Review of Truce, by Jim Murphy


by Jim Murphy

Scholastic Press, New York, 2009. 116 pages.
Starred Review

Jim Murphy’s book is an excellent introduction to World War I. With photographs and maps, and quotations from firsthand sources he explains the basics of why the war began and all the countries involved. Then he talks about the trenches:

“In the autumn days ahead, there would be more charges and countercharges. Heightening the misery was a series of torrential rainstorms, some lasting several days. By October, the armies had come to a grinding halt on every front. ‘The energies of [all warring] armies flagged,’ wrote historian John W. Wheeler-Bennett, ‘worn out by defeats, fighting, and the vileness of the [now] swampy country.’

“Fierce fighting continued, but no army seemed capable of driving back the enemy. Instead, soldiers struggled from village to village, then farm to farm, until the lines of battle seemed to hardly move at all. The closeness of the enemy and rising casualty rates forced the commanders of both sides to make a momentous decision. Soldiers would begin digging trenches to hide from the killing fire.”

Jim Murphy describes trench warfare and the awful conditions. Then he turns his attention to an aspect of World War One that I knew nothing about: when the soldiers in the trenches, on both sides, refused to fight for Christmas.

He quotes from people who were there, such as British soldier Graham Williams:

“Williams and the men in his company watched as more trees appeared along the enemy’s battle line. Then, suddenly, ‘our opponents began to sing “Stille Nact, Heilige Nact.”… They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in the same way, so we sang “The First Nowell,” and when we finished that they all began clapping. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words “Adeste Fideles.” And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing — two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.'”

The story that emerges is actually an inspiring one, even though it’s coming out of war. And the story is true, as you can tell by Jim Murphy’s meticulous research. Unfortunately, the commanders and others in charge of the war were not at all happy about the Christmas truce. But the story does make you think.

I like the reflections of Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood on the last page of this story:

“Wood was in the trenches in 1914 and participated in a truce that lasted over two weeks. ‘I . . . came to the conclusion that I have held firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would have never been another shot fired. For a fortnight that truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot one another again.”

This focus on the Christmas Truce shines a fascinating light on this well-documented history of World War I for upper elementary and middle school kids. What a great context for examining the reasons wars are fought.

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Source: This review is based on a book I got at the Margaret Edwards Award Luncheon at ALA Annual Conference.

Review of Smile, by Raina Telgemeier


by Raina Telgemeier

Graphix (Scholastic), New York, 2010. 214 pages.

Smile is a graphic memoir — graphic meaning the comic-book format, with no reflection at all on the content.

In this book, the author tells the true story of the awful saga with her teeth when she was in middle school. Just when she was ready to get braces, she had an accident and knocked out one front tooth and jammed the other into her jaw. The dentists and orthodontists made heroic attempts to fix and straighten those teeth, and this book tells vividly, with a nice sense of humor, the long involved process.

Of course, just telling about teeth wouldn’t be interesting. But Raina Telgemeier puts in the story of finding her place in middle school and finding out who her true friends were. In middle school, no kid wants to stand out, but Raina’s smile alone made her look different.

This book will draw kids to pick it up and read it to the end. The vivid pictures draw you in, and you’ll find a certain fascination with all she had to go through. Ultimately, she learns to face life with a smile!

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Review of Almost Astronauts, by Tanya Lee Stone

Almost Astronauts

13 Women Who Dared to Dream

by Tanya Lee Stone

Candlewick Press, 2009. 134 pages.
2010 Siebert Medal Winner
2010 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor Book
2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book
NCTE Orbis Pictis Award
Bank Street Flora Stieglitz Straus Award

Almost Astronauts tells the story of the “Mercury 13,” thirteen women who hoped to become astronauts back in 1961. Despite performing with outstanding test results, the women were not allowed to become astronauts because they were not jet test pilots — and they were not jet test pilots because women were not allowed to be jet test pilots.

