True Courage and a New Leica – YA Nonfiction – Close-up On War

Lynn: close up on warDid you ever wonder where the term “snapshot” comes from? Mary Cronk Farrell includes this tidbit (from the sound made as a picture was taken and the film advanced) in her outstanding new book, Close-Up on War: the Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam (Abrams/Amulet, 2022). This fascinating book is also a snapshot – a captured picture of a pivotal time and the determined woman who recorded it on film for the world to see.

French woman Catherine Leroy was just 21 years old when she arrived in Vietnam in early 1966. She spoke limited English, carried a new Leica camera she was still learning to use, and she was determined to make her way in what was then a man’s world of photojournalism. Barely 5 feet tall, slim and blonde, Catherine’s appearance belied her fierce ambition, persistence, initiative, and courage.

Farrell begins the book with an excellent and succinct overview of the history of Vietnam and the decades of conflict that had beset the area giving young readers a necessary background for a war that, while still painfully present for many of us, is ancient history to teens. Into this chaotic stew, Catherine Leroy arrived and the book then follows her from her early months struggling to win respect, get jobs, and make her way to the action. Farrell uses a wealth of primary sources including Catherine’s own letters to her mother, accounts from people who knew and worked with her, her articles, and a treasure trove of photographs.

Catherine was extremely humble and always gave credit to others but through these many sources, Farrell creates a sharp image of a remarkable woman, her struggles, obstacles, battle experiences, and the price she paid for her achievements. In her groundbreaking work, Catherine Leroy put an up-close and personal face on the distant war in Vietnam. She brilliantly caught the suffering and the human impact in her photography and brought it into the living rooms of America. Her work helped to align public understanding with the reality of that horrible war.

Wonderfully written and documented, Farrell has brought this important story to today’s young readers in an account that feels as if it is happening before our eyes. The included back matter is excellent. It includes an Author’s Note, lengthy glossary, timeline, and source notes. There is also a remarkably clear explanation titled “How a Camera Worked in 1960s” that will be eye-opening to teens accustomed to digital photography.

There are so many extraordinary photographs included in the book. Some are of Leroy, many are taken by her, and others are taken by others at the time. Abrams/Amulet has done an excellent job of book design and reproduction and this collection adds extraordinary interest and value to the book.

I am long-time admirer of Catherine Leroy and her work and of photography and photojournalism in general. For teens interested in these subjects, or in history or women’s history this is highly recommended. It will be an excellent resource for high school and college history classes as well.

Code Breaking: The Woman All Spies Fear

Woman All Spies Fear by Ann Butler GreenfieldCindy: We realize that many of you are already familiar with this 2022 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist, but we have to talk about The Woman All Spies Fear (Random House Studios, 2021) by Amy Butler Greenfield anyway. Years ago, Lynn and I had a middle school girl who would only, and I mean ONLY, read books that featured math. In that pre-STEM publication world we struggled to keep her in books. Greenfield’s biography of code breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman would have pleased that student immensely. If you’ve ever struggled to solve a coded message, you’ll appreciate Friedman’s talent.

Elizebeth left Indiana in 1916, after earning a degree in English Literature and with a need to distance herself from a controlling father. Offered a strange job at a tycoon’s estate in Geneva, Illinois, the work at Riverbank would change the course of her life and help her discover her talent for code breaking. Colonel George Fabyan, the bizarre and also controlling millionaire, had many research teams working on his estate, but Elizebeth was put to work helping a team seeking to prove that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. The work involved looking for ciphers within the text and also introduced Elizebeth to the man she would marry and work alongside the rest of her life as cryptanalists. Shakespeare’s authorship was never debunked, but the work sparked an interest provided a valuable training ground for understanding ciphers.

