Friday, February 12, 2016

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg & the Pentagon Papers

 Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

by Steve Sheinkin
384 pages; ages 10 & up
Roaring Brook Press, 2015

This is a riveting tale of intrigue and power… a tale of an obscure government analyst turned whistle-blower that reads like a fast-paced spy novel.

“In the summer of 1964, Daniel Ellsberg was thirty-three,” writes Steve Sheinkin. After serving in the Marines he worked as an analyst with the Rand Corporation, a think tank that focuses on military and international issues. He was asked to work on a project focusing Vietnam as our country headed into war.

At that point, Ellsberg was hawkish. He believed the US was doing the right thing. He also knew that to get good information, you had to actually go to where the action was, so he visited Vietnam.

Upon his return, he tried to show that peace was preferable to continued war, but the presidents – first Johnson and then Nixon – didn’t want to “lose” a war. So the fighting escalated, with more and more young men being drafted and sent to die.

As he collected information, Ellsberg realized that his government was deceiving the people. He came to the realization that he would have to do something to end the war. That’s when he decided to photocopy thousands of pages of what became known as the Pentagon Papers – a study that revealed the US bombings of Cambodia and Laos and other activities not reported in the media. The papers demonstrated that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to the people and to the Congress about what was going on in Vietnam.

Forty years later history repeated itself. This time with Edward Snowden, and instead of seven thousand pages of photocopied documents, a flash drive. But the big questions are the same. “Governments must keep some information secret in order to function – but how much secrecy is too much?” asks Sheinkin. Is there ever a time when citizens are justified in leaking information about their government?

On Monday we're joining the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews.  Review copy from the library.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Two books by Transgender Teens

This winter I read a couple of memoirs that really made me think about gender and sexual identity. Both, written by teens who grew up within miles of each other, are coming-of-age stories set in the south.

As I was reading, one thought kept pushing to the front: gender-questioning kids - and their parents - need to see these books. Both of these books raised as many questions as they answered. Both Katie and Arin shoot straight from the hip and get to the heart of their stories. I truly think that these books can save kids' lives - but only if they have the opportunity to read them. If we are truly going to embrace diversity in children's and young adult literature, then stories like these must find a place on the shelf.
Rethinking Normal: a Memoir in Transition
by Katie Rain Hill
264 pages; ages 12 & up
Simon & Schuster, 2014

What happens when you're born into the wrong body? For Katie, that realization came at a young age. She realized that a serious mistake had been made: she was a girl who had been born in the body of a boy. As a toddler, she knew something was "off", but at that age a kid's gender isn't a serious concern. If little boys to play with dolls and little girls roughhouse, adults don't think too much about it.

But add a couple years, and other kids start to notice. Katie, named Luke by her parents, didn't fit in. She had a graceful walk, a girlish voice, and no interest in football - and that didn't go over well in Okay, Oklahoma. Now Katie was judged and bullied, and it made her life miserable to the point where she wished she was dead.

When she started high school, and after reading an article about another transgender girl, Katie finally found the courage to talk with her mom. I think the line that broke my heart is when her mom asked, "Can't you just be gay?" Fortunately for Katie, her mom became an ally, and supported her (now) daughter's desire to be called "she" and dress like a girl. There is a lot of heartache in Katie's story, and a lot of poor decisions, miscommunication, and just plain not knowing where to go - things that would be true in any coming-of-age story. But when your coming-of-age also means realizing you are a completely different person.... that is a deeper story.

One of the transgender friends Katie becomes close to is Arin, born into a girl's body he never felt comfortable in. Arin tells his story in:

Some Assembly Required: the Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen
by Arin Andrews
256 pages; ages 12 & up
Simon & Schuster, 2014

Arin, beginning life as Emerald, preferred playing tag and other active, outside games. But by the age of three, he was enrolled in dance classes. "My tap movements were more like stomps," he recalls. As for leotards and tutus and bunny ears and fishnet stockings - he loathed them all. His letters to Santa listed wishes for a backpack, legos, a pocket knife... but gift boxes held frilly skirts and Barbie dolls because that's what people expected a little girl to want.

It's hard for a young child to understand why he feels different... it's not like Arin knew he was a guy. But one day, in fourth grade, he forgot running clothes and needed to do a mile run for gym class. A cousin lent Arin some of his: skintight tank top and black shorts. When Arin slipped them on it was like putting on a superhero suit - no zippers or buttons or other fastidious nonsense. Just simple running clothes.

What really horrified Arin, though, was the talk all moms give their fifth-grade daughters. When he heard what would happen every month, he burst into tears... that was something that happened to girls. Not him.

Like Katie, Arin looked for answers on the internet and read articles about other transgender teens. That's how he learned about Katie. And it was those articles, shared with his mother, that helped her finally understand that the daughter she called Emerald didn't feel like a girl at all.

Both Katie and Arin speak from the heart, and their books are eminently readable personal accounts. They do not mince words or dance around hard topics: they tackle issues of body image, dating, gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. They write about their feelings. And they write about their relationship with each other - a romance that hit the media as a story about "America's first teen trans couple".

Both books conclude with sections on tips for talking to transgender people, and resources for families including books, movies, and helpful websites.

On Monday we'll be joining the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copies provided by the publisher.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Woodford Brave

Woodford Brave
by Marcia Thornton Jones; illus. by Kevin Whipple
192 pages; ages 9-12
Calkins Creek, 2015

Cory Woodford's best friend has deserted him, his father is fighting overseas, and a Nazi spy lives just down the street. Cory needs to be brave, like his father and grandfather. Like his favorite superhero, Mighty Space Warrior. He needs to be Woodford Brave. He writes letters to his dad, drawing cartoons at the bottom of the page - the Space Warrior's Kid. Will his dad notice that he's drawn his own face tucked inside Warrior Kid's Helmet of Power?

