Poisoned Water – A Chronicle and a Warning for All Readers

Lynn: The title of Candy Cooper and Marc Aronson’s upcoming book, Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint Michigan Fought for their Lives and Warned the Nation (Bloomsbury, May 2020) nails both the subject matter and the urgency of its subject. This is a horrifying story that will leave every reader not only sickened at what the people of Flint endured but also terrified that a similar situation could or has already happened in their community. Let me be clear here. The water crisis in Flint is not just a story of an already battered and diminished city taking one more horrible blow. The story of Flint’s poisoned water is a story that has already been repeated as citizens discover just what is flowing through the pipes in their cities, their homes, and their schools. I want to say at the start that this is a personal story for me. I have family in Flint and we have watched as this appalling situation unfolded. Our family there has dealt with serious health issues, their property values and equity have plummeted, they use filters on every faucet, and purchase expensive bottled water for all cooking and drinking. They have lost all trust in their government. I believe this book is important and it should be read by every person in the nation.

The authors have done a stellar job of laying out the series of events, explaining the interwoven issues, and documenting their reporting. Candy Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, veteran reporter, winner of the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, and has written for several newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and the Detroit Free Press and is the author of nonfiction books for classrooms. Those of us in the youth literature field know of Marc Aronson’s outstanding nonfiction books for young people. Marc is the winner of the very first Sibert Award and his excellent and meticulously researched books continue to win national awards.

On April 25, 2014, the mayor of Flint pushed a button that cut off the flow of water from long-time supplier Detroit and started the use of the water taken from the Flint River. It was a decision motivated by politics and budgets. Within days the issues and complaints began. Poisoned Water chronicles the horrifying series of events, bad decisions, cover-ups, and lies that destroyed the water system, health, future, and trust of the citizens of Flint, Michigan. Step by step, Cooper lays out the events, carefully documenting her work. The writing is clear and concise, easy to follow and understand. It is also a compelling account, as impossible to put down as a thriller and twice as horrifying because it actually happened to real people who are still suffering today.

Flint is the canary in the minefield that lies at the heart of urban America. Old water systems, lead pipes, aging infrastructures are everywhere. Cooper and Aronson lay out an extreme series of events concisely, include first-hand accounts from the people involved and pack the book with quotations and documentation. It is impossible not to finish reading the book and not be both outraged and infuriated. Do not miss this important and wonderfully crafted book. It is a critical warning to wake up and smell the coffee—and to seriously question what is in the water used in that coffee.

Cindy: This will be the book that I will be talking about all year and handing to everyone I know. We live in the state where this tragedy unfolded so when we caught up with Marc at our state’s school library conference Lynn suggested this topic as an important subject for a future teen nonfiction book. I agreed and am so glad that he and Candy Cooper made it happen. My husband works in wastewater treatment and as the news unfolded he updated me with his rants about what was going on and how wrong it was.  I listened and I had a cursory idea of what was going on, but reading Cooper and Aronson’s book was a whole new experience. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough even though I knew the trajectory of the crisis. The book is packed with quotable lines from those who were poisoned, those who poisoned them, and those who didn’t think it was important. ” Perhaps this quote from a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services nurse to a parent whose young child had lead poisoning from the Flint River water sums up the official response to the water crisis:

“It’s just a few IQ points. It’s not the end of the world.”

Cooper reports that five and half years later “one in five public school children in Flint was eligible for special education, an increase of 56 percent since before the crisis began, according to state figures.” It might not be the end of the world to that nurse, but even a little lead in the body can make a huge difference in a child’s or adult’s life. It’s not news that money controls everything and often to the detriment of the public good, but this tragedy that includes an unconscionable amount of harm to the citizens of Flint should cause everyone concern. From big impacts like the government suppressing information about the rising occurrence of Legionnaire’s Disease, to the daily problem of finding and hauling bottled water while paying exorbitant water bills for unpotable water, to going without hot water for years because you couldn’t afford to replace both your washer and your hot water heater ruined by corrosive water, the story is haunting and might be unbelievable in a dystopian teen novel. In fact, lead poisoning from paint was featured in the 2004 middle school novel, Bucking the Sarge, by Christopher Paul Curtis, a Flint native. No one knew then what ten years would bring to the city.

