Read On!

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

The Great Molasses Flood


If you go to Langone Park, a waterfront park in the North End of Boston, be sure to look for a plaque that reads

Boston Molasses Flood
On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster.

Try to imagine what happened on that day. A tank, 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, containing about 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, collapsed. The molasses came out of the tanks in waves. At the peak of this accident, the waves of molasses rose up as much as 25 feet and traveled at 35 miles per hour, covering everything in their wake with a brown sticky substance. Buildings near the tank were knocked off their foundations and destroyed. Girders that were part of an elevated subway structure were bent and distorted. The buildings and train structure represented the material damage. The human toll was even sadder. There were the 21 people who died, and at least 150 others were injured. Many horses, dogs and cats also perished.

Many in the city rushed to the rescue – cadets from a training ship, the Boston Police, workers from the Red Cross, the Army, and the Navy. The cleanup took weeks in the city of Boston, but it took much longer to get rid of the molasses that had been tracked to other locals.

The Great Molasses Flood by Deborah Kops (Charlesbridge, 2012)

For adults: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo, an historian and Boston Globe reporter, wrote (Beacon Press).



I read mostly secondary sources and scour them for juicy details that make information come alive.

Kathleen Krull

Kathleen Krull has written many outstanding biographies and picture book biographies for children. It seems pertinent to share one of her “oldies, but goodies” this week, Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought). Since the book was written in 1998, she has vignettes starting with George Washington and ending with Bill Clinton. Even though the book doesn’t include George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, it contains enough anecdotes to entertain even a serious historian.

In her introduction, Krull says, “Other books discuss these men in relation to great historical events, the context of their actions, their political achievements, and public opinion rankings. This book is about the lives of presidents as fathers, husbands, pet owners, and neighbors.”

Find out who….
…dissected small animals (James Madison)
…could make the president eat food he didn’t like (Franklin Roosevelt’s housekeeper)
…fought watermelon-seed wars (Harry Truman)
…bribed dogs with candy-coated vitamins (Lyndon Johnson)

Do check out Kathleen Krull’s website for more information about her and her books.

The author talks about gossip and how she finds her information in the following video.

Education and Segregation


One of the rights of passage for our eighth graders is their study of the United States Constitution and Supreme Court cases. Every year, one of the popular choices to study is the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education. In this decision, the US Supreme Court made school segregation unconstitutional, saying separate is never equal. While this case is well known, there was an important trial over a hundred years previous to Brown. The Massachusetts case, Roberts v. City of Boston, began the fight for an equal education for all children.

firstThe First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (Bloomsbury) introduces Sarah Roberts, a young African-American girl who was evicted from the Otis School because it was only for white children. The Otis School was close to Sarah’s home, but Boston had a rule that children who weren’t white had to go to a separate school that was just for them. The school that Sarah was told to go to was the Smith School, which was far away from her home. The Smith School only owned one book, subjects like history and drawing weren’t taught, and there was no area to play outside.

Adeline and Benjamin Roberts decided to fight for their daughter’s education, and they hired a young African-American attorney, Robert Morris. The case was filed in 1848, yet it wasn’t until late in 1849 that it was heard in court. By then, Morris had asked Charles Sumner, a lawyer and staunch abolitionist, to help him. The two attorneys, one black and one white, argued that Boston children should attend schools that were closest to their homes. Sumner spoke eloquently and said that all children deserved an equal education. The Massachusetts Supreme Court announced the decision in 1850 that segregated schools were legal.

Sarah’s father went on to fight for equal education outside of the legal system. He traveled around Massachusetts to speak on the subject. Wherever he went, he passed out copies of Charles Sumner’s speech from court and carried petitions to be signed. In 1855, Boston became the first major city to officially integrate the public schools.

segregation-brown-v-board-of-educationFast forward to the 1950s…Linda Brown had a long and arduous journey to school in Topeka, Kansas. Her parents joined with other families and called the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to file a suit. The better school that was closest to her home was only for white children. It was the Charles Sumner School. Serendipitous?

