Review of A Walk in London, by Salvatore Rubbino

A Walk in London

by Salvatore Rubbino

Candlewick Press, 2011. 32 pages.

I wish this book had been written when we still lived in Europe! It would have been absolutely perfect to read to our boys (Let’s see, they were 5 and 11 years old) for our first family trip to London.

As a matter of fact, I would have liked to read it myself before my own trips to London. It gives a nice overview, with plenty of details, and I learned much about the city I didn’t know, even having been there.

The story is a little girl and her mother sight-seeing in London. They mostly talk about what they’re doing and what they’re seeing, like the girl running to climb on the lions in Trafalgar Square.

The largest text follows the girl and her mother, and smaller print tells about details in the background. There are lots of things to look at on every page, and the back cover asks if you spotted the Royal Family’s car, and gives the page numbers.

The pictures remind me a little bit of the illustrations of Paris in Madeleine, although these are more precise and more colorful. They definitely evoke London, without being photorealistic. You can tell what you’re seeing. There’s an interesting sense of depth, as it looks like he cut out sketches of people and things and placed them on top of one another, also using size to show distance.

If I ever get a chance to go to London again (and I definitely hope to do so), I will read this book before going. Eyewitness guides are fantastic, but this book a lovely way to imagine yourself taking a walk in London, and learning about the city while you’re at it.

This is not a book for group storytimes, but it would be a lovely book to share with one child at a time, taking time to catch all the details and, best of all, prepare them for a trip to London.

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

Review of Just a Second, by Steve Jenkins

Just a Second

A Different Way to Look at Time

by Steve Jenkins

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2011
Starred Review

I think this is the first time I’ve read a book by Steve Jenkins where I pored over the words without noticing the exquisite art the first time through. Make no mistake, his cut-paper art is as detailed and amazing as ever. It’s so realistic, I’m not sure I noticed at first that it was his usual cut-paper art and not drawings.

But the text! This is a practical way to explain time. He mentions where seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years came from (most being a long-time-ago invention of man). Then he tells some things that happen in each amount of time.

Did you know that in one second “A peregrine falcon in a dive, or stoop, plunges more than 300 feet”?

Did you know that in one week “Moose antlers, the fastest-growing tissue of any mammal, can add 6 inches to their length”?

Did you know that in one year “More than 2,000,000 people are killed by mosquito-borne diseases”? “Humans cut down 4,000,000,000 trees”?

The book is full of facts like that: some fascinating, some surprising, some disturbing. Some, like “In one year an estimated 50 people are killed by sharks,” may be included because the accompanying illustrations are so much fun.

This book definitely succeeds as a “Different Way to Look at Time.” Good for children learning about time, as well as for science buffs, as well as for the simply curious.

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

Review of Temple Grandin, by Sy Montgomery

Temple Grandin

How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World

by Sy Montgomery

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Boston, 2012.
Starred Review

Years ago, I read Temple Grandin’s book for adults, Animals in Translation, and named it a 2005 Sonderbooks Stand-out. In that book, she described how being autistic has given her extra insight into how animals think, and touched off her amazing career.

This book, written for children, tells more about that amazing career. She talks about what it was like growing up autistic, and how different she was from other kids. There are plenty of pictures, including some of her drawings of ways to make slaughterhouse systems more humane.

The overall message of Temple’s life is that the things that made her different from other people were the things that made her work so notable and so needed. This book is phrased to fascinate people interested in Temple Grandin’s life and achievements, but also to inspire kids who feel like no one understands them. Maybe their differences are the keys to their strengths.

In an early chapter, we read:

Along with these problems, people with autism often have amazing talents. It’s as if the brain makes up for deficits in one area with special gifts in others. “Autistic people have a really stellar ability to use the visual parts of the right side of the brain to compensate for problems with language processing,” Dr. Minshew says. Most children take a long time to find Waldo hidden in a detailed cartoon — but autistic children usually spot him right away. In situations like this, says Dr. Minshew, autism “may be a decided advantage!” And, these kids may be able to make friends with others who share their interests, such as art, music, computer programming, or writing.

“If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic,” Temple says today, “I wouldn’t do it. It’s part of who I am.” One man who first heard Temple speak when he was a young soldier stationed in Denver, phoned a call-in radio show years later to talk to her. “Thank you so much,” he said, “for giving me the inspiration to say that my brain’s not broken. Just different.”

A fascinating book about a remarkable woman.

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Source: This review is based on an Advance Review Copy I got at an ALA Conference and checked against a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Charles and Emma, by Deborah Heiligman

Charles and Emma

The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009. 268 pages.
Starred Review
2010 Winner YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award
2009 National Book Award Finalist
2010 Printz Honor Book

Okay, when this book first came out, I wasn’t too interested. I grew up in a conservative Christian family, and didn’t exactly see Charles Darwin as a hero. Then the book kept winning awards, and got strong comments from the judges in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books. I thought I really should read it. Then I met Deborah Heiligman at the 2010 ALA Annual Conference. When I found out why she wrote it, I knew I had to read it. I purchased a book and got her signature. However, it still took me until this year, when I was taking a class on the Printz Award, to finally get it read.

