Category Archives: Reviewing

Albert Marrin’s A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery

I confess, until recently what I knew about John Brown was pretty much limited to a vague awareness of his foolhardy attack on Harper’s Ferry. Then, last summer, I read this review of James McBride’s historical novel about Brown, Good Lord Bird,  listened to it, thought it terrific, and  was very pleased when it won the National Book Award. And so, having Brown much more on my radar, when I first saw Albert Marrin’s nonfiction book A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery I was eager to read it. Having now done so I can say without reservations that it is excellent.

The excellently-titled A Volcano Beneath Snow is a book that is much more than a biography or history of one man. Rather, it is a book about slavery (both in history and in the United States), about politics, about war, about Lincoln, about religion, about history, about belief, and about terrorism. By placing Brown deeply within the context of his time, Marrin gives a unique and fascinating perspective on familiar and less familiar aspects of actions, people, and the ideas that led up to the Civil War. His portraits of Brown, Lincoln, and many other players are highly complicated, fascinating,  and thought-provoking. While the concepts in play are not always simple, Marrin writes about them clearly and elegantly, trusting in the intelligence of his young readers. This is a book that makes you think. Hard.

Highly recommended.

 

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Deborah Wiles’ Revolution

Deborah Wiles’ Sixties Trilogy is set in the time of hers (and my) youth.  The first book, Countdown, is a vivid, compelling, and moving view of the Cuban Missile Crisis seen through the eyes of  eleven-year-old Franny and was, I thought, splendid causing me to wait on tenterhooks for the next one.  When I saw that the second book was coming out this year I was both elated and nervous. Could Wiles pull it off again?

Here’s my tweet after reading it:

 Mar 31 I spent most of the weekend reading ‘s Revolution and it is fabulous.

So, yes, Wiles pulled it off again. In spades.

Revolution is set during the civil rights movement’s Freedom Summer of 1964. Two smart young people are at the center of the novel, observing and wondering and questioning the vicious racism and segregation that has ruled their Mississippi community for so long. We meet our protagonist, white twelve-year-old Sunny as she and her slightly older step-brother take an illicit nighttime dip in the municipal pool. Relishing the cool water and thrill of doing something slightly dangerous, Sunny is mulling over the pleasures of the forthcoming lazy summer when she has an encounter that jerks her out of reverie and onto a path of profound knowledge and change. It is a path that Raymond also travels, a boy all too aware of what it means to be young and black in 1964 Greenwood, and who wants to do something about it.

Greenwood has been filled with “invaders” as Sunny calls them, young civil rights activists who have come to do voter registration, set up Freedom Schools, and otherwise support local blacks in gaining their rights. Wiles does a superb job weaving in the many threads of life for white and black Greenwood citizens at this time, powerfully and, sometimes brutally, evoking real life events. She also brings in wider pieces of the time, the Vietnam War, the Beatles, and Willie Mays among others.

Sunny and Raymond are beautifully drawn — highly believable young people of their time and place. There isn’t a false note.Those around them are nuanced too, from the young northern civil rights workers to those in both of the young people’s families who are responding in different believable ways to the changing events. And Wiles excelles at sensory detail, giving readers the sounds of the young people’s different neighborhoods, the feeling of summer heat, those fans and the occasional air conditioner, the shiny floors of the courthouse, and much more. Using present tense, she creates scenes of drama and action and others that are quiet and pensive, all moving and unforgettable.

Then there is the nonfiction material that, as in Countdown, is interspersed throughout. Photos, quotes, excerpts from documents and news articles, song lyrics, and more are evocatively presented, deepening and making even more real  what is going on around Sunny and Raymond.  The back matter offers more along with a solid bibliography. But for those who want to actually hear and see more I encourage them to explore Wiles’ Pinterest page.

Revolution is one spectacular novel. I highly, highly recommend it.

