Friday, October 23, 2015

Spotlight on Nonfiction 2015

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown

Most teenagers won't remember ten years ago when Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans, after they read Don Brown's account in Drowned City, they won't likely forget it.  The account starts with an African breeze that grows to a category three storm over the Atlantic.  By the time Katrina hits just east of New Orleans, it has slipped to a category three storm, but still it breaks levees, floods the city with one million gallons of water per minutes, and leaves 80% of the city under water.

In this graphic novel readers see the dramatic story unfold across the pages.  Illustrations of people standing, slumping, leaning, and trying to escape the water are filled with desperation and humanity.  And it's the impact of the storm on those people that drives the story.  We see 20,000 people packed into the Superdome with no electricity, no sanitation, and insufficient food and water.  We see a man hold a baby above the floodwaters as he tries to escape.  We see a couple race up the stairs of their home just ahead of the water.  They use a knife to scrape a hole in the roof and get out just in time.  We see people stranded on rooftops surrounded by rising floodwaters.  And we see those that don't make it.

Brown brings readers right into the disaster, recounting the many failures: 360 city buses don't show up to evacuate residents; empty trains leave the city; police abandon their post; there is a lack of communication and coordination between government agencies; there is looting and shooting; more than 1400 people die.  He also describes the rescue efforts of individuals and agencies.  Despite stagnant water teeming with garbage, oil, poisonous snakes, and dead bodies, more than 40,000 people are rescued.

This accessible account leads readers into complex ideas and questions.  What could the government have done better?  Where does responsibility to protect people from natural disasters lie?  How far should society go to protect individuals who choose to stay in harm's way?  What role did race and poverty play in the government response to the disaster?

Brown incorporates quotations from survivors and includes meticulous annotations and bibliographic information.

This is a power book.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose

I've always admired the Danish Resistance during World War II, particularly the heroic transport of most of the Danish Jews to Sweden before they could be rounded up by the Nazis.  What I didn't realize until I read this book is that the Resistance had a slow start.  While fearful and overwhelmed adults in Denmark capitulated to German demands, a small group of young boys fought back.  14-year-old Knud Pedersen and his brother Jens, along with a few of their friends, were disgusted with Danish leaders, and admired the way Norway was fighting against the German.  In broad daylight, they fought by twisting traffic signs and spraying walls with blue paint.  Their activities escalated to sabotage, arson, and stealing weapons.  They called themselves the Churchill Club and their actions inspired others to resist and the Danish Resistance grew.

Engrossing from page one, Hoose's account is based on extensive interviews with Knud Pedersen.

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

When George Soper was hired to figure out the source of a typhoid outbreak that infected six members of the Warren household in 1906, his investigation led him to Mary Mallon, a cook who had infected at least 24 people.  Mary turned out to be the first documented healthy typhoid carrier in the United States.

In this highly readable biography, Susan Campbell Bartoletti looks at Mary's plight.  She was not just "a living culture tube" or "a chronic typhoid germ producer" as George Soper called her, but she was also an intelligent, fiery tempered, fiercely private, independent, Irish woman who didn't accept Soper's assertion that she was making people sick.

This book and Gail Jarrow's superb book, Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary, look at the same subject.  While Jarrow follows Soper's investigation of the medical mystery, Bartoletti's focus is on Mary.  Together these books make an excellent choice for student analysis of the different approaches authors take in texts with the same topic.

Spotlight on Fiction 2015

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

If the stories that Micah's grandfather told him are true . . . if there really is a place where an elephant named Big Jean can do long division, where a French vulture can tell the future, and where an illusionist can make you fell the frosty winds of Antarctica while you sitting in your chair . . . if Circus Mirandus is an actual circus . . . then "that [means] magic [is] real" . . .(17)  and maybe, just maybe, magic can save Micah's dying grandfather.  When Micah's grandfather, Ephraim Tuttle, visited Circus Mirandus as a boy, the Man Who Bends Light promised him a miracle.  He's been saving that miracle for a time when he really needs it, and that time is now.  Micah is certain that if he can get into the circus and talk to the Man Who Bends Light, the Lightbender will save his grandfather.

In alternating chapters, a family mystery slowly unfolds just as the tension in Micah's story builds, creating suspense that will keep readers turning pages right up to the end.  This story is just the right blend of the fantastic and the sometimes difficult realities of the real world.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen

The Nest came out just a couple of weeks ago, and it already has racked up five starred reviews.  It is deliciously creepy, not in a blood-and-gore kind of way, but in a get-inside-your-head kind of way.

Steven has been coping with anxiety and bad dreams for a while and now there is more tension at his house because his newborn brother has a rare congenital problem.  Even though his therapist assures him that "what happens in a dream stays inside the dream," Steven's latest dreams with creatures of light that promise to "make things better" seem all too real.  (110, 23)  And in some ways, he wants them to be real.

