Wonder Women: A Non-Fiction Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, illustrated by Sophia Foster-Dimino (2016)

“So join me on a journey into the history of bad-as-heck babes. Just keep in mind that these are only some of the amazing women in the history of our world. Many more are out there, and many more are to come. In fact, you know what?

“You’re next.”

Wonder Women by Sam MaggsIn Wonder Women Sam Maggs offers quick biographies of twenty-five women in history who achieved great things and made some of humanity’s most significant discoveries. Maggs does a fantastic job with this extremely readable examination of women you may or may not know who have left their mark on history.

The book starts with an introduction (quoted above) from Maggs before moving into the body of the text which is broken into five chapters titled Women of Science, Women of Medicine, Women of Espionage, Women of Innovation, and Women of Adventure. Each chapter showcases five different women organized chronologically with some women dating as far back as 1240 up to modern times.

Each chapter ends with a paragraph-length summaries of some other notable women in each category. Every section starts with an illustration of the woman featured and a quote. Maggs ends each chapter with an interview with a modern woman working in a related field (for the Women of Science chapter she interviews Dr. Lynn Conway, a computer scientist, electrical engineer, and science educator).

Maggs has carefully curated the group of women featured to create an inclusive group of women of all ages from around the world and a variety of backgrounds. Each biography segment offers just enough information to showcase each woman and pique readers’ interest to research further with longer biographies.

Wonder Women includes some familiar suspects like Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician and first computer programmer, and Bessie Coleman, an African American Aviatrix who is roughly contemporary with Amelia Earhart. Maggs also showcases women who will not be as well-known to readers (even feminists who read a lot of biographies and non-fiction!) like Brita Tott (Danish and Swedish spy and forger), Noor Inayat Khan (Indian American Author and Allied spy), or Ynes Mexia (Mexican American botanist and explorer). Backmatter includes a bibliography and index.

Maggs’ candid tone and chatty narrative style makes it easy to breeze through this book in one sitting while clear section breaks and varied material also make it great to read through and savor as a slower pace. Wonder Women is sure to appeal to reluctant readers, non-fiction enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys a good biography. Highly recommended!

Possible Pairings: Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Albert and Tony Cliff; Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden, Mary Kay Kroeger, Teresa Flavin; Radioactive!: How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World by Winifred Conkling;  Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done by Andrea Gonzales, Sophie Houser; Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman; I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy; Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu; The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Murder of the Century by Sarah Miller; Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes; Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen; Boss Babes: A Coloring and Activity Book for Grownups by Michelle Volansky

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature: A (Non-Fiction) Picture Book Review

Ansty Ansel: A Life in Nature by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and Christy HaleWhen he was a child, Ansel Adams could not sit still. He fidgeted. He wanted to run. He did not like being indoors.

By contrast, Ansel loved the great outdoors–especially the parks surrounding his California home. When his father recognizes that his son will not thrive in a traditional school, he helps Ansel educate himself with access to books and also studying nature.

This choice will change the path of young Ansel’s life in Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature (2016) by Cindy Jenson-Elliot, illustrated by Christy Hale.

This non-fiction picture book introduces young readers to an iconic American photographer and his work documenting the country’s National Parks. Jenson-Elliot’s text is long enough to be informative but brief enough to remain approachable for younger readers.

The biographical book also includes some little known facts about Adams such as his accomplishments as a pianist (and his subsequent choice between pursuing a career as a professional pianist or as a photography). The back matter in the book has additional details, resources, and some reprints of Adams’ actual photos.

Large page spreads work to bring natural wonders to life in this vibrantly colored picture book. Hale makes “antsy Ansel” immediately fascinating along with the stunning pieces of nature that captivate Adams for much of his life and career. Detailed illustrations also reproduce some of the photographer’s iconic photos throughout the book.

Antsy Ansel is a beautifully illustrated introduction to one of the foremost photographers in the United States. A great choice for anyone looking to introduce young readers to biographic texts and a timely read for the centennial of the National Parks System.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Who Wins?: A Non-Fiction Review

Who Wins? by Clay Swartz, illustrated by Tom BoothHave you ever wondered if Queen Elizabeth could best Gandhi at Ping Pong? What about who who if Charles Dickens could beat Marie Curie at Karaoke?

Who Wins? (2016) by Clay Swartz, illustrated by Tom Booth has answers to these and other important questions.

Swartz has put together 100 historical figures from a variety of time periods and regions (and a decent balance of men and women) to pit in head-to-head competition in a variety of categories. Each figure has an illustration, a fighting nickname (Cleopatra “Queen of the Nile” Pharoah, Feminist, Diva), a brief biography, and rankings on a scale of ten in wealth, fitness, wisdom, bravery, artistry, leadership, and intelligence.