Deborah explains in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book how her husband got her interested in the story that would become this book:

“Jon’s been writing about science and evolution since we met. I had just graduated from college with a major in religious studies. We started talking immediately — about science and religion and writing and pretty much everything else — and we haven’t stopped since.

“One day, about seven years ago, Jon said to me, ‘You know, Charles Darwin’s wife was religious.’ I looked at him. He continued, ‘And they loved each other very much. She was afraid he would go to hell and they wouldn’t be together for eternity.'”

Evolution is supposed to be opposed to Christianity, right? So how is it possible that Charles Darwin’s wife was deeply religious — and yet the two were very much in love.

Deborah Heiligman tells the love story of Charles and Emma Darwin beautifully. It’s clearly a work of nonfiction — she relies heavily on letters and journals and notebooks written by the two of them — but it reads like a novel. Of course, in a story book, the marriage probably wouldn’t have worked. I found it especially interesting that Charles’ father advised him not to tell his new wife about his doubts about religion. But Charles couldn’t hide them from her. And she loved him anyway and even edited his books, including The Origin of Species.

This book tells the story of how Charles Darwin’s scientific theories developed, but it especially shows us the man who loved his wife and children very much. And whatever your views, you can’t help but fall for the man presented here, and the wife who provided exactly what he needed to be such a distinguished scientist.

This book is wonderfully presented. I like the quotations at the head of each chapter and the way Deborah Heiligman has arranged the facts in such an interesting manner. This book presents a compelling story that is all the more amazing because it’s true.

“You will be forming theories about me & if I am cross or out of temper you will only consider ‘What does that prove.’ Which will be a very grand & philosophical way of considering it. — Emma to Charles, January 23, 1839”

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Source: This review is based on my own book, purchased at ALA Annual Conference and signed by the author.

Review of Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie, by J. Patrick Lewis

Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie

Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems

by J. Patrick Lewis
illustrated by Michael Slack

Harcourt Children’s Books, 2012. 37 pages.

I feel a tiny bit sheepish by how much fun I find in this book. J. Patrick Lewis, Children’s Poet Laureate, has parodied 14 classic poems that children may well be familiar with and has inserted… a math problem.

These problems are not particularly tricky. Though I suppose that depends on the child’s age. (There is some multiplication and division, so this is more for upper elementary grades.) At times it’s not totally clear exactly what they want you to figure out (though that is given in the upside-down answers on the next page). But the parodies are definitely playful.

Could there possibly be a better way to get a kid to do word problems for fun and without fear?

The poems, after the title, list the poem they are inspired by.

Here’s the end of “Edgar Allan Poe’s Apple Pie,” the one inspired by “The Raven”:

I ignored the frightful stranger
Knocking, knocking . . . I, sleepwalking,
Pitter-pattered toward the pantry,
Took a knife from the kitchen drawer,
And screamed aloud, “How many cuts
Give me ten pieces?” through the door,
The stranger bellowed, “Never four!”

Another favorite for me is the one that plays off a poem I love, “Us Two,” by A. A. Milne. Here’s the beginning:

Wherever I am, there’s always Boo.
Boo in the flowers with me.
The size of our garden is eight by two.
“How much wire for the fence,” says Boo,
“If it wraps all around as it ought to do?
Let’s guess together,” says Boo to me.
“Let’s guess together,” says Boo.

With some, like “Robert Frost’s Boxer Shorts,” he goes for silly. “Langston Hughes’s Train Trip” uses some trickier math. “Edward Lear’s Elephant with Hot Dog” is just a limerick.

That should give you an idea of what’s going on here. Some quite silly fun. With math!

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

Review of Heart and Soul, by Kadir Nelson

Heart and Soul

The Story of America and African Americans

by Kadir Nelson

Balzer & Bray, 2011. 108 pages.
2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner
2012 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book
2012 Battle of the Kids’ Books Contender
Starred Review

Kadir Nelson’s paintings, as usual, are stunningly beautiful in this book. His use of light makes the people seem warm and alive.

