Redefining Beauty – A Face For Picasso

Face for PicassoLynn: What is beauty? That question has deeply impacted lives, especially of women, through time and remains a dominant force today. And how does that definition dominate your life and worth if you are not beautiful by the classic ideal? Perhaps none know the answers to that better than Ariel and her twin sister Zan, born with a rare genetic disorder, Crouzon Syndrome. The life-threatening disorder causes the bones of a person’s face to fuse in infancy. With the skull unable to expand, the brain’s and face’s normal growth cannot happen. To save their lives, the twins underwent dangerous surgery at 8 months of age and eventually more than 60 surgeries to “correct” their facial features.

Ariel Henley’s searing memoir brings this experience to readers in her debut book and it is unforgettable. When they were young children, a national magazine carried a story about the twins, writing that, “their faces resemble the works of Picasso.” Henley uses Picasso’s appalling life story and treatment of women to frame her story, eventually reclaiming her life from that narrow definition and moving past it. Her story is broken into three parts, Before, After, and Healing with 7th grade, an especially emotionally traumatic year, as the midpoint.

Henley’s account describes the risky, often experimental, and incredibly painful surgeries in some detail but the most enduring pain she describes is the treatment and reactions of other people. That pain was deeper and more lasting than any surgical procedure and marked the twins in ways that it has taken decades to deal with. The casual cruelty of other people is the stuff of nightmares and Henley writes of it with great skill. The twins had a wonderfully supportive family and childhood friends but for years the reactions of others defined their sense of worth. Ariel Henley has come a long way in her healing and her story is both painful to read and incredibly inspiring. She is a writer to watch and a person to cheer for. Her reflections on beauty and how we as women allow that ideal to define us is, for me, the heart of this story. I will be pondering this for weeks to come.

Sadly, this book was hard to find in my public library consortium. It should be purchased by all libraries and available for teens and adults everywhere.

 
 
 

Queen of the Tiles: Scrabble Slays

Queen of the TilesLynn: REGICIDE is the first ominous clue in Hanna Alkaf’s unusual mystery, Queen of the Tiles (S&S/Salaam, 2022).  Trina Lowe was the reigning “Queen of the Tiles” when she suddenly keeled over the Scrabble Board and died just one year ago. Still struggling to recover from the trauma of that event, Trina’s best friend Najwa Bakri is making her first appearance at a tournament since that event. Najwa is determined to win the championship to honor Trina and figure out the mystery of her death. Was it a tragic accident or was it murder? As Najwa begins to work with her friends and fellow competitors, she is horrified to see cryptic messages appearing on Trina’s Instagram account. Each message includes a series of Scrabble tile letters as a clue. Who is sending the messages and can anyone be trusted?

Set in Kuala Lampur, Alkaf skillfully weaves Malaysian culture and the fascinating details of competitive Scrabble into the story. And, yes, there IS such a thing as competitive Scrabble. Each chapter begins with a word spelled out in Scrabble tiles, its definition and point value. Enough background is provided so that even Scrabble newbies won’t feel like they’ve drawn a terrible rack. The tension ratchets up as the competition and Najwa’s investigations move along. There is bagful of red herrings and Najwa, her friends and fellow competitors slowly begin to put together all the tiles to spell out the surprising answers.

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.

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. 

Deb Caletti: One Great Lie – Historical Fiction

Lynn: One Great Lie by Deb CalettiThe cover and the initial plot of Deb Caletti’s newest, One Great Lie (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) could lead readers to think this is a light sweet story of a summer spent in beautiful Venice. A college-bound aspiring writer wins a scholarship to a writing program being held in Venice, Italy. For Charlotte, the biggest thrill is that it is being taught by her favorite author, Luca Bruni.  Readers will be in for a surprise but really, shouldn’t we know that Deb Caletti always offers a lot to think about?

There is a smoldering anger in Caletti’s writing here as she builds a fire made of historical evidence of how women were treated in the Italy of the 1500’s. Outspoken women, women of intellect or artistic ability or simply young women who were inconvenient to their fathers, brothers, or spouses were casually disposed of to convents or prisons. Along side these embers, Caletti adds the fuel of a modern story of casual dismissal, appropriation, and shaming for young women at the hands of a powerful man. It is a scorching story of historical injustice that continues today and no one reading this story will miss the heat or fail to build their own fire of anger.

There is a lot happening here. A compelling family mystery, a first deep love, a story of sisterhood, coming of age, and taking a stand. All this is set in the watery ancient beauty of the city of Venice. I am a long-time fan of Deb Caletti’s books and and this is one that demands much of the reader. I needed time to process the story when I finished it and I know it is one that is going to stay with readers for a long time.

Autographed Books: Like, Feed

Feed by MT AndersonCindy: I’ve recently added some bookshelves in my house (yay!), which prompted a reorganization of my collections. As I sorted and tried to purge some books, I also had my hands on old favorites that won’t be moved along. Some of my favorites come from award committees or special publisher events where I picked up personalized autographs from favorite authors. Lynn and I thought it might be fun to start an occasional feature of some of our autographed books and any stories that might accompany them. Well, at least those that we have permission to share. Let us know what you think.

One of my very favorites came from my first meeting with M.T. Anderson. 2002 was my second year serving on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and Feed was a National Book Award Finalist. At the time, I had middle school age daughters who used the word, “like,” more often than the characters slinging slang in Anderson’s futuristic story about never being able to turn off the “feed” because it has been implanted in your brain. At the dinner, I told Tobin that I’d started charging my daughters 25 cents per “like” used incorrectly, mostly because the bad habit had spread to my own speech. One night at dinner I began to sound like an auctionneer: “25, 50, 75 cents, a dollar!” We laughed and when he later signed my book, this was the autograph! I, like, cherish it, like, immensely!