Poisoned Water – A Chronicle and a Warning for All Readers

Lynn: The title of Candy Cooper and Marc Aronson’s upcoming book, Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint Michigan Fought for their Lives and Warned the Nation (Bloomsbury, May 2020) nails both the subject matter and the urgency of its subject. This is a horrifying story that will leave every reader not only sickened at what the people of Flint endured but also terrified that a similar situation could or has already happened in their community. Let me be clear here. The water crisis in Flint is not just a story of an already battered and diminished city taking one more horrible blow. The story of Flint’s poisoned water is a story that has already been repeated as citizens discover just what is flowing through the pipes in their cities, their homes, and their schools. I want to say at the start that this is a personal story for me. I have family in Flint and we have watched as this appalling situation unfolded. Our family there has dealt with serious health issues, their property values and equity have plummeted, they use filters on every faucet, and purchase expensive bottled water for all cooking and drinking. They have lost all trust in their government. I believe this book is important and it should be read by every person in the nation.

The authors have done a stellar job of laying out the series of events, explaining the interwoven issues, and documenting their reporting. Candy Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, veteran reporter, winner of the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, and has written for several newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and the Detroit Free Press and is the author of nonfiction books for classrooms. Those of us in the youth literature field know of Marc Aronson’s outstanding nonfiction books for young people. Marc is the winner of the very first Sibert Award and his excellent and meticulously researched books continue to win national awards.

On April 25, 2014, the mayor of Flint pushed a button that cut off the flow of water from long-time supplier Detroit and started the use of the water taken from the Flint River. It was a decision motivated by politics and budgets. Within days the issues and complaints began. Poisoned Water chronicles the horrifying series of events, bad decisions, cover-ups, and lies that destroyed the water system, health, future, and trust of the citizens of Flint, Michigan. Step by step, Cooper lays out the events, carefully documenting her work. The writing is clear and concise, easy to follow and understand. It is also a compelling account, as impossible to put down as a thriller and twice as horrifying because it actually happened to real people who are still suffering today.

Flint is the canary in the minefield that lies at the heart of urban America. Old water systems, lead pipes, aging infrastructures are everywhere. Cooper and Aronson lay out an extreme series of events concisely, include first-hand accounts from the people involved and pack the book with quotations and documentation. It is impossible not to finish reading the book and not be both outraged and infuriated. Do not miss this important and wonderfully crafted book. It is a critical warning to wake up and smell the coffee—and to seriously question what is in the water used in that coffee.

Cindy: This will be the book that I will be talking about all year and handing to everyone I know. We live in the state where this tragedy unfolded so when we caught up with Marc at our state’s school library conference Lynn suggested this topic as an important subject for a future teen nonfiction book. I agreed and am so glad that he and Candy Cooper made it happen. My husband works in wastewater treatment and as the news unfolded he updated me with his rants about what was going on and how wrong it was.  I listened and I had a cursory idea of what was going on, but reading Cooper and Aronson’s book was a whole new experience. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough even though I knew the trajectory of the crisis. The book is packed with quotable lines from those who were poisoned, those who poisoned them, and those who didn’t think it was important. ” Perhaps this quote from a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services nurse to a parent whose young child had lead poisoning from the Flint River water sums up the official response to the water crisis:

“It’s just a few IQ points. It’s not the end of the world.”

Cooper reports that five and half years later “one in five public school children in Flint was eligible for special education, an increase of 56 percent since before the crisis began, according to state figures.” It might not be the end of the world to that nurse, but even a little lead in the body can make a huge difference in a child’s or adult’s life. It’s not news that money controls everything and often to the detriment of the public good, but this tragedy that includes an unconscionable amount of harm to the citizens of Flint should cause everyone concern. From big impacts like the government suppressing information about the rising occurrence of Legionnaire’s Disease, to the daily problem of finding and hauling bottled water while paying exorbitant water bills for unpotable water, to going without hot water for years because you couldn’t afford to replace both your washer and your hot water heater ruined by corrosive water, the story is haunting and might be unbelievable in a dystopian teen novel. In fact, lead poisoning from paint was featured in the 2004 middle school novel, Bucking the Sarge, by Christopher Paul Curtis, a Flint native. No one knew then what ten years would bring to the city.