As Greenfield sheds light on Elizebeth’s growing skills in code-breaking, she also throws some challenges to her readers as she explains the various types of codes. I found myself pulling out paper and pencil to work some of them myself, and I’m sure teen readers will do the same. Elizebeth and her husband William made a great team as code-breaking involves multiple skills and Elizebeth had a talent for intuition that was invaluable in their work. Working in the first half of the 20th century, she faced bigger challenges than the codes she untangled, that of being a working female in a man’s world. Many of her accomplishments went unrecognized, the credit claimed by the FBI or other agencies as the Friedman’s escaped from Fabyan’s grips and became successful code-breakers working for the government and military the rest of their careers. Her intelligence, tenacity, and dedication to her work are inspiring.

Lynn: Cindy is so right about how inspiring this incredible woman is! Amy Greenfield does a masterful job of presenting the many facets of Elizebeth’s life and abilities, and she had to decipher this information often from the smallest of hints or comments from Elizebeth’s letters and diaries. She and William spent a lifetime dealing with the weight of world-shaking secrets, life or death discoveries, and the binding need for utter secrecy—even from each other. For much of their later working life, they each carried this enormous mental weight alone. William’s mind crumpled at many times but Elizebeth soldiered on, always supportive of him and her family. That their love for each other only strengthened despite this wall of secrecy amazes me.

The treatment of Elizebeth in the workplace, the lack of recognition for her brilliant work and the ultimate outrage of the NSA’s seizure of their personal records is something that will horrify any reader. The fact that Elizebeth persevered, achieved marvels with her work, and remained steadfast, humble, and courageous is truly inspiring. I hope young readers will be as inspired by this woman as they are outraged by the obstacles she overcame.

This is a masterfully crafted work and a well-deserved finalist in the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. Greenfield carefully cited her sources, attributions, and conclusions—something of a work of crypto-analysis itself due to the intense secrecy surrounding Friedman’s work and life. It is a compelling story to read  as well. A perfect choice for any high school collection and ideal for STEM collections as well.

Doing the Impossible – Neal Bascomb’s The Race of the Century

Lynn:race of the century Did you know that 70 years ago most people believed that running a mile in 4 minutes was impossible and beyond the limits of the human body? “It was something that God himself had established as man’s limit,” said one writer. But suddenly in 1952, three runners were poised to do just that. It did happen, of course. Two of the three broke the 4 minute mile in 1954. Today’s record is 3.143.13 seconds. How did mankind achieve this “unbreakable” speed? I am not a runner. My idea of exercise is a daily walk with my camera. But it is amazing the unfamiliar paths that a wonderful nonfiction writer will coax a reader to trod and thanks to Neal Bascomb’s latest book, The Race of the Century: the Battle to Break the 4 Minute Mile (Scholastic, March 2022), I have become fascinated with the amazing story of this ongoing battle of man running against the clock.

Bascomb chronicles the stories of 3 individual racers, Roger Bannister of England, Wes Santee, a Kansan and Australian John Santee. Each one found himself poised on the threshold of a ground-breaking achievement. All were amateurs in the strictest sense of the word. Bannister was finishing his medical training to become a physician, Landy was studying science at university and Santee was working his way through Kansas University while running on both the track and cross country teams. All three expected their athletic efforts to end on graduation. Suddenly all three were facing intense attention from the press and huge national expectations.Who would break the record first and how would he do it?

Bascomb follows each runner through their unique racing careers and experiences, detailing each man’s training regimes. Even to a non-runner, this was fascinating as each runner was remarkably different from the others. Imagine trying to do elite intense training in the little free time left available to a medical student in his last year of training and working as an intern! The moment by moment accounts of the pivotal races, each runner’s race strategies, physical struggles and mental preparations are presented in clear prose and for young runners, this part of the book will be especially absorbing.

For me as a non-runner, it was the individual personalities and their approaches to the challenge that were the most compelling. The stark contrast between the elite amateur runner in the ’50’s and the world class runners of today also stood out for me.

I read this book in galley and the included black and white photographs added so much. Bascomb, as always, does an excellent job of citing his sources in detailed chapter notes and the back matter also includes an Author’s Note and an intriguing bibliography.

Hand this book to young runners and to those teens who love historical nonfiction.

