Do Images Tell the Truth? Seen and Unseen Takes on that Question for Kids

Lynn: Seen and UnseenDo photographs always tell the truth about history? I believe most students will answer yes to that question but Elizabeth Partridge’s brilliant book Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyakaki, and Ansel Adams’ Photographs Reveal about the Japanese American Incarceration (Chronicle, 2022)  explores just how misleading photographs can be. Partridge presents a shameful part of American history as seen through the lenses of 3 outstanding photographers, each seeing those historic moments in a different way. Are any of them wrong? It is an extraordinarily effective way to help students look with a critical eye at images—historic and current—and one of the most necessary skills young people need to develop today.

Partridge chose three period photographers: Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams. All three took photographs at Japanese American Incarceration camps during WWII. Each brought a different focus to their work. Lange despised the whole concept of the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Famous for her Depression-era photos, the U.S. Government hired Lange to show that the program was being carried out in a “humane and orderly” way. Lange saw it differently, believing that what was happening was unfair and undemocratic. But the officials in charge disapproved of most of Lange’s photographs and from early in the project a soldier trailed her and she had to work within strict parameters. When she turned in her photographs, many of them were impounded and disappeared into archives for 50 years.

Toyo Miyatake was a professional photographer and after being incarcerated at Manzanar, he built his own camouflaged camera and took secret photos of the conditions of the camp. His photos showed much that Lange had been forbidden to photograph but those photos were rarely seen at the time and are still held in a private collection.

Ansel Adams, known for his incredibly beautiful landscape photography, was also hired to reassure the public. He came into the project not particularly opposed to the incarceration. Now close to the end of the war, there was great concern about how the Japanese Americans would be treated on release. Adams was asked to record images of hard-working, loyal, and cheerful people, which was how he saw them. Posing his subjects, Adams’ photographs concentrated on smiling people against a stunningly beautiful desert setting.

The work of all three photographers is used throughout the book but the book is also beautifully illustrated by the work of Lauren Tamaki, who is of Japanese descent. I wished strongly for more photographs to have been used but the book is nevertheless deeply effective and thought-provoking. It is the rare reader who won’t come away thinking about this book and the many issues it raises.

There is extensive and important back matter included too, with essays on issues such as the violation of rights of the Japanese Americans incarcerated, the issue of the official language used and its impact on the public, information on what happened to those incarcerated after the war, and biographies of the 3 photographers.

While understanding and evaluating images is the major focus of the book, Partridge also takes on other important issues such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the issues surrounding that action and its long impact. Seen and Unseen received many well-deserved accolades including the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal for 2023.

Dealing with Trauma – Erin Bow’s New MG Book about Life After the Tragedy

Lynn:Simon sort of says Students and teachers across our country have seen active shooter drills become a regular event. All of us have reeled with the reality of school shootings in our nation and most of us cannot understand the senseless deaths of the innocents who have fallen to this epidemic. Why the issue of guns cannot be dealt with is a gaping wound. But here’s another important question to ponder. What happens AFTER the tragedy to the children who somehow survive it? Erin Bow addresses this tragically relevant question in her newest book, Simon (Sort of) Says (Disney/Hyperion, 2023).

Twelve-year-old Simon is the lone survivor of a horrific school shooting and after a year of therapy and home-schooling, is returning to school. But this school is in the town of Grin and Bear It, Nebraska where Simon and his family are making a fresh start. Simon wants to put the shooting behind him and he also wants to put the incessant media focus behind him with the looks, the whispers, and the sympathy. He just wants to fly under the radar and be a normal kid.

Grin and Bear It is the ideal place because it is a National Quiet Zone where internet, cell phones, TV, and all media are banned in order to not interfere with the Radio Telescope arrays and the astrophysicists listening for signals from space. It couldn’t be more perfect. He makes friends, acquires a service dog puppy to socialize and things are looking good. Simon is a bit concerned about his friend Agate’s intentions of providing an alien message to encourage the scientists whose funding may be in jeopardy and he suspects his teacher may know about his past from the sorrowful looks she gives him. Mostly life seems to be going as he hoped. But Simon should know from experience that life seldom does what you expect.