I have great admiration for the people of Flint who persisted. Who believed in what they knew to be wrong and who continued to fight against great odds and against a great imbalance of power and influence. Their fight continues. Their fight is one that other communities will have to fight if we are not proactive about our most important resource: water. The hero of the story is citizen action.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

Owling: Whoooo Needs This Book? You Do!

Cindy: “You might not realize it, but you need to see an owl.” That’s the opening line of Owling (Storey, 2019) and you not only need to see an owl, but you need to see this book. Starting with a glow-in-the-dark cover, this large square book holds a wealth of fascinating details and gorgeous photographs of the 19 owls species that breed and nest in the United States and Canada. Can owls really turn their heads 360 degrees? How do an owl’s uneven ears help him pinpoint prey? These and other questions are answered in engaging text. Most welcome is the author Mark Wilson’s challenge to common owl “facts” not documented by research studies and his admission when his long study of owls leaves him without sure answers. Research never ends and we rarely have all the answers. 2-4 page spreads feature a specific owl species with a selection of photos, range maps, feather detail, size, behavior, voice, nesting behavior, menu, or other interesting features. The section on Poop and Pellets is sure to be a hit with the target audience, particularly if they’ve ever dissected an owl pellet to learn about an owl’s diet. The section on how to spot an owl has helpful tips that may produce success for young (and old) birders. Lynn heard about this book and then I received a review copy and have been reluctant to hand it over, but we can’t wait any longer to hoot about its publication. Owling is a perfect identification guide for a young birder, but it is so much more, and it has a place in elementary and middle school libraries and elementary science classrooms. Whooooo needs this book? You do!

Lynn: I really appreciate how this outstanding book is organized, the wonderfully researched information presented, and how much is packed into the book. But I need to mention the sheer audience appeal of the production. Talk about a kid magnet! Put this gorgeous book on display and watch it instantly fly off the shelf. Mark Wilson’s photographs almost steal the show. Every single page has a gallery of jaw-dropping pictures that beg to be studied. The images range from small collections illustrating a particular point to full-page photographs that are works of art. The painted illustrations by Jada Fitch are amazing, too.

I learned so much! The small sections showing what each of the various owls eats, “On the Menu,” was interesting and surprising. As a life-long birder, I really valued the identification information, especially tips on what each variety might be mistaken for and how to avoid that. Also as a birder, I loved the section of how to FIND owls in nature with its additional caution of how to also respect and treat them if you do find them or their roosts. Finally, also in the concluding sections, there is information on some of the current and on-going research projects on owls. The back matter includes a glossary and an extensive list of where to find Owls in Captivity by state so that readers can follow Wilson’s advice and become familiar with the appearance of the various owls.

Finally, I am on a mission to find my slides that were taken in the back yard of our first Holland house that sat in an old deeply forested woods. We had nesting Great Horned Owls there and summer after summer, a pair of adults parked their fledged but still dependent owlets on our deck during the day, I’m guessing while they went to hunt. The owlets were almost as big as the adults and absolutely delightful to watch. The squirrels seemed to know how clumsy the owl babies were and teased them by running just out of their reach on the railing underneath them.

Here is my picture of an Eastern Screech Owl but since I am no Mark Wilson, I urge you to find this book and see some REALLY terrific pictures!

Bringing Down a President – A History for Today’s Teens

Lynn: With the term impeachment on everyone’s minds, Bringing Down a President: The Watergate Scandal (Roaring Brook, 2019) by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy couldn’t be more timely!

