Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

The Atomic Bomb

November16

There are some books that are beautiful and important, but it’s difficult to get them to the correct readers. The Secret Project (Beach Lane) falls into that category because it appears to be a picture book, yet it is about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. The mother and son team of Jeanette and Jonah Winter collaborated on this powerful book. Because it is non-fiction in a picture book format, older students who study the topic might not check it out. The challenge is for adults to share The Secret Project with the appropriate audience.

During WWII, when the Head of the Los Alamos Ranch School received a letter from the United States government, he was told to close the school because the land was being taken. The school was in an ideal location for the government to locate scientists who were working on a top-secret project. The area surrounding the elite boys’ school was chosen because of the desert location. The school’s buildings were used to house the scientists who came from all over the world. Workers who were brought in to cook, or clean, or guard had no idea what the nature of the work at “Site Y” involved.

When the first atomic bomb was tested in another desert area of southern New Mexico at the White Sands Missile Range, windows broke 120 miles away. The mushroom cloud was close to 7 miles high, and the world would never be the same.

The Winters handle this topic in sparse text and simple illustrations in The Secret Project. The Author’s Note in the back of the book gives many details about the project and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

MACBA Nominees

November7

If the name Ken Jennings sounds familiar to you, then you might be a fan of the television show, Jeopardy. Jennings holds the record for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy with 74 straight wins. Today’s intermediate readers know him for one of this year’s Massachusetts Children’s Book Award nominated books, Ken Jennings’ Junior Genius Guides: Maps and Geography, illustrated by Mike Lowery (Little Simon). It’s interesting to ask the students if they like this book because it’s difficult for some to read non-fiction, especially non-fiction that appears to be about disparate topics. Others enjoy the randomness of the facts that they learn from Jennings. Lowery’s illustrations that accompany the topics are similar to those of Jeff Kinney’s in his “Wimpy Kid” books.

Another non-fiction nominee this year is Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean (First Second) by Maris Wicks. The author/illustrator uses a graphic format to describe many of the fish and creatures that can be found in a coral reef.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne

November1

You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.
Lena Horne

Lena Horne (1917-2010) is widely known for her sultry voice and her singing career. Author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Elizabeth Zunon have collaborated on The Legendary Miss Lena Horne which chronicles Lena’s role as a civil rights activist.

Lena’s parents didn’t follow the paths of previous family members who had been teachers, activists, a Harlem Renaissance poet, and the dean of a black college. Her father was a gambler, and her mother traveled the country playing in vaudeville. Fortunately for Lena, she was often left with her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, herself a college graduate.

Cora had high standards and drilled into Lena good manners, black pride, and the value of a well-rounded education. (Weatherford)

Lena eventually went on to become a performer, and she sang with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. That’s when she began to confront racism as an adult. The black bands entered through the back doors, and they often couldn’t find a place to sleep after their performance. When Lena was one of the first black singers to perform with an all-white band, she had to sleep on the bus.

Her activism truly began when Lena landed a studio contract with MGM. The NAACP counseled her on how to stick up for herself and become a model for other black performers. She refused to be cast as a mammy or maid. When Lena sang in films, her song would be cut from the film when it was shown in southern theaters. During WWII, Lena was outraged by the rampant racism that was perpetuated on black soldiers, and she paid her own way to perform for black units. After the war, because of her associations with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, she was blacklisted and not allowed to work in Hollywood. However, Lena continued to sing in nightclubs, and when her name was removed from the blacklist, her career once again soared.

During the following years, Lena Horne became committed to working in the civil rights movement. While she earned Grammy and Tony Awards and a Kennedy Center Honor, she was most proud of her devotion to break racial barriers.

When Lena Horne appeared with Kermit the frog on Sesame Street, perhaps she was thinking of her own life when she sang “It’s not easy being green”.

 

 

Jean-Henri Fabre

October26

We have all of us, men and animals, some special gift. One child takes to music…another is quick with figures. It is the same way with insects. One kind of bee can cut leaves, another build clay houses…In human beings, we call the special gift genius. In an insect, we call it instinct. Instinct is the animal’s genius.                                                –Jean-Henri Fabre

Matthew Clark Smith introduces us to Jean-Henri Fabri (1823-1915), in Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre & His World of Insects (Two Lions), illustrated by Giuliano Ferri. When he was growing up in the 1800s, Henri, lived in the country surrounded by nature, and he roamed the countryside around his home and observed his natural world. As he grew older, Henri always exclaimed over the small wonders around him, especially the marvels of insects.