This is an extraordinary character-driven story with moments of hilarity and a cast of characters so richly developed that they feel like family. The humor is perfectly dialed in for tween readers and some of the action is rather manic—also perfect for the tastes of young readers. But the core of this story is a subject tragically timely and handled with masterful sensitivity and ringing with truth. What is it like to live with such terrifying trauma and what is it like to be the object of overwhelming pity? What does it feel like to be reminded every minute of the past by the reactions of strangers to your very presence? Through Bow’s skillful and sensitive prose, readers experience what Simon feels and the experience is shattering. I know I will never think about trauma and the reactions to trauma in the same way.

On a lighter note—I loved the portrayal of the adults in the story—particularly Simon’s parents who have also suffered trauma and are recovering in their own ways. Simon’s coffee-loving mortician mother and deacon/sackbut playing father are worthy of a book by themselves as are his friends, Agate and Kevin. The cover of this book picks up on the humor in the story but I think it misses the deeply empathetic focus of the book.

This is an early-in-the-year publication but I think it will reside firmly at the top of my best list this year. Brilliantly written and immensely entertaining as well as perception-changing, this incredible story deserves awards.

“A Double Dose of Hard” – a New Middle Grade Book About Figuring Out the Rules of Life

Lynn: Not an easy winLawrence and his family have had a “double dose of hard” lately. In Chrystal D. Giles new book, Not an Easy Win (Random, 2023), Lawrence’s dad is in prison, he, his mom and sister have had to move three times since and now are staying with their unwelcoming grandmother. In his new school, where Lawrence is a rare boy of color, the bullies line up to beat him up and as the story opens he is expelled for fighting. His mother negotiates his finishing 7th grade in an online program and he has to spend the day working at the rec center, an after-school program for kids. There, Lawrence discovers a chess program, a group of friends, and an enemy who might have been a friend..

Giles puts readers squarely in the shoes of 12-year-old Lawrence, doing a masterful job of walking us through the painfully authentic emotions of this endearing tween struggling to understand his upside down world and find his way. Lawrence feels that somehow everything that has happened to his family is his fault while at the same time, he is sure he is being blamed unfairly for everything – a feeling that will connect with 6th graders everywhere. Fascinated by the game of chess, Lawrence develops not only the skills for the game but for managing his temper and dealing with the issues in his life. It is done with great finesse and Lawrence’s progress and set-backs feel true.

The entire cast of characters is vivid and fully rounded from his stressed cranky grandmother, to the kids at the rec center and even to his absent father. Lawrence and his hard-fought wins are as heart-warming as they are believable. I was rooting for him from page one and so will very reader! Check!

Moira’s Pen – Revisiting a Fantasy Classic World

Lynn:Moira's Pen Just before the holiday, a package arrived from a publisher—a not unusual and yet always exciting event. Moira’s Pen (Harper/Greenwillow, 2022) by Megan Whelan Turner was inside. I saved it to savor till the quieter days of January and I’ve been sauntering blissfully through. It is a true gift for all readers who love the series, The Queen’s Thief.

Moira’s Pen is a collection of short stories, musings on past real-life experiences, and reflections by the author about some of the inspirations for the elements in the books. None of the new stories change the overall satisfying conclusion of the series but rather they provide more insight into the events and characters readers have loved. Turner’s writing is so evocative that I was instantly able to settle back into the world of the Thief and I enjoyed every word. This IS a gift to readers who know the world and love the series.

What prompts me to write about this book though is a complaint I read on Goodreads from a young reader who had not read the series and was more than a little confused by this collection. There are masses of fantasies being published and I am sure there are many readers who have not read Turner’s award-winning series. It began with The Thief (Harper/Greenwillow, 1996). It won a Newbery Honor and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children and it set the stage for a remarkable series of seven books, each one building on the last and expanding the reader’s understanding of the world and its memorable characters. There isn’t much that Megan Whalen Turner doesn’t do well in her writing: complex plots, richly developed characters, and superb world-building. As the series moved along, its themes and character studies deepened. Each new book was a gem and never once did Turner underestimate her readers.