In this book, he takes the voice of an old woman whose family has been in America from the start. She talks about the slaves who fought in the Revolutionary War. Then she talks about her grandfather, Pap, who was born in Africa, captured in 1850 when he was only six years old, and brought to America. She traces all the changes Pap saw — The Civil War, Reconstruction, moving West, the Great Migration, and through the Depression and the Second World War. She talks about the Civil Rights Movement as she saw it herself, and finishes up with an Epilogue that includes these paragraphs:

“Forty-five years after Dr. King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I marched my old legs to the polls along with millions of other Americans to vote in an historic election. It was the first time that an African American — Barack Obama — had won the Democratic nomination and appeared on the national ballot for president of the United States. As I cast my vote, I thought about my grandfather Pap, who didn’t live to see this moment, and my three children and two brothers, who did; I thought about my mother and father, and my aunts and uncles; I thought about Abe Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman; I thought about presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall, the Freedom Riders, the marchers, and all the people who lived and died so that I might walk into this booth and cast my vote. I thought about them all and smiled; and as I walked away, I closed my eyes and said, ‘Thank you.’

“Our centuries-long struggle for freedom and equal rights had helped make the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a reality for all Americans. We have come a mighty long way, honey, and we still have a good ways to go, but that promise and the right to fight for it is worth every ounce of its weight in gold. It is our nation’s heart and soul.”

The words alone of this book make a grand, sweeping story of African-American contributions to American life, but combined with the paintings, this book has majesty.

Kadir Nelson’s art continues to be breathtaking. He shows you the dignity and beauty of his subjects.

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

Review of Bootleg, by Karen Blumenthal


Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition

by Karen Blumenthal

Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2011. 154 pages.
Starred Review
2012 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist

Before I read this book, I thought I knew about Prohibition. This book opened my eyes to how much I didn’t know. While keeping the story moving, the author shows us all the things that led up to Prohibition, how it worked out and didn’t work out, and what led to its repeal. She also talks about after effects.

I had no idea how, when our country was founded, rum was even used to pay wages. Even the Puritans were fond of it! (Who would have thought?) The Continental Army got a daily ration of hard liquor.

“In the years between 1800 and 1830, Americans drank more hard liquor than at any other time in their history, each imbibing on average roughly nine gallons a year, or about four gallons of pure alcohol, about twice the level of the previous generation. Beer and wine still had a place at the table, but less so than before.

“With more hard drink available, the number of taverns and tippling houses multiplied, as did seedier dramshops and gin houses. Not surprising given the amounts ingested, drunkenness also increased and with it, hardships for families affected by a father’s drinking.”

So in the 1830s, the temperance movement began to grow. She writes about Carrie Nation, who attacked saloons with an ax. There is a picture of a boy carrying a beer pail home and another of several young children sitting on barrels, drinking and smoking. I understand better now why the prohibitionists got so worked up.

Karen Blumenthal also explains the political situation that made those against Prohibition think the amendment would never get ratified — so they didn’t put nearly the energy into the campaign that the Prohibitionists did.

But then, after Prohibition passed, she outlines all the ways people got around the law, even as high up as the White House. She talks about law enforcement efforts and non-efforts, and tells the story of Al Capone.

Particularly interesting is her final chapter, “Success or Failure?” She shows us that this is a complex question.

“The men who helped launch the prohibition era and the one who filled it with machine-gun fire left a complex legacy. On the surface, an amendment that was passed and then repealed must have been a colossal failure, an embarrassing splotch in America’s history.

“But prohibition, short-lived though it was, was actually successful in some significant ways. The number of arrests for drunkenness and alcohol-related diseases, like cirrhosis of the liver, fell dramatically. The total consumption of alcohol slid to the lowest level in the nation’s history, especially during World War I and the first few years under the Eighteenth Amendment. Although drinking crept back up in the later 1920s and early 1930s, the amount of alcohol consumed per person each year actually remained fairly low for decades, and didn’t return to pre-prohibition levels until the 1970s, more than fifty years after prohibition took effect.

“In the course of nearly fourteen years of actual prohibition, aided by technology and other developments, Americans became more educated, more urban, and enjoyed far more entertainment. Radios and radio programs became widely available, and almost half the nation became avid listeners. Movie theater attendance doubled after films began to talk in 1926. With one car for every five people, more families headed for national forests and parks. The number of golf courses increased sevenfold. Saloons, the dirty and dangerous blight on the urban landscape, all but disappeared. Even young people had better things to do than hang out in a bar. . . .

“Where prohibition failed most, perhaps, was on a more personal level. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse remain significant social problems, affecting more than 17 million American adults and their families. Today’s problem of persistent homelessness, often linked to substance abuse and mental illnesses, has the same roots as the problem of drunkenness in the nineteenth century. Parents still worry about protecting their children, especially when government statistics show that an estimated 5,000 young people under the age of twenty-one die each year from alcohol-related car crashes or injuries.”

Her final summing up says it well:

“Today, each of us is accountable for our own behavior, and adult drinking is a matter of choice and personal responsibility. The days of outright prohibition are gone and likely will never return. But the powerful experience of prohibition continues to color our laws, our debates, and our personal lives. And the problems that brought us the Eighteenth Amendment — the pain that substance abuse inflicts on families, the devastation of alcoholism, and the impact of drinking on young people — remain a challenge to current and future generations.”