Picturing a Nation – Introducing a Photographic Treasure to a New Generation

Lynn:picturing a nation I grew up awed by my parents’ stories of growing up during the Great Depression and, as a child in the 50s, I also have strong memories of the photojournalism of weekly periodicals such as Life and Look. I’m an amateur photographer too so all my interests were piqued when I learned of Martin Sandler’s upcoming book. It has been a long wait but Picturing a Nation: the Great Depression’s Finest Photographers Introduce America to Itself (Candlewick, 2021) is more than worth it!

In 1935 with the Great Depression raging and the Dust Bowl drought ravaging the plains, Roy Stryker was appointed to head The Farm Security Administration. In a brilliant move, he decided to hire a group of outstanding photographers to cross the nation and photograph America and Americans—the way of life and the desperate struggle that was occurring in so many places. His goal was to sell the agency to leaders in order to secure more funding but also to ” introduce America to Americans.” He was successful at both and in Picturing a Nation, Martin Sandler celebrates the photographers who produced the powerful and ground-breaking photographs that have become icons in both photographic and national history.

Sandler wisely chooses to let the photographs tell the story – as they were always meant to do. He provides brief captions to each that identify the photographer, locations and circumstances of the photo. The book is divided into the FSA regions and introductory chapter texts provide the important background and historical information. The last section of the book, Profiles, are biographical sketches of Stryker and 11 of the photographers who created the lasting historical legacy.

The book design and photographic reproductions are outstanding! Many of the photographs are full page sized and several of the first color photographs are included. Candlewick has done an outstanding job of showcasing this important collection.

While this is a book about the work of these extraordinary artists, young readers will also absorb an enormous amount about the history and impact of Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. These pictures are stunning in their ability to convey emotional power even almost 90 years later. The humanity shines through and it is what makes these images so important. Readers will come away awed, deeply moved, and perhaps with a new understanding that history is the story of people’s lives.

Gone to the Woods: Gary Paulsen

Gone to the Woods by Gary PaulsenCindy: In 1984 I graduated with my MLS and Gary Paulsen published Tracker, a story about a boy deer hunting with his grandfather. Two years later, he added Hatchet to his growing list and picked up the first of his Newbery Honor Awards. For nearly four decades I watched my middle school students forage the shelves for his stories, eager for his descriptions of survival in the wild, life on the farm, or dalliances with an even wilder side of life. Most of those stories contained elements of truth, bits of Paulsen’s life, woven into fiction or told as memoir. His latest book, Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood (Farrar, 2021) provides an even more intimate look into his early years. 

Told in third person, describing himself as “the boy,” Pauslen tells his story in five parts: The Farm, The River, The Ship, Thirteen, and, The Soldier. Here we see and feel the neglect and abuse from his parents, the love and lessons from his grandparents, and his eye-opening experiences in the Philippines that informed his time later as as soldier. In “Thirteen” he shares the story of the librarian who saved him. I’d heard it told at some of his speaking engagements, but the fuller version here can’t help but make you tear up a little, especially if you are a librarian. That she not only gave him books, and a warm place to hang out, and acceptance, but a notebook and pencil with encouragement to write his own stories…I wish every kid had such support. For the kid reading this, who may not have the support they need, the book should provide some hope, and an example that hard, lost childhoods can be survived, Northwind by Gary Paulsenif not as easily as a thick swarm of mosquitos on a hot summer night. We all mourned in October when we heard the news of Gary Paulsen’s death, but his stories will always be with us. And, there’s one more on the way, Northwind (Farrar, Jan. 11, 2022), an ocean adventure with “hints of Nordic mythology.” Thank you, Mr. Paulsen, for all you shared with us.

Fallout – Sheinkin’s Terrifying Look for Teens at How Close the World Came to Destruction

Lynn: FalloutWhere were you in October 1962? I know a whole lot of you weren’t even on this planet yet but how much do you know about how close we came to annihilating this place we call home? I was a young teen at the time, going to junior high in Belmont, MA and I remember those days quite well. I think I especially remember them because I realized my father was grimly worried, even scared. We watched the reports on the news and when I asked my dad if there would be a war, all he would do was shrug. I remember too, the sigh of relief when Russia “blinked” but I also remember an overwhelming sense of helplessness at these events that could wipe out the world and there was nothing I could do.

