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.

A Perfect Spot – A Perfect Science Picture Book for Young Readers

Lynn:

I Perfect spotadore Isabelle Simler’s exquisitely beautiful illustrations! Each new book is a new and wondrous visual treat. Her newest, A Perfect Spot (Eerdmans, 2022) has instantly joined Plume, My Wild Cat, and The Blue Hour as some of my favorites.

Here, a tiny Seven Spotted Ladybug completes her metamorphosis and flies off looking for the perfect spot to lay her eggs. A twig, a rosebush, a tall oak, each looks safe but the instant she lands hidden insects reveal themselves. The tired ladybug finally finds a safe place and the cycle begins again.

This is a wonderful way to discuss camouflage and the ways insects employ it to stay hidden for safety or to hunt their prey. Each scene is meticulously detailed and the results are as informative as they are gorgeous.

Back matter includes larger illustrations of each of the insects in the story with accompanying scientific information. Did you know that you can tell the age of a Seven Spotted Ladybug by the depth of their color? This is a glorious purchase for any library and sure to delight young readers, especially those with a passion for insects.

Sweet Potato Pie and Sweet Justice

Lynn:sweet justice Rosa Park’s name is familiar to most of our students but there were so many more people who sacrificed and worked to make the Montgomery Bus Boycott a success. Mara Rockliff brings us the sweet story of one important woman in the her new picture book, Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Random Studio, 2022).

Georgia Gilmore was a cook in a Montgomery restaurant in 1955 and when a bus driver took her dime and then drove away without her, she started her own personal boycott. Georgia was a big woman and after a hot day cooking her feet ached, but Georgia walked the long way home. In December, Georgia was joined by so many others as the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. But Georgia did so much more than walk. After a long day cooking her famous fried chicken and sweet potato pie, Georgia cooked in her own kitchen, selling her delicious food to raise money to support the boycott. When Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested, Georgia testified at his trial and then lost her job because of it. King gave her money to start her own restaurant and Georgia’s place became the gathering spot for planning and organizing as well as for enjoying her chocolate cakes and stuffed green peppers.

I loved this skillfully written story about a truly inspirational woman who remained important in Civil Rights movement after the boycott and who cooked wonderful meals right up to the day she died. Rockliff provides excellent back matter with additional information about Georgia, a note about her sources and an extensive list of sources.

R. Gregory Christie’s warm-toned illustrations are so moving and vibrant, bringing Georgia and her aching feet and generous heart to life. The only thing missing for me was a taste of that sweet potato pie!

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.

PHEW – A Picture Book About a Stinky Subject

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Unsolved Case Files: D.B. Cooper

Cindy: Have we got a new series for you to put on standing order! Escape at 10,000 Feet (Balzer+Bray/HarperAlley, March 2020) by Tom Sullivan is the first book in the new Unsolved Case Files series based on real FBI cases. This graphics-intensive nonfiction title features the D.B. Cooper case, the only unsolved U.S. airplane highjacking case. On Nov. 24, 1971 a man in his 40s wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase entered the Portland International Airport and bought a $20 one-way ticket to Seattle. Once seated in the back of the plane he lit a cigarette and handed a note to a flight attendant. The note?

Miss, I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit next to me.

From there, readers not familiar with the case learn about D.B. Cooper’s demands, the heist of $200,000, and the decades-long search for Cooper and the money. Young readers will be riveted with the details, including the astounding discovery of $5800 of the marked bills by an 8-year-old boy in 1980. Did Cooper survive the jump? If so where is he, and where is the rest of the money? A year or so ago a sixth-grade boy asked me if I had any books about D.B. Cooper. I wish I’d had this book then. The next in the series is Jailbreak at Alcatraz (Sept. 2021). I can’t wait!

