Category Archives: nonfiction

Prom: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge

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promProm: The Big Night Out by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge
Twenty-First Century, 2017.

Psychotherapist Zimmerman Rutledge looks at one of the American teen’s rites of passage: the prom. Starting with traditional proms from their beginning as middle-class versions of the debutante ball, the book then briefly examines changing cultural attitudes since then, and how this has affected prom.

However, the author’s intent is also to show that prom is not stuck in the unenlightened 1950’s, and there are chapters about how proms are now integrated and (mostly) welcoming to LGBTQ couples, and photographs to reflect this.

Prom fashion is a central theme, though there is a scarcity of photographs of many of the dresses described, including in a section on how fabulous dresses need not cost a fortune.

The author tries hard to moderate the perception of prom’s weighty significance with a rather-longwinded chapter of tips and not always rosy reflections from twenty-somethings; and there is advice on dealing with the pressures that can lead to a challenging experience, along with helpful resources.

Though there are few nonfiction books on this topic, a mismatch between the style of the book (chatty tone, large font) and the age of the intended audience make this a discretionary purchase for libraries but it may be of interest to some teens.

The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick

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plot-to-kill-hitlerThe Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick
Balzer + Bray, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the youngest son in a large, wealthy, brilliant German family. Born in 1906, he lived through the First World War (in which one of his brothers was killed) and then went into theology, becoming an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime at a time when the Church was, at best, keeping quiet and, at worst, actively supporting Hitler and his decidedly unChristian policies.

Dietrich, along with his one of his brothers and two brothers-in-law plus members of the military all became involved in a failed conspiracy to kill Hitler. Most of them were captured and executed before the end of the war.

After a 1943 prologue in which Bonhoeffer is quietly awaiting the imminent arrival of the Gestapo to arrest him, the subsequent chapters are laid out chronologically, mixing both the events in Germany and Bonhoeffer’s activities and thought processes. This allows the reader to see how he progresses from a brilliant theology student to outspoken opposition, as the Nazis unleash their “Final Solution” and shows his justification for plotting to commit murder.

McCormick does a terrific job of showing how Bonhoeffer’s position was solidified by both his internal threshing through of the issues and by external discussion with members of the Church outside Germany, notably in New York. He had many opportunities to stay out of Germany but his conscience would not let him: “It was not enough to simply “bandage the victim under the wheel” of the government, he said. The church had a duty to jam a stick in the wheel itself.” (Hey – notice any similarities to the present day in the US?).

Throughout the book, the author inserts snippets of a timeline, so the reader can understand the context of what they’re reading, and there are also boxed off inserts which further explain some of the events.

Back matter includes an author’s note explaining how Bonhoeffer’s writings have resonated with oppressed people across the world.

(Note: there is a quotation on the back of the book “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” which is attributed to Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately this appears to be an incorrect attribution.)

How to Turn $100 into $1,000,000 by James McKenna and Jeannine Glista with Matt Fontaine

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How to turnHow to Turn $100 into $1,000,000: Earn! Invest! Save! by James McKenna and Jeannine Glista with Matt Fontaine
Workman, 2016

From the creators of the Biz Kid$ TV show and education initiative, this is an easy reading guide for teens on managing their money and creating wealth.

The text sets out its objective very clearly: “Making money is a game, and we’re going to teach you the basic rules,” before guiding the reader through setting goals and a budget, finding ways to make money, and then using that money to make more money.

The eye-catching title may mislead some readers into thinking the book is about get rich quick schemes, but a breezy tone and plenty of jokes make the useful and sober, if not earth-shattering, advice on being smart about finance (“ Millionaires are people who save money, not people who spend it”) more palatable. 6how to turn inside

Large print, plenty of white space, many sub-headings, and a brief summary at the end of each chapter make the text easy to skim, and the rather busy layout includes plenty of sidebars, quizzes, and illustrations (showing kids with different colored skins) to augment the main text.;

Backmatter consists of a checklist and planner, one-page business plan, budget tracker and glossary but no further reading suggestions.

