Poetrees: A (non-fiction) (picture book) Review

Are you a fan of poetree? A lover of all things green and leafy? Ever want to know more about a Baobab or an oak? Or tree roots and seeds? Look no further than Poetrees (2010) written and illustrated by Douglas Florian.

Poetrees is filled with quick, witty poems to entertain, inform, and amuse. Combined with original illustrations done with what looks like water colors and maybe some pastels. The book is clever and a lot of fun right down to its unique vertical orientation to give the trees shown their maximum height.

Poetrees is a delightful book for aspiring poets, botanists, and anyone looking for a little fun. The back of the book even has a glossatree with information about all of the trees featured in the book.

Want a preview of the illustrations and poems? Check out Amazon’s product page for Poetrees to see some excerpts.

Exclusive Bonus Content: I couldn’t figure out how to file this so it’s cross posted in with non-fiction and picture books. Madness!

(I acquired a copy of this book from Simon and Schuster’s Fall 2010 preview which I was lucky enough to attend.)
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Poetrees

Black Potatoes: A Non-Fiction Book Review

In 1845 Ireland relied most heavily on one crop. Farmers cultivated grains, green vegetables and a variety of root vegetables. But those were often crops owed to wealthy British landlords for rent money if not owned outright. Those landlords would ship the harvested food to England at a tidy profit. Among all of this export, potatoes were truly an Irish tuber.

It was potatoes that saw poor laborers through the long winter months after everything else was sold. Boiled, roasted, mashed with garlic and butter. Potatoes formed every meal for families across Ireland. There are few other vegetables as easy to grow that are as filling and nutritious as a potato. The only real problem was that potatoes could not last from season to season. By May the potato stores were gone and the Hungry Months began; poor farmers and their families had to look for food elsewhere sometimes scavenging, sometimes begging.

It was not an ideal way of life, but it worked. Until 1845 when a strange blight struck the potatoes near harvest. Once dug up, the potatoes turned black for no apparent reason. Were the little people aiming to take the potatoes for themselves? Were the farmers being punished for wasting the glut of potatoes from the year before?

In 1845 no one knew what devilry was work. The only certainty for most farmers was that the Hungry Months were going to last much longer than usual, but even then no one knew the Hungry Months would last five years. No one knew the Great Irish Famine would kill one million people from starvation and disease while driving another two million to emigrate.

Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (2001) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti was the 2002 winner of the Sibert Medal as, according the ALA, “the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year” (think Newbery awards but only open to non-fiction books). Happily, in this case distinguished does not mean stodgy or dense.

Bartoletti’s writing is straightforward and absorbing while conveying a wealth of information. Black Potatoes touches upon the obvious: the importance of the potato to Ireland, what caused the potatoes to turn black (a disgusting fungus that flourished in an unusually rainy planting season), and what happened when the potatoes failed. While looking at these broad historical strokes, Bartoletti  introduces readers to Irish history and politics  (circa 1845) with England and the United Kingdom while also describing the motivations that led so many to leave Ireland (and the conditions they faced on the long journey and at their final destinations).

A variety of primary source research lends an informal tone Black Potatoes and provides personal accounts of a variety of Irish men and women who experienced the famine first hand. Bartoletti brings a bleak period of history to life with aplomb and just the right amount of humor and compassion. Illustrations from period newspapers like the one seen on the cover lend even more authenticity to an already rich text. An eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the period and a must read for history buffs.

Possible Pairings: From Ellis Island to JFK by Nancy Foner, New York: A Short History by George J. Lankevich
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850

Claudette Colvin: A (Non-Fiction) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Everyone knows that Rosa Parks helped spark the Civil Rights movement with her refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus for a white passenger. Her bold decision inspired the black community in Montgomery, Alabama and helped start the historic Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat was a pivotal moment in history.

But someone else did it first.

On March 2, 1955  a fifteen-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus a full nine months before Rosa Parks did. Citing a little-known Montgomery bus rule, this girl stated with confidence that it was her Constitutional right to keep her seat on the bus. She was dragged to jail and charged as an adult for her refusal.

At first Claudette Colvin was hailed as a celebrity and a shining example to her community. But the tides soon turned and suddenly Claudette found herself on the outside looking in at a movement that she arguably started all by herself. Her name was largely forgotten by history, supplanted by the more respectable and now iconic Rosa Parks, until now. Her story can now be found in Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (2009) by Phillip Hoose.