In this informative and intriguing account about the fight for educational equality for all children, Susan Goodman writes about taking steps forward and then steps back throughout history. As a Boston resident, the author includes a timeline with information about the busing crisis during the 1970s. There are other valuable sections at the back of the book when Goodman writes about what happened to those involved in the Roberts’ case. She also describes her research and sources. The illustrator, E. B. Lewis has won much recognition for his artwork.

Great Biographies


When I was in third and fourth grade, the library was in easy walking distance from my house. I have fond memories of finally being a confident reader and being allowed to choose my own books. There was a series of historical fiction titles that I fondly remember. They were the “Little Maid” books, and my favorite was The Little Maid of Lexington by Alice Turner Curtis. The little maid wasn’t a term describing a servant, but a girl who witnessed important events during Colonial times. (As an adult, I was astonished to find that while I was reading these books in the late 1950s, they were originally written between 1913 and 1937. Hmmm…there weren’t as many books published for children then. Or, my public library never discarded many!) After I read one of the titles, I always looked for a biography about the hero from history – George Washington, Paul Revere, or Benjamin Franklin. There weren’t many biographies written for intermediate readers during my childhood. Times have changed…

betsyOur independent readers are intrigued by two series that I can’t recommend any more highly, Who Was…? and Who Is…? These short biographies, published by Penguin, have black and white illustrations on many pages, and they include additional background information and a bibliography at the end of the book. The authors describe the childhood, accomplishments, and challenges of the biographee. I would have been thrilled to read Who Was Betsy Ross? by James Buckley (2014) after I read A Little Maid of Old Philadelphia. Fortunately, there are many different titles to keep our readers happy. The publisher has also developed two other series, What Was…? and Where Is…? The WhoHQ website by Penguin has a trivia game for readers when they have finished some of the books.

November 1963


swansonI was in the fifth grade on November 22, 1963. I still have a vivid memory of my teacher coming into our classroom after speaking to other teachers in the hallway. It was the first time that I had ever seen a teacher cry, and she shared the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. We were sent home from school early, and I spent the rest of the weekend watching television with my family. There was no shielding children from this national nightmare, and many of us were also watching the live coverage when Lee Harvey Oswald was also killed.

o'reillyThis has become history for today’s middle school students, but there are two recent books that bring this history to life – “The President Has Been Shot!”: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson (Scholastic Press, 2013) and Kennedy’s Last Days: The Assassination That Defined a Generation by Bill O’Reilly (Henry Holt, 2013). O’Reilly’s volume is adapted from his title, Killing Kennedy. Both Swanson and O’Reilly have chronicled this major event for adults and young adults alike.


Remembering 9/11


Depending on the age of the child, it can be a challenge to discuss September 11, 2001. One book that I share with our fourth graders is The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein (Roaring Brook Press, 2003). Gerstein tells the story of Philippe Petit, a high wire performer, who walked between the towers in 1974. This book introduces the building of the World Trade Center. Another favorite is 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah (Peachtree, 2009). Kimeli tells the story of his Maasai tribe’s reaction to the tragic event in the United States.

fireboat 1Maira Kalman’s non-fiction picture book, Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey (Putnam, 2002), chronicles a privately owned fireboat and the contributions that it made on 9/11. In 2009, CBS Sunday Morning narrated a segment about the John J. Harvey.


i survivedLauren Tarshis’ series, I Survived, has become a favorite among many intermediate readers, and the author featured the tragedy in I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001 (Scholastic, 2012). The main character, Lucas, goes in to a New York City firehouse to visit his uncle, a NYC fireman, on that fateful day.

Two non-fiction titles that are written for older elementary school children are America is Under Attack by Don Brown (Roaring Brook Press, 2011) and the young reader’s edition of A Nation Challenged: A Visual History of 9/11 and its Aftermath (Scholastic, 2002)

While there are certainly other books on the subject, these particular titles have stood the test of time. Check out my September 20, 2011 post to read more about The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and 14 Cows for America.