That is a long way of saying that if you read any historical nonfiction book this year, make sure it is Steve Sheinkin’s Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown. (Roaring Brook, 2021). Yes, it was 1962 but there are parallels here that need to be understood by all of us who inhabit this same fragile wanderer in space.

Sheinkin is a master of narrative nonfiction, of careful research, and is a compelling storyteller. He takes an event for which we know the trajectory and manages to keep readers hanging on by a thread as his chronicle unfolds. And in this book, he relates a tale as complex, convoluted, and shrouded in secrecy as anything in history. It is a tale of personal courage, thoughtful reflections, and a willingness to resist the pressures of other dominant opinions. It is equally a tale of luck, bungling, and terrible timing. I paused with awful frequency to shake my head in wonder and horror at the incredible chain of events that we call the Cuban Missile Crisis.

How close did we come to nuclear war? Closer than any of us outside of a very few people knew. There are true heroes in this story as well as reckless fools and power hungry zealots. This is a marvel of nonfiction writing. Succinct, wonderfully researched and cited, and thoughtfully recounted. It is also has the terrible fascination of watching a train wreck. If you were around then or are just now encountering the story, this book will hold you captive and maybe haunt your dreams with what could have been. As Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, said, “At the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war.” See if you agree.

Cindy: Besides being stellar works of nonfiction, Steve Sheinkin’s books are a booktalker’s dream. Here’s the opening paragraph of the prologue, titled: “The Paperboy.”

“The kid hiked up the dark stairwell to the sixth floor, hoping only for a decent tip, maybe fifteen cents. Busting up a Russian spy ring was an unexpected bonus.”

Read that sentence to your students and stand back, hoping you’ve purchased a lot of copies! One of the nickels the paperboy received was a hollow coin that popped open after falling on the stairs and the boy discovered a tiny piece of film inside. Hmmmm….and away we go!

Bomb by Steve SheinkinI couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, and I was holding my breath in places (when I wasn’t gasping) even though I knew the outcome. What I didn’t know was many of the details and stories behind the Cold War build-up, the dangerous rescue efforts after the Berlin Wall went up, and the last hour unlucky mishaps during the Cuban Missile Crisis, any one of which could have could have been more than disastrous, but for some added good luck. Obviously, this is a natural sell to teen readers who were fascinated by Sheinkin’s earlier YA book, Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, but adults will want to read this as well.

The Power of Style – an Inclusive Guide to Fashion

Lynn:

Power of styleLynn: Most of us have grown up with the sort of fashion and style books that showed us how we SHOULD look within a very very narrow definition: thin, tall, white, shiny hair, clear-skinned and perfectly coordinated from head to toe. I gave up reading them as a teen, knowing I would never measure up. For many teens who didn’t fit that narrow mold, those guides often felt cruel and demeaning.

Christian Allaire’s Power of Style (Annick, 2021) is a fresh look at fashion. The wonderfully written book by Allaire, an Ojibwe writer who is now the Fashion and Style writer for Vogue, sets out the philosophy right from the first page.

“This book is for anyone who has never felt represented, who has felt inferior or less beautiful, and who has questioned their roots.”

While acknowledging that fashion has great power, he goes on to introduce readers to people who are using fashion and beauty to promote cultural activism, empowerment, diversity, and inclusivity. It is a powerful and inspiring message and it should be heard by all of us, young or old, and of any culture, size, or race. The book is absolutely gorgeous and inviting with outstanding photography and layout. Divided into 6 broad categories, the chapters examine Sewing Tradition, Hair, Cosplay and Size, Hijab and modest clothing design, Men’s Heels, and Makeup.