While some of the more sophisticated advice, such as how to set up an investment portfolio, will not be relevant to the majority of readers, this is, nonetheless, a useful handbook for all teens.

Reviewed from a black and white ARC – published version will be in two-color.

Drowned City written and illustrated by Don Brown

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drowned cityDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans written and illustrated by Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and this powerful Sibert Honor graphic novel looks at the tragic effects and the aftermath of the hurricane on the city and its residents.

The text is short, not simplistic but more in the manner of someone who is so angry they can just get out the basic facts through clenched teeth. Actual quotations (sourced in the notes at the back) are used to bring to life the horror and chaos that ensued once the levees broke and the lack of planning brought death and devastation. There is no beating about the bush: the good guys are recognized, and the incompetent and negligent from the President on down are called out.drowned city interior

Moody and haunting spreads in minor key colors with the occasional splash of vivid orange or red, show the population that is left behind after 80% of the residents evacuated, and their fight to survive. Bodies floating in the water, people struggling to safety, and the nightmare scenes at the Superdome and Conference Center, all serve to bring a human dimension to this racially charged tragedy. With Mayor Nagin missing in action and FEMA completely out of its depth, the immediate horror lasted for nearly a week before transportation out of the city was available.

drowned city interior 2Figures are drawn with just a few evocative lines sketching in their faces: The resignation and weariness, as well as the pragmatism and resilience of the largely African American left behind population, and the vacuous incompetence of the white officials.

I realize that the words I’m using – devastation, incompetence, tragedy – are by now pretty much cliches trotted out in relation to Katrina, and part of the power of this book is that the author avoids using them, and gives us the meaning behind them in his spare prose and illustrations.

Drowned City takes no time to read, but will stay with the reader for days. An absolute must for libraries serving upper elementary and middle grade kids.

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

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MostDangerousCover1Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook, 2015

Steve Sheinkin (Bomb, Flashpoint, 2012) is a master of narrative nonfiction for teens, and he’s done it again with Most Dangerous – the story of Washington insider turned Vietnam war whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

When Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, asked his team to put together a report called ‘History of U. S. Decision-Making in Vietnam’, he intended it as a document for future scholars and government officials to be able to draw lessons from.

Instead, this dossier, which became better known as the Pentagon Papers, came into the hands of Ellsberg, and “what struck him was the pattern of deception – and how clearly it was documented”. Ellsberg believed vehemently that this record of Presidential secrets and lies should be public knowledge, and he leaked it to the media. However, as Sheinkin makes clear, in the 1970’s, copying and distributing a 7000-page document was not quite as easy as it would be in these digitized days.

Sheinkin uses his superlative research and writing skills to weave a truly compelling story, tracing Ellsberg’s stance on the war, first as a committed hawk and then as a passionate opponent: His belief in the nobility of fighting Communism turns to opposition as he witnesses first-hand in Vietnam the unwinnable nature of the war, and comes to realize from the Pentagon Papers that a succession of Presidents were not prepared to commit the resources to win the war, but none of them wanted to lose it. Also, and fascinating for me as a not very knowledgeable Brit, the book gives a thorough overview of the roots, causes and path of the war in Vietnam and responses to it in the U. S.ellsberg and russo

The author has some fun with the incompetent team of ‘Plumbers’ (they fixed leaks) set up under Nixon’s auspices to dig up dirt on Ellsberg, and who went on to become infamous as the blunderers behind the Watergate scandal. More seriously, he shows the sheer weight of Nixon’s vengefulness as he pursues the prosecution of Ellsberg.

Most Dangerous becomes more than just a fascinating historical drama when drawing the parallels with a contemporary whistleblower, Edward Snowden. The author clearly has a point of view on the need for freedom of information, so there is no significant opposing viewpoint on the ethics of leaking Government documents.

As we’ve come to expect, Sheinkin draws on many primary sources, including conducting his own interviews with some of the major players, and extensive secondary sources, and he meticulously source-notes them and lists them in the bibliography. There is a dauntingly long cast of characters at the beginning, but I found I didn’t really need to consult it as the author does such a good job of establishing the individuals and their connection to the narrative.

