Category Archives: nonfiction

Future Batgirl wins the day

library on wheelsMary Lemist Titcomb – Miss Titcomb – was a fierce advocate of libraries, pushing aside those people who said working people and children weren’t interested in reading, charging forward to provide more varied library services to people who didn’t live close to physical libraries.  AND she thought up a plan which she put into action to get the first bookmobiles out into parts of the community that did not have access.  What a gem!

The pictures and documents are fascinating, and though Miss Titcomb is not a well-known figure today, learning about her is sure a treat.

Library on Wheels:  Mary Lemist Titcomb and America’s First Bookmobile by Sharlee Glenn


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Girl power — rebels and visionaries

what would sheIt feels like there have been just loads of books about interesting women coming out in the last few years–rebel girls, mathematicians, Hidden Figures, and all–but it’s never enough when you come across a really good one.  I wasn’t expecting much from this one, but it delivered in content, art and discussion potential.  The biographies are short and highly readable, full of interesting tidbits, and very colorful, both in descriptive words and engaging art.  Sometimes the “what would X do?” questions seem a little forced, but it’s maybe a fun way to translate everyday situations into lifetime decision-making skills.  The message is always “never give up,” whether those words are used or not.  So persist some more, friends.  Get out there and lead the future.

What Would She Do? 25 true stories of trailblazing rebel women by Kay Woodward and many illustrators.

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Girl power with sneakers

girl runningBobbi Gibb loved running, even though it wasn’t a “girl” thing to do.  So she ran.  And ran some more.  And one day, she decided to train for the Boston Marathon, even though they didn’t allow women to run, telling her that women were not “physiologically able to run twenty-six miles.”

Well, they were wrong, weren’t they?  Bobbi showed up and ran, and it turned out she beat two-thirds of the men on her way to the finish line.  So there.  You go, girl.

Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon by Annette Bay Pimentel and Micha Archer

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Girl power with science and butterflies

girl who drewMaria Merian very definitely did not grow up in a time and place that valued her skills and abilities as a scientist and an artist.  She managed to find ways around the many expectations put upon her as a woman in the late 1600s, learning to draw and paint from her father and then using that as a way to further her interest in science, eventually leaving her husband and moving to a religious community and then Amsterdam and then traveling the world.

It’s not just that the illustrations are – not surprisingly – wonderful in this book.  Maria’s story is a well-written, dramatic tale, full of interesting details, explanatory sidebars, and a clear picture of what Maria’s daily life might have held.  You go, girl.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman

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Bold, determined, strong, persistent

lady has the floorBelva Lockwood must have driven some people nuts.  She didn’t sit down.  She didn’t shut up.  She studied science and politics when she went to college – against her father’s wishes.  She became an attorney when they told her she couldn’t do that, only getting her degree because the college president (Ulysses S. Grant) gave it to her.  She argued in front of the Supreme Court after working to get all women the right to practice law in any court.  She fought for the vote and reparations for Native Americans removed from their land and even ran for president.

And for many years, she was mostly forgotten.  Thanks to this beautiful picture book, maybe that will change.

A Lady has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights by Kate Hannigan and Alison Jay

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One person, many stories

usvjrAnyone who’s ever gotten in trouble because of who they are and not what they did will understand this one.  When the rules about segregation in the military change, Jack is following the new rules when he gets on the bus and doesn’t move to the back.  But who gets in trouble?  Jack, of course.  He has to explain himself at a court martial.  Other people on the bus make up things about how disrespectful he is, white people make threats and no one does anything, the bus driver doesn’t get in trouble for trying to force Jack to follow the old rules.  And the list just goes on and on.

Jack does win the case, when the truth finally comes out.  But this is only the beginning of a lifetime of standing up he will do.  Jack will leave the military and become the baseball-playing Jackie Robinson we all know.  One person, many stories.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and R. Gregory Christie

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Surviving the lies we tell each other and ourselves

educatedOur personal demons rarely make for interesting conversation or gripping storytelling.  I often can’t sleep this time of year because of mine, but I try to talk about them only when I can’t really avoid it.  Even then, I’ve never found that sharing actually helps me or the other person much.  But the extra time I’m awake at night can come in handy, giving me a bit more time to read outside my box.

I don’t read that many memoirs, so maybe this kind of story is more pervasive in the genre than I realize.  For reasons I can’t exactly pinpoint – maybe because it’s about a woman overcoming – this reminds me a bit of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild without the hiking disasters.  (In looking at a few reviews just before I posted this, I realized a lot of other folks have made that connection.  Hmm.)  It’s an amazing book, but I know that some patrons who enjoy stories about abuse survivors will enjoy it more than I did.