Author Tanya Lee Stone lays out the story of these women in an organized but dramatic way, with plenty of photographs illustrating the steps of the process. She also includes newspaper and magazine articles, editorial cartoons, and even a letter to Lyndon B. Johnson about the program with “Let’s stop this now!” scrawled across the bottom.

The story is intriguing, and certainly not one I’d ever heard before. These women underwent rigorous testing and had outstanding results. They hoped to become astronauts, but lost out to the “social order” of the time.

However, I do love it that Tanya Stone ends the book with stories of women who did become astronauts. The Mercury 13 laid the foundation, and today girls can freely dream of some day traveling to outer space as the commander of a mission. Here’s how the author introduces that chapter:

“Some may read the story of these thirteen women and think that their adventure did not have a happy ending. But that depends on where you draw the finish line. The women were stopped in 1962. But they confronted NASA, exposed the trap of the jet-pilot rule, and destroyed the idea that women could not handle stress as well as men. And then Sally Ride did fly, and Eileen Collins did command the shuttle. Today, women are flying into space. But women who want their wings still continue to battle prejudice. So women continue to find inspiration in the story of these thirteen pioneers. Here are some examples of challenges women still face and of the new beginnings that are taking place.”

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Review of My People, by Langston Hughes, photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr.

My People

by Langston Hughes
Photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr.

Ginee Seo Books (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), New York, 2009. 36 pages.
2010 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
Starred Review

My People is a beautiful, glorious, gorgeous book. I can’t adequately speak in its praise. It’s also, I believe, the first time a photographer has won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award — but the award is completely deserved, as the images used are stunning and so wonderfully accompany the poem.

The text is the Langston Hughes poem, “My People,” which talks about how beautiful his people are. “The night is beautiful, so the faces of my people…”

Charles R. Smith Jr. uses incredible close-up pictures of African-Americans to illustrate each phrase. The faces are truly beautiful, radiant and glowing. I think my favorite pictures are the ones that illustrate the phrase “are the souls,” with children dancing, completely unself-conscious. But all the people featured — elders, adults, children and babies — are photographed in a way that makes us see the wonder of their joy and humanity. Truly beautiful.

You simply have to see this book to understand how wonderful it is.

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Review of Just the Right Size, by Nicola Davies

Just the Right Size

Why Big Animals Are Big and Little Animals Are Little

by Nicola Davies
Illustrated by Neal Layton

Candlewick Press, 2009. 61 pages.
Starred Review

I think this book is so cool! It explains the math and geometry behind the sizes of living creatures in a way that is clear, easy to understand, and completely memorable.

Here’s the text on the opening page of the book:

“In comics and movies, superheroes zoom across the sky, run up wall, lift things as big as buses, and use their powers to fight giant monsters!

“It’s all very exciting, but it’s a complete load of nonsense. Real humans can’t fly, hang from the ceiling, or even lift things much bigger than themselves . . . and real giant animals couldn’t exist, since they wouldn’t be able to walk or breathe.

“In fact, there are very strict rules that control what bodies can and can’t do. These rules keep creatures from getting too big, and because of them the real superheroes are usually small — a lot smaller than humans.”

The basic rules she talks about come from the math of three-dimensional objects. If you double an object’s length, its cross-section will have an area four times bigger (since it’s squared), and its volume will be eight times bigger (since it’s cubed). The authors show this beautifully with plenty of illustrations.

Now I knew about this math, but I hadn’t thought about the repercussions in regard to living creatures.

They start by looking at flight. It’s easy for a fly to take off. But if you were to double the dimensions of a fly, suddenly its wings would be four times bigger. That’s a problem, because its volume is 8 times more, so it weighs eight times more than before, so the wings aren’t going to be big enough to get it airborne.

“This is why heavier insects, like dragonflies, need very big wings to get them off the ground, and birds need huge chest muscles and large, feather-covered wings.