So in this book you’ve got an even-handed look at Prohibition that also manages to be gripping and fascinating. It’s written for children and young adults, but I think most adults will also find themselves learning a lot from this book.

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Source: This review is based on a book I received at the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Awards Reception and had signed by the author.

Review of Drawing From Memory, by Allen Say

Drawing From Memory

by Allen Say

Scholastic Press, 2011. 64 pages.
Starred Review
2011 Sonderbooks Standout: #4 Children’s Nonfiction

Drawing From Memory is not quite a graphic novel (make that graphic biography). There are some speech bubbles, but the majority of pictures don’t have them. This is a remembrance with lots and lots of pictures. The pictures vary from drawings to photos to comics to realistic paintings.

Allen Say moved into his own apartment (from his grandmother’s house) when he was not-quite thirteen years old. Shortly after moving to the apartment, he read a story about a boy three years older, who was apprenticed to Noro Shinpei, one of the most famous cartoonists in Japan. Allen decided to find him and ask to be an apprentice as well.

The book tells the story of Allen’s years with his Sensei, learning and growing, and eventually getting the chance to go to America. He talks about the process of learning to draw, those who learned with him, and especially the close relationship with his teacher. Best of all is the wide variety of illustrations that accompany the story and make it alive.

This is one of those wonderful books in large format that may get hidden in the Biography section of the library. This isn’t the sort of story you’d want for a report, but it’s very much an inspiring story of someone’s life and about finding and following your calling. This is a delightful book.

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Source: This review is based on an Advance Review Copy I got at 2011 ALA Annual Conference.

2011 Sonderbooks Standouts: Children’s Nonfiction

With Children’s Nonfiction books I read in 2011, I had a clear favorite. It’s not one I’ve heard about on book blogs, but when I did hear about it, I immediately ordered a copy and completely loved it. The book is You Can Count on Monsters, which, like my Prime Factorization Sweater, does great stuff visualizing the prime factorization of numbers up to 100. I confess I also like it because it’s somewhat similar to a book I was writing at the time called Colors and Codes that shows how to use Math to make cyphers using colors and patterns. I’ve since finished the book, but am holding onto it while I figure out how to present it to agents or editors. But I was completely delighted that someone had done such a great job presenting a somewhat similar concept. (Not to mention that I find these concepts endlessly fascinating.)

I grant you, I am a math nut, so I don’t necessarily expect to find this book on the top of too many other children’s book lists. But I sure loved it!

Here are my favorite Children’s Nonfiction books read in 2011:

1. You Can Count on Monsters, by Richard Evan Schwartz
2. Me. . . Jane, by Patrick McDonnell
3. Queen of the Falls, by Chris VanAllsburg
4. Drawing from Memory, by Allen Say
5. Amelia Lost, by Candace Fleming
6. All the Way to America, by Dan Yaccarino
7. Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Happy Reading!

Review of Erika’s Story, by Ruth Vander Zee

Erika’s Story

by Ruth Vander Zee
illustrated by Roberto Innocenti

Creative Editions, Mankato, MN, 2003. 24 pages.

I actually found this book when I was weeding library books that hadn’t been checked out in two years. This one was in good condition, and when I started reading it, I was transfixed. It was too good to weed from the collection, and too powerful not to check out and review.

I should add that nonfiction picture books like this one easily get lost on the shelves. It’s not suitable for a school report, and kids usually don’t go looking in the nonfiction section for powerful stories. So they don’t get read as often as they deserve to be.

The story in this book is simple, and it’s powerfully told. The author met a Jewish lady in Rothenburg, Germany, and relates her story. The lady, Erika, speculates about how it must have been for her parents, herded onto a cattle car headed for the concentration camps. But she doesn’t know anything about them for sure.

“As the train slowed through a village, my mother must have looked up through the opening near the top of the cattle car. With my father, she must have tried spreading the barbed wire that covered the hole. My mother must have lifted me over her head and toward the dim daylight. What happened next is the only thing I know for sure.

“My mother threw me from the train.”

Erika was taken in by a woman who risked her life by caring for Erika and giving her a name and an approximate birthdate. She grew up and married and had children of her own.

The story is told simply and starkly. The pictures are beautiful and realistic. It’s interesting that the artist doesn’t show anybody’s faces except the baby, as if to emphasize all that Erika doesn’t know about her family. The pink baby blanket is also the brightest spot of color in the pictures from the past.

The story is also gently told, with an emphasis on Erika’s survival. You could read this to a child and then talk about it as much or as little as you like, but it’s a relatively gentle introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust.

And it’s definitely powerful for an adult reader, too. What would it take for a mother to throw her baby off a train? The book doesn’t ask any questions like that, which leaves the readers asking themselves.

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