Our President’s Home


Suzanne Slade teamed up with Rebecca Bond to produce The House That George Built (Charlesbridge, 2012), a non-fiction picture book about the White House. The author narrates the plans and building of the White House in two-page spreads. On the left-hand page, she writes historical information about George Washington’s decisions in building this special home. On the right-hand page, Slade reprises a version of “This is the house that Jack built”. These pages build with “This is the….that George built”. Bond depicts each scene with detailed watercolor and ink drawings. The information included in two articles in the back of the book, “The Changing President’s House” and “Author’s Note”, provide more interesting details like which president ordered the building of the solarium, indoor pool, movie theater, and hot tub.

Another recent book about the White House is First Garden: The White House Garden and How It Grew by Robbin Gourley (Clarion, 2011). This is another non-fiction picture book that provides anecdotes about the many gardens in this famous home. Alice Waters, the noted chef and owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley, California, wrote the forward for the book.

The White House Historical Association sponsors an informative and fascinating website with content that includes videos that should interest young and not-so-young readers. There are videos of many different subjects concerning our national treasure.

Season’s Readings: Non-Fiction


Every year there are new holiday books published to entertain young readers, but there are only a few that entertain and educate them. Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Barry Moser (Candlewick Press, 2011). Douglas Wood chronicles December of 1941 when Winston Churchill braved a trip across the Atlantic to spend Christmas with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During that visit, the two leaders forged a strong friendship and plotted their strategy as their countries engaged in WWII. The illustrations that accompany the text are vintage Barry Moser, as he genuinely captured the personalities of the two leaders.

Check out this clip of Churchill’s visit to Washington, D.C. The first 15 seconds are silent, but after that, there are excerpts of his address to Congress.

Discussing 9/11


Picture books can be avenues to begin discussions of serious topics with intermediate and middle school students. As our country  honored those who were lost on September 11, 2001, I shared some picture books with our fourth graders to help them understand this historic event.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein (Roaring Brook Press, 2003) chronicles the building of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. When the buildings were under construction, Philippe Petit, a high wire performer, stretched a steel cable that was 5/8” thick from the roof of one tower to the other. On August 7, 1974, Petit stepped off of the south tower and performed for 45 minutes on the tightrope that was suspended ¼ mile from the sidewalk below.


Petit’s performance was reported on CBS News.



Carmen Agra Deedy collaborated with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah to write 14 Cows for America  (Peachtree, 2009), a touching story of the reaction of the Maasai people to the tragedy of 9/11. Nine months after it occurred, Kimeli, a Maasai warrior who had been studying in the United States, returned to his people in Africa. After hearing him tell about 9/11, the people of his tribe in Kenya presented fourteen of their precious cows to the American ambassador. The herd symbolizes hope and the respect and feelings that the Maasai felt for our loss.


Dave the Potter



Because there are no records for slaves, no one knows exactly when Dave was born. Historians guess that he may have been born in 1800. Much of the information that we do know about Dave comes from the records and documents of his plantation owners. It is assumed that his first owner in South Carolina, Harry Drake, may have taught Dave how to throw pots. During the 19th century, handmade clay  vessels were very useful to plantation and farm owners as well as those who lived in cities.

During his life, Dave also learned to read and write, and that is how we know of his artistic talent; Dave signed many of his pots. It is estimated that this master craftsman possibly made as many as 40,000 pots, and there are over 100 jars that have been signed by Dave. Many of these jars and pots also have lines of poetry that Dave inscribed on them. The verses suggest a profound depth to Dave’s intellect and introspection, as he commented on his enslavement and faith. Dave’s pottery has been exhibited in museums such as Winterthur and The McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.

Laban Carrick Hill’s picture book biography, Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, illustrated by Bryan Collier, introduces children to this artist. (Little, Brown and Company, 2010)

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