In chronological order, the authors take readers step-by-step through the events of the unfolding Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon. Beginning with the day Nixon installed the secret recording devices in the White House that became so pivotal, the authors then move to the break-in of the Democratic headquarters and follow the chain of events that brought down a presidency. The narrative device used by the authors called “Fly on the Wall” is chatty and irreverent but it clearly distinguishes between actual quotations and clarifying expositions that will help teen readers to sort through the convoluted issues of what was said in public, what was said in secret, and what lay at the heart of the actions of the Nixon staff.

For all of its light approach, the book is very clear on the moral and constitutional elements at the heart of the scandal and it is startling how many of these same elements are in play today on the national scene. Nixon’s statement that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal” is strongly disputed here with a legal and constitutional basis for this contention. Balis and Levy do an excellent job of presenting a clear accounting of who did what when and why it mattered. Having lived through this unfolding scandal, I remember the confusion, doubt, and fear that afflicted most of us and I think the authors do an excellent job of conveying the prevailing culture of public trust in the government that had mostly existed at the time and the impact of the scandal both then and on today’s cynical climate of distrust and suspicion.

Back matter includes a terrific Timeline (how I wish I’d had THIS at the time) and outstanding Source Notes. Throughout the book, the authors make it clear why accurate sources are critical to the accounting and in this time of political ambiguity, the authors are also clear on what is morally and legally right and what is not. Wonderful black and white illustration add to this lively you-are-there accounting. Fascinating and important!

 

Adorable New Pet Guides from National Geographic

Lynn: Some of the most popular nonfiction books in our middle school libraries over the years have been pet books and especially books about the different breeds of dogs and cats. So it is always exciting to see new ones come out. National Geographic is publishing two in September that are going to make youth librarians and their pet-crazy patrons very happy!

First up is Cat Breed Guide: A Complete Reference to Your Purr-fect Best Friend  (National Geographic, Sept. 2019). The book begins with a chapter titled, “What Is a Cat?” that discusses the history of domesticity, family tree, anatomy, and terms for coat and configuration and an explanation of breeds. Next, is the main focus of the book: two page spreads defining and depicting the many breeds of cats. Each explanation provides information about the individual breed and their characteristics. And, of course, each example features outstanding full color, full-page photographs of each breed as well as other smaller photos and an insert called “Cat Stats.”

Anyone who likes cats or who just loves terrific animal photographs is going to be mesmerized. The information and vocabulary are geared to a young audience but use appropriate terms and still respect the knowledge of the reader.

Our family has had many cats and dogs over the years and the cats have all been strays or shelter cats but this book makes me want to add some of these gorgeous breeds to the family! A final chapter provides excellent information on owning a cat, how to care for them, and what to consider before you add one of these furry personalities to your life!

Cindy: The, ahem, “companion” book, Dog Breed Guide: A Complete Reference to Your Best Friend Fur-Ever by T. J. Resler and Gary Weitzman, D.V.M. features a similar format. The breeds are arranged in categories like Primitive Dogs, Herding, Scent Hounds, Designer Dogs, and others. Inserted between those categories are double-page spreads about varied topics such as “On The Job,” which features police and military K-9s, Detection Dogs, Search-and-Rescue Dogs, and Therapy and Service Dogs. There’s a great flowchart for how to select the right dog for you, including the suggestion to not select a dog at all if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle. Other backmatter similar to the cat guide is helpful, but truly, you need this book in your library or pet-loving home just for its great dog photographs and browsing fun. In fact, libraries should probably buy multiple copies of both of these titles…they’ll be that popular. Promise.

 

Bears in the Backyard – Oh My!

Backyard Bears by Amy CherrixLynn: Question: what does a wildlife biologist use to bait a live trap for a bear? Answer: day-old doughnuts! This may sound like a joke but it’s true and it is also only one of many fascinating things I learned in Backyard Bears: Conservation, Habitat Changes, and the Rise of Urban Wildlife (Houghton, 2019) by Amy Cherrix.