I have great admiration for the people of Flint who persisted. Who believed in what they knew to be wrong and who continued to fight against great odds and against a great imbalance of power and influence. Their fight continues. Their fight is one that other communities will have to fight if we are not proactive about our most important resource: water. The hero of the story is citizen action.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

Cindy & Lynn’s 2019 Book Awards

Cindy and Lynn: Here we are announcing our special brand of awards for 2019’s youth publications! We’re not talking about Newbery, Caldecott, or Printz Awards; we’ll leave those to the official committees. We’re off to Philadelphia this week for the 2020 ALA Midwinter Meeting and we can’t wait to learn who the big winners are, but in the meantime, here are the 2019 Bookends Awards. Envelopes, please! Previous editions of our awards and best of the year lists are archived here.

Cindy’s Awards:

The Kindred Spirit Award:

Sweety by Andrea Zuill (Schwartz & Wade, 2019)

This retainer-wearing naked mole-rat and her unique personality won my heart. This is my favorite picture book of 2019, a year of fabulous picture books.

There’s More Room for Award Stickers Award:

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Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay (Kokila, 2019)

A powerful and eye-opening story set mostly in the Philippines that I want everyone to read.

The Book That Reminded Me That Listening and Practical Experience Can Be a Better Teacher Than Book Learnin’:

Panthera Tigris by Sylvain Alzial, illustrated by Hélène Rajcak (Eerdmans, 2019)

A scholar has researched everything about Bengal Tigers, but when he doesn’t listen to his guide he gets some “informative” personal experience in the Indian jungle.

The Book That Proves That Not Every Music-Related Picture Book Has to Feature JAZZ:

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The Roots of Rap by Carol Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Little Bee, 2019)

Yes. YES. This book is informative, gorgeous, and pulsing with beat.

The Book That Reminded Me of My Own Limited Basketball Ability:

Nikki on the Line

Nikki on the Line by Barbara Carroll Roberts (Little, Brown, 2019)

Female sports novels are hard to come by and even harder to find with such good basketball action from the grueling practices to the drama on and off the court. I’m eager for more from this author.

I Didn’t Read the Jacket Blurb So I Didn’t See It Coming Award:

The Line Tender

The Line Tender by Kate Allen (Dutton, 2019)

I’m still verklempt. Count this as a SOB! on my “Sniff, Weep, Sob!” Meter but this heartbreaker is in my top 3 books of the year and it has my favorite cover of the year.

You Can Read to Me Forever Award:

The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Book 2) by Philip Pullman (Knopf/Listening Library, 2019)

I listen to a lot of audiobooks on my driving commute, but this was my favorite of the year. With Pullman’s stellar storytelling and Michael Sheen’s narration, I never wanted to stop driving.

Favorite Bird Book From the Year I Became Obsessed with Birding:

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Owling by Mark Wilson (Workman, 2019)

I read a lot of youth bird books this year and there were some great ones, like these, and this one, but I learned so much about owls from Mark Wilson giving this one a feather’s thickness lead over the others.

Lynn’s Awards:

The NOW I Finally Get It Historical Event Award:

Bringing Down a President: The Watergate Scandal by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy (Roaring Brook, 2019)

Even though I lived through this, I was still somewhat confused about what happened when until I read this stellar nonfiction account of the Watergate Scandal. NOW I get it!

The Book That Most Made Me Feel Like a Broken-Hearted Teenager Once Again:

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki (First Second, 2019)

It has been a loooong time since I was a teen but Tamaki absolutely stabbed me in the heart with this book, bringing back the emotions as if they were brand new. Sob!

The Book That Made Me Hungry Every Time I Read it!:

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (HarperCollins, 2019)

Acevedo’s writing about food and cooking was so mouth-watering that I was hungry the whole time I read it. Well, her writing was actually evocative about everything in this delicious story.

The Book I Had to Fight My Teen Grandsons For:

The Toll by Neal Shusterman (S&S, 2019)

Let me remind readers that there are TWO of them and they BOTH read it before I got to. Is that grandmotherly sacrifice or what?

The Book That Helped Me Understand Cricket — At Least for a Minute or Two:

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion, 2019)

I really understood cricket while I was reading this  – maybe, sort of, I think so anyway. Well, even if I’ve forgotten it all, I still loved this book!

The Book that Drove Me to Check My House for Bugs:

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer (S&S/Atheneum, 2019)

This fascinating story based on Romanian history had me checking for bugs—the listening variety—under every surface! Yikes! Young readers need to know this history!

