The Dream Fifty Years Later

MarchMarch Program

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is upon us, and the occasion will bring many opportunities for celebrating how far America has progressed in matters of race since 1963. There is certainly much to celebrate and honor, but there is also plenty to mourn. In addition to offering eloquent oratory commemorating that momentous day of August 28, 1963, I would like to see our first African-American President of the United States preside over a national public funeral mourning the decision of the United States Supreme Court to dismantle the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a direct by-product of the March on Washington.

The dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared that day still seems to be very much that, a dream. Fear and hate are alive and well in the hearts and minds of many of my fellow Americans. It’s evident in the annual statistics compiled by the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It’s evident in the vile rhetoric of popular talking heads like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly, hatemongers who have followers numbering in the tens of millions. It’s evident in the actions and remarks I see and hear among everyday people.

You don’t have to look far for examples of the institutional racism that persists in American society. Look at who are the majority of people stopped and frisked by police, the disparities in sentences handed down by courts, the demographics of the prison population and those who live in poverty, and the inequities of public school funding. Look at who is most likely to be disenfranchised by the recent voter I.D. laws instituted in dozens of states. Listen to the statements made by representatives and senators in Congress in the debates on immigration reform. Racism is alive and well and deeply embedded in our American institutions. It’s quite obvious to those who are the victims of it.

Yes, let us celebrate the progress made, but let us also bear in mind the regresses and all the considerable work that lies before us. Fifty years later, Dr. King’s dream is still worthy of fruition.

We MarchI Have a DreamI Have a Dream2

Published in: on August 22, 2013 at 4:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fundamentals Left Behind in Race to Top

Tennessee was one of the “winners” of the competitive Race to the Top initiative, in which states competed for billions in federal funds by promising to implement specific reforms. These reforms included more assessments, new accountability systems linking teacher evaluation to student standardized test scores, and an expansion of charter schools. Race to the Top is No Child Left Behind 2.0. It’s NCLB on steroids. It’s the same terrible policies, only supersized and superfunded. Earlier this month Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Tennessee and praised the state for “literally helping lead the nation where we need to go in education.” I am married to a high school English teacher who works in Tennessee’s 3rd largest public school system and she shares with me every day the demoralizing developments wrought by Race to the Top reforms. I have seen the results myself working as a substitute teacher this past year, and gained insight into the direction it’s taking schools from interviews I’ve had. If Tennessee is leading the nation in education reform, American citizens should be VERY, VERY AFRAID.

Burgess_Meredith_The_Twilight_Zone_1961

I recently interviewed at my wife’s high school for a school librarian opening. I cannot recall an interview that ever left me so depressed. Of the three people who sat in on the interview (a principal and two assistant principals), not one of them ever brought up the subject of reading or books. They talked about assessments, data, and computer technology. Much of the library’s nonfiction shelving was sacrificed to make room for computer labs. The books occupying those shelves were culled and, of course, not replaced. The principal did, at one point without a hint of irony, mention that the school’s “literacy numbers” were not where he wanted them to be but he apparently saw no connection between that issue and the role of the library or the librarian. As I sat there trying my best to feign enthusiasm for and interest in their talk of assessments and data, I felt like Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man.” This is the only interview I can ever remember having that left me feeling physically ill afterward.

Later in the week I went to a job fair for the same school district. I spoke with the assistant principal of another high school. The school is cutting its two full time librarian positions to one so it can hire a “graduation coach,” whatever that is. My wife’s high school has one of those, too, and a single librarian. There is no full-time secretary or assistant for the library, so one person will serve the 1,300 student population single-handedly. I was told the school doesn’t want the new librarian to do things like “work with books and research.” He or she will work with students on doing assessments on computers in addition to “library stuff.” It sounded to me like the school was really looking for an assistant to the new “graduation coach.” I once again thought of Burgess Meredith. I realized that I had apparently gone the way of the dinosaurs.

I did not bother to apply for that position and I soon found out that I was not selected for the one at my wife’s high school. They went instead with a young lady soon to graduate from library school who had worked as an intern at the library. They can pay her a lot less money and maybe she’s more enthusiastic about computers and data than I am. She has my sympathies.

What these experiences left me with was further depressing confirmation that the “reforms” of NCLB and Race to the Top are a complete and utter failure. Assessing children to death and teaching to the test so they score high on those assessments does not educate them. Data mining will not help them become literate, knowledgeable, thoughtful, productive members of society. The race to the top is leaving the fundamentals of education behind.

Time_Enough_at_Last

AVAILABLE: Librarian with sixteen years of experience serving children and teens in public and school libraries. Extensive experience teaching people of all ages research skills and how to use a wide range of information technologies. A record of success generating enthusiasm for reading and instilling in young people an intellectual curiosity and lifelong love of learning. Author of books, dozens of articles, and hundreds of book reviews. A voracious reader and nationally recognized expert on children’s and young adult literature.

