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.

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.

Return to the Old Kingdom – Terciel & Elinor

Lynn: Terciel & ElinorNice things often land on my porch and recently something especially nice arrived. It was an unexpected surprise too—one I didn’t even know was coming. Inside the box was an advanced reader copy of Terciel & Elinor (Harper/Katherine Tegen, Nov. 2021) by Garth Nix, a prequel to one of my all time favorite series, The Old Kingdom series. I read it immediately, no putting it on my to-read stack nonsense! I am happy to report that this was an entirely absorbing and wonderful reading experience! From the very first sentence, I slid effortlessly back into the Old Kingdom. There are few authors who do world building as well as Garth NIx and the world he has been developing since Sabriel published in 1996 has been captivating readers ever since. Terciel & Elinor gives us the backstory of Sabriel’s parents and begins with their two separate story lines.

Terciel is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting to his Great Great Aunt, the Abhorsen Tizanael. The bells came to Terciel, a poor orphaned street child, when his sister, the previous Abhorsen-in-Waiting died. Now a young man, Terciel is learning the art of necromancy, preparing to take his place in time helping to the lay the dead to rest and to assure that the Dead do not arise and walk again.

On the other side of the Wall from the Old Kingdom, 19-year-old Elinore lives a sheltered life in a large estate slowly falling to ruin. Her mother, a cold and distant figure, lies dying. Elinor, who has been raised primarily by her governess and groom, a famous ex-circus performer, discovers that the her house and estate is about to be foreclosed by creditors. Elinor has no knowledge of the magic of the Old Kingdom or of her own deep connections to it. But the wind is blowing from the North and the Dead are stirring and gathering power. Terciel arrives to reveal that evil is present in the house and what has lain in her mother’s bed is not her mother. The plot that awaits them threatens all on both sides of the Wall and Elinor’s life will never be the same.

Richly developed characters, a breathless plot, and masterful setting are all trademarks of this series and Nix provides them once again in this immersive story. Readers new to the series can begin here and fans of the series will be enthralled by this addition. I admit to slowing my reading as I neared the end, I was so reluctant to leave the Old Kingdom behind. And, now, of course, I cannot resist re-reading the rest of this wonderful series once again. See you when I surface!

Cindy: I received this magical package as well and made the mistake of loaning it first to one of our teen book club alumni who had to fight her own mother for it! I got it back quickly, though, as neither of them could put it down, and I add my praise to that of Lynn and my fellow Nix fans. 

Sabriel opened with this line:

“The woman who had staggered into their forest camp was dead, only holding on to life long enough to pass it on to the baby at her side.”

Now we have some of Sabriel’s mother’s backstory, and her father’s, and what a story it is. The Old Kingdom series is for teen and adult readers who don’t care about the romantic triangles prompting readers to choose “teams.” Nix’s female characters are strong and capable and aren’t sitting around waiting for the male lead to save them. His stories demand focus and attention and provide a rich reading experience. The descriptions of the dead use all of your senses (!) but there are touches of humor and wit to lighten the darkness. I’m left wanting to reread the series, too, but I’ll probably opt for listening to them, if only to hear Tim Curry read them to me again! Antici………….pa-tion. 

Magicked Gingerbread & Sourdough Starter Save the Day!

Cindy: Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T KingfisherI’ve baked hundreds of gingerbread people in my day, but I’ve never been able to make them rise from the cookie sheet and dance or fight off invaders, like Mona does in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Argyll, 2020) by T. Kingfisher. The tag line on the cover (Siege. Sorcery. Sourdough.) tells you most everything you need to know. If you aren’t intrigued by the title, the tag line, and the cover art, this book probably isn’t for you.  I’ll give you a few details, though, since I’m eager to promote this book to everyone who likes a good fluffy biscuit, whether it’s been magicked to be fluffy or got there on its own. Fourteen-year-old orphan Mona works in her aunt’s bakery and in a world where some people have magical talents, she has a way with dough. In the bakery basement lives Bob, a loyal sourdough starter that blurps and fights with the best of the kingdom’s defenders when some mages-turned-evil try a coup against the reigning out-of-touch duchess.

When Mona finds a dead body in the bakery very early one morning, her life becomes, shall we say, complicated. Initially she runs to save her own life after Bob saves her from an attack but eventually she finds herself in a fight to save the kingdom that involves twelve-foot-tall gingerbread golums under her control. As a loyal citizen, and someone who is fighting to be accepted for her differences, she takes on the battle, but Mona is rightfully resentful.  Why are a couple of kids having to get involved with something that adults in power should have paid attention to and handled? Many teens will relate to that sentiment with the non-magical issues facing us today.

This book flew under the radar for me until a friend read it and raved about it. When I read Kingfisher’s story about the long fight to bring this story to print, I wish I’d been able to send some gingerbread men of my own to help her. At any rate, I’m thrilled to have found it and read it, and dare I hope for a sequel??? Did I mention that I loved this absolutely charming book?