As human populations expand into what was once wild territory, more and more animals are now forced to live in close proximity to people. A prime example are the growing numbers of black bears who live in and around the city of Asheville, North Carolina. So far, black bears and the people of Asheville seem to be tolerating each other well but there are many questions about how best to manage this coexistence! 4 wildlife biologists set out to do a 5-year study of Asheville’s urban/suburban bear population. Author Amy Cherrix was invited to come along with the scientists as they carried out their work which included live-trapping bears for assessment and equipping them with radio-transmitters. The opening chapter chronicles the darting of a mother bear and extracting her tiny cub from a den high in a tree!

Packed with fascinating information about bears and human/bear interactions, the focus of the book, as in others in the Scientists in the Field series, is a clear look at the scientists doing this important work and a detailed look at how they carry out their research. Cherrix’s lively text is as captivating as the furry subjects of the research. But make no mistake, as people-tolerant as Asheville’s bears have been, they can weigh up to 700 pounds and be both destructive and dangerous. As Cherrix reports, this study hopes to answer many questions to help with the future of both bears and people.

Cindy: According to the chapter “A World Going Wild,” black bears are not the only creatures making their homes in urban areas. Whether it is leopards in Mumbai, India, wild boars in Berlin, Germany, or less threatening chickens, roosters, and turkeys in many areas, it’s clear that our human environments are encroaching on wildlife and learning to co-exist is paramount. A section in this chapter highlights the problems being caused by the murmurations of European starlings that are an invasive species here in the United States. A flock arrived in my backyard last fall making me think I was in Hitchcock’s The Birds movie

Backmatter includes tips for how to behave in a bear encounter, ways to be bearwise, web resources, glossary, and notes and index. Another fine entry in this stellar series.

Hop to It – Cynthia Lord’s New Rabbit Books

Lynn: Things are really hopping at Newbery Honor author Cynthia Lord’s house. As proof, we offer her two new enchanting books that both feature rabbits. They also happen to have the most enticing and adorable covers EVER! In fact, we think all you’ll have to do to promote these is to set them face out on the shelf and stand back. And, since you may never get much chance to read them once the kids see them, here’s what is happening inside those covers.

Lord and her family foster rabbits rescued by Maine’s Cottontail Cottage Rabbit Rescue. They help rescued domestic rabbits learn to trust humans and live in a house so they can be adopted. In her new nonfiction picture book, Borrowing Bunnies: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits (Farrar, 2019), Lord tells the story of when two Netherland dwarf rabbits joined the family. Lord’s husband, professional photographer John Bald, decided to photograph their steps toward adoption. It was quite a surprise when one of the rabbits gave birth to four tiny babies. Sadly two of the babies died but the remaining two, Fezzi and Dodger, prospered.

The book introduces the original two rabbits, explains what fostering is and how rabbits are helped to feel safe and comfortable. The story then documents the surprising arrival of the babies and follows their growth and development. Lord uses clear simple text suited to young readers, focusing on rabbit behavior.

The wide format and white background provide the perfect format for John Bald’s enchanting photographs of these irresistible creatures. And if all this cuteness wasn’t enough, charming sketches from illustrator Hazel Mitchell skip through the pages. What reader will not instantly yearn to add a rabbit to their family immediately? Happily, Cynthia Lord was well aware of this and has provided an important final page titled, ” Do You Want Your Own Rabbit for Keeps?” Here she emphasizes the need to do additional rabbit research and offers 5 important questions to answer before becoming a bunny owner.

