Review of What Linnaeus Saw, by Karen Magnuson Beil

What Linnaeus Saw

A Scientist’s Quest to Name Every Living Thing

by Karen Magnuson Beil

Norton Young Readers, 2019. 256 pages.
Review written January 14, 2020, from a library book.

This book is a middle school and up biography of Carl Linnaeus, who founded the science of taxonomy by coming up with a system to classify and name all creatures on earth. He even thought at the time that he could complete this task. But in his attempt, he furthered scientific progress tremendously by giving scientists all over the world a way to know they were talking about the same animals.

Carl Linnaeus was born in 1707 in Sweden. His parents badly wanted him to be a pastor, but he wasn’t suited for that at all. He headed into medicine, much to their disappointment – being a medical doctor wasn’t a respected profession at that time. But it was a profession suited for someone obsessed with botany, the study of plants. At those times, doctors made their own medicines. His study of plants and his methodical nature ended up changing the world.

Part of what’s so interesting about this story is how differently the world was seen in those days. Something that earned Linnaeus fame was determining that the Seven-Headed Hydra of Hamburg was a fake. I love that it took a scientist to figure that out!

The book is full of illustrations, and many of them are reproductions from Linnaeus’s notebooks. There are sidebars with interesting notes, and the story of his life is told in an engaging way. This is an interesting story about someone I never before realized was so important.

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Review of Popcorn Country, by Cris Peterson, photographs by David R. Lundquist

Popcorn Country

The Story of America’s Favorite Snack

by Cris Peterson
photographs by David R. Lundquist

Boyds Mills Press (Highlights), 2019. 32 pages.
Review written February 8, 2020, from a library book

Fair warning: This book will make you hungry for popcorn. I’m a big fan of popcorn, so I couldn’t resist learning about it in this picture book.

I didn’t realize that popcorn is a special kind of corn grown specifically to pop.

There are four kinds of corn grown in the United States: dent corn, also called field corn, sweet corn, flint corn, and popcorn.

We see those other examples, then we learn how popcorn is grown, harvested, and processed, with photographs all along the way.

There are some interesting spreads when it tells how samples are tested for pop-ability. And then the popcorn is loaded on trucks and ships. I hadn’t realized that the United States produces nearly all the world’s popcorn.

There are more interesting facts at the back. The main body of the book itself is a lovely way to tell young elementary school kids where there favorite snack comes from.

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Review of Friends Forever, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Friends Forever

by Shannon Hale
artwork by LeUyen Pham
color by Hilary Sycamore and LeUyen Pham

First Second, 2021. 300 pages.
Review written September 21, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Friends Forever is the third in Shannon Hale’s graphic novel trilogy of memoirs about middle school. This one covers eighth grade.

The things Shannon faces in eighth grade aren’t surprising: issues with friends, family, boys, her own looks, popularity, how people see her, and what is she good at. But since these are things most eighth graders have to deal with – it’s great to have a story out there in an accessible graphic novel form of a kid facing those things.

I’m not sure I’d want to revisit the angst of eighth grade to write a book about it. Shannon Hale has done this in an encouraging and uplifting way, and kids today will benefit.

And don’t think this is only a problem novel. It’s also an entertaining true story about the ups and downs of middle school – but she doesn’t neglect the upside. This is a fun and quick read about one particular eighth grade kid who indeed grew up to be a famous author.

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Review of A Shot in the Arm, by Don Brown

Big Ideas That Changed the World

A Shot in the Arm

by Don Brown

Amulet Books, 2021. 138 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 28, 2021, from a library book

This is a graphic format work of nonfiction – like a graphic novel, but full of facts, presented all the more clearly because it’s so visual.

This book presents the history of vaccines, narrated by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of the 17th century, who brought smallpox vaccinations to England.

We first learn about the history of smallpox – it was around even in ancient Egypt. And many cultures found ways of fighting it. In China, as early as 1000 CE, they tried infecting people with a mild form of the disease. (How they did that makes some interesting panels.) In India, they did that as well, and Lady Mary discovered it in the Ottoman Empire when she lived there with her husband.

The book goes on to explain the history of inoculation and vaccination and different diseases that have been tackled.