The Book that Nailed the Joy of a First Seaside Vacation:

All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker (Penguin/Viking, 2019)

There is so much that is stellar in this debut book but Tucker’s descriptions of a first experience at the sea during a Long Island vacation made me feel as if I was walking barefoot in the surf for the first time too.

The Book That Surprised Me the Most:

Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Carolrhoda, 2019)

I’d been on a waitlist for this book for so long that I had forgotten all about it. When it came, it knocked my socks off! WOW, just WOW! Brilliant in every way! Text, illustrations, back matter, and research are all superb!

The Book that Cracks Me Up Just Thinking About It:

Bear Came Along by Richard T. Morris (Little, Brown, 2019)

‘Nuff said. This hilarious book just cracks me up every time!

 

Games of Deception – Basketball and History on the Brink of War

Lynn: Did you know the championship game of the first Olympic Basketball game was played on a converted tennis court and so much rain fell, the court looked like a “kiddie swimming pool?” Or that the inventor of the game, James Naismith, came to the Olympics but was refused admission to the first game? Or that while the male athletes had luxurious quarters with fantastic plentiful food, the female athletes were housed in a dormitory and fed on a sparse diet of boiled cabbage and sausage?

Andrew Maraniss packs Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany (Penguin/Philomel 2019) with fascinating sports tidbits like this and provides a breathless sense of being an eye-witness at these pivotal games. While the sports information is terrific, Maraniss is doing a lot more than historical play-by-play. The modern Olympics have always given us a window on the social and political events of their time but the 1936 games especially so. A crippling economic depression still gripped the world, Germany was preparing for war, the forces of racial, religious and gender prejudices and systemic discrimination afflicted people everywhere and the growing fanaticism of nationalistic hatred was intensifying. The Germans deliberately used the games to create a benign image of Nazism and while many were fooled, the truth was seen by a worried minority.

Maraniss does an excellent job of providing the complicated background of this intense and fraught period of history for young people, including information on the political, social, and economic situation as well as the origins of the game of basketball, the state of the game, and its inclusion in the Olympic games as a medal sport. And in a subject that will stand out to teen readers, he paints a horrifying picture of a state deliberately manipulating the truth to deceive the entire world.

With a broad array of primary sources, Maraniss includes the recollections of the team members, coaches, other athletes, and sportswriters of the day and their stories add a lively personal touch to the book. Often humorous, sometimes rueful, these accounts do a wonderful job of giving readers a sense of the attitudes and experiences of the moment. And in important concluding chapters, Maraniss also includes the stories of what happened to the athletes when they returned home. I especially enjoyed the Afterword chapter where the author writes about the origins of the book and his extensive research. Back matter includes excellent documentation and statistics.

This fascinating book will interest a wide range of readers, celebrating the first Olympic basketball competition, and placing it vividly in a critical moment of history.

Bringing Down a President – A History for Today’s Teens

Lynn: With the term impeachment on everyone’s minds, Bringing Down a President: The Watergate Scandal (Roaring Brook, 2019) by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy couldn’t be more timely!

In chronological order, the authors take readers step-by-step through the events of the unfolding Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon. Beginning with the day Nixon installed the secret recording devices in the White House that became so pivotal, the authors then move to the break-in of the Democratic headquarters and follow the chain of events that brought down a presidency. The narrative device used by the authors called “Fly on the Wall” is chatty and irreverent but it clearly distinguishes between actual quotations and clarifying expositions that will help teen readers to sort through the convoluted issues of what was said in public, what was said in secret, and what lay at the heart of the actions of the Nixon staff.

For all of its light approach, the book is very clear on the moral and constitutional elements at the heart of the scandal and it is startling how many of these same elements are in play today on the national scene. Nixon’s statement that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal” is strongly disputed here with a legal and constitutional basis for this contention. Balis and Levy do an excellent job of presenting a clear accounting of who did what when and why it mattered. Having lived through this unfolding scandal, I remember the confusion, doubt, and fear that afflicted most of us and I think the authors do an excellent job of conveying the prevailing culture of public trust in the government that had mostly existed at the time and the impact of the scandal both then and on today’s cynical climate of distrust and suspicion.

Back matter includes a terrific Timeline (how I wish I’d had THIS at the time) and outstanding Source Notes. Throughout the book, the authors make it clear why accurate sources are critical to the accounting and in this time of political ambiguity, the authors are also clear on what is morally and legally right and what is not. Wonderful black and white illustration add to this lively you-are-there accounting. Fascinating and important!