Category Archives: nonfiction

Black History in Its Own Words written and illustrated by Ronald Wimberley

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Black History in Its Own Words written and illustrated by Ronald Wimberley
Image Comics, 2017

This visually stunning collection of bold portraits of Black icons paired with quotations started as a Black History Month project by Ronald Wimberley in 2015 for an online political comics newsletter, The Nib.

Each double page spread has a high impact black and white comic book style portrait set on a colored background with a quotation incorporated into the illustration. On the facing page, there is some biographical information, sometimes straightforward, sometimes quite sophisticated. There is also usually the source of the quote.  The order of the portraits is a little random – done by date of production and no other discernible organization.

The author has selected his subjects as “people whose words and lives spoke to me personally” and these include Civil Rights notables, such as Angela Davis and Sojourner Truth, and cultural figures including Spike Lee, Prince, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama are notably omitted while more obscure figures, like punk rocker Poly Styrene, are included.

The quotations do not follow a particular theme, and a few lack meaning without context, but overall they add up to an individual and poetic portrayal of Black thought.

However, though the majority of quotations have sources and dates, there are a handful that don’t, and the Works Cited at the back of the book is in unreadably miniscule font.

Thought-provoking browsing for teens and adults.

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt, 2017

Heiligman (Charles and Emma, 2009) artfully lays out her magnificent biography of the Van Gogh brothers “as if you are walking through a museum show of their lives – a collection of paintings, drawings, and sketches.” This series of chronologically arranged vignettes, grouped into thematic “galleries,” is written in the present tense and illuminates the lives of Vincent and his younger brother Theo and their deep and intense relationship.

There are two touchstones which the author returns to several times. One is a conversation the teen brothers had on a walk together in 1872 in which they pledge that “they will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.” She also uses as a central metaphor the idea of Vincent and Theo “carrying each other’s parcels.”

Drawing deeply on the plethora of letters from, to, and between the brothers (and recording this in detail in the endnotes), she follows them from their early years in rural Netherlands across Belgium, England and France, sometimes together, often apart. Echoing Vincent’s eclectic and evolving style, the author moves fluidly between sketches, impressions, and richly detailed portraits narrating the brothers’ friendships and romances, their mental and physical states, and the development of their work, showing how these are all fused together.

Theo (left) and Vincent

Though Vincent is the more famous one, she argues that without Theo’s support – financial, emotional, and professional – he would not have become the magnificent artist we know. Using black and white reproductions of ink drawings as illustrative “gallery” dividers and an insert of color prints of key paintings, the author connects Vincent’s life with his work and gives the reader an insight into his process and vision.

Ms Heiligman has succeeded in writing an intricate and layered biography that readers will enjoy both as a story of the complicated bond between two brothers and for the understanding that they gain into one of the world’s most renowned painters and his art.

Extensive backmatter also includes a list of people, a thorough timeline, sources, and index.

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.