So—if this series is one you’ve missed, FIND it and begin reading. If you have read it, get Moira’s Pen and revisit it. Like me, I’m sure your next step will to be start again at the beginning of the series and read it all over again. If you miss me, I’m busy with Gen and the world of Attolia!

Making Their Voices Heard – Playing Through the Turnaround

Lynn: Are you looking for something a bit different for the middle school set? Mylisa Larsen’splaying through the turnaround debut novel, Playing Through the Turnaround (Clarion, October 2022) is a great selection.

A group of students who haven’t all traveled in the same social circles, come together in an audition-based elective, Jazz Lab. It is a musical experience guided by an extraordinary teacher that changes the students and their appreciation of each other and of the music they play. When the teacher abruptly leaves and rumors of school budget cuts circulate, the group decides to unite to save their class. As their battle against an uncaring principal and school board escalates, the teens discover that many of them are struggling with the same basic issue at home: the adults in their lives do not listen to them or take their ideas and wishes seriously. This is a theme that will truly resonate with young readers and their actions both at the political levels and the personal levels are compelling to follow.

 

One of the major highlights of this book is the character development. Larsen has crafted 5 vivid and distinct individuals here and the characters truly carry the story. Told in alternating chapters, each voice is strong and authentic, revealing vulnerabilities and growing strengths. The resolution is somewhat ambiguous but readers will come away confident that this group of teens will move on together, providing support and deep friendship to each other.

This is a debut novel and I was really impressed with Larsen’s writing. She frames her story with a somewhat unusual setting – a Jazz Lab – and one that is welcome. The process of making their voices heard is especially timely. The uniting theme of the book and the endearing and authentic voices make this truly something special.

 
 
 

Rust in the Root: An Alternate History to Savor

Lynn:Rust in the Root We keep mentioning the Covid period reading struggles but they remain a difficult issue for us both. As a life-long fantasy reader, I’ve struggled especially to find fantasies that hold my attention. Somehow they all seem the same, including the covers which all seem to have shadowy girls holding swords. In Justine Ireland’s newest, Rust in the Root (Harper/B+B, 2022), I found a fantasy that is extremely clever and unusual with a compelling plot and satisfying conclusion.

So what stands out? First and foremost is the skillful writing, intricate plot, and exquisite world-building. This is an alternate history in a reimagined 1937 America that is dependent on the magical workings based on the force called “the Dynamism.” The ruling classes believe in industry and technology based on the art of Mechomancy while a suppressed group of mostly Black Americans are practitioners of the Mystic arts. Ireland has seamlessly woven many of the events of the history of our own world into this one, creating a world that feels utterly plausible, each careful detail supporting the whole.

The main character called the Peregrine, is a young Floramancer who has come to New York with a dream of becoming a great baker. But her dream has run aground on the prejudice and repression of the city and, down to her last penny, she applies to the Bureau of the Arcane where a corps of Black practitioners ply their trade for the country. The Bureau is deeply engaged in a desperate battle against the Blights that have sprung up around the country – strange mysterious manifestations that poison the land and kill all living things. FDR has promised to repair the Blights and move the country forward and the Peregrine finds herself quickly recruited and sent into a nearby Blight to train and test her. Mentored by the powerful Skylark, the Peregrine discovers a surprising number of powers within her she knew nothing of. Soon they join a team of top mages and their trainees being sent to tackle the Great Blight of Ohio where previous teams of mages have disappeared.

The richly varied band of characters are well developed and instantly intriguing and their fates add intensity to the plot. Ireland never loses track of a detail or a thread yet pulls imaginative surprise after surprise into the story. Terrific dialogue, some welcome humor, and a completely satisfying resolution make this a memorable winner for me.

Ireland is at the top of her game here and this is a book to make readers cheer—even readers suffering their own sort of reading blight. Huzzah!!!