Fabri studied insects differently from the scientists of his time. Instead of examining dead, preserved insects, he observed them alive in their natural habitats. One of his first significant discoveries was about a wasp called Cereris. He read that a mother wasp laid her eggs and left a large dead beetle for her children to eat when they hatched. It made no sense to him that the beetle stayed fresh in the burrow during the gestation period for the eggs to hatch. By digging up wasps’ burrows, gathering beetles, and observing the wasps in the field, he discovered that the wasps did not kill the beetles. Instead, the venomous sting permanently paralyzed the beetle so that the meat would be fresh for their newly hatched babies. Fabri began publishing his findings, and he continued to study other species. Because of his body of work, Henri was widely acclaimed in France. He not only published scientific articles and books, but he also wrote collections of poetry. He was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1912.

Charles Darwin called Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre “that inimitable observer.” While Darwin was aware of Fabre’s work and scientific contributions, he is little known in the United States. Fabre’s childhood home in France is a museum that is joined by an education center and an insect-themed park. Small Wonders will introduce children to this extraordinary man.

That’s All Right

October18

Elvis Presley’s style of singing and performing is now legendary, but early in his life, few people understood him. Music floated all around East Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born in 1935. As Elvis attended First Assembly of God Church with his mother, he joined in singing the hymns. Life was hard for his mother, especially when Elvis’s father went to jail. The family moved around to try to make a better life. The constants in the boy’s life were his mother and music. When they moved to Memphis in 1948, Elvis found some friends who enjoyed music almost as much as he did. In high school, other students made fun of him until he entered their talent show and shared his music.

Success didn’t come overnight for Elvis. Rejections didn’t deter him, and he saved to cut a record. He sang “That’s All Right”, a Delta blues song, in his own twangy style. When he began performing in public, Elvis moved to the music, and the rest is history and legend.

Bonnie Christensen’s lyric prose evokes the poetry of Elvis’s music in Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King (Henry Holt).

 

Roosevelt and Muir

October13

It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches…but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that!  John Muir, 1901

Years ago, I took my children to Muir Woods to see the colossal redwoods. I was reminded of that visit when I read The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (Dial).

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to John Muir, a world-renown naturalist. He wanted Muir to take him on a camping trip. Roosevelt wrote “I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” Muir later wrote that he wanted to refuse Roosevelt because he was weary of giving tours to people who didn’t understand the need to protect the wild lands. Thank goodness, John Muir changed his mind, or there might not have been the Muir Woods that I enjoyed with my boys.

In the middle of May, Roosevelt and Muir traveled high into the woods and then high into the mountains to Glacier Point. While three men accompanied them as packers and cooks, Roosevelt and Muir rode and hiked alone. They slept under the trees, and one evening, they encountered a spring snowstorm.

When Roosevelt returned to Washington, D.C., he was profoundly moved by his experiences with Muir. The President designated 18 areas of land as National Monuments, that put them under federal protection. During his presidency, 55 bird sanctuaries and game preserves were also founded.

(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

A Passion for Elephants

October5

Cynthia Moss has spent almost her entire life studying elephants in Africa. Growing up in Ossining, New York, she became passionate about horseback riding. She even spent part of her high school years at a Virginia boarding school where she could ride every day. After graduating from Smith College, Cynthia worked at Newsweek magazine as a researcher and reporter. When she read descriptive letters that a friend sent her from Africa, Cynthia decided that she needed to see the continent for herself.

Once she was in Africa, Cynthia knew that she needed to stay, and she was hired by Scottish zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton. He needed a photographer to help him with his study of elephants in northern Tanzania. Cynthia then went on to start her own research project with Harvey Croze. The Amboseli Elephant Research Project is in southern Kenya in 150 square miles of protected land. The focus of the project is to learn about family relationships among elephants.

Throughout the years, Cynthia has fought to save elephants from being killed for their ivory. Her life in chronicled in the picture book biography, A Passion for Elephants: The Real Life Adventure of Field Scientist Cynthia Moss by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Holly Berry (Dial Books for Young Readers).

In this short video, Cynthia talks about elephant mothers.

