Review of Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, by Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix


Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek

A Tall, Thin Tale

(Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend)

by Deborah Hopkinson & John Hendrix

Schwarz & Wade Books, New York, 2008.  36 pages.

In honor of Abe Lincoln’s 200th birthday, here’s a children’s picture book telling a story of how Abe Lincoln almost died when he was only seven years old.

Yes, Abe and his friend Austin were crossing a creek.  Abe fell in, and his friend fished him out, saving his life and thus making a difference in the world for generations to come.

Deborah Hopkinson has a delightful, folksy way of telling the story, talking about what we know and what we don’t know.  The pictures of the green Kentucky valley where Abe lived and the mischievous boys add to the fun.

Here’s an endearing tale of friendship, suitable for young readers or listeners who might be tired of more straitlaced and serious stories of Abraham Lincoln.  He did a foolish thing crossing that creek, but his friend saved him.  Even Abraham Lincoln needed a friend.

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Review of Miss Alcott’s E-mail, by Kit Bakke


Miss Alcott’s E-mail

Yours for Reforms of All Kinds

by Kit Bakke

David R. Godine, 2006.  255 pages.

Kit Bakke begins, “I was home alone, that rare treat for the working mother, when it occurred to me to write to her.  To Louisa May Alcott.  Why not?” 

She goes on to explain why writing to Louisa resonated with her life.  And apparently she pulled it off!

“I wish I could explain more about the mechanics of our correspondence, but I can’t, because, other than frying six surge protectors, I don’t know how it worked.  I sent my letters and chapter drafts to Louisa by e-mail from my Seattle living room, and she received them as handwritten ink on paper in her roms in Dr. Lawrence’s house in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  She once told me my handwriting was neat and extremely legible, so there was definitely something odd going on.  She wrote to me, using well-worn ink pens and paper, and they showed up in Times New Roman in my Outlook inbox.  I was grateful for the technology transfer, as her own handwriting was also less than copperplate.

“It’s one of those Internet Effects, I guess.  Or a Heisenberg thing, or Brownian motion gone amok.  I didn’t want to inquire too closely for fear the magic might vanish.”

What follows is a series of essays about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the parallels with Kit Bakke’s life in modern America, framed by letters (no, e-mails) purporting to be from Louisa herself.

I loved the idea of this book, because when I was a girl in 6th or 7th grade, I actually spent quite a bit of time daydreaming about bringing Louisa May Alcott into the present to show her all the advances women have made.  I don’t think any other author ever prompted such a reaction, but I distinctly remember thinking out what I would say to Louisa May Alcott if I could pull this off and meet her.  So imagine my delight, more than thirty years later, to learn that Kit Bakke in some sense managed to do what I daydreamed about as a child.

I think it was Louisa’s zeal for “reforms of all kinds” that prompts this sort of reaction from her readers.  We want her to know about the progress that was made, and about the good that came from her own efforts.  Kit Bakke did some work at reforms of her own in the sixties, so she tied those stories in with her thoughts about Louisa’s life.

This book is a fascinating blend of musings on life in modern America combined with historical information about Louisa May Alcott and her times, as well as the personal touch from imagining Louisa’s reactions.

This book will be most enjoyed by people who have read and loved Louisa May Alcott’s books, but there are millions such people out there.  For myself, I want to find a copy of some of her less-known books for adults mentioned, such as Work.  I will be able to read it with new appreciation into the background and what it meant in Louisa’s life and times.  Reading Miss Alcott’s E-mail reminded me of an author I loved in my childhood, and told me more about her work for adults, which I have yet to discover.

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Review of The Trouble Begins at 8, by Sid Fleischman


The Trouble Begins at 8

A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West

by Sid Fleischman

Greenwillow Books, 2008.  224 pages.

Sid Fleischman here pulls off an entertaining, interesting biography, in the spirit of Mark Twain himself.

He begins:

“Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.

“The even took place, as far as is known, in a San Francisco hotel room sometime in the fall of 1865.  The only person attending was a young newspaperman and frontier jester named Samuel Langhorne Clemens.”