King and Levithan on Censorship for Kids

Lynn:attack of the black rectangles Censorship is a hot and timely subject, especially now. We all hear the news and read about politicians’ rhetoric. For librarians, authors, publishers, and teachers, this is not a new issue although it is especially front and center now. But how do you address censorship with kids? Amy Sarig King has written a terrific new book that does just that for middle-grade students. Attack of the Black Rectangles (Scholastic, Sept. 2022) approaches the subject through the eyes of 6th grader, Mac Delaney.

Mac already has a lot going on in his life. Mac lives with his mom and grandfather, with his erratic dad making occasional visits. Mainly during those, he works on a classic car that belongs to Mac’s grandfather. Increasingly, Mac’s dad tells him that he is really an alien from another world and an anthropologist studying Earth’s culture. Fortunately, Mac has great support from his mom, grandfather, and a close set of friends.

Mac is excited about 6th grade and he thinks his new teacher is “the kind of teacher I’ve wanted my whole if-it’s-not-interesting-I-don’t-care life.” For one thing, their lit circle is starting Jane Yolen’s intriguing book, The Devil’s Arithmetic. But strangely, when Mac gets his book and starts to read, he discovers words in the book that are covered over with black rectangles! What is going on? What are these words, who did this, and why?

King skillfully shows us Mac’s first encounter with censorship, his thought process, and the actions he and his friends undertake. Mac’s voice is wonderfully authentic and very engaging as this important issue is threaded into a compelling story of Mac’s struggles to understand his father, himself, his own coming of age, as well as the wider issues in the world. Interestingly, King has found a way to deal with censorship in a way that largely avoids the various political issues that are currently front and center without diluting the basic issue. This is a perfect book to use in a 6th-grade classroom and is guaranteed to generate discussion and thought.

Cindy: I’m late for my part here, having spent Banned Books Week finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale for my local library’s banned books reading challenge. Now, perhaps, I can finally check out the video series, if I can bring myself to do it. What a chilling read. 

As for King’s novel, I was sold by the cover art. It’s perfect and will certainly draw in young readers and will grace Banned Books Week displays for years. Once inside the pages, it is King’s mastery with characters that brings this story to life. She doesn’t shy from including the adults, and they are well done again here, especially Mac’s grandfather and their important relationship. And Jane Yolen’s surprise entrance at the school board meeting was a delight. Jane is everyone’s hero. Mac and his friends come up against adults who don’t want to admit there’s a problem and those who, instead, listen and support them when they take action. 

Answers in the Pages by David LevithanThe students in Answers in the Pages (Knopf, 2022) by David Levithan, are in the same situation when the parent of one student decides that the class science fiction novel is “inappropriate” for unstated reasons. The book’s structure features the current challenge to the book, alternating with excerpts from the challenged book, and another storyline from the previous generation in this town. The stories all merge at the end and will raise as many questions as answers as readers ponder what is “inappropriate,” how people read texts differently, and the importance of supporting a diversity of readers.

The majority of the challenges in our area, as well as across the country, focus on LGBTQIA+ issues, so books like Levithan’s will provide some food for thought for the younger readers who may wonder what all the fuss is about, while King’s book sheds bright light on the misguided efforts to protect children from words and ideas. My thoughts are with the educators and librarians who are striving to provide books for all of their readers despite the many attacks against them.

 

Having Emotions Means You Are Human…or Does It?: a Rover Named Resilience – A Rover’s Story by Jasmine Warga

Lynn: rover's storyWhat does it mean to be human? Does it mean the ability to wonder, to hope or to be scared? Does it mean recognizing that you have emotions? Jasmine Warga’s newest book explores that important question and she does it in a way that is intriguing, unusual, and compelling. A Rover’s Story (Scholastic, Oct. 2022) began when Warga’s young daughter asked her to turn on the TV to watch the Mars Rover Launch in November 2022. After watching in fascination together, one of her daughters asked Warga, “Mama, do you think the robot is scared?” And a book was born.

Resilience is a robot intended to travel to Mars, take samples and photographs, send home information, and locate another rover that has gone silent. Readers meet Resilience in a NASA lab where workers, especially scientists Raina and Xander, work long into the night to prepare the little robot for its mission. Short chapters alternate at the beginning between Resilience as something happens to create awareness, Sophie (Raina’s daughter), and Journey, another rover in production. Warga skillfully develops all these fascinating characters, both Homosapien and robot as all of them experience the various emotions that make us all who we are.