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Margi Preus’s West of the Moon

Mixing fairy and folktale with harsh historical reality, Preus has created a gorgeous story of migration set in 19th century Norway. So many stories of immigrants to America focus on their lives when they arrive. Here is one about the old country inspired by something Preus read in a diary her great-great-grandmother wrote as she traveled to America.  Thirteen year-old narrator Asti is a complicated girl: brave, smart, difficult, angry, foolhardy, imaginative, and in the end, endearing. I dare you to read her story and not care deeply about her when you are done. Asti and her younger sister Greta have been stuck working for their aunt and uncle on their hardscrabble farm after their father has gone off to America, promising to send for them when he has the money. The girls’ lives are harsh and miserable; the lack of letters from their father makes it challenging to hold onto hope. But they do, Asti fiercely. But then, although it would seem to be impossible,  things get worse. Asti is sold to a truly horrific goat man and this remarkable tale takes off from there. Swirling in and out of Asti’s narrative of her harsh life with the goat man, her escape, and her efforts to get to America with her Greta are the stories she tells, ones of folk, of enchantment, and of magic. Beautifully considered and written, I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Thoughts on Newbery: Patrick Ness’s CBAITS

Some of you may bristle (or already have) about this topic, but I think it is one to take very, very seriously. It is Patrick Ness‘s provocative point in his SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Book decision this week about what he has termed CBAITs:

Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people.  People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes.

I think Patrick has a point, an important and enormously complicated one. First of all, what Patrick may consider a CBAIT may not be what someone else does. That is, our criteria may be different, our idea of what is good, our taste, and so forth. Which is why, presumably, some end up winning prizes. That is, enough people on a particular award jury may have the same sense of what is good even if it isn’t what others think. And so they are going to give an award to a book they sincerely think is good not crappy.

And that gets to the heart of Patrick’s issue: what do people consider to be a good book? Many indeed think a book is good if it takes on an Important Thing and will dismiss questions about the quality of sentence level writing that would be something I’d be paying attention to . While Patrick and I probably would agree that something with painfully poor sentence level writing is crappy there are some who might feel differently. Not to mention what I might consider overwrought writing might be something someone else would think is wonderful, and vice versa.

That said, I do think there is a tendency for those of us who review and/or participate in selecting best books, award books, and such to pay a lot of attention to books that deal with topics that we feel need to be more known. And sometimes we excuse weaknesses in such books because we think they are so important. Because they are so few and because we so badly want young people to take in the topics, to know about these Important Things.

I think this has special resonance when considering the Newbery award. While the criteria are clear that it is for literary merit not popularity or didactic intent, I suspect most  of us can look back at the books that have received the medal and find one we’d call a CBAIT.

Thank you, Patrick, for pointing out that metaphorically children’s book award emperors sometimes have no clothes.

 

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William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey

I have always been fascinated by polar expeditions. I’ve viewed many documentaries, visited museums such as Oslo’s Fram Museum and Tromso’s Polar Museum, and read a lot. One story that has long enthralled me is that of Earnest Shackleton’s extraordinary 1914 expedition and successful attempt to get his whole crew to safety after their ship was consumed by the ice. This story has been told many times and many ways, say by Jennifer Armstrong in  Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World and by the American Museum of Natural History in their exhibit years ago where they created an awesome room with the James Caird (the small boat Shackleton used) itself featuring huge images of waves on every wall and sound effects. Now it is being told anew by William Grill in his gorgeous new book, Shackleton’s Journey.

This is a large, beautifully designed and produced book from Flying Eye Books, a small newish publisher doing absolutely terrific stuff. With a unique illustrative style, Grill balances small images with massive ones to evoke vividly Shackleton’s preparations, the early days of the expedition, the closing in of the ice on the Endurance, and their subsequent efforts to survive, and travel to safety. Grill’s text and images do a fabulous job communicating this incredible story. The large size of the book, the ample use of white to evoke the snow and ice of the region, and some jaw-dropping full-page images make this a book to look at over and over. (Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast featured the book and a whole lot of its art here.)