Chances are if you follow the book awards circuit, you’ve heard some buzz about this book. It was a 2010 Newbery honor book. It received the 2009 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. It was a 2010 Sibert honor book (think Newbery awards but for non-fiction only). Claudette Colvin was a 2010 finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. In addition the book was selected by ALA (American Library Association) as a best book for young adults (BBYA), ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children–a division of ALA) named it a notable children’s book although I can’t find a link to said list. And, according to the author’s site, it was on a heap of lists naming the best books of 2009. As my children’s literature professor mentioned to me, you can barely see the cover for all of the awards stickers.

I had thought I knew a fair bit about the civil rights movement, but I clearly wasn’t reading the right books because I had never heard of Claudette Colvin. Hearing about this girl with dreams of becoming a lawyer and fighting Jim Crow laws, this girl who took a stand before many adults were willing to, was inspiring. The idea that she was shunned for standing up for her beliefs was outrageous.

Except that isn’t exactly the full story. (WARNING: If you believe in such a thing as a spoiler for a non-fiction book, look away.)

Claudette was initially embraced by her community. Classmates thought it was, as the book notes, crazy when she stopped straightening her hair and some leaders of the movement wondered if Colvin was too young to be the figurehead of a city-wide boycott. But one of the biggest reasons for Claudette’s shunning was her becoming a pregnant, unmarried, sixteen-year-old in 1955 after her arrest and trial. This is not mentioned in summary stories of Claudette’s experiences (ie on the book jacket) and yet, in my view at least, the pregnancy seems like a fundamental aspect of Claudette’s dismissal especially given the time.

Hoose’s book is clearly well-researched and filled with supporting documents and photographs, not to mention extensive reviews with Claudette Colvin herself. But on a lot of points readers only have Claudette’s account of what happened. In her interviews Colvin often says none of the movement leaders called her (as on page 61 when her name is misspelled on a flyer about Rosa Parks’ arrest). And it just feels weaker than it could have been with more supporting documentation.

Colleen Mondor has an insightful post over at her blog Chasing Ray about her own questions about Claudette Colvin. And even if you don’t think what I’m saying jives, you should give her post a look because she was a judge for the 2009 Cybils in the MG/YA nonfiction category which comes with a bit of authority.

More troubling for me was how the movement impacted Claudette’s life. As a child she dreamed of becoming a lawyer to help her people. Her arrest and the subsequent trial verdict made that impossible. It was frustrating to read about this bright, strong girl who stood up for what she believed in only to, basically, have it blow up in her face in a lot of ways.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice is sure to lead to many lively discussions, not just about this little known and too obscure figure of the Civil Rights movement but also about the aspects of a good non-fiction book and finding (and using) supporting documentation.

Possible Pairings: Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and Bryan Collier, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman, We are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Alter Ego: Avatars and Their Creators (a non-fiction review)

Alter Ego coverAt first glance, Robbie Cooper’s Alter Ego: Avatar and Their Creators (2007) is fundamentally a coffee table book: large, non-standard size, glossy photos, high quality paper, and a really interesting topic. But it’s also more than that.

With the unprecedented popularity of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) like Second Life and World of Warcraft, avatars–the customized, computerized virtual characters that move around a computer game when you move your mouse or type on the keyboard–are a big deal. They’re not only how a player interacts with a given game interface, they are also how a player presents themselves to that game.

For that reason, avatars also become a part of a player’s life–sometimes simply to enable gameplay but also often in very meaningful ways unrelated to the game per se. The chosen title of this book, Alter Ego, points out that fact very well. These are characters that players alter for various reasons. Some to adopt a persona more accurate than a physical appearance could ever be. Others to create a virtual version of themselves down to the smallest detail. At the same time, avatars also can become an alternative personality.

In this book Cooper has collected photographs of real people and the avatars they have created for themselves. The book also provides vital statistics (who they are, where they live, game played, etc.). Each person interviewed also explains, in their own words, the thought process that went into making their avatar and what it (and online role play gaming in general) means to their lives.

The book and its range of subjects is fascinating. Senior citizens in a nursing home, a disabled young man, teens, drag queens, actors, entrepreneurs, and regular people are all represented in this book. And they all have an avatar.

No one really knows what the implications of increased online socialization will be yet. But in a time where more and more time is spent online, Alter Ego shows that there is a lot more to gaming than mashing a few buttons.

(Also, the cover looks cool here but it’s even cooler in person because it’s holographic!)

Possible Pairings: Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Freak Show by James St. James, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Alter Ego

Convergence Culture: A non-fiction book Review

Convergence Culture coverDue in part to his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006), Henry Jenkins is being touted as the Marshall McLuhan of the 21st Century. However, whether or that is a fair comparison is a matter better left to those who better understood The Medium is the Massage.

