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.

Help Mom Work From Home!

Help Mom Work From Home by Diana MurrayCindy: Almost two years into the pandemic and many families may have set up work and school areas at home and figured out technology needs and apps, but it really hasn’t gotten any easier and the novelty has definitely worn off. Help Mom Work from Home (Little, Brown, 2021) by Diana Murray is just the humorous look at the situation that might ease some stress.

With Dad and baby out of the house, Mom sits down to work with help from her toddler “boss.” After fixing mom’s hair and organizing her office supplies—crayons and glitter can’t be ignored—mom’s helper mimics her work and provides snacks and yoga breaks. It’s a looooong day but the evening together with the whole family, and some takeout pizza to let mom relax, is as good as a paycheck. The jaunty rhymes and fun illustrations by Cori Doerrfeld work well together.

Lynn: Oh the stories!!! From tales from my son and daughter-in-law, to young colleagues at work, I’m convinced that my own frustrations with my spouse pale in comparison! Although why he thinks it’s OK to read his morning newspaper articles with me when I’m deep in trying to write something intelligible at 8am is a mystery to me. But it’s nothing like dealing with a 4-year-old intent on “helping.”

This little one in our story clearly wants to help but as all parents working from home know well, those efforts often create nothing but chaos. Concentrate?? Yeah, right! It’s only when Mom finds tasks the toddler can manage like moving boxes, sticking on labels or assisting in some relaxing yoga stretches that she can get anything done. Nap time anyone???

This is a totally charming story and illustrations and it clearly comes from true experience. The underlying truth is that there are benefits from working from home but productivity may not be one of them. This timely picture will please both grown-ups working remotely and their helpers.

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.

Digging for Words: Knowledge is Power

Digging for Words by Angela Burke KunkelCindy: Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutierrez and the Library He Built (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 2021) introduces children to yet another helper, working to make his corner of the world just a little bit better. A whole lot better, really. This is the story of two Josés. One a small boy who gets through the week anticipating the joy of Saturday when he visits the other José (based on the real José Alberto Gutierrez, who opens his house to people in his community to browse his books, his personal library, and borrow what they want to read for the next week.

Mr. Guiterrez’s library is not fancy and the books aren’t pristine leather-bound volumes. José Gutierrez drives a garbage truck route in Bogotá, Colombia. As he collects trash each night, he looks for discarded books and collects them to add to his library. The books he finds on the street were his education as he was too poor to attend school and didn’t finish his high school education until he was in his fifties. His “spark” book was Anna Karenina and he never looked back but did decide to share his treasures with others.

The young José and other community members don’t waste this opportunity and flock to Mr. Gutierrez’s home to exchange their books every week.  The power of books and reading and knowledge shines through the story, published in both English and Spanish editions.

Lynn: Librarians, teachers, and book lovers of all ages will be charmed by this story of an amazing man who takes his love of books and reading to a new level. José Alberto Gutierrez’s efforts to build and share a library are inspiring—especially when readers learn in the back matter that there are only nineteen libraries in the city of Bogata, Columbia, a city of ten million people! The Author’s Note provides more information about Gutierrez including the fact that he now also runs a foundation which provides books and reading material to schools and libraries across Columbia. And, portions of the proceeds from this picture book go to that foundation.

Rescatando Palabras by Angela Burke KunkelPaola Escobar’s digital illustrations are ideal for expanding and enhancing this wonderful story. I especially love the double-page spread of Gutierrez’s garbage truck journey across the city, showing him examining a discarded pile of books with his flashlight and the scenes of his library, books everywhere in towering stacks with happy readers making choices.

The back matter includes information on the featured books in the story and a selected list of online sources along with the Author’s Note in which Gutierrez reflects on on twenty years of creating his library, saying “My dream is to exchange my garage truck for a truck full of books and travel the country. I’m sure I can pull it off.” I think he can too!

Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs

Solimar by Pam Munoz RyanCindy: When the package with Pam Muñoz Ryan’s new book arrived, it took my breath away. Inside the packing box was a huge monarch butterfly, its wings closed over an advance reader copy of Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs (Disney/Hyperion, Feb 2022), and a butterfly-shaped pack of seeds to grow wildflowers to help our pollinator friends. And, now that the 2021 publishing year awards are mostly behind us, I’m ready to spread my wings and fly into 2022 books. 

Solimar is a wonderful new Mexican hero to inspire budding environmentalists. When, just before her quinceañera she makes her annual trek to the oyamel forest to welcome the returning monarch butterflies, something magical happens. The sun, a sword-shaped crevice in a rock, and a swirl of butterflies changes her rebozo (a shawl) into a shimmering cloth that she later learns provides her with knowledge of the near future. It also hosts butterflies that need her care and protection.