Overall, this is an exciting story, grounded in substantive research, and perfect for teens who like intrigue, real-life history – I’m pretty sure it will be among the award winners for 2015.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Inside Elections series

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mediaMedia: From News Coverage to Political Advertising by Sandy Donovan
Political Parties: From Nominations to Victory Celebrations by Stephanie Mcpherson
Special Interests: From Lobbyists to Campaign Funding by Sandy Donovan
Voters: From Primaries to Decision Night by Robert Grayson
Lerner, 2015.

This is typically not the sort of book I review, or indeed even read. However, even though I’ve been in the U. S. for nearly 20 years, I still find the political system a little confusing, so when these books popped up on the review table, I grabbed them, mostly for personal interest. And they proved to be very informative, nicely laid out and all round pretty good for a politically curious middle schooler. They are, however, stingingly expensive at $26.65 each for 64 pages.

With a much broader scope than typical middle grade books about elections, each book in the Inside Elections series contains an in-depth look at a key factor that can influence the results of an election: the media, special interests, political parties, and voters.

Media looks at the role of political advertising, news coverage and the Internet in influencing the outcome. Special Interests  examines campaign funding and the people and organizations behind it. Political Parties looks at minority parties, factions and how they work to get candidates elected. Voters takes on the fiendishly complex voting system.special interests

The text heavy books are made more readable by being broken into short chapters with multiple headings, bullet-pointed lists, graphics, tables, colored sidebars and photographs. Keeping a strictly neutral line, the books show pros and cons on such topics as social media’s role in election discussions, and super PACs.

Each books includes sources notes, a glossary, selected bibliography, further information, and an index.

Up to date, timely, and offering opposing viewpoints, these books are recommended for middle school and public libraries, and their readers who want to know more about what goes on behind the scenes in the U. S. electoral system.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson.

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symphony for the city of the deadSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson.
Candlewick, 2015.

M. T. Anderson (Feed, 2002) uses the life and works of Dmitri Shostakovich, particularly his Seventh Symphony, as a springboard to examine the Russian Revolution, the subsequent Stalinist Five-Year Plan and Great Terror, and the Nazi siege of Leningrad, in this dense, thoroughly researched and occasionally long-winded narrative nonfiction book.

Though the 1941-44 siege is the focal point, there is 150 pages of build-up, laying down the context of the tragic complexities and ironies of life under Stalin, the Friend of the People: the many purges of groups and individuals who were perceived as a threat; the paradox of a grim reality that was “too dangerously real for Soviet Realism”; and the Party interpretations of what ‘the people’ wanted and needed, that changed from one day to the next.

The depiction of life in Leningrad during the 872-day siege is beyond shocking, as the populace starves to death resorting at times to eating grass, wall-paper paste and, ultimately, to cannibalism. The turning point, at least as portrayed in this book, is when Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is premiered there, inspiring the citizens and bringing the city back to life. But this was not the only symbolic premiere: the broadcast on NBC radio solidified the new friendship between the USSR and the USA.Dmitrij_Dmitrijevič_Šostakovič_(Дми́трий_Дми́триевич_Шостако́вич)

The author does a masterful job of laying all this out and it is clearly a labor of love. The lengthy bibliography, including many primary sources, and extensive source notes show the depth of research that went into the work, and he has obviously spent much time listening and interpreting the music.

However, for a large part of the siege account, Shostakovich is off stage as he was evacuated to Moscow fairly early on, leaving the narrative without an emotional focus. Additionally, there are some extended passages of musings and interpretation that slacken the pace, and just made me want to skip ahead.

Mr Anderson is honest in his author’s note, stating that “even the basic facts” of Shostakovich’s life are disputed. As he says in the text: “In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth.” This leads to some rather awkward sentences using ‘supposedly’ and ‘apparently’ to qualify the composer’s words and actions.

Nonetheless, this attractively produced book brilliantly shows how Shostakovich’s music was integral to Russian culture and identity during these turbulent years of revolution, purges and war, and while Symphony for the City of the Dead’s appeal may be limited, it will find an appreciative audience both as a narrative read and research source.