“But wings and muscles can’t keep up with heavier and heavier bodies. That’s why really big birds like ostriches and emus can’t fly and walk instead, and why the only way humans can fly is with the help of engines.”

Next they look at insects that can walk on water and animals that can walk on the ceiling. This has to do with surface area related to volume. Again, if the surface area gets bigger, the volume gets bigger much faster.

This is also why we can’t lift buses. Our muscle strength depends on the cross-section size of our muscles, but weight depends on volume. A rhinoceros beetle can carry 850 times its own weight on its back, but humans sure can’t do that.

I love the author’s little story that illustrates why we can’t have mega-giants and giant spiders:

“Once upon a time there was a giant who was just like a normal human, only ten times bigger all over: ten times taller, wider, and deeper, making him one thousand times heavier. The giant took his first giant step, and with a giant crashing sound, both his legs snapped. The end. (And exactly the same thing happened to the giant’s best friend, the monster spider!)”

The illustrations accompanying this story are especially fun!

And so it goes. The book goes on to look at how you need room for enough internal organs to take care of the business of life, especially surface area in the lungs.

And there are more implications of size: Being able to stay warm, being able to digest things, being able to hide from predators, and so many more things.

The only down side to reading this? This book may dampen my ability to write fantasy stories about flying unicorns or dragons. But those are fantasy anyway, right?

With its clear explanations and fun cartoon illustrations, this book will make you look at the world with new eyes. A wonderful book for budding scientists, but also for anyone interested in the world around them — like me!

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Review of The Frog Scientist, by Pamela S. Turner

The Frog Scientist

by Pamela S. Turner
Photographs by Andy Comins

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Boston, 2009. 58 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a wonderful book that presents a real-life science experiment and a successful scientist to upper elementary through middle school kids. The stunning, colorful photographs, including many different species of frogs, all nicely labelled, would draw anyone into this book.

The book begins with Tyrone Hayes, the frog scientist, and a group of his graduate students, catching frogs from a pond in Wyoming. The pictures of this show a playful side of science!

As the book goes on, it explains in detail the scientific method and the specific experiment Tyrone is carrying out in order to see if the pesticide atrazine causes male frogs to produce eggs instead of sperm. Along the way, it tells about Tyrone and how he became a research scientist.

I love that Tyrone and his students come from many different ethnic backgrounds. It’s not commented on in the text, but you can see from the pictures that science is definitely not just for white males. I love that this is just assumed and not commented on. I love that kids from minority groups can see someone who looks like them successfully doing science.

But that’s by no means all there is to love about this book. As I said, the pictures will draw the reader in, and this is a nice accessible way to introduce the scientific method in an interesting, real-life experiment that could have repercussions regarding our own health.

The story is beautifully and clearly presented, and will give kids a good look at the job of a research scientist — one they might not have ever thought of before.

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Review of If America Were a Village, by David J. Smith

If America Were a Village

A Book about the People of the United States

written by David J. Smith

illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong

Kids Can Press, 2009. 32 pages.
Starred Review.

I think this is a very cool book. It makes statistics accessible and understandable to children — and to adults.

The premise of the book is this: America now has more than 306 million people, and numbers that big are hard to understand. So we are going to imagine that all the people who live here are reduced down to a village of 100 people. The author proceeds to describe that village, and also what the village would have been like in earlier times of American history. Each person in the village represents more than 3 million Americans in the real world.

The author is presenting percentages, but by talking about actual people in a village, it’s far simpler to visualize and comprehend.

The author discusses many different aspects of the village. What languages do we speak? Where do we come from? Where do we live? What are our families like? (Did you know there are almost twice as many households in our village without children as with?) What religions do we practice? What do we do? How old are we? How wealthy are we? What do we own? What do we use? How healthy are we?

For example:
“If the America of today were a village of 100: 15 would be of German ancestry, 11 would be of Irish ancestry, 9 African, 9 English, 7 Mexican, 6 Italian, 3 Polish, 3 French, 3 Native American, 2 Scottish, 2 Dutch, 2 Norwegian, 1 Scotch-Irish and 1 Swedish. The rest have other backgrounds.”

