Book Reviews

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

Book Reviews

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