The first-person telling puts readers right into Steven's thoughts as he struggles to figure out what is a dream and what is reality.  That ambiguity makes this a psychological thriller that you'll read in one sitting.  (I did.)  Oh, and the villain is the most chilling I've met in a long time.  I bet it'll change the way you feel about wasps.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Laura Amy Schlitz describes her new book as a "good old-fashioned story" and that is exactly what it is.

Since her mother's death, 14-year-old Joan does all the woman's work on Steeple Farm, and it's hard work: she takes care of the chickens, cleans out the privy, cooks meals for her father and four brothers, does laundry, and puts food by.  When her father decrees that she can no longer attend school and then burns the few books she owns, Joan decides there is nothing left on Steeple Hill for her, and she goes to Baltimore to become a hired girl.  She has little idea what she is getting into, but she is desperate enough to take a chance on a better life.

In Baltimore she  begins a very different life working for a Jewish family.  While she enjoys the conveniences of electricity, hot and cold running water, a dumbwaiter, and a carpet sweeper, Joan works to learn the Jewish rules of kashrut and appease cranky Malka.  But it is the more universal experiences that change her.  She learns to respect people's differences.  She learns about men who are, thankfully, not all like her father, and gets her first kiss.  She learns about meddling (not a good idea to pass on a love sonnet you found to help a relationship along), heartbreak (things don't go well after that first kiss), and forgiveness.

Written as a series of Joan's diary entries, the story is set in 1911 and the relevant social issues of the time--women's rights, class division, religious prejudice, and labor rights--are addressed.  Historical details and content infuse seamlessly into the story; readers will feel like they've been picked up and placed right in Joan's world.

Spotlight on Picture Books 2015

Float by Daniel Miyares

Miyares is fairly new to picture books (his first illustrated book came out 2010), but boy, does he know what he is doing!  Float is the wordless story of a boy who takes a boat folded from newspaper out to play.  When the rain starts, he floats it in puddles and in the gutter, but the boat gets away from him and ends up destroyed.  Dejected, he trudges home holding his water-soaked paper.  But, with a little comfort and help from home, he is soon off on a new adventure.

The gorgeous illustrations are filled with movement and the exuberance of childhood play.  Ink and watercolor backgrounds in shades of gray with a just a hint of color make the pages look as rain-soaked as the boy's adventure, and his rain jacket in brilliant yellow foreshadows the final scene while keeping readers' attention focused on the boy.

Varied perspective, perfect pacing, and impeccably-placed page turns make this one of my favorite picture books of the year.

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zacharia O’Hora

If you are looking for a fabulous and funny new read aloud, Wolfie the Bunny is it.

The Bunny family finds a baby on their doorstep.  A wolf baby--an adorable wolf bunny.  Dot, the bunny daughter is understandably concerned.  "He's going to eat us all up!"  "But Mama and Papa [are] too smitten to listen."  Oblivious to any danger, her parents take pictures and dote on their new son, Wolfie, as Dot continues to warn them: "He's going to eat us all up!"

Dot's persistently annoyed expression makes her all the more delightful, and her feisty protestations make for some of the funniest moments in the book.  In a twist at the end of the story, it's spunky Dot who proves herself the hero of the family.

Adults will appreciate the tongue-in-cheek mocking of any parent who has even been "smitten" with a child, and kids will understand--and laugh at--Dot's frustration with her new brother.

Gingerbread for Liberty: How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution by Mara Rockcliff, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch

We all know Revolutionary War heroes like George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Patrick Henry, and Ethan Allen, but in Gingerbread for Liberty, we meet an unlikely hero--a baker.  Christopher Ludwick was a German baker who owned a gingerbread bakeshop in Philadelphia.  He had a big booming laugh and a kind and generous disposition.  And he was a patriot.  When the Revolutionary War started, the baker (who was too old and fat to be a soldier), built ovens and made bread at his own expense for the soldiers.  Then, when England sent Hessian soldiers to fight the patriots, the baker volunteered to talk to them.  Under cover of night, he rowed out to the Hessian army and convinced many of the soldiers to switch sides.

Bits of humor in the text and art add a touch of lightness to this war story that will draw in young audiences.  Paper cut-out illustrations resemble gingerbread cookies, creating stylized scenes that allow the baker's personality to shine through.  An author's note at the end has additional information that you must read before sharing the book.

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

This true story of the original bear named Winnie was written by the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, the man who raised the bear, as a bedtime story for her son, Cole.  Harry was a veterinarian serving as a captain in the Canadian military during World War I when he saw a trapper with a bear cub at a train station.  He purchased the bear for $20 and named her Winnipeg (or Winnie for short) after his hometown.  After Harry convinced his Colonel to let him keep the cub, Winnie became a mascot of sorts for the brigade and traveled with them across the ocean to England.  But when the men had to join the fighting in France, Harry left her at the London Zoo.  It was there that she was visited by Christopher Robin (son of A. A. Milne) who was allowed to play in Winnie's enclosure.  Their friendship inspired  Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories.

Beautiful illustrations by Sophie Blackall include panels, spot art, double-page spreads, and details that encourage readers and listener to linger over every page.  Period photos decorate the final pages in scrapbook style.