Lynn:  Cindy is absolutely right about this delightful book! I had it on a to-read list but it certainly wasn’t on my active radar. Thanks to an on-the-ball friend who insisted we read this!

If you are looking for something that is the perfect recipe for a summer escape, this book is the delicious answer. Having used a sourdough starter in my past and watching my daughter-in-law now giving it away to everyone, I laughed out loud at Bob—every sourdough baker’s nemesis. And who would imagine a gingerbread cookie army?

Great characters, a fairy-tale trope baked to perfection, and plenty of humor sprinkled on top—this is a satisfying treat that mustn’t be missed!

Cindy & Lynn: Readers, have YOU read anything else by T. Kingfisher? We are placing library holds as we post this; what should we read next?

Cruella: Hello, Cruel Heart

Cindy: Hello Cruel Heart by Maureen JohnsonEveryone loves an origin story, and who better to learn about than Cruella de Vil? I mean, who makes coats out of puppy skins??? I read the Dodie Smith original The Hundred and One Dalmatians story, but I must have seen the Disney version more than a hundred and one times when my daughter was young. It was her favorite for years. I haven’t watched the new Cruella Walt Disney Studios film yet, but I couldn’t pass up Hello, Cruel Heart (Disney/Hyperion, 2021), a Maureen Johnson novel inspired by the movie. Here we find Estella squatting in a London hideout with two other waifs who had taken her in off the street when she was orphaned. Horace and Jasper taught Estella all of their pick pocket skills and over the years she learns to create the costumes and disguises for their bigger jobs, using a rescued sewing machine and fabric she lifts from all the finest shops. When fortunes finally change for Estella and she has an opportunity to leave her world of crime for one of fashion and fame, she doesn’t think twice about leaving her “family” behind. Johnson’s descriptions of late 60s London, the fashion and music scene, lunching in Soho, and the lure of Harrod’s for picking the pockets of the posh, are fabulous. Add in a dash of romance and an ending worthy of the best villian, and you have a fun romp of a read that might elicit just the tiniest bit of sympathy for the future Cruella de Vil.

Lynn: Tiniest bit of sympathy, Cindy? Oh I had a LOT of sympathy for Estella (Cruella-to-be) even with the knowledge of her as a future puppy poacher planning dastardly designs! Maureen Johnson gives us a fun romp as, Cindy says, but my heart really did ache for Estella as her dreams and heart got stomped on by those knee-high Soho boots!

The Soho scenes and Estelle’s fabulous fashions completely stole the show in this cinematic tale. I haven’t seen the new movie either but I can’t wait to see if it does ample justice to Maureen Johnson’s stylish and highly entertaining descriptions. This was a real delight to read and the perfect choice for readers looking for something diverting AND smart at the same time. In Johnson’s expert hands, Cruella becomes as three-dimensional as her fashion creations and readers may come just a bit closer to forgiving her future furry schemes.

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!

Love, Jacaranda: A Sweet Nod to Daddy-Long-Legs

Lynn: Bookends readers know well that I am an escapist reader. I love humor, happy endings and books that make me smile. Back in my working days as a school librarian, I realized that many of my young readers craved the same sort of diversions. “Can you help me find a fun book?” was such a common request that I kept a list ready to hand out. All that is to say that Alix Flinn’s latest book would fit perfectly on that list. Love, Jacaranda (Harper, 2020) has all the elements that I and so many teen readers love. There is a hard-working, lonely protagonist struggling against life’s challenges, an engaging set of secondary characters, an intriguing setting, a romantic tangle, and a sweet happy ending. What more could you want? Well, in my case there is more icing on the cake—it is an epistolary novel (a form I love) AND it is a charming re-telling of one of my all-time favorite childhood books, Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster published in 1912. And no, I am not that old that I remember the original! However, if you want an interesting look at book covers, take a look at how this one has changed over the years.

Jacaranda Abbott has lived in a series of foster homes since her mother was sent to prison for attempted murder. The talented sixteen-year-old dreams of a theatrical future but the reality seems dim until one day a video of her singing to a customer at her Publix market job goes viral. Out of the blue arrives an offer by an anonymous benefactor to pay her way at a prestigious art academy in northern Michigan. In a wonderful blur, she suddenly finds herself studying what she loves, living in a room of her own, and having real friends. Ashamed of her background though, Jackie (as she now calls herself) conceals her family history. Deeply grateful for her opportunity, Jacaranda writes to her unknown benefactor calling him Mr. Smith and pours out her experiences, dreams, and struggles in letters that are heartfelt, frank, and delightful.

Readers will root for Jacaranda, cheer her hard work and her sweet budding romance with a roommate’s wealthy cousin. Along the way, there are some thoughtful themes about class and opportunities, mother-daughter relationships, and forgiveness. It isn’t necessary to have read the classic Daddy-Long-Legs to love this story but those who have will find many delightful embedded references. And perhaps those who haven’t will seek out the original. Either way, lace up your dancing shoes, get ready to make of list of wonderful Broadway shows to visit or meet for the first time with Jacaranda. Readers are in for a treat!