Chafing at the constraints that keep her from a future she wants with a say in how her kingdom works while providing her brother the opportunity as Prince to one day rule the kingdom, a job he doesn’t want she isn’t excited about her upcoming party.  She definitely isn’t looking forward to trading in her childhood comfortable hiking boots for heeled, impractical dancing shoes. A takeover of the kingdom in her brother and father’s absence, in which her mother, abuela, and others are taken hostage while Solimar manages to escape, is just the beginning of the adventure ahead of her as she finds her courage and risks all to save her kingdom. 

The characters in this story that include a pet quetzel bird and a talking doll, in addition to an inventor river boy from a troubled neighboring village, are engaging. Young readers will hope from more of them and more adventures for Solimar, I know I do. They’ll also be glad to have a fantastical story that weighs in at under 200 pages.

I read “The State of YA in 2022” from WriterMag yesterday and #4 on the ten biggest trends in YA Lit is that “Climate-change novels may be the next big thing.” I hope so. The stakes are larger than those needed to kill a vampire, and we can’t start too young with raising awareness. Habitat preservation and saving the butterflies isn’t the only issue in this novel, but it is a driving force for Solimar. With a foot of snow on our ground in Michigan, I have a few months before I can plant those seeds that came with my book, but I’ll be ready to do so as soon as I can. FYI, the cover art changed dramatically from arc to finished book, and the butterfly box? A four-year-old and her twin two-year-old sisters are learning to be heroes as they flit around with it. They’ll be helping me plant the seeds soon.

Collage Creativity: Two Picture Books

Cindy: From the bright work of painted tissue paper from Eric Carle in the Very Hungry Caterpillar to the complex creations of Melissa Sweet, children (and adults) are mesmerized by books illustrated with collage. We have two picture books to highlight in this post by other award winning illustrators of this delightful medium. 

Dream Street by Tricia Elam WalkerFirst up is Dream Street (Random/Anne Schwartz, 2021) by Tricia Elam Walker and illustrated by Ekua Holmes. This inspiring story is based on memories of cousin creators, Tricia and Ekua, who did their own dreaming on the streets of Roxbury, Massachusetts. 

Each two page spread introduces someone from the Dream Street neighborhood.. There’s retired mail carrier, Mr. Sidney, reading the paper on his front stoop dressed “to the nines” happy to be free from his uniform who encourages everyone to not “…wait to have a great day. Create one!” Belle dreams of being a lepidopterist, a scientist who studies butterflies, as she catches and releases those she observes. Azaria’s dream is go win a jump rope trophy. Ms. Sarah has “stories between the lines of her face that she’ll share when you come close.” She listens to the dreams as she watches the children grow. Two little girls read and draw and dream of creating a book about the people they know on Dream Street.  The collage art is created from comic strips, newspapers, fabrics, stamps, maps, and many more curated bits. Art teachers might use this with students to create their own portrait, neighborhood scene, or personal dream.  Some dreams do come true, and Tricia and Ekua’s is manifested in a hopeful, colorful, moving tribute to the power of believing in yourself, and in having others believe in you and your dreams. 

Lynn: everybody in the red brick buildingOur second wonderful collage book is Everybody in the Red Brick Building (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2021). It is by Anne Wynter and illustrated by the gifted Oge Mora. This cumulative tale is perfect for a bedtime book, building up energetically at first and then slowing down in pace and tone to a delightfully sleepy ending.

“Everybody in the red brick building was asleep,” the story begins, “UNTIL Baby Izzie sat up in her crib and howled. WAAAAAAH!” The baby wakes up a boy and his parrot, a girl who decides to set off her toy rocket, which terrifies a cat who leaps onto a car, which sets off the alarm WEEEYOOOOWEEWYOOO….. You get the fun sequence of events, each one accompanied by terrific kid-pleasing sound effects. Before long, the whole building is awake. Then in a double page spread filled with sweet vignettes, sleepy parents intervene, the lights go out and the story slows, the sounds are quiet shhhhs, ting tings, and the pah-pum’s of a mother’s heart cradling Baby Izzy. Soon everybody in the building is asleep and little readers will be too.

Oge Mora’s gorgeous collages are wonderfully rich with glowing colors and cleverly chosen textures. This is a glorious book to read aloud while reveling in the masterful illustrations.

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.

PHEW – A Picture Book About a Stinky Subject

Lynngreat stink: Say the word “poop” and you get every kid’s attention. But of course, the management and disposal of poop is a critically important health issue for people everywhere.  So how do you help kids learn about the serious facts behind this stinky subject—all the while acknowledging that the giggles are inevitable? Colleen Paeff has the answer with her wonderful picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (S&S/Margaret McElderry, 2021). Paeff’s fascinating story of the brilliantly innovative engineer Joseph Bazalgette who truly saved London from its offal self is guaranteed to captivate and inform young readers—all without anyone having to hold their noses!