Lynn: I know that there is crime and possible death at the heart of this unsolved crime but honestly, what a total hoot this book is!! Today’s kids are far too young to remember the show Dragnet but Tom Sullivan writes with a terrific deadpan Dragnet’s “Joe Friday” voice that is perfect for the topic. OK—most of you faithful readers are probably way too young to remember Dragnet too. So just take my word for it, this is Joe Friday with a sly sense of humor. Since this unsolved crime took place in 1971 when a LOT of things were different, Sullivan had to provide some background information for kids. The hijacker, for example, simply carried his briefcase/bomb on board with him, so one sidebar explains that, yes, in 1971 you just walked on a plane without ever having your baggage security checked. After settling into his seat, the hijacker ordered a drink, lit a cigarette, and handed a note to the stewardess. Here the sidebar assures readers that in 1970 people could smoke anywhere as astonishing as that sounds today. Sidebars also add a wild assortment of related ephemera that is irresistible, such as a diagram of the critically important rear staircase or what all the markings are on a $20 bill or a map of where the 3 bundles of marked bills were found nine years later by some campers.

I love the illustrations in this graphic novel too. Not to mix my references but the style reminds me of another icon of my childhood, the comic Dick Tracy, the crime-fighting hero with a geometric square jaw and unsmiling visage. The drawings are a perfect match to the just-the-facts, ma’am text. I read this in galley so I haven’t yet seen the promised photos from the FBI Files on the case that are to be included in the finished copy but I’m eager to.

Elementary and middle school librarians—you are going to need a zillion copies of this book to meet demand once the kids see it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

How Kids Can Change the World

Lynn: Let’s set politics aside and admit that our world is in big trouble. Kids know it and are motivated to do something about it. But many also feel overwhelmed by the size of the problems and don’t know how to start. Happily, we have a book to help! You Can Change the World: The Kid’s Guide to a Better Planet (Andrews McNeal, 2020) by Lucy Bell is just what the planet doctor ordered. Practical and encouraging, this is a doable catalog of actions that kids everywhere can put into practice, backed up by solid information, interesting facts, and lists of resources.

The opening introduction says it perfectly:

“When we hear about these problems, most of us want to help, but it’s hard to know where to start. And some of these problems are so big, they can seem impossible for one person to fix. But we can fix them, if we each do our part.”

Bell next lists “Things to remember when you’re changing the world.” These are so encouraging, hopeful, and practical! The list reminds readers that change can’t happen in a day and you can’t change it all at once. She also advises kids not to feel they have to read the book cover to cover, but instead pick a topic they are most interested in and start there. The book is beautifully designed for kids to do just that. The table of contents lists 8 broad topics including plastics, food, energy, animal activism, and more. Each section lists simple easy-to-do activities, and why this matters. Bell includes fascinating facts on Did You Know pages that are easily shared and add to the reader’s knowledge. For example, did you know that there are more plastic flamingos in the world than living ones? Or that 85% of all textiles bought by Americans end up in landfills?

This book is an absolute treasure for libraries, teachers, groups, and individual kids! Librarians, buy two if you can! This book is going to get heavy use. I’m off to try the recipe for toothpaste!

Cindy: Certainly, in a book like this for tweens, I figured Greta Thunberg would make an appearance, and she does, but interspersed throughout the book are many other profiles of inspiring youth who are leading the way. Nine-year-old Milo Cress launched the Be Straw Free campaign in 2011, Adeline Tiffanie Suwana, concerned about the natural disasters hitting her town in Indonesia formed the group “Friends of Nature” at the age of 12 and is making a difference in a multitude of projects, Maya Penn (18) has been designing and selling eco-friendly accessories and clothing for ten years, and 14-year-old Solli Raphael of Australia is a writer and slam poet using his voice to fight for the environment and animal protection among other issues. These are just a few of the youth included in the book who are taking action to change the world. Websites and social media links for these youths’ projects are listed in the backmatter along with listings for other organizations, stores, charities, and parks mentioned in the book.

A few of the tips and ideas will have to be put on hold until the pandemic is under control (many stores don’t allow bringing your own bags or snack counters your own cups right now), but there are plenty of ideas that can be put into practice immediately. Parents who are looking for activities to get kids active off of devices and screens will do well to have a copy ready. The recipes, handicraft projects, and gardening ideas for all seasons indoors and out will provide hours of productive activity while helping to change the world for the better. I defy you to just read a few pages and not get sucked in for a longer read…unless you are immediately spurred to start your own project NOW.