Media analyst Jenkins uses this book as a platform to examine what, exactly, is really happening to culture at large when new media and technologies appear. Jenkins grounds his analysis in a variety of specific (and likely well-know) cultural phenomenon from recent years. In a chapter entitled “Spoiling Survivor: The Anatomy of a Knowledge Community” Jenkins examines the online activity of predicting who will be on (and ultimately win) the TV reality game show of “Survivor.” In addition to explaining what spoiling “Survivor” really means, and how one user ultimately spoiled the spoiling, as well as explaining how online communities in forums and message boards create a knowledge community of sorts around a common interest.

Knowledge communities are a recurring theme for Jenkins and, in fact, many books on Web 2.0 and media in the modern world. The idea being that no one in a community can know everything but everyone knows something and together the community knows a lot. Other subjects include negotiating online marketing and promotion as exhibited through Coca-Cola’s relationship with “American Idol.” Another big theme in Convergence Culture is how the digital divide (the gap between those who have computers and those who only have access to public computers or no access at all) and the participation gap (the separation between those who create online content and those who do not) impact online culture and society.

Convergence Culture provides detailed analysis of a phenomenon that everyone has witnessed and experienced but few people actually know about in a way they can articulate. Jenkins and his book provide people with the tools to examine and discuss how media and new technologies are impacting and indeed changing our lives in a variety of ways. At times the language gets a little technical, but if you have the time and the interest, this book won’t disappoint.
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

What Video Games Have to Teach Us: A Non-Fiction Book Review

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning coverWhat Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007) by James Paul Gee might be one of the most valuable and timely titles I have read in recent years. Coming to video games late in life, initially to “help” his son with gaming, Gee began to see connections to his professional life as an educator in the virtual worlds created by video games.

Specifically, Gee identified 36 learning principles often found in the best (most challenging, most fun, best designed, most popular) video games that are often lacking in contemporary schools that favor the skill-and-drill approach to deeper, more immersive learning. In discrete chapters, Gee identifies individual games (Tomb Raider, Half-Life, World of Warcraft, Sonic the Hedgehog to name a few) and the principles found in those games that could be applied to school learning.

The ideas Gee outlines in What Video Games Have to Teach Us will not be shocking or revolutionary to anyone who already plays video games. Gamers know that it takes more to play a video game than hand-eye coordination. As Gee underscores throughout this book, gaming is a multifaceted process that requires planning, reflection, strategizing, and even community interaction. In other words, it’s impossible to play a video game without learning how to do so.

The key difference in learning a video game is that the learning is more strategic and immersive. Gamers learn by doing and through experimentation. They also learn in strategically effective ways. Instead of having adjust to the difficulty level of a game, the game–through its very design–often adjusts to the competency of the gamer. Schools have not found an effective way to do that yet. The main argument of this book is that video games create active, critical learners while schools often create passive learners.

There is a lot to like about this book. Gee keeps the book grounded in actual anecdotes and experiences and carefully avoids the hypothetical by using his own life as a gamer to explain the principles found within the book. The game play is described as carefully as the learning principles to create a book that gamers and non-gamers will be able to embrace–and understand.

Finally, this book isn’t just about playing video games in isolation or even about schools. Rather Gee also looks at the community aspect of video games through their use of shared knowledge and, especially, through the creation of game related affinity groups (communities of sorts formed organically around shared interests). This multi-faceted approach to the subject creates a well-informed and thorough examination of video games, players, and how the ideas found in good video game play and design can be adapted to traditional learning environments to create a more engaging and enriching learning environment for every student.
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

Strapless: A Non-Fiction Review

Strapless coverI read this book in August 2008 and have been meaning to review it ever since. For shame.

Most people know John Singer Sargent’s infamous painting “Madame X” even if they don’t know the name and have never heard of the artist because this painting has quite the sensational story attached to it.

According to surrounding lore, Sargent initially painted “Madame X” with the right strap of her black gown slipping off of her shoulder. When the painting debuted at the 1884 Salon in Paris (the place to have a painting displayed at the time and a good signifier of current or future artistic success) it created an uproar, so scandalous was the pose. Indeed, facing numerous charges of the painting’s indecency, Sargent eventually repainted the strap sitting firmly, and properly, on Madame’s shoulder.