The book does mention COVID-19, but was written before the vaccine was out. Here’s the last paragraph of the main text:

By November 2020 scientists were reporting positive results for several possible vaccines. If one or more are approved, then within months disease-preventing doses can begin to be administered to people around the world. Billions of dollars are being spent to make this happen. Still, no vaccine has ever been created as quickly or in that quantity.

The world holds its breath . . . and hopes.

There’s nothing in here about the reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine, because that hadn’t happened yet. But there’s nothing new under the sun, and this is in the section about smallpox inoculation:

Here’s an odd twist . . . Some people in the Ottoman Empire known as “fatalists” rejected inoculation because they believed that stopping disease interfered with God’s plans . . .

I think God would prefer a healthy flock.

Even though I knew most of the basics about this, the book was still eye-opening and informative for me. The graphic format makes it quick reading and easy to digest. But what a timely topic!

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Review of Boardwalk Babies, by Marissa Moss and April Chu

Boardwalk Babies

written by Marissa Moss
illustrated by April Chu

Creston Books, 2021. 36 pages.
Review written July 20, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Boardwalk Babies surprised me so much, I started telling all my coworkers about it as soon as I finished reading it. I am planning to booktalk this book in the schools if we get the chance to do this again after the pandemic.

Did you know that when incubators for preemies were developed, they weren’t used in hospitals – but in a side show? This book tells that story.

The cover of the book is perhaps a little misleading, since the tiny babies didn’t pose with strongmen, but were in incubators. They were, however, part of a sideshow. The endpapers show exhibits from circus freak shows of long ago, and the book begins with people going past other carnival entertainment to see tiny babies in incubators mounted on walls, watched over by nurses. Then the book begins telling the background:

Boardwalk babies? Incubator side shows? What was Dr. Couney thinking?

He was thinking of saving lives.

In the late 19th century, hospitals considered premature babies doomed to die. They had no idea how to care for them, so they didn’t. Then Dr. Budin in Paris noticed the heat lamp that kept chicks warm. That gave him the idea to develop an incubator. It was a radical idea, one hospitals didn’t trust. Dr. Budin needed a way to sell the medical world on caring for these tiny babies instead of giving up on them.

The Berlin Exposition of 1896 could be his chance. The show organizers were calling for exhibitors, especially those in science and mechanics. Dr. Budin sent a young doctor who was studying with him to set up an exhibit of incubators, a demonstration of how the warming boxes could save these babies. That young doctor was Martin Couney.

They set up the incubators with diagrams explaining how they could save lives, but they didn’t get much attention. Dr. Couney decided what they needed was actual tiny babies. That would get attention!

He went to Berlin’s Charity Hospital and asked for premature babies to show how well the incubators worked. Empress Augusta Victoria was in charge of the hospital, and she gave him permission to take as many tiny babies as he wished, because they were going to die in the hospital anyway.

After that, the exhibit took off. One problem was that although they’d asked to be placed in the scientific section, their exhibit was in the amusement area. So he turned the babies into an attraction! He dressed them in bigger clothes to make them look even smaller and played up their tiny size. All the babies survived.

Dr. Couney took the incubators to more exhibits in the U.S. Then in 1903, the Baby Incubators became a permanent part of Coney Island. He made sure the babies got the best care, hiring nurses to feed them and watch over them around the clock. Since they charged admission to view the babies, they were able to accept any premature infant free of charge, and took on babies of all ethnicities, religions, and skin colors. One day, Dr. Couney’s own baby girl was born prematurely, and the incubators saved her life.

The point of the exhibition was to convince hospitals to use this life-saving technology, but it took nearly forty years for that to happen. The Baby Incubator exhibit on Coney Island didn’t close until 1943, when incubators were now regularly found in hospitals and preemie survival chances had improved across the country.

This book blew me away that such a life-saving medical innovation started out in a sideshow. It’s also rather astonishing that newborn babies were entrusted to that sideshow – because hospitals had given up.

I’ve given the highlights, but you and your kids will want to read this amazing picture book for yourselves.

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Review of Before They Were Artists, by Elizabeth Haidle

Before They Were Artists

Famous Illustrators as Kids

by Elizabeth Haidle

Etch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021. 64 pages.
Review written July 6, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a picture-book-sized nonfiction book for children in graphic novel format telling about the childhoods of six distinguished illustrators.