My one reservation is the lack of documentation.  There are several quotes, a glossary, and much provided to learn about Shackleton, his men, the ship, polar exploration, and so much more, but there are no citations. I would have dearly loved to have seen even a brief list of sources.

That said,  the book is absolutely spectacular to browse through and worthy of owning. Kids and adults are going to pour over it and, hopefully, want to then go learn more.

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Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables

 … this is a romp that balances Ibbotson’s trademark whimsical humor with understated opinions about outsider and animal rights.

Read my whole Horn Book review of this entertaining title here.

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Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots over Puerto Rico

One of my perpetual concerns is how we help children understand the complicated interrelated ways of wildlife and people, especially when it comes to endangered animals. My longtime experience in a school is that too often animals in places where lives are significantly different from those of my students are attended to at the expense of the people.  That is, I fear that they will inadvertently develop a negative view of the people native to an area where animals are in danger rather than develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of the situation. So what a delight to read Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots over Puerto Rico where the intertwined histories of animals and people are thoughtfully, intelligently, and beautifully presented.

To begin with there were the birds — striking green and blue parrots with the distinctive flight call, “Iguaca! Iguaca!”  There were evidently hundreds of thousands of them all over Puerto Rico when people started to arrive around 500 BCE.  Among them were the Taino people who hunted the parrots and kept them as pets. After Christopher Columbus’s “claiming” of the island for Spain in 1493 the island became full of Spanish settlers and a century later enslaved Africans were brought there to work the sugarcane. These new arrivals also brought new life with them: ships’ rats and honeybees  that managed to get to the parrots’ nesting holes and  attack their eggs.  Others needed timber and so the forests where the parrots lived were cut down.  And even as their homes were in peril, so were the birds themselves as people continued to hunt them and keep them as pets.

For the first half of the book, Roth and Trumbore do a splendid job providing young readers with a history of the island, intertwining the birds’ history with its human inhabitants along the way. In the second part they indicate the awareness by Puerto Ricans that the birds are almost gone and then their efforts to bring them back.  The book ends with a very informative afterward with photos as well as a timeline and a list of sources. Their research appears to be impeccable.

Of course, it must be said, that what brings this book to a level I might term “awesome”are Susan L. Roth’s remarkable paper-and-fabric collages. Elegantly designed, the book’s vertical orientation allows for her spectacular double page spreads throughout, increasing the sense of the birds’ habitats and movement as well as the way humans affect them.

I can’t say much more than that this is a fantastic book — I recommend it highly.

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Coming Soon: Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Poking around Netgalley not long ago, I came across Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy and, intrigued by the description, began reading and was quickly hooked. It is a lovely, moody contemporary reworking of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” set in a museum, no less. I find books set in museum to be tricky things — sometimes the setting seems more important than the rest of it. Fortunately, in this case, it totally works. Our heroine, Ophelia, has arrived in the never-identified city with her older sister while their father works on a blockbuster exhibit of swords. They are all mourning the loss of the family’s mother in their own ways: the father throws himself into work,  the older sister becomes eagerly distracted by the exhibit’s fashionable female curator, and Ophelia gloomily wanders the museum, counting the days and hours since her mother’s death. In her wanderings she comes across the Marvelous Boy of the title and so her adventure begins.  Ophelia is a winning heroine as she fights fear to do what needs to be done (just…you know..saving the world and stuff),  the Boy sad and stalwart (his own back story meanders through the larger story taking place in the museum), the writing elegant, and the plot compelling.  There are creepy creatures, ghosts, a deliciously evil villain, magical things, and plenty more to keep middle grade readers engrossed. 

Recently the publisher sent me a print ARC along with a key and a tiny tube of super glue (a particularly clever if — for those who haven’t yet read the book — enigmatic touch), all of which made me smile.

