pictures she took in the pages that follow, along with descriptions of what was going on. But most of the ones we see are labeled “Impounded” — they were withheld from the public during the war, to try to hide the brutal conditions of the imprisonment of American citizens.

Meanwhile, photographer Toyo Miyatake was imprisoned in the camps. He smuggled in his camera lens and took photos, giving a starker and more realistic picture of life in the camp.

Later in the war, he was asked to open an official photography studio to document special events like weddings and funerals. But in a silly and humiliating bit of red tape, they wouldn’t let him press the button on the camera and they hired a white American to do that.

The final photographer featured is Ansel Adams. He came in 1943, paid by the government, to support “loyal” Japanese Americans being resettled in other parts of America. They showed him happy faces — not necessarily the true story.

This book as a whole shows how a terrible national tragedy was presented to the public in general at the time. The book is full of illustrations as well as photographs and vividly presents what happened.

I thought this page was particularly striking, with a picture of a father talking to a little boy:

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to your mother and me,” future US Congressman Norman Mineta’s Issei father told him and his four siblings. “But just remember: All of you are US citizens and this is your home. There is nothing anyone can do to take this away from you.”

He was wrong.

elizabethpartridge.com
laurentamaki.com
chroniclekids.com

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