Cindy: The cover art drew both Lynn and me to Lord’s fiction title, Because of the Rabbit (Scholastic, 2019) and it’s sure to attract young readers. Each chapter opens with a torn scrap of lined paper with a rabbit fact, which also coordinates with the focus of the story in that chapter. Emma’s homeschooling is coming to an end as the book opens. It’s the night before she is off to start 5th grade at a public school and she is nervous about finding a friend and setting a good first impression. Her school supplies are ready, but is she? That night she accompanies her game warden father to rescue a bunny caught in a fence. When they do, they discover it’s not a wild rabbit that can be released, but a pet breed that may have an owner looking for it. Emma convinces her dad that they should take it home to foster until they can find the owner. In addition to bunny wrangling, Emma gets paired with a boy named Jack for a big project. He is on the autism spectrum and friendship doesn’t come easily. As a storyteller, I really enjoyed the integration of trickster bunny Monsieur Lapin’s tales that Emma recounts from her grandfather’s storytelling. Lord writes books that children connect with, and this one will find a ready audience.

Publisher’s Weekly published a Q&A with Cynthia Lord earlier this month that will interest readers who want to know more about Lord’s fascination with bunnies and other animals and her personal experiences that informed her storytelling.

Inventor of Nothing: Rube Goldberg for Kids

Cindy: Just Like Rube Goldberg by Sarah AronsonI’ve long been a fan of Rube Goldberg’s crazy impractical inventions but knew little about his path to producing them. Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines (Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane, 2019) by Sara Aronson delivers the goods, and with much less meandering than Goldberg might have used. Children who know nothing about Rube Goldberg or the game of Mousetrap that his work spawned, will still be attracted to the book by the zany cover art that turns the inventor’s name into one of his own silly inventions.

Rube’s childhood interest in art and desire to grow up to be a cartoonist met with dismay and horror from his German immigrant parents who feared for his future. He earned an engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley and became a city engineer but quit after six months, hating the work. He kept drawing while he did grunt jobs at the San Francisco Chronicle but he never quit drawing. After the 1906 Earthquake, he ended up moving to New York City where his cartooning career took off. His favorite comic work was perfectly timed with the industrial revolution as machines took over many jobs. Goldberg invented nothing useful as he used absurd pulleys, levers, and other more oddball additions to make a simple task very complicated. For instance, a machine to put holes in doughnuts starts with a goat chewing a carrot, that moves a ghost to scare a bird to lay an egg that eventually results in a cannon blasting a ball up through a lump of dough tossed above it by “Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts,” Rube’s cartoon alter ego.

While aimed at a younger audience, older readers (and STEAM teachers) will delight in this introduction to Rube’s work.

Lynn: Sarah Aronson does a wonderful job of bringing readers a sense of Goldberg’s personality, his curiosity, and clear-eyed appreciation of the ridiculous. As he said, machines were a “symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.” I love illustrator Robert Neubecker’s colorful humorous illustrations that do such a terrific job of capturing Goldberg’s manic style. Kids will be captivated and motivated to create their own Goldberg-type designs.

We can’t resist concluding our post on this engaging picture book by mentioning another tribute to Goldberg and his spirit. The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest is a competition held annually at Purdue University. The history of the contest dates back to the 1930s when it began as a competition between two engineering fraternities. Today the contest has been expanded beyond just the university level to include elementary, middle, and high school students and can be done either as a physical or online creation. The competition is meant to celebrate Goldberg’s spirit as well as to encourage and develop an interest in engineering, design, problem-solving, and having fun.

This year’s challenge is to put money in a piggy bank – in as complicated a Goldberg way as possible. Take a peek at this video of the Purdue University team’s solution to the 2017 challenge of putting on a band-aid!

But, wait! There’s more...check out these other titles to extend the learning and the fun:

The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius (Abrams, 2013) by Jennifer George (Goldberg’s granddaughter)

Build Your Own Chain Reaction Machines by Paul LongBuild Your Own Chain Reaction Machines: How to Make Crazy Contraptions Using Everyday Stuff (Quarto, 2018) by Paul Long. Every MakerSpace or STEAM classroom needs this book.

Rube Goldberg Inventions (Simon & Schuster, 2000) by Maynard Frank Wolfe

Ruby Goldberg’s Bright Idea (Simon & Schuster, 2014) by Anna Humphrey. A middle grade novel about a 5th grader who builds a Rube Goldbergesque machine for her school science fair.