It turns out that Mark Twain told different versions of his life story at different times.  I like the way Sid Fleischman sorts through these to the likely truth, but makes it clear that this may be embellished.

The book is peppered with photographs and illustrations from the time period, making it even more interesting.  Mark Twain lived an exciting and colorful life, and this biography is anything but dull reading.

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Review of How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz


How I Learned Geography

by Uri Shulevitz

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2008.  32 pages.

Starred review.

2009 Caldecott Honor Book.

When Uri Shulevitz was a boy, he and his family were refugees from Poland.  This vibrant picture book tells a simple story.  One night, when they were hungry but had little money, Uri’s father went to the market.  Instead of buying bread, he came home with a large map of the world that brightened up one wall of their little room.

Although Uri was angry, and hungry, at first, eventually he pored over the map and was caught under its spell.

“I found strange-sounding names on the map and savored their exotic sounds, making a little rhyme out of them:

“Fukuoka Takaoka Omsk,

Fukuyama Nagayama Tomsk,

Okazaki Miyazaki Pinsk,

Pennsylvania Transylvania Minsk!

“I repeated this rhyme like a magic incantation and was transported far away without ever leaving our room.”

This lovely book presents a simple idea in a beautiful way.

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Review of The Secret of Priest’s Grotto, by Peter Lane Taylor


The Secret of Priest’s Grotto:  A Holocaust Survival Story, by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola

Kar-Ben Publishing, Minneapolis, 2007.  64 pages.

The official world record for the length of time spent underground is held by Michel Siffre, at 205 days.  But during the Holocaust a community of thirty-eight Jews spent 344 days hiding in huge network of caves.

The Secret of Priest’s Grotto tells about cavers Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola learning about the story, meeting survivors, and going back to the cave and discovering proof of their tale.

The families that went into the caves included young children as well as grandparents.  Some of the men went out to gather supplies, and they lived in fear of discovery.  Those in the caves determined to survive and to live for their families.

This book includes pictures of the caves now as well as the families in happier times before the war.  An amazing story unfolds of what people will do for their families.

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Review of We Are the Ship, by Kadir Nelson


We Are the Ship:  The Story of Negro League Baseball, words and paintings by Kadir Nelson

Starred Review.

Jump at the Sun (Hyperion), New York, 2008.  88 pages.

I’m not even a baseball fan, yet I found this a truly wonderful book.

Kadir Nelson’s paintings have the realism of old photos, yet have the glow of color that make them look a thousand times more alive.

I knew nothing about the story of the Negro Leagues before I read this book, and I was captivated by the tale of the obstacles these men overcame in order to play baseball, and their accomplishments of playing it well.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the players as a group.  You feel like you’re sitting down with a group of brilliant ballplayers, reminiscing about their experiences with the game in the good ol’ days — and the difficult times.

I heard about this book and wanted to simply look it over.  But a simple look through definitely was not enough!  I will be surprised if I don’t see this book on the lists at least for honors for the Caldecott, the Coretta Scott King, and the Sibert Medals.  Truly a magnificent book!

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Review of Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni


by Nikki Giovanni
illustrated by Bryan Collier

Reviewed July 9, 2007.
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2005. 32 pages.

I read this book as an assignment for my graduate library science class, Resources for Children. We were looking at Caldecott and Coretta Scott King winners. Rosa was the winner of the 2006 Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. The book was also a Caldecott Honor book.

Reading this book and looking at the pictures, it was easy to see why it won the award. We see Rosa Parks, an ordinary person going about her day. At home, she was caring for her mother, getting over the flu. At work, she was the most skilled seamstress in the shop.

We see the whole process as Rosa looks for a seat on the bus and only finds one in the neutral section, where both blacks and whites can sit. When the bus driver asks her to give up her seat, we see a tired woman who’s had a long enough day and simply decides she’s not going to do it.

The pictures portray Rosa’s quiet strength, as well as the glares of people on the bus. The story explains how she decided to keep sitting, even though it meant arrest—and how the news of that arrest spread and began a bus boycott that changed an evil law.

The book includes a striking fold-out section as the protesters finally, without violence, achieved their goal. The pictures give you a sense of having been there, among ordinary people, trying to put an end to injustice.

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