I would have never thought to put these particular illustrators together in a book, and I love the variety of backgrounds they represent. We’ve got:

Wanda Gág, who wrote Millions of Cats, born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Maurice Sendak, who wrote Where the Wild Things Are, born in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York.
Tove Jansson, who wrote Finn Family Moomintroll, born in 1914 in Helsinki, Finland.
Jerry Pinkney, who wrote The Lion and the Mouse, born in 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Yuyi Morales, who wrote Just a Minute, born in 1968 in Xalapa, Mexico.
Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, born in 1941 in Tokyo, Japan.

Each illustrator gets a title spread with one book featured (the one I listed above), a picture of the illustrator as a child in the landscape of their own books, with a quotation coming from a speech bubble. There’s a time line across the bottom with notable events in their lives, including other books they’ve written. Then they each get six to eight more pages with panels in graphic novel format telling about their childhoods, how they got started in art, and their many accomplishments.

This book is delightful to look at and presents lots of information in an entertaining way. It’s sure to inspire other young artists or at least get them thinking about what their love for art could lead to.

There’s a spread at the front with the title “What makes an illustrator?” It talks about how they had many different backgrounds, but they loved to draw.

In all cases, inspiration from someone else helped pave the way: another artist, animator, cartoonist, or painter whose books, films, or paintings moved hearts and imprinted themselves on minds. These heroes and mentors made a path of possibility to walk down.

May the stories in this book inspire other artists in turn.

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Review of Play Like a Girl, by Kate T. Parker

Play Like a Girl

Life Lessons from the Soccer Field

by Kate T. Parker

Workman Publishing, 2020. 204 pages.
Review written October 31, 2020, from a library book

Play Like a Girl is another book packed with wonderful action shots of people from the author of Strong Is the New Pretty and The Heart of a Boy. This book features female soccer players – girls and women from all levels of soccer competition. Every photo includes a quote with the subject’s first name and age. Professional soccer players featured are given a short bio at the back.

The book is organized into ten chapters with ten “Rules,” things like “Keep Your Head Up” and “The Team Is the Thing.” The first page of the chapter has a short inspirational text with lessons from playing soccer. The rest is all quotes and photos.

This is another astonishingly beautiful book to look through. Almost made me wish I played soccer! This book would be a wonderful gift for any girl who plays soccer.

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Review of A Most Clever Girl, by Jasmine A. Stirling and Vesper Stamper

A Most Clever Girl

How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice

by Jasmine A. Stirling
illustrated by Vesper Stamper

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021. 44 pages.
Review written June 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

How do you tell kids about the life of a novelist who writes books for adults? Jasmine Stirling talks about Jane Austen’s supportive family and life circumstances growing up. But she also, in a simple way, explains what kind of writing was prevalent in Jane’s day and how she made fun of it. Here’s how the book begins:

Jane loved stories – long ones, short ones, worn and new.

But there were some kinds of stories that she just couldn’t stand.
These were pale stories with delicate ladies who fainted all the time. (ALAS!)
Or gloomy stories with orphans on doorsteps and terrible secrets in the attic. (OOOH!)
Or sticky-sweet stories where people fell in love at first sight. (EWW!)

This was the fluff that was fashionable in those days. Jane found it, well, stale. And predictable.

You see, Jane had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.

Jane started writing silly stories that poked fun at the fluff.
In one, a pair of pale ladies took turns fainting on a sofa. (ALAS!)
In another, a mother abandoned her baby under a haystack only to discover her alive . . . weeks later. (OOOH!)
In yet another, two children were so hungry they bit off their mother’s fingers. (EWW!)

After this engaging beginning, the book goes on to tell about the circumstances of her life. How her father encouraged her writing. (I love the inclusion of the writing desk he gave her, since I’ve seen that desk in the British Library, and when I did, it brought tears to my eyes.)

But then money got tight, they moved to Bath, and Jane’s father died. The book takes us through those events and on to the time when her brother gave Jane and her sister and mother a cottage to live in. There, Jane began writing again and found her voice.

The illustrator explains at the back how much she enjoyed researching on location. She uses pink to represent youthful playfulness, gray for the hard years, and green as Jane found new maturity.

This book came along just in time for the Jane Austen virtual symposium I’m attending beginning the day after I’m writing this review. The author is going to be speaking and talking about how she attempted to convey Jane Austen’s life in picture book form. I’m looking forward to hearing her speak, already impressed with the results of her work.