Pursuing my art history minor in New York City I had the amazing opportunity to see “Madame X” in person at the Metropolitan Museum. The painting has always had a special place in my heart for, if nothing else, the drama associated with its debut. So I was very pleased when a copy of Deborah Davis’ book Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (2004) fell into my lap.

Part historical research, part biography, part social commentary, part feminist text, Deborah Davis handles a lot of material in a relatively small volume (320 pages with font of average size and relevant pictures included). One of the reasons Davis decided to research this particular painting and its subject is because so little information remains about Virginie Amelie Gautreau, her life, or how Sargent came to paint her scandalous portrait.

While “Madame X” eventually catapulted Sargent into the artistic canon and toward immortality, the portrait likely led to Gautreau’s ruin and her obscurity. In her book, Davis tries to set the record straight, portraying Gautreau as the powerful, savvy woman she was before a bare shoulder changed her social standing forever.

My library system catalogs this book as a biography of John Singer Sargent, which for a lot of reasons is the logical choice. However, really, most of the book is spent looking at the life of Sargent’s subject and patron: Madame Gautreau.

The book traces Gautreau’s family history, her migration from New Orleans to Paris (where she became a quasi-celebrity along the lines of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton virtually overnight at the tender age of twenty-three), and perhaps most interestingly just how much work went into being a beautiful woman in Paris in the 1880s. No details escapes Davis’ examination as she looks at the clothing, finances, indeed the very persona Gautreau had to cultivate to live the decadent lifestyle she became accustomed to.

The strong point in Strapless is when Davis sticks to such facts: how Gautreau lived, why Sargent would want to paint her, what happened at the Salon when “Madame X” debuted. Davis also expertly outlines the tenuous, and often stressful, patron-artisan relationships that Sargent and artists like him had to cultivate in order to eke out a living with their brush.

The momentum flags when Davis veers into the hypothetical wondering if Sargent might have been in love with Gautreau, torn between her and one of his young proteges. While the theory is interesting, it does remain a theory very akin to the conspiracy theories so often found in research on the Titanic.

That aside, Strapless is a remarkably well-done book. The thorough research shows through without dulling the writing. Davis’ text is conversational and very accessible–more so, it must be said, than many writings found in the field of art history. An excellent book on art history for enthusiasts and art historians alike.
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Strapless

Bogus to Bubbly: A Non-Fiction(ish) Review

Bogus to Bubbly coverSometimes, when a book series gets really popular, writers will try to cash in by writing unauthorized guides to the story or books about the “science” behind popular fantasy titles. Then, rarely, you get a book like Bogus to Bubbly: An Insider’s Guide to the World of Uglies (2008) that was actually written by the ultimate insider: Scott Westerfeld.

Uglies is a series of books (one trilogy and a companion book) about a world in the future where in order to prevent war and strife everyone gets plastic surgery to be beautiful and live long. Everyone else, by contrast, is ugly. That is the super, super short explanation of the series which is more complex. I don’t recommending reading this guide before the series because it contains spoilers and, truth be told, unless you know you like the books this guide will not be that interesting.

Westerfeld explains a lot of things in this book. He discusses where the idea for the story came from, as well as how he thought of skintennas and the Rusties. Parts of the book also explain technology, history, and culture surrounding the worlds created in the Uglies series.

What I liked about the book was that it mentioned a lot about the writing process. While Westerfeld himself notes that it’s hard to trace the origin of ideas, this book does try. It’s interesting to read how a dentist visit inspired several aspects of the book while, thankfully, we are not the entire inspiration behind the Rusties. Explanations of names and slanguage were also very informative and interesting.

I was less enthralled by the technology information. It was fun to hear about the science of beauty, but the information about magnetic levitation, hoverboards and inventions got a bit, well, technical. Although I fully admit that could be me since Uglies is one of the few straight sci-fi series I read (I usually go in for fantasy which, having dragons and what not, is guaranteed to be less technical). There is also a bit of repetition with the books revealing much of what Westerfeld puts together in Bogus to Bubbly but that is probably inevitable with an insider’s guide like this.

Aside from content, I liked the book’s organization. It’s written like a real guide with cross-referencing between sections and an index. The book also includes illustrations and maps which helped a lot to visualize the city as it was meant to be seen.

While the entire book might not be read-worthy for every fan, it’s very likely at least one nagging question about the series will be answered in this book. Mine, for instance, being whether belly sensors were indeed belly button rings or not. Readers will also leave the guide with a new insight into how the writing process might work. On top of that, Bogus to Bubbly also includes a preview of Westerfeld’s new series Leviathan.