More MCBA Nominees

September28

There are two graphic novels that are nominated for this year’s Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards: Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raúl the Third (Chronicle) and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Dial).

When I was a child, I never paid attention to author’s notes in books. Now, I try to impress on young readers that there is often a treasury of background information that will often add to their enjoyment. There is “A Note About Lowriders” in the back of Camper’s graphic novel that should really be at the beginning of Lowriders in Space. A lowrider is a customized car with hydraulic jacks that allow the chassis to be lowered nearly to the road. This custom was created by Mexican-Americans in Southern California after WWII. The author took this idea and created a fantasy about a car that travels out of this world.

Roller Girl is entertaining with a message about growing up. Astrid is a twelve-year-old girl with a best friend, Nicole. The summer before middle school, Astrid signs up for roller derby camp while Nicole goes to ballet camp. It’s a difficult time for Astrid as she struggles to learn to skate, and she watches her friend slip away from her. Even so, she grows and learns about herself as she becomes a secret pen pal with the adult roller derby star. The author, Victoria Jamieson, was a professional roller derby skater herself.

 

Massachusetts Book Award Selections

September22

Be loving enough
to absorb evil
and understanding enough
to turn an enemy into a friend. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When books are selected for the Massachusetts Children’s Book Award Program, the selection committee carefully considers genre, the quality of the writing, and the inclusion of a variety of cultural groups. As I look at the list every year and introduce them to children, I discuss each book’s uniqueness. I also point out similarities in style or theme. Two of this year’s nominated books are written in verse, but that isn’t the important similarity. The protagonists in the books must learn to navigate in a society that often discriminates against them. They work to turn prejudice into acceptance.

Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton (Penguin) is a novel written in first person. The narrator, a young girl, has moved with her family to Vermont. Her heritage is half-black and half-Japanese, and in 1969, Vermont was mostly white. Mimi Yoshiko Oliver finds out that to answer her classmates’ and adults’ questions about “what she is”, she needs to figure out “who she is”. Mimi defies stereotypes, and she also wants to be an astronaut, an opportunity that wasn’t open to women at that time.

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin) is also written in first person, and it is an autobiography. This book has already received numerous awards, among them was a commendation as a Newbery Honor Book. Woodson writes about living in South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. Her family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she experienced racial and religious discrimination. For me, one of her most poignant selections is “because we’re witnesses”.

because we’re witnesses

No Halloween.
No Christmas.
No birthday.
Even when
other kids laugh as we leave the classroom
just as the birthday cupcakes arrive
we pretend we do not see the chocolate frosting,
pretend we do not want
to press our fingertips against
each colorful sprinkle and lift them,
one by sweet one
to our mouths.

No voting.
No fighting.
No cursing.
No wars.

We will never go to war.

We will never taste the sweetness of a classroom
birthday cupcake
We will never taste the bitterness of a battle.

Massachusetts Children’s Book Award

September15

Once again, we will be promoting the nominees for the Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards (MCBA) during the 2017-2018 school year at DCD. Even though I’ve written about this program before, I would like to explain it to parents who have never had a fourth, fifth, or sixth grader who is participating. This voluntary reading incentive program has become a popular event for many students. Started by Dr. Helen Constant in 1975, it is administered through Salem State University. Twenty-five books are nominated for the award, and our voting for the DCD favorites will take place in late winter.

There are many obvious benefits to reading along with us for the next few months. Students are often introduced to authors who are unknown to them before this, and they return looking for other books by them. Some of the authors, like Liesel Shurtliff and Tom Angleberger, are already favorites of many intermediate readers. An important benefit that may not be obvious is that our readers become critics. They learn how to evaluate literature through plot, characters, and interest, and they have fun doing so. Throughout the next few months, I’ll highlight some of the nominated titles. Links to the reading lists and our required journal pages can be found on our DCD Library page. From time to time, I’ll be reviewing some of the titles under consideration for the award. So…let me write about one today.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2015) falls into the genre of realistic fiction. Readers can easily relate to the contemporary characters. Ally struggles in school, and her older brother is sorry that he can’t help her because academics aren’t his strength either. She doesn’t want to bother her mother because her father is on active duty overseas, and her mother has enough worries. A new teacher understands that Ally isn’t really a troublemaker, but she is a creative girl who learns differently. My favorite quote in the book is, “Everybody is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

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