There is so much to think about and celebrate in these pages and readers will come away with a new interest and respect for what fashion and style can do for all of us. Of particular note for me was a small section on Cultural Appropriation VS. Appreciation that was respectful and extremely helpful as many of the fashions shown throughout the book are incredibly beautiful and readers may yearn to wear them. This is a book that should be on the shelves of every high school and public library. Don’t miss it!

Scipio Jones – a Hero to Meet for Our Time

race-against-timeLynn:  I have a new hero and it saddens me to say that this extraordinary person, Scipio Jones, was unknown to me before reading Sandra Neil and Rich Wallace’s latest book, Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2021). Scipio Jones was a singularly courageous and inspiring man whose name should be known to every American and I hope this outstanding book helps make that a fact.

Race Against Time is a story of Scipio Jones but it is also about another buried but important event—the Elaine Massacre—and the twelve men wrongfully condemned to execution. The time was 1919. In Elaine, Arkansas, returning Black soldiers came home to find that oppression, discrimination, and fear were still the prevailing conditions. Sharecroppers, they struggled with unfair prices for their cotton and a system that looked the other way at not just inequality but at blatant terrorizing of the Black community. After risking their lives to fight for their country, many of these Black veterans refused to accept the situation and in Elaine, a union was organized to fight for fair prices. While meeting one night in a local church, carloads of white vigilantes attacked, shooting and killing more than 200 men, women, and children. During the melee, 5 white men were killed, some by their own bullets in the confusion. Almost immediately, 12 Black men were arrested for murder, tried, and convicted.

Enter Scipio Jones, who risked his life, spent five years of intensive work, and expending most of his personal wealth, desperately striving to save the twelve. Eventually the case made it to the Supreme Court and became the first time African Americans won a Supreme Court decision. As always, the Wallaces write with admirable clarity, making this complex legal story understandable for a teen audience. This is also a heart-stopping story of suspense. Fascinating and deeply relevant in our time, this is a story that should be read and remembered.

Cindy: Like Lynn, and the Wallaces before they unearthed the story while researching a later court case, I’d never heard of this courageous and brilliant lawyer or the story of this important legal battle to not only save lives, but to move justice forward for persecuted African Americans. We still have a long way to go for legal justice for all, but Scipio Jones certainly provided a push in that progress, and at great personal sacrifice and risk to his own safety.

I also don’t know as much as I should about the history of the NAACP, so it was surprising to me how little faith the leadership had in having a black lawyer represent the case that he had worked so hard to prepare. In some states, especially in the segregated south, it was also a legal mandate for a white lawyer to present the cases. Of course, in 1919, Scipio Jones couldn’t even ride in the same train car as his white colleague or sleep in the same hotel. For his own safety, after a long day in court he had to find a local family willing to host him for the night, changing his location daily for his protection, and that of the people willing to help him.

This horrifying and fascinating story also includes famed Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who visited the incarcerated men and wrote about them, and held a protest to raise funds for their defense. Jones also had a young attorney working with him on a final case against the Little Rock school district, who he was suing for equal pay for Black teachers and administrators. Scipio died before the case was finished but that young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, continued on and won the case.

Scipio Jones, born enslaved and self-taught, and his heroic and brilliant work need to be known, and honored. Start by reading this powerful book.

Chance – Uri Shulevitz’s Story of Survival and Hope

Lynn: Survival in desperate times is often a matter of chance as Uri Shulevitz says in his new book, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (Farrar, 2020). But as in all things in life, there is much more to Shulevitz’s story. This book is a searing tale of horrifying privation but it is also about determination, love, and the start of an artistic life.

When Uri Shulevitz was only 4, the Nazis attacked Poland. Uri’s father fled into Russia and the plan was for Uri and his mother to join him later. In a brief period when the borders remained open, Uri and his mother traveled by smuggler’s truck from German-occupied Poland into Russia, joining his father in Bialystok. Escaping from the Nazis was an incredibly fortunate act but this still was the beginning of 10 years of horrifying oppression, extreme poverty, disease, and starvation. Denied employment except in labor camps, the family traveled to a settlement north of Arkangel on the Baltic Sea, east to Turkestan, and in 1945, an equally harrowing journey back to Warsaw and eventually to Paris.