Spanning over 17 years, the story follows Resilience and his eventual teammates, Fly, his chatty enthusiastic drone, Guardian, a satellite, and the various humans remaining behind. Adventures, catastrophes, loneliness, hope, courage, and, yes, fear, all play a fascinating part in the explorations, both physical and emotional, in this story. I started the book a bit wary of anthropomorphizing the robot but I blew past that at light-year speed. I fell head-over-wheels in love with all these characters and will think about Resilience for a long long time. This would be a great choice for a classroom read-aloud.

Cindy: “Zappedty, zip,” I don’t blame Warga for getting sucked into the lives of the Mars rovers. I was hooked after reading The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity (Clarion, 2012) by Elizabeth Rusch. Even though it was nonfiction, the rovers came alive in her writing and had me rooting for them as if they were human. The blurb on the advanced reader copy of A Rover’s Story describes it as The One and Only Ivan meets The Wild Robot. Having read and loved both of those stories for a similar age level, I would agree. There is much to be learned about what it means to be human in children’s books, and not just from the human characters. The teamwork between the scientists is equaled by that between Resilience, Fly, and Guardian. Sophie has her own worries, at first jealous of the time her mother gives to the rover, then concerned for the project once she meets Resilience and watches the launch, and then problems that aren’t so easily fixable as reprogramming a robot. This is a story that is sure to prompt some discussion amongst tweens, and it really would be a great read-aloud as Lynn suggests. 

Healer & Witch: Nancy Werlin steps into Middle Grade Books

Lynn: Healer & Witch If you think of Nancy Werlin as a YA author, think again. Werlin has just released her first middle grade book, Healer & Witch (Candlewick, 2022) and it is a winner! Her compelling story is a mesmerizing blend of adventure and magic with a medieval France setting and appealing characters. Almost fifteen-year-old Sylvie has grown up in a small French village with her healer grandmother and mother. Sylvie has been especially close to her namesake grandmother and shares her extraordinary gifts. Sylvie’s mother, Jeanne, is a competent caring healer but lacks the others’ powers. When Sylvie’s grandmother dies, the two women struggle with their grief.

Despite her grandmother’s warnings about the use of her power, Sylvie misuses her gift in a misguided attempt to heal. Horrified, Sylvie realizes she desperately needs guidance and sets out to find a teacher who can help. A little boy from her village, Martin, attaches himself to the journey in order to see the world and becomes an ally. In a world where healers and witches are in mortal danger, Sylvie must learn who to trust and how to be herself.

There is lovely writing here with a wonderful storytelling cadence that kept me turning the pages—no small feat in my current lack-of-reading-focus state. The characters are layered and engaging and the adventure kept me captivated. Sylvie’s internal journey is as compelling as her physical one as she grapples with questions about the use and misuse of power and her own place in the world. An outstanding choice for young readers looking for something with a classic feel and modern thoughtful themes.

Cindy: This is hands down my favorite Nancy Werlin book. Sylvie and Martin are both characters that young readers will worry over, laugh with, and root for as they set off on their quest. Sylvie is not seeking her fortune, just the knowledge that she needs to control her out-of-the-ordinary healing powers, and then she just wants to return to her humble home in her very small village. Martin, while young and small, fears little, having endured a lot in his few years. He is ready to seek adventure and new sights. Together, they make a formidable duo. They also both grow and change over the course of the novel. Sylvie’s struggles over the ethics of her magic, her feelings for Monsieur Chouinard, and her definition of her true self will give readers much to ponder and debate. I can’t wait to hear members of our middle school book club discuss this one.

Learning that Werlin wrote the first draft of this book in 1996 was a shock. I’m grateful that she opened that file cabinet and revisited that rejected manuscript. You can read the full story about the genesis of this story at this John Scalzi blog post. I sure hope we see more of Sylvie, Robert, and Martin and their world….and I wouldn’t mind some more relived memories of Grand-mère Sylvie. She has more wisdom to impart, I’m sure.

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.