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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Review of I Heard God Talking to Me, by Elizabeth Spires

i_heard_god_talking_to_meI Heard God Talking to Me

William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings

by Elizabeth Spires

Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York, 2009. 56 pages.

Here’s a book that is as distinctive as its subject. It’s a biography of folk sculptor William Edmondson, but the story of his life is told in a series of poems. The poems are based on photographs taken during his life (He died in 1951.) of his sculptures and of himself and of his yard.

The poems are mostly in the voice of the object in the sculpture. Like the sculptures, they are quirky and distinctive and amusing.

A few pages of prose at the end give a summary of William Edmondson’s life and fill in some of the details.

Altogether, the photos and poems in this book add up to a compelling portrait of a man who believed he was doing the work of God.

I’m inclined to agree with him.

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Review of The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau, by Dan Yaccarino

jacques_cousteauThe Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau

by Dan Yaccarino

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009. 36 pages.

What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what’s going on. — Jacques Cousteau

This picture book biography tells the story of Jacques Cousteau’s amazing life with simple details and evocative pictures. Looking at the pictures brought me right back to the days when my family used to watch the TV show, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Every page includes an inspiring or illustrative quotation from Jacques Cousteau.

Jacques Cousteau began his fascination with the sea as a sickly child, encouraged to swim to build up his strength. He was also a scientist, tinkering with cameras from a young age. Those two passions combined encouraged him to expand the technology available for ocean exploration, and to share what he discovered with the world.

It fascinated me to do something that seemed impossible. — Jacques Cousteau

This beautiful biography will fascinate children with the sea and what one man can do to expand knowledge for everyone.

When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself. — Jacques Cousteau

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Review of The Lincolns, by Candace Fleming

lincolnsThe Lincolns

A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary

by Candace Fleming

Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House), New York, 2008. 181 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Children’s Nonfiction

Candace Fleming’s scrapbook biographies are truly amazing. I reviewed her similar book Ben Franklin’s Almanac back in 2004. This newer book, The Lincolns is equally complete and enlightening.

Instead of just telling us about Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Candace Fleming has brought together photographs, letters, news articles, and things written about them by their contemporaries. It does take time and attention to get through this book, but it is never boring, and you will feel like you have special insight into the great man and his volatile but much-loved wife by the time you are done.

Clearly Candace Fleming put in tremendous amounts of time and research to produce this exceptional book. She has produced a wonderful resource, not merely for children doing reports, but for anyone wanting to know more about the Lincolns and the Civil War.

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Review of Wise Guy, by M. D. Usher

wise_guyWise Guy

The Life and Philosophy of Socrates

by M. D. Usher

Pictures by William Bramhall

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2005. 36 pages.

I find it rather amazing that M. D. Usher was able to write an accessible picture book biography of Socrates, based entirely on ancient sources (as the endnote declares).

The book tells an entertaining, vividly illustrated story, with sidenotes on scrolls that simply and clearly explain details of Socrates’ life and philosophy. I especially like the pictures of Socrates dancing. We’re told he loved to party.

Here’s an example of one of the sidenotes:

“What is an idea? Is it a thing you can smell, taste, or touch? If not, is it any less real than a bed or table? What is the difference between the idea of a bed and the bed itself? Socrates argued that the carpenter must have an idea or image of a bed in his mind before he can go about building one. But where does this idea come from in the first place? Socrates seems to have believed that objects in our world have an invisible, eternal blueprint to which they correspond. The eternal blueprint of a bed may not seem so very interesting, but Socrates applied the idea to larger concepts, like right and wrong and good and bad. Just as a carpenter with vast knowledge and experience can make a good bed, and in turn be a good carpenter, a person who has studied the blueprint of right and wrong can be a good person.”

This isn’t a book that students will seek out for reports, but it’s an entertaining picture book biography with surprisingly intriguing ideas. Reading this book gave me the idea of making a display at the library of picture book biographies — as a group they are underappreciated and hidden away in the more “serious” biographies. But they make intriguing reading, are highly educational, and give you an inspirational look at the lives of some truly great people.

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Review of A Is For Art: An Abstract Alphabet, by Stephen T. Johnson


A Is For Art

An Abstract Alphabet

by Stephen T. Johnson

A Paula Wiseman Book (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), New York, 2008.  42 pages.

Starred Review.

Here’s an alphabet book for adults!  Or teens.  Or children.  A Is For Art is amazing and thought-provoking and clever and playful all at once.

The illustrations are photographs of actual abstract art works.  The artist says,

“For the past six years I have been exploring the English dictionary, selectively choosing and organizing particular words from each letter of the alphabet and, based solely on the meanings of the words, developing a visual work of art.  I took ordinary objects and made them unfamiliar, removing functionality in order to reveal their potential metaphorical associations, which can lead in turn to overlapping and sometimes paradoxical meanings.  I call these individual works ‘literal abstractions’ and the ongoing series An Abstract Alphabet….

“And just for fun, I have included the letter shapes of each letter of the alphabet in all the works.  Well, most anyway — you’ll see.

“For me, art, like language, is about discovery.  At its very best it can be moving, transcendent.  Or on a visceral level it can simply make one laugh out loud.  Art provokes, confounds, challenges, surprises, informs, rejuvenates, and stretches our way of seeing the world.  We cannot get enough of it.  So I hope that my work in this book will ignite and inspire dialogues about art, words, and ideas, which might quicken children and adults to generate creative associations and explore new ways of pulling abstractions out of the real.”

This book, left around, will pull people into delighted browsing.

My personal favorite was the sculpture for the letter M.  Here’s the explanation:

Meditation on the Memory of a Princess

“Motionless, a man-made, monochromatic magenta mass mimics multiple mattresses and makes a massive mound near a mini mauve marble.”

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Review of Sandy’s Circus, by Tanya Lee Stone


Sandy’s Circus

A Story About Alexander Calder

by Tanya Lee Stone

illustrated by Boris Kulikov

Viking, 2008.  36 pages.

Here’s another delightful picture book biography.  It gives you a feel for what the artist has done and makes you want to know more.  The story is told on a level that will intrigue both children and adults.  I especially enjoy the playful illustrations.

“There once was an artist named Alexander Calder.  Only he didn’t call himself Alexander.  And he didn’t call the things he made art.”

Tanya Lee Stone and Boris Kulikov beautifully capture the inventive, experimental quality of Sandy Calder’s art.  They show how he playfully created a moving, working circus out of wire.  His art was more than a static display to look at.  It was a show where things happened.

The author tells us that “even the mobiles that hang over baby cribs would not exist without Calder.”  This is the story of a man who brought a sense of play into his life’s work.

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