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Review of Code Breaker, Spy Hunter, by Laurie Wallmark, art by Brooke Smart

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter

How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars

words by Laurie Wallmark
art by Brooke Smart

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. 44 pages.
Review written May 15, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book biography features a female American code breaker, a woman I’d never heard of before – whose work was declassified in 2015, thirty-five years after her death.

Most of us have heard of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who broke the German’s Enigma code. I hadn’t realized that America was working separately on cracking the code and succeeded separately to crack the code. And the person in charge of that effort was a woman, Elizebeth Friedman.

Her work as a code breaker began long before that. She was hired in 1916 to try to find secret messages hidden in Shakespeare’s plays by Francis Bacon, whom her employer thought was the real author of the plays. She didn’t succeed in finding any, but that got her started in decoding. She and her husband were involved in the United States government’s first code-breaking unit, the Riverbank Department of Ciphers, in 1917 during World War I. They wrote pamphlets about the techniques they developed which are considered the basis for the modern science of cryptology.

She didn’t only work during war time, although she served during both wars. She also used her methods to catch smugglers during Prohibition and later captured spies.

I’ve recently reviewed books about making and breaking codes and ciphers, so I love this one about a woman who made that her life’s work. The author includes fun details such as the dinner party that Elizebeth and her husband hosted in 1938 where the guests had to solve clues to figure out where each course was being served.

Because of the top secret nature of her work, Elizebeth wasn’t celebrated for her accomplishments in her lifetime. Here’s how this picture book biography ends:

Elizebeth was a true heroine of both World War I and World War II. She is now considered one of the most gifted and influential code breakers of all time. Yet no one knew how many codes she broke, how many Nazis she stopped, how many American lives she saved . . . until now.

There’s more information at the back of the book including hints about coded messages hidden in the illustrations. This is a perfect book for kids interested in codes.

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Review of Hear My Voice, compliled by Warren Binford

Hear My Voice

The Testimonies of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States

compiled by Warren Binford for Project Amplify

Workman Publishing, 2021. 96 pages.
Review written May 20, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

It is horrible that this heart-wrenching book exists.

It’s all true. The words are taken entirely “from the sworn testimonies given by children while they were being held at Border Patrol facilities or other detention centers near the US border, often in violation of their rights.”

Those words tell us about terrible things.

The words are accompanied by illustrations from seventeen Latinx illustrators, adding tremendous power to what is said, with haunting images.

The testimonies tell of the danger they fled from, of family in the United States they want to join, of severely crowded conditions, of not getting fruits or vegetables, of waking up in the night hungry, of being verbally abused, of being cold, of having to sleep on the floor under glaring lights, of being woken up in the night at random times, of not getting medical care when sick, and more.

There are six pages after the picture book text, explaining the situation. Warren Binford, who compiled the material, is a lawyer who has visited the facilities as part of official inspections. He begins by explaining cases that established what the law requires, since 1997. This includes that children should be released as quickly as possible from government detention, and children should be released to family members. While they are in detention, they must be properly cared for in safe, clean conditions, with many specifications of what that should look like (which are clearly not being met).

Then he talks about his own visits to border patrol facilities, with an especially horrific visit to the Clint Border Patrol Station in 2019. After talking with the children as part of a mandated inspection, they decided to amplify those children’s voices and share the children’s stories. This book is part of that.

Although this is a children’s book, you’ll want to talk about it with kids, and some guidelines are included for doing that. Here’s what Warren Binford has to say about that:

We call it a “children’s book” because Hear My Voice is about children’s lives and experiences. Every word is from a child being held in a US detention facility. Every passage was selected while envisioning a child’s eyes and mind reading and contemplating the content. Every illustration is intended to help bridge the humanity between the children whose collective stories are told and the child who is trying to understand what is happening to children forced to move across national borders.

Although this is a children’s book, we recommend that thoughtful adults are on hand to help young readers process what they are learning from these children’s accounts. The book should be viewed as an opportunity to better understand human migration and children’s rights.

This book is also a dual-language book – if you flip it over, you get the same text and pictures in Spanish. So half of the 96 pages are given to each language. The unfortunate thing about that is our library is shelving it in the Spanish language section, and I’m afraid English-speaking children won’t find it.

This is a powerful and heart-breaking set of testimonies. The book also includes a section titled “Here are some ways your family can help,” and you will want to get started on those right away.

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