I don’t know about you, but I would never have guessed that breakdown, and there were many other surprising facts in this book.

In many of the sections, the author compares the American village to the rest of the world, or to America’s past.

It’s funny how talking about America as a village makes a huge list of facts suddenly much more interesting, because now they are in a form you can visualize.

The authors have another book, which I also recommend, called If the World Were a Village. There are nice resources at the end, and ideas for using the book in the classroom.

I like the author’s ending statement in the notes at the back:
“It is my hope that this book will enrich and improve that sense of community — not just who we are, where we live and what we do and believe, but also where others live and what they do and what they believe — and that kids will then be inspired to find ways to make their country and their world a better place.”

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Review of Never Smile at a Monkey, by Steve Jenkins

Never Smile at a Monkey

And 17 Other Important Things to Remember

by Steve Jenkins

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2009. 32 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #4 Children’s Nonfiction

I’m a huge fan of Steve Jenkins’ art work. He uses cut paper, and is able to make animals that to me look completely realistic. His textures mimic fur or scales or feathers so thoroughly you want to touch the soft-looking ones.

But you probably shouldn’t touch any of the animals in this book. Never Smile at a Monkey is essentially a list of 18 ways certain animals can kill you or severely hurt you.

For example, the author advises you never to harrass a hippo, jostle a jellyfish, or step on a stingray. All of those creatures are capable of killing human beings. Some of the animals in this book are dangerous in surprising ways.

This is definitely not a book for very young children who might be frightened. But certain school-age children will find these facts gruesomely interesting. And, as I said, the pictures are amazing.

And, by the way, why shouldn’t you smile at a monkey?

“If you smile at a rhesus monkey, it may interpret your show of teeth as an aggressive gesture and respond violently. Even a small monkey can give you a serious bite with its long, sharp fangs.”

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Review of 14 Cows for America, by Carmen Agra Deedy

14 Cows for America

by Carmen Agra Deedy
in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah
illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez

Peachtree, Atlanta, 2009. 40 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Children’s Nonfiction

14 Cows for America is a gorgeous nonfiction picture book, telling a touching and beautiful story. I’ve read many books about September 11, but this one is completely different from any other.

The book takes us to a remote village of the Maasai in Kenya. One of their own, Kimeli (the collaborator on this book), has come home from his doctoral studies in America. The people ask him if he has any stories to tell, and he tells the story of the Twin Towers falling.

After telling the story, “Kimeli waits. He knows his people. They are fierce when provoked, but easily moved to kindness when they hear of suffering or injustice.”

To the Maasai, the cow is life. So Kimeli offers the people of America his only cow. Others in the tribe respond the same way. A diplomat from the United States Embassy in Nairobi comes for a day of sacred ceremony, as the Maasai give 14 cows to the people of America.

“Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

The story is told beautifully, with simple language. My summary doesn’t convey the charm and grandeur of the book, with its gorgeous paintings. This story can be read to very young children, but also enjoyed by adults. A double-page spread at the back has Kimeli Naiyomah explaining the background of this true story in more detail. I especially like his final paragraph:

“These sacred, healing cows can never be slaughtered. They remain in our care in Kenya under the guidance of the revered elder Mzee Ole-Yiampoi. The original fourteen have calved and the herd now numbers over thirty-five. They continue to be a symbol of hope from the Maasai to their brothers and sisters in America. The Maasai wish is that every time Americans hear this simple story of fourteen cows, they will find a measure of comfort and peace.”

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Review of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Claudette Colvin

Twice Toward Justice

by Philip Hoose

Melanie Kroupa Books (Farrar Straus Giroux), New York, 2009. 133 pages.
2009 National Book Award Winner
2010 Newbery Honor Book
2010 Sibert Honor Book
2010 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor Book
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Children’s Nonfiction

I always thought that Rosa Parks was the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. However, nine months earlier, a high school junior named Claudette Colvin “had been arrested, dragged backwards off the bus by police, handcuffed, and jailed for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger.”