Told with a smile and engaging language, the history will make kids laugh but at the same time clearly delivers important facts about health and history. For most American kids, plumbing is a given and the protection the system provides us mostly out of mind with each flush. The reality for both history and many countries even today, is of course, another story.

Paeff focuses her story on London, beginning in 1500 with an introduction as to what passed for sanitation then. People in those days put human waste into deep cesspools in their basements and hired “nightsoil men” to come dig out and carry away the poop when it got too deep. Yuck!!! In 1819, when Bazalgette is born, flush toilets were just beginning to catch on but all the sewage goes directly into the Thames. A series of cholera outbreaks kills many Londoners who blame the disease on the bad air or misasmas while continuing to drink the polluted water. By 1850, Joseph Bazalgette, now an engineer, disagrees and he thinks he knows how to help.

But the city fathers didn’t agree and it took a lot of years, Bazalgette’s persistence, and a summer heat wave that produced an event called The Great Stink in 1858 to get his plan approved! But soon, thanks to Joseph Bazalgette, the London sewer system is flush with success!

Cindy: I don’t think I can keep up with Lynn’s stream of sewage metaphors but I do agree with her assessment of this important book. It’s hard to make such a putrid topic a joy to read, but Paeff has done it and Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations are the perfect touch to keep young readers flipping through the filth. The watercolor and ink artwork depict detailed scenes starting with the title page showing the royal “throne” occupied by the queen reading a newspaper! Plumbing pipes snake across later pages while earlier pages show Londoners using umbrellas to protect more from chamber pots being emptied than rain falling. Gross! But history isn’t always pretty, eh?

Knighted Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s story comes to an end in this book in 1874, but added backmatter includes an update on “Poop Polution Today” with tips for readers that include building a rain garden, planting trees, and touring a wastewater treatment plant, small acts to help prevent water pollution. There’s also a “Detailed Timeline,” a list of “Further Reading, and a “Selected Bibliography” for children and adults who want to learn more. My husband works in the wastewater industry, and we live on the water downriver from a large city that still struggles with sewage overflow into the river after big storms. Bazalgette was a hero, but it will take many more heroes to keep our waters safe. It’s never too early to be informed, and reading The Great Stink is a great start. 

Hurricane – Weathering a Storm with a Picture Book

Lynn:Hurricane As he has done in other books, Rocco tells a story of a large event affecting a child and a community. Like Blackout (Disney/Hyperion, 2011) and Blizzard (Disney/Hyperion, 2014) these events are largely unexpected and out of a child’s ability to control them. And, like the previous books, the events result in a community coming together. This latest picture book, Hurricane (Little, Brown, 2021) begins calmly like the weather before a storm. Told in first person, a young boy confides to the reader that his favorite place is the neighborhood dock. “It’s old and splintery, ” he says, and the double-page spread that follows shows a delightful depiction of the many joys the old dock provides.

But when he walks home through the peaceful night, the boy notices that something feels different. Everyone is acting strangely, including his father. A hurricane is coming and the neighborhood is boarding up windows and getting ready. The scary storm roars through in the night and in the morning the little boy grabs his gear and rushes outside to discover that his neighborhood looks like “a giant angry monster stomped through it.” Worst of all in the boy’s view is that his beloved dock has been destroyed. Looking for help to fix it, the boy asks his father and the neighbors but they are all too busy with their own repairs so the little boy pitches in to help them first. As the neighborhood returns to normal, he decides to fix the dock himself  but the results are disastrous. Happily the neighborhood rallies around and in a lovely series of scenes, they not only repair the dock, but improve it, making it a neighborhood gathering place.

I am always charmed by the hopeful encouraging perspective that Rocco brings to his stories of big issues. He sees a bright side to events when those involved unite to make that happen. It is a story arc that never fails to inspire and delight. I love Rocco’s slightly nostalgic illustrations too but I’ll leave those to Cindy. This is another winner from Rocco and guaranteed to enchant his many fans.

Cindy: To learn about the illustrations in this moving book, I’d recommend going straight to the source, John Rocco. Victoria Stapleton interviewed Rocco for the release of Hurricane, and his answers and accompanying slide show is fascinating. Watch the interview here, and learn about Rocco’s use of shapes and color to help tell a story of destruction and rebuilding. A story of hope. Not shown in the video are the fabulous end papers. The opening papers show the science and movement behind how a hurricane forms. The final end papers illustrate the parts of a dock and the installation of pilings. Another treat is John’s 1973 note left for his parents in his six-year-old handwriting. Hope applies to young fishermen as well. Don’t miss this one!

John Rocco fishing note

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.