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Uma Krishnaswami’s The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic

Divi is back in this sequel to the delightful middle grade novel,  The Grand Plan to Fix Everything She’s in DC briefly, after a year in India, for the American premier of the latest movie starring the irrepressible diva Dolly Singh, whom we first met in the first book. Of course, as in any Bollywood movie worth its salt, nothing goes as it should. Eager to see her best friend Maddy, Divi finds that someone new has arrived on the scene and wonders if they are still the BFF they were before she went away. Within hours of their arrival Dolly’s passport goes missing, not that she is worried. Nothing seems to faze that bubble-headed star! But Divi, Dolly’s new and adoring husband, and her morose and long-suffering agent are all kept on their toes trying to do what Dolly wants for the premier, say finding the right caterer, sufficient rose petals and an elephant. As in the first book, there are multiple plot threads that all come together in a very happy and celebratory ending complete with cake and dancing.  As charming as the first, I hope there are more to come!

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Sarah Harrison Smith, the New NYTBR Children’s Book Editor

The new children’s book editor at the New York Times Book Review Sarah Harrison Smith’s first reviews were of two picture books from the Canadian publisher, Simply Read Books. The message was quiet, but clear: recognizing the importance of the youngest readers of all, Sarah is continuing the weekly online picture book reviews begun by her predecessor Pamela Paul, and paying close attention to titles from publishers small and large, near and far. Recently I chatted with Sarah about her background, books (of course!), New York City, and some of her ideas for children’s book coverage at the Book Review.

Sarah grew up among book lovers and creators. Her grandfather co-published the Babar books, she knew Rumer Godden’s editor, and illustrator Pamela Bianco was a family friend. After graduate studies in English literature at Columbia and Oxford she spent several years at The New Yorker as one of its famed fact checkers and later joined the Times in a similar role. The result of her expertise was The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right. After some time as managing editor of the New York Times Magazine Sarah moved to the Metropolitan section where she has enjoyed exploring New York in all its variety. Sarah’s love and appreciation of the city comes through loud and clear when you speak with her. During one of our conversations she spoke with such excitement about the Brooklyn Navy Yard — a place she had recently visited for an article — that I wanted to put down the phone and go there immediately.

Books that she remembers with special fondness from her childhood are those that incorporate art, a favorite illustrator being Edward Ardizzone. Christina Brand’s Nurse Matilda books (on which the recent Nanny McPhee movies are based) were cherished; her children have also relished their naughty sensibilities. Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House books had a tremendous impact on her; they provided a great view for her on how a family lived with so little. Having noticed a tweet of hers about one of my childhood favorites, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, I asked Sarah about it and she spoke with enthusiasm for author Betty MacDonald’s ability to write for children while including clever touches for the adults reading the books aloud, say naming characters after the colleges Bryn Mawr and Cornell.

Sarah is excited about the potential for more online multimedia features such as podcasts and videos celebrating the artistic process. She is also eager to make more connections with related Times content, for example centralizing all articles about Roald Dahl’s Matilda from those related to the current Broadway show to others about Dahl and the book’s illustrator Quentin Blake. No doubt because of her love for New York City, Sarah is also interested in organizing information about children’s literature set there so that you could easily find material about such iconic literary spots as the pond in Central Park where Stuart Little sailed his boat.

Something that I found especially exciting was Sarah’s interest in looking into ways for children to contribute their own opinions about books on the Book Review site.  Certainly, I know my students would love such an opportunity. Both of us admire the Guardian’s children’s book site where young readers are already writing reviews. I also encouraged Sarah to check out the Carnegie Greenaway Shadowing site, an ambitious program where groups of children read and consider the shortlists for those two prestigious awards (comparable to the US Newbery and Caldecott Awards).

Upon the announcement of her new position, Sarah tweeted “I’m VERY excited to be joining the Times Book Review as children’s book editor! #dreamcometrue”  I think so too and wish her well as she goes forward in this new role.

Also at Huffington Post.

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