My only serious regret is that the Awesome Librarian Clique only warranted passing mention (though since they didn’t factor in the books at all, perhaps that is to be expected).
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Bogus to Bubbly: An Insider’s Guide to the World of Uglies

Don’t Make Me Think: A Non-Fiction Review

Don't Make Me Think coverNowadays, most students are faced with the world of HTML and computer science at some point in their academic careers. For me, the first time was in CIS 101 in college. (Yes, there was a second time. It turns out grad school does not assume computer literacy). Although it isn’t always part of the formal curriculum, usability is always an underlying theme in technology classes even if it is just a question of whether the HTML textbook is actually written in gibberish or not. Usability is also one of the few fields where anyone, even the computer illiterate, can be an expert.

The idea behind usability is simple: Look at a given design and see how accessible it is for users. Anyone can have an opinion on usability and everyone can provide input. All it takes is a clear head and the patience to look at what works (or doesn’t) and why. If you use it, you have information about its usability. To get back to the subjects of Computer Science and technology, usability has lately been applied to the world of Web design.

Usability consultant Steve Krug lays out all of the basics about Web usability in his book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2005) currently in its second edition, published in 2006 after the first edition sold nearly 100,000 copies.

As far as titles go, there are few that offer as clear a picture of the book’s content as this one. Krug’s main point throughout his 185-page guide is that good Web sites don’t make users think. Unlike college, Krug posits that using a conventional website should not be an intellectual exercise. It should be simple, it should be neat, and it should be self-evident. In other words, if a user cannot identify the site’s purpose, and where to start on said site, just by viewing the homepage something has gone horribly wrong.

Krug details how to fix such problems and how to avoid them with usability tests. That may sound self-serving save for the fact that Krug also explains how to conduct usability tests on the cheap without the benefit of a usability consultant such as himself.

Written in short chapters packed with illustrations, this book is designed to be approachable and easy to read. Krug is serious about Web usability, but that in no way means his book is stodgy or dry. Examples of usability at work are littered with cartoons and the text maintains a sense of humor. My favorite chapter title (and subtitle) “Usability as common courtesy: Why your Web site should be a mensch” might offer some idea of what tone to expect from this book.

Of course, taking a computer class to meet a core requirement in college doesn’t always lead to work in the field of Web design in fact most of the time it leads to an entirely different career. But, in today’s technology-driven culture, doesn’t everything come back to the Internet eventually?

It might just be working as an intern at an online magazine, or a starting position where duties include entering data into online spreadsheets, or it might just be writing your own blog on a site like WordPress or Blogger. Wherever your path leads, knowing something about Web usability and how good Web sites get that way can only help. As more and more information moves to cyberspace, with websites being created and updated all the time, it’s important to be prepared by knowing how to analyze not only the information found online but also how it is presented. Don’t Make Me Think is one tool that can assist Web users in that preparation.
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition

The Superhero Handbook: A “non-fiction” review

The Superhero Handbook coverRevised to be more awesome 11/7/09:

It might be easy to forget, but superheroes are not born super. In fact, they’re pretty normal at first. That’s why some of them, especially those lacking a Fortress of Solitude with a chatty hologram version of their biological father, need a little help learning the ropes. That’s where The Superhero Handbook (2005) by Michael Powell comes in.

Did you know that as a counterpoint to their impressive superhero exploits, many heroes spend their teen years as bumbling goofball misfit loners with some high-end eccentricities? That’s because there’s a fine balance between Superhero Awesomeness and Nerd Quotient—the apparent dorkiness that keeps a superhero’s identity safe. For instance if you wear glasses, constantly adjust them, and enjoy wearing t-shirts with words that aren’t brand names or band names, you might be a superhero waiting to happen.

Whether you are naturally amazing, have been sent here from a distant dying solar system, or just enjoy fooling around with radioactive slurry, this handy book can tell you everything you need to know about becoming a superhero—and saving the world. Broken into chapters with titles like Dreams of Destiny, Denting the Sidewalk, and You and Your Total Image this book includes everything you need to know and crucial advice about your early beginnings, finding a mentor, creating a persona, dealing with a fatal flaw and even how to decide if it’s time to hang up that cape. And, for any dark heroes in the crowd, there is also a section on the pitfalls of using your powers for evil. One being that stupidity or pride will always prevent super villains from fulfilling their true potential.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: There aren’t really superheroes out there, and they certainly wouldn’t use how-to manuals if there were, but isn’t it better to play it safe when the future of the human race could be hanging in the balance?

Possible Pairings: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: The Superhero Handbook