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.

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