Philip Hoose did extensive research, and had many interviews with Claudette Colvin herself. Here she describes what it was like:

“One of them said to the driver in a very angry tone, ‘Who is it?’ The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, ‘That’s nothing new . . . I’ve had trouble with that “thing” before.’ He called me a ‘thing.’ They came to me and stood over me and one said, ‘Aren’t you going to get up?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ He shouted ‘Get up’ again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, ‘It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!’ I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.

“One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went limp as a baby — I was too smart to fight back. They started dragging me backwards off the bus. One of them kicked me. I might have scratched one of them because I had long nails, but I sure didn’t fight back. I kept screaming over and over, ‘It’s my constitutional right!’ I wasn’t shouting anything profance — I never swore, not then, not ever. I was shouting out my rights.

“It just killed me to leave the bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door. They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute, and then one came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the backseat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands over my lap and started praying.”

After the incident, reactions were mixed:
“Opinion at Booker T. Washington was sharply divided between those who admired Claudette’s courage and those who thought she got what she deserved for making things harder for everyone. Some said it was about time someone stood up. Others told her that if she didn’t like the way things were in the South, she should go up North. Still others couldn’t make up their minds: no one they knew had ever done anything like this before.

“‘A few of the teachers like Miss Nesbitt embraced me,’ Claudette recalls. ‘They kept saying, “You were so brave.” But other teachers seemed uncomfortable. Some parents seemed uncomfortable, too. I think they knew they should have done what I did long before. They were embarrassed that it took a teenager to do it.'”

After Claudette was convicted of violating the segregation law, disturbing the peace, and ‘assaulting’ the policemen, things got even worse. She says,

“Now I was a criminal. Now I would have a police record whenever I went to get a job, or when I tried to go to college. Yes, I was free on probation, but I would have to watch my step everywhere I went for at least a year. Anyone who didn’t like me could get me in trouble. On top of that I hadn’t done anything wrong. Not everyone knew the bus rule that said they couldn’t make you get up and stand if there was no seat available for you to go to — but I did. When the driver told me to go back, there was no other seat. I hadn’t broken the law. And assaulting a police officer? I probably wouldn’t have lived for very long if I had assaulted those officers.

“When I got back to school, more and more students seemed to turn against me. Everywhere I went people pointed at me and whispered. Some kids would snicker when they saw me coming down the hall. ‘It’s my constitutional right! It’s my constitutional right!’ I had taken a stand for my people. I had stood up for our rights. I hadn’t expected to become a hero, but I sure didn’t expect this.

“I cried a lot, and people saw me cry. They kept saying I was ’emotional.’ Well, who wouldn’t be emotional after something like that? Tell me, who wouldn’t cry?”

Not long after, Claudette met an older man who seemed to be a friend, but took advantage of her vulnerability. She got pregnant out of wedlock. So she wasn’t seen as a suitable role model for the movement to stop segregation. Seven months later, another teenager, Mary Louise Smith was also arrested for refusing to give up her seat, but she, too, was not seen as someone who could serve as the public face of a mass bus protest.

Eventually, they did find a suitable person in Rosa Parks. The bus boycott started. The boycott did not end until the case Browder vs. Gale, where four black women sued the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama, saying that bus segregation was unconstitutional. One of those plaintiffs in the suit was Claudette Colvin, and her testimony was key in getting a positive verdict. Not until the verdict was upheld in the Supreme Court did the segregation on the buses end.

This book was especially good to read after reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, since it also dealt with race relations in the South at that time. Philip Hoose researched the events so well, and presents clearly all the drama of the situation, along with the emotions of the people involved. How wonderful that people can finally hear the story of a teenage girl who stood up — no, sat down — for what’s right.

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