Readers can use the rankings and their own opinions to choose winners in each battle. The book is designed to be flipped back and forth between competitors and the 50 competitions. Random flipping can lead to some unlikely matchups as well as landslide winners (I feel pretty strongly that Shackleton could beat just about anyone when it comes to escaping from Alcatarz). Meanwhile other competitions are too close to call.

Because of the rankings, readers can put as much or as little thought into the winner of each match as they like. (I opened up a lot of the discussions by asking probing questions. “Sure, Leonardo da Vinci has a 10 for leadership. But what about his 6 for intelligence? Couldn’t that be a problem if he was trying to catch Jack the Ripper?”)

The variety of matches and competitors, as well as the multiple ways Who Wins? can be read make this a great book for reluctant readers and biography buffs alike. I have coupled this book with a teen video gaming program with great success. While teens waited for their turn on the video game controllers, they joined me making up different matches. Everyone had a good time picking competitors and competitions and then we debated who might come out on top.

Whether you are reading this book alone or using it in a group for some quick entertainment, library programs, or even a party game, the facts speak for themselves. Who Wins? is a winner for readers of any age.

Bonus:

I couldn’t end this review without including a some interior images from the book. Here’s a spread I made on Instagram putting Harry Houdini against Alan Pinkterton in The Hunger Games. I think the match is no contest, but what about you? Let me know in the comments.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: A Non-Fiction Review

“We can trust no one. In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth.”

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. AndersonIn September 1941, Hitler’s forces moved against the Soviet Union in a bid to take the country’s capital in Moscow and the historic city of Leningrad (now and previously St. Petersburg).

So began one of the longest sieges in Western history. More than a million people died over the course of the years-long siege. Amazingly, despite crippling his own military from the top down and breeding a culture of such fear that officials preferred to make ill-advised decisions rather than risk contradicting him, Stalin and the Soviet citizenry held out. Faced with starvation, blitzkrieg attacks, and the continued severity and dangers of life in Soviet Russia, the residents of Leningrad held on.

In the midst of this bleak landscape, music became an unlikely ray of hope. Varying wildly between a darling of the communist party and one of its biggest perceived heretics, Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer known around the world. With threats everywhere from both the Nazi’s and his own government, Shostakovich would write a symphony to rouse the Soviet public during their time of need.

The symphony would speak when the people feared to, it would mark all that was lost during the Communist Revolution and the Siege of Leningrad. It would give voice to sorrow and loss as well as hope and redemption. Shostakovich’s symphony would offer common ground between the unlikely allies of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. This is the story of that symphony, the country that inspired it, the compose who wrote it, and the war that shaped all of them in Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (2015) by M.T. Anderson.

Anderson offers a thoroughly researched look at a slice of WWII history that might not be familiar to many Americans. Symphony for the City of the Dead begins with the bizarre transport of Shostakovich’s symphony (via microfilm) from the Soviet Union to the United States. After that prologue the book is framed around Shostakovich’s own life from his early childhood to his death. The book touches upon the communist revolution and explores the composer’s complicated relationships with his country and the Communist Party.

Symphony for the City of the Dead includes an extensive bibliography and footnotes in the backmatter detailing Anderson’s sources throughout the novel. Strangely, for such an iconic figure, little is known as fact about Shostakovich’s life. Anderson is careful to couch his own thoughts in research and supporting documentation while also noting when the narrative veers into supposition. The book also offers a thorough and detailed accounts of the movements that led to the Siege of Leningrad ranging from Stalin’s wild incompetence and paranoia to Hitler’s Wermacht strategy.

Because of the content and the level of research involved, Symphony for the City of the Dead is a dense book. The material gains a more narrative quality after the first hundred pages but it takes a while to really dig into the material.

Anderson offers a strange mix of the bloody nightmare that was Communist Russia during the Siege of Leningrad and the optimistic hope of post-war Russia. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a fascinating example of the power of story–especially the power of art and music–as well as thoughtful look at how the truth can be shaped in the telling. A must-read for WWII history buffs and music buffs in particular. Highly recommended.

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

Poetrees by Douglas FlorianAre 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*

Black Potatoes: A Non-Fiction Book Review

Black Potatoes by Susan Cambell BartolettiIn 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 (find it on Bookshop) 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

Claudette Colvin: Twice Twoard Justice by Phillip HooseEveryone 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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell, We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson

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: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry JenkinsDue 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 by James Paul GeeWhat 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