There’s a certain kind of reader who is a little fascinated by just how awful people can be to each other, but reading this book as a checklist of family awfulness is the wrong way to look at it.  It is inspirational, but a large part of its power is the way Westover walks us through how she saw things at the time, the way she barely survived abuse and lies and harmful thinking again and again by telling herself that what she experienced either wasn’t happening or was something completely different from reality.  How sad to think of a child, any child, suffering so much at the hands of people she clearly and deeply loved and who loved her back.

Westover’s story reminds us of the power we all have to make a difference in others’ lives.  Having spent many years working with struggling kids and families, I understand how imperfect and sometimes dangerous trying to help someone can be.  Whatever you do often feels like not enough, but we have to hope, don’t we?  We have to keep trying.

Educated by Tara Westover

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Hope and fear and the bubbles we live in

the-newcomers-9781501159091_hrBack when I worked with kids and families, I found myself doing a lot of things I’d never really imagined myself doing.  One morning I tracked down a kid who hadn’t made it to school on time again — he’d been homeless for months, living with extended family, friends, and occasionally a girlfriend’s family.  I had to explain that he needed to leave his jacket in my car or find another coat, because he reeked of marijuana, and I knew someone at school would have to deal with it if he walked in the door with it on. He couldn’t even smell it, but it was strong.  He claimed, and I believed him at the time, that his older cousin’s friends were smoking the night before, and he’d slept on the couch in his coat because he didn’t have anywhere else to go.  I knew the coat would mean time out of class, which was the last thing he needed at that point in his school career, so on the way to school on the opposite side of town, he had to figure out what to do.  This wasn’t even an unusual occurrence back then; every day had some kind of surprise for me.

Before that job, I’d worked with a program that offered English classes and outreach services to immigrant and refugee families.  There were surprises like that there, too.  I worried about some of the older ladies who came to class without winter coats, wearing flip flops when it was 15 degrees outside.  I felt so happy the day one of my favorites came in wearing tube socks with her flip flips – it wasn’t great, but it was so much better.

Why mention these things now?  Reading The Newcomers made me relive many moments in those jobs.  Being poor and/or a refugee or immigrant is something many of us cannot relate to without some work.  Sometimes we’re closer to financial ruin than we might like, but we don’t often imagine navigating our lives in another country with different rules and a completely different language as well.

What makes this book even more powerful is that the central characters are teenagers, kids who have just arrived after traumatic, frightening things have invaded their lives because they’re in the “wrong” group or in the wrong place at the wrong time.  We expect them and their families to just take whatever hope they have left and spin it into gold, and they should be able to do that within 90 days, too, if they’re a refugee.

Most of the kids have loving families who support them even as they struggle.  They also have amazing teachers and school staff who organize volunteers and donations and go out of their way to help kids, so there are a lot of successes, small and big.  The Newcomers chronicles a year in one school, which gives us a nice picture of how much change happens in that time for a small group of kids if they are lucky enough to land in the right place.  There are a lot of questions left unanswered and challenges to be faced at the end of the book, but there’s still hope.  Definitely worth a look.

The Newcomers: finding refuge, friendship, and hope in the American classroom by Helen Thorpe

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We children led the way

let the childrenSometimes adults are afraid to speak up.  But when children use their voice, they can be heard, too.  Their message can be just as powerful or even more powerful.

This one’s a good reminder to kids that they can change the world, too, and it presents civil rights history in a way that young kids can understand and relate to.  The art is a much-appreciated bonus.

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson and Frank Morrison

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Good guys and bad guys, survival and struggle

1saboteurI’ve loved historical fiction about World War II since I was first reading chapter books.  One of my all-time favorites as a kid was Snow Treasure, a story about kids who foil the Nazis by sneaking gold out of the country on their sleds.  Over the years, I’ve also read a lot of nonfiction on the topic, everything from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts to Double Cross by Ben Macintyre and quite a lot in between.  I also have a fondness for World War II era mysteries – everything from the Foyle’s War TV series to the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (which actually starts at the end of World War I) and the Maggie Hope mysteries by Susan Elia MacNeal.

So it’s no surprise that I loved The Saboteur: the Aristrocrat who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix.  French Resistance, Nazis, escaping certain death several times – I’m there!  The story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld reads like a spy novel instead of a series of documented life events, which has ensured that I’ve suggested it to all of my patrons who like reading about spies, war, or French history.  It’s also a wonderful book, because it addresses the gray areas in which people exist during war.  Not everyone is 100% good or bad; there are compromises and bad decisions in addition to all of the luck and occasional happy endings.

While I can see many adults and even some teens enjoying this book, you might also consider some fictional favorites of mine on similar topics.  Some are specifically for younger readers; others work for many ages.

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