This is a fun mystery - is the guy with the suitcase really a Nazi spy? - with a dash of ghost story - is the house down the street really haunted?- some baseball, and a crazy go-cart race that nearly ends in disaster.

The black-and-white comic book illustrations add to the feeling of going back in time. And even though it's fiction, there's an author's note with resources for anyone who wants to lean more about World War II, women's baseball, and the history of comic books. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Exploring the North Pole

Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole
by Debora Hopkinson; illus. by Stephen Alcorn
36 pages; ages 6-10
Peachtree, 2009

I realize this book was published a few years ago - but this seems like the perfect time of year to read about Arctic explorers. Most people, if you ask who discovered the North Pole, will say "Robert Peary". They might not realize there was another explorer whose courage, skills, and fluency in Inuit language contributed to the success of Peary's expedition.

Matthew Henson was born in 1866, just after the Civil War. It was a time, writes Hopkinson, when poor black boys had few chances of visiting another country - much less the top of the world. But at the age of 13, Matt set out to look for a job - and adventure - and was taken on as a cabin boy aboard ship. He learned history, math, navigation, how to tie knots and fix most anything.

Later, he had the opportunity to join Peary on Arctic expeditions. Matt had to learn about surviving in the harsh climate. He took the time to get to know the Inuit people and learn their language, how to dress and hunt and build a dog sled. As with any grand venture, there are failures and Peary's team didn't make it to the North Pole until their last expedition in 1909.

Hopkinson details the rough, tough life of Matt, his brush with death and determination to reach the top of the world.

"The fact that Matthew Henson's name is not widely known even today reveals much about the times in which he loved and the prejudices he faced," writes Hopkinson in her author's note. That changed in 1945, when the Navy recognized the surviving members of the expedition.

This is a great book to put in the hands of an adventure-hungry kid any time of the year, but particularly suited for reading on a cold day when you can bundle up and explore your own frosty neighborhood. Also a good pick for Black History month.

On Monday we're joining the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Three Girls; One Message-in-a-Bottle

by Jane Petrlik Smolik
336 page; ages 9-12
Charlesbridge, 2015

Bones, Lady Bess, and Mary Margaret have never met and don't know each other, but a bottle bearing a message crosses the ocean - twice- connecting their lives. Bones is a slave, working in Virginia in the fall of 1854. She was too young to remember the day her pappy had been sold to another landowner - "but she remembered everything about how she learned she was the personal property of another human being."

When Bones finds the Slave Birth Records for the plantation, she tears out the page with her name and birth date. Burdened with this incriminating evidence of her actions, she rolls the paper up, puts it into a bottle, adds a heart carved by her pappy, and seals the cork with wax. Then, in the dark of night, she sneaks down to the James River and tosses the bottle as far as she can.

The bottle bobs its way downstream and into the Atlantic where it gets picked up but the Gulf Stream current and pulled across the sea.

In August of 1855 Lady Bess finds the bottle, half buried in sand, on a narrow beach on the Isle of Wight. Could it be from pirates? Lady Bess wants to be an explorer like her father, and she's heard plenty of tales of adventure on the high seas. But no. When she unfurls the paper it says only: Agnes May Brewster. Born: July 1843. Colored slave. When a lad who works for the farm is accused of stealing, Bess discovers who the real thief is and determines to help her friend escape from jail. She gives him the bottle, adding a treasure of her own. Maybe when he reaches London he can find someone who can help solve the mystery of Agnes May.

Instead of reaching London, the bottle ends up traveling with the North Atlantic Drift back across the ocean. Mary Margaret discovers it bobbing against the pilings when she and her da go to the wharf to buy fish. It looks like a genie bottle and when she opens it she finds an engraved gold cross with pearls embedded in it, and the birth record of Agnes May.

Three very different girls whose lives touch each other's because of a bottle. Could a bottle really travel from Virginia to England and back to Boston? In back matter, author Jane Smolik writes about the history of sailors placing messages in bottles. Using ocean current charts, she figured out where a bottle tossed into the James River might land. Then she had to learn what was happening across the world in the 1850s to tie the stories together.

A fun story backed by research, sure to appeal to kids who love exploring history and mysteries. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Way to Stay in Destiny

With the coming of a New Year, I've decided to post book reviews on a weekly basis. Look for book talk, author interviews and other book-related stuff on Fridays. Starting with...

The Way to Stay in Destiny
by Augusta Scattergood
192 pages; ages 8-12
Scholastic Press, 2015

January is such a perfect month to curl up with a good book. So for the next few Mondays, I'll be digging into my book basket for some longer reads, both fiction and non.

I was pulled into this book by the first line: The crazy lady in seat 2B hasn't stopped singing "You Are My Sunshine" since the glare hit the windshield three hours ago. When the bus pulls to a stop in Destiny, Theo grabs his bags and baseball glove and follows his uncle out the door and into the Florida heat. He sees old men wearing shorts and flip flops... and slithery gray stuff hanging from the trees. What am I doing here? Theo wonders.

Sharing a room with his uncle at Sister Grandersole's Rooming House and Dance Academy, doing the laundry on Saturdays, finding some unexpected friends, and discovering he has an ear for the piano - that's what Theo's doing in Destiny. And then there's the history of baseball tied up with the history of the town: did Hank Aaron really play there?

Add to that the mystery of interpersonal relationships: Who is this girl who ditches dance class to play ball? Can Theo manage to play the piano when his uncle expressly forbids it? And why is his uncle so angry?

This book is a perfect blend of mystery and adventure, and a warm story about what it means to be family.