Shulevitz writes for a young audience and he forges a remarkable combination of an honest picture of the reality in language and images appropriate for the audience and manages somehow to never be overly graphic. Shulevitz speaks straight to the reader and his choices of small vignettes move the story forward while also skillfully giving youngsters the tools to understand the unimaginable.

“Hunger is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” he writes.

He goes on to describe being so hungry that his mother made and cooked a patty of grass for him. Uri devoured every bit and then, unable to process it, he suffered intense diarrhea, having to flee to a maggot-ridden outhouse with no roof and wipe himself with stones because there was no toilet paper. Shulevitz also provides the moments that kept him going. Drawing was his lifeline and his love of the stories his mother told.

“My poor loving mother couldn’t feed my body but she did magnificently feed my mind.”

It is the masterful use of these and other brilliantly written moments that make this a book that readers will never forget. This is a truly inspiring story of deep suffering and amazing survival. It is a look inside a mind and soul who somehow came out the other side of a living hell and triumphed after all. This book is a gift to us all.

Cindy: We know Uri Shulevitz from his long, successful career authoring and illustrating award-winning picture books. Departing from this format, at age 85, he has written a memoir that will find a wide audience age range, starting with the upper elementary students who can handle the painful experiences. For the older students and adults who read this, it will be a book they won’t forget. The painful events and the sweet, simple joys that helped Uri and his family and all of those with shared experiences, are chronicled not just in words, but in Uri’s art. He started to draw at the age of three and encouraged by his parents, continued to use his art as one survival strategy. The scenes include touches of architecture and his surroundings but feature the vivid expressions of the many emotions, illnesses, and deprivations he experienced. Photographs and mementos that miraculously survived the wartime travels are included as well. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux deserve mention for giving this book the quality bookmaking that it deserves. It is a beautiful volume that will become a classic.

This past year as many have endured family loss and true hardships and others have complained about less serious deprivation like toilet paper shortages and mask-wearing, this memoir shows another time in our history in which true suffering was faced, and if you had good fortune or chance, you endured. Ingrid Roper interviewed Mr. Shulevitz for this July 17, 2020 Publisher Weekly article, and at the end, he speaks of what he hopes will help others through our current pandemic:

“My mother’s stories and drawing were a lifeline for me during that time as a refugee,” he says. “And I hope readers will seek their own lifeline now. Everyone is different, and it will be different for everyone. But finding that is critical. And if this book helps them do so, my book will be happy and so will I.”

A Classroom Gem – Dictionary for a Better World

Lynn: What words would you use to describe a better world? That is what Irene Latham and Charles Waters have done in Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z (Carolrhoda, 2020). They use words like hope, humility, and empathy as well as more unexpected words like laughter, exercise, and netiquette. The opening page shows an abecedarian style poem using all the words they’ve selected. From there, the book moves to an alphabetic dictionary using the words.

But it is not just a simple definition that the reader finds. Rather, each entry features a poem in a wide-ranging number of forms, a note that identifies the form, an inspiring quote related to the word, a personal reflection on the word by one of the authors, and a suggestion for an activity.

This is a book to be sauntered through, enjoyed, and reflected on. It is a gem for the classroom with a multitude of uses. It is thoughtful, playful, earnest, and challenging. The quotations are wonderfully selected, rich, varied, and thought-provoking and from such diverse sources as Oprah Winfrey, Hippocrates, and a glorious wealth of youth literature. It was a personal delight to find The White Darkness quoted here.

Mehrdokht Amini’s illustrations add a lively interest to each page turn. The excellent back matter includes a wonderful Authors’ Note, a list of the books, poems, and speeches referenced, additional recommendations, an index of the poetry forms used, and the authors’ Gratitude List, one of the activities suggested. The more you look at this treasure of a book, the more wealth you find. Language Arts teachers especially, don’t miss this!