Category Archives: nonfiction

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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a few days in the life of…

dream big dreamsWhether you’re a huge fan of Barack Obama or not, this book shows what our presidents might experience on an average day.  It’s not just photo ops in the Rose Garden or trips to fancy dinners around the world or meetings about military things.

What makes this an especially moving book, though, is the fact that Pete Souza found a way through these pictures, to show the tragedy and joy and quiet moments of one person in the job.  Obama: an Intimate Portrait landed on my desk the same day, and it’s pretty amazing, too, when you think about the world before and during and after this one president.  Both are worth a look.

Dream Big Dreams by Pete Souza

 

 

 

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Dreams big and small

My friend Danette was the tightrope walker in the kindergarten circus – walking carefully across a rope taped to a table –and since that looked pretty fun, I thought for a while I’d be an acrobat or a dancer.  (I was not impressed with my role as a somersaulting bear.  She had a much better costume.) My total lack of coordination and inability to even do a cartwheel did not slow me down in dreaming of what I could be.

Later, I thought maybe I’d write songs and be a rock star in spite of – again – my lack of ability and talent in that area and the added problem of paralyzing stage fright.  Scientist.  Nope.  International businesswoman. Nope.  Social activist.  Still working on that one.

So what I like about these two picture books is the way dreams are a bit fluid for Scott Kelly and Frank Lloyd Wright.  (Possible pun intended.)

Fallingwater is illustrated by LeUyen Pham, one of my favorite illustrators these days, and it’s a beauty.  Frank Lloyd Wright was actually on the other side of his career – in his sixties and a legend though not a very active force in architecture when he was approached by Edgar Kaufman, who dreamed of building a home close to a waterfall on some property he owned.  And inspiration struck and FLW went on to design many more amazing buildings.

My Journey to the Stars follows Scott Kelly’s youth and lack of interest in school until he came across a book which sent him in the direction of being a test pilot, which gave him the motivation to study and achieve, which led him to join NASA with his twin brother, which gave him the opportunity to spend longer than any other American in the International Space Station.  When your dreams have a focus, you can succeed with hard work, he seems to be saying.

Maybe our dreams become real after being sparked by inspiration?  When you find it, you sense some purpose to what you do, and really amazing things might just happen.

Fallingwater by March Harshman, Anna Egan Smucker & LeUyen Pham

My Journey to the Stars by Scott Kelly and Andre Ceolin

 

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I’m useless after 100 billion

hundred billionI admit it.  I have to count out zeroes to figure out billions and trillions, even in a book where they’re written in words below for me.

This does not make such a book any less cool, though, since it reminds my brain of how huge and amazing the world really is, kind of like the information in the book.  It’s perfect for lovers of numbers and math and people who like making connections between the big-ness of the world and the smallness of an individual and all of the things that tie us together.

The art is also vibrant and diverse and detailed when it needs to be and simple when that works better.  There won’t be only one of me reading it, though.  I might have to share it with a few people.

A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg

 

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Ignorance shackles us like chains

schomburgBeethoven had an African ancestor.  So did John James Audubon, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexander Pushkin.

Arturo (anglicized to Arthur) Schomburg spent a lifetime tracing the history of Africans and their influence around the world.  He read, thought, collected, shared, and challenged society’s views about the past.

It’s an amazing life, and one that includes libraries, making it all the more wonderful, I think.  It’s not a quick read even as a picture book, however, but that’s really for the best of reasons.  The text is detailed and includes such impressive combinations of words that you have to sit and re-read and think about a few of them before moving on to the next page.  And the illustrations are so vivid and beautiful that you really need to look at them more than once or twice.

Schomburg: the Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez

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One architect, one activist, one strong man

I suppose that “architect, activist and strongman” could all work together in the right person.  However, today I’ve been reading nonfiction picture books about three very different people: Zaha Hadid, Jane Addams, and Eugen Sandow.

