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

Celebrating Pluto in Out-of-This World Picture Books

Lynn: Who doesn’t love an underdog or in this case an underplanet? Lots of us have been rooting for Pluto ever since it got reclassified as an ice dwarf a while ago. Adam Rex tops my planetary chart though with his hilarious AND informative new picture book on Pluto, Pluto Gets the Call (S&S/Beach Lane, 2019). Cindy and I were lucky enough to get to see illustrator Laurie Keller’s artwork for the book at a preview luncheon at ALA and we fell in love with the book way back then. The finished copy is now out and the wait has been worth it!

Pluto is all set to take us on a tour of the solar system when he gets a call. Yes, THE call from scientists on Earth with the distressing news that our googly-eyed tour guide has been demoted. Sadly but gamely, Pluto goes on with the tour, introducing us to the “real” planets and providing solid information on each one along the way. Skipping Earth because he “doesn’t want to talk about humans right now,” Pluto finally makes it to the Sun who cheers him up and reminds him that scientists are still arguing about him. Solar System facts are incorporated throughout the story in a way that kids will delight in and remember. A two-page spread as back matter also provides a wealth of additional information from the number of moons each planet has, the distance from the sun and what the planets were named after and more. Adam Rex’s bubble-speech dialog is snappy and packed with great one-liners kids will love. Laurie Keller’s terrific comic-style illustrations are colorful and funny and a perfect extension of Rex’s text.

This is a must-have addition to collections everywhere needing updated information on Pluto and the Solar System! This one is truly out-of-this-world.

 

Cindy: Pair Rex and Keller’s book with The Girl Who Named Pluto: The story of Venetia Burney (Schwartz & Wade, 2019) for a little history about Pluto. Author Alice B. McGinty tells the story of Venetia, a young British girl, who was fascinated when she learned in 1930 that a new planet had been discovered. The granddaughter of the Oxford head librarian and great-niece of a science master who named the two moons that orbit Mars, she came by her curiosity and love of science quite naturally. The book opens with a classroom walking/measuring demonstration of the distance between planets that many elementary teachers still use today. When Venetia learned about the new planet from her grandfather, she thought of how “frozen, dark, and lifeless” Pluto must be and she was reminded of the Roman myth underworld, ruled by Neptune’s brother, Pluto. Her grandfather likes the name and writes a letter to put it forward as a suggestion. Elizabeth Haidle’s illustrations provide the right atmosphere and an author’s note provides more history about Venetia, including a great connection to a recent student-built instrument aboard the New Horizons robotic spacecraft that has several connections to the young girl who named the Pluto.

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!

The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach

Lynn: I loved Ross Burach’s new picture book, The Very Impatient Caterpillar (Scholastic, 2019) from the moment I saw the cover. Burach is totally tuned into an important aspect of young readers. They can be intensely interested in the factual side of a topic while at the same time loving a goofily ridiculous take on it. This picture book presents the important and almost miraculous biological topic of metamorphosis while also managing to yank on the uniquely silly funny bones so typical of little kids.

A rather clueless green caterpillar notices that all his buddies are going somewhere without him. They tell him they are going to metamorphosize. “Wait,” he yells, “You’re telling me I can become a BUTTERFLY?” The caterpillar has no idea what to do and once he finally manages to become a chrysalis he nearly melts down when he discovers he is going to have to wait 2 weeks! My favorite part of this hilarious book is the section depicting the ways the caterpillar tries to pass the time inside the chrysalis.

I’m happy to report that this delightful book has already received 2 big thumbs up from the five-year-old member of our focus group whose teacher had read this to their class as part of a caterpillar unit. He assured me that it was the funniest book EVER!

Cindy: “Are we there yet?” What parent hasn’t heard that refrain from the backseat. Patience is a virtue but is often in short supply these days. This book pokes fun at that while the science and magic spins away and wraps us in a fun information presentation. Burach’s art is a brightly colored mix of pencil, crayon, acrylic paint, and digital coloring. Who knew caterpillars had such expressive tongues and eyes! The art teacher will want to take a look at this one, too! She’s going to need the full 64-pack of crayons for these wild butterflies!

 

“Dem Bones Gonna Rise Again” – Paleontology Picture Books

Lynn: Kids are fascinated by dinosaurs as librarians can attest just by pointing to the decimated shelves of 567.9s. Today we have two new books that are not only about dinosaurs, they are also about the discovery and excavation of two HUGE and important sets of bones.

The first is Titanosaur: Discovering the World’s Largest Dinosaur (Scholastic/Orchard, 2019) by the two paleontologists, Dr. Jose Luis Carballido and Dr. Diego Pol. It all began on a hot summer day in Patagonia, Argentina, when a gaucho looking for a missing sheep found a large mound with what seemed to be a huge bone. A few months later while in town, the gaucho passed the museum with a dinosaur skeleton on display. He went in and told the two paleontologists that he had found a bone that looked just like those on display. Rushing to the site, Dr. Carallido took one look at the bone and site and knew they had something special.

Using clear accessible language, the authors explain the exciting but difficult task that followed including the careful excavation, examination, preservation, transport, and reconstruction of the enormous bones. The skeleton turned out to be the largest dinosaur bones found so far, a Titanosaur, a dinosaur that weighed over 70 tons in life. The remote site and the size of the bones provided huge hurdles for the team of scientists to overcome.

The illustrations by Florencia Gigena are as stunning as the discovery. Taking full advantage of the oversize format, Gigena’s watercolors fill the pages, providing a wonderful immediacy that also further extends the text. Color photographs are inset on sidebars that provide additional explanations of the events or scientific terms. A jaw-dropping 2-page photograph of the re-assembled skeleton is a splendid finish to this fascinating book. This riveting book is sure to inspire a new generation of paleontologists!

Cindy: Our second book is the nonfiction picture book When Sue Found Sue (Abrams, May 14, 2019), by Toni Buzzeo that unearths the story of Sue Hendrickson’s discovery of the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton found to this date. Sue’s fascination with finding things began in childhood and she became a collector of curiosities while she fueled her curiosity for learning. This led her on adventures diving in oceans, searching mines, fossil hunting in Peru and finally searching for dinosaur fossils in North Dakota where, after several years, a hunch led her to a cliff where she discovered three backbones. The bones would eventually be excavated and named Sue the T. rex, on display now at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I visited the museum years ago when the bones were being prepared for the exhibit and it was fascinating to learn about that process. 

An author’s note details some of Henderson’s other scientific areas of expertise as a “self-educated woman of science,” and mentions the dispute over ownership after the T. rex discovery. Diana Sudyka‘s gouache and watercolor illustrations use many natural colors (and even some earth pigments) to bring Sue’s discoveries and adventures to life. This story should inspire other young children to observe carefully and follow their own curiosity wherever it may lead.

 

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.