You might not think they’d have a lot in common, but all faced challenges from people who maybe thought they’d fit in better if they’d grow up and do something just a wee bit more “normal.”  Eugen Sandow, the strong man, grew up not so strong, with people who encouraged him to become a doctor.  He ran off with the circus before eventually becoming a bodybuilder, starting a gym, and working with people on nutritious eating. Jane Addams never seemed particularly interested in following society’s expectations for young women when she was young.  She was shocked by the conditions poor people lived in, founded Hull House, and later ruffled feathers by speaking out for peace during a war, also winning a Nobel Peace Prize.  Zaha Hadid loved to design things even as a child.  She left Iraq to study architecture and mathematics and eventually designed buildings (and shoes and furniture, too) inspired by patterns, shapes, nature, and whatever else sparked her interest.

Take a look.  There’s inspiration all around here.

The World is not a Rectangle:  a portrait of architect Zaha Hadid, Jeanette Winter

Dangerous Jane, Suzanne Slade and Alice Ratterree

Strong as Sandow, Don Tate

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When 63 pages = powerful…

dear ijeawele

If you’re a feminist, you’ll love this engaging, funny, thoughtful essay on raising feminist daughters.  It works for grown-ups, too, since many women rethink their place in society at challenging moments.

“Being a feminist is like being pregnant,” Adichie says.  “You either are or you are not.  You either believe in the full equality of men and women or you do not.”

I am a feminist.  I did love it.

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Luck and love and survival

survivors clubI first heard Michael Bornstein’s story on Iowa Public Radio this spring.  By the time I remembered to put myself on the holds list for it, there were quite a few people in front of me.  Anything they talk about on public radio, whether on the local shows or national shows, gets a bump in holds at the library.  It’s a nice reminder that there are other people out there listening to the same things I like, although I sometimes have to wait a while.

It’s such an incredible story – at any point, a wrong word or move could have and did mean that people he loved were led off in a different direction and killed.  Why is it that we humans seem to find, over and over, so many opportunities to dehumanize and kill each other?  It’s horrifying, and yet unsurprising, that after surviving Auschwitz and other camps, Michael and some members of his family returned home, only to be kept out of their homes and attacked by local bands of thugs who were looking for someone to brutalize and blame after the fact.

Michael was very young and very lucky.  What a gift to all of us that he shared the story, particularly now.

Survivors Club:  the true story of a very young prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

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For library nerds and all the Goody Two-Shoes sorts out there…

balderdashHow have I lived this long without knowing the story of the “real” Little Goody Two-Shoes?  Apparently, she was a raggedy little girl who always bettered herself despite misfortunes.  And of course, she ended up with a rich husband who had a coach and six.  Holy cats!  Why didn’t anyone tell me this?

Calling someone a goody two-shoes was still quite a popular way to taunt nerdy girls in my youth, although it was directed less at the smarts of the girl in question and more at being a rule-follower of any kind.  All kinds of things stay hidden in the back of your brain for years, and I never thought to look into where that particular taunt came from.

Then, today, I was zipping through an awesome new picture book about John Newbery, and there she was!  John Newbery published some of the first books specifically written for children, including The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes.  No one’s sure who wrote the book, but it was a hit, and Newbery went on to publish many other children’s books.  Some 150 years later, his name was the one attached to the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal — to recognize the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children each year.  And while this book, despite excellent illustrations and a fun story, might not seem like the first thing a kid would pick out, it’s got a lot of discussion starters and eye candy for slightly older kids, especially those who love learning about history and books.  And now I can think about that childhood teasing in a whole new way, too.  Nicely done.

 


 

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Sculptures and graffiti and murals, oh my!

keith-haringThere’s a Keith Haring piece in the sculpture garden up the road from me.  Red, yellow and blue dancing figures are intertwined and turning around each other.  People like to take pictures there – I’ve done it, too—mimicking the actions of the figures.  There’s something bright and joyful about it, even on very gloomy and gray days.

This book is a little like that, twisting and turning through Keith Haring’s life.  What was it like for him growing up?  How did he end up doing murals and making graffiti and becoming a successful artist?  Examples of his work are scattered throughout the illustrations, and it’s a bright and joyful journey.  Take a look.

Keith Haring: the boy who just kept drawing by Kay Haring and Robert Neubecker

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