Published in: on April 29, 2013 at 11:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Best of Indies 2012

Last year I decided to create a list that shines a spotlight on independent publishers. These are my favorite books for children and young adults published by indies in 2012. My only criteria is that I find these books beautiful and/or brilliant and I want everyone to read them. Clicking on the titles will take you to further information about the titles on Goodreads. If you are not yet a member of Goodreads, resolve to join in 2013 ASAP! Cheers and Happy Reading!

For All Ages

Meinderts, Koos. The Man in the Clouds. Illus. Annette Fienieg. Lemniscaat USA.
A beautifully illustrated, deceptively simple, provocative parable to be pondered and discussed.

National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar!
A delightful collection of poems compiled by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated with stunning photographs that you know will be awesome because it’s, well, National Geographic. A wonderful anthology for classrooms, libraries and homes.

Serres, Alain. I Have the Right to Be a Child. Illus. Aurelia Fronty. Groundwood.
A powerful and inspiring introduction to the concept of human rights, specifically those of children as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is shameful that the United States is one of three UN member nations that is not party to the convention.

For Younger Readers

Davies, Nicola. Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature. Illus. Mark Hearld. Candlewick.
A beautifully illustrated collection of poems celebrating nature organized by the four seasons.

Dorémus, Gaetan. Bear Despair. Enchanted Lion.
Fun, whimsical wordless French import that reminds me of Jon Klassen’s “Hat” books but not as droll and subtle as those. The sixth and final book in Enchanted Lion’s Stories Without Words series.

Elliott, David. In the Sea. Illus. Holly Meade. Candlewick.
Another superb collaboration from the pair who created On the Farm and In the Wild. Great poems complemented with stunning woodcut illustrations.

Figley, Marty Rhodes. Emily and Carlo. Illus. Catherine Stock. Charlesbridge.
A beautifully illustrated, touching story (incorporating quotations from her verse) about Emily Dickinson and her beloved companion dog.

Hartnett, Sonya. Sadie & Ratz. Illus. Ann James. Candlewick.
This is one of the best written and most sophisticated early readers I have ever read. Hannah is a little girl who projects her anger, frustrations, and inclinations for mischief on Sadie and Ratz, the names she gives to her hands which are “wild beasts.” I am awed by Hartnett’s remarkable ability to so perfectly capture a young child’s imagination and perspective.

Lawlor, Laurie. Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World. Illus. Laura Beingessner. Holiday House.
Great introduction to Carson’s life and work. Lovely illustrations.

Leedy, Loreen. Seeing Symmetry. Holiday House.
An outstanding concept book in every way!

Markel, Michelle. The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau. Illus. Amanda Hall. Eerdmans.
A beautiful introduction to the artist and his bold, dreamy vision.

Nobelman, Marc Taylor. Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. Illus. Ty Templeton. Charlesbridge.
Great story about the co-creator of Batman who never got the recognition or rewards he deserved until after his death. Nicely designed and illustrated.

Singer, Marilyn. A Strange Place to Call Home: The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats & the Animals That Call Them Home. Illus. Ed Young. Chronicle.
Wonderful poems, as enjoyable as they are informative, describe the extreme habitats that are home to a variety of birds, fish, mammals, and insects. Illustrated with stunning abstract collage art.

Tallec, Olivier. Waterloo & Trafalgar. Enchanted Lion.
A superb tale about the absurdity and futility of war told solely in images full of charm, humor, wit, and a wide range of emotion. An excellent title for teaching about conflict resolution and peacemaking.

Tate, Don. It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. Illus. R. Gregory Christie. Lee & Low.
An excellent introduction to Bill Traylor, an ex-slave, sharecropper and self-taught artist who is now recognized as an important African-American folk artist. He’s also a classic late bloomer having not started drawing and painting until in his early 80s.

Tolman, Marije and Ronald. The Island. Lemniscaat USA.
A delightfully whimsical, wordless wonder.

van Hout, Mies. Happy. Lemniscaat USA.
Expressions of emotion superbly captured in images and words. A wonderful example of a concept book.

Winters, Kari-Lynn. Gift Days. Illus. Stephen Taylor. Fitzhenry & Whiteside.
Wonderful, moving story about a Ugandan girl who cannot realize her dream of an education because she must care for her younger siblings until her brother gives her “gift days” that give her time to learn.

For Older Readers

Abirached, Zeina. A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return. Lerner/Graphic Universe.
In this remarkable graphic memoir, a French import, the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s is seen through the eyes of a child. The black-and-white illustrations are reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

Aronson, Marc. Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies. Candlewick.
A probing, insightful examination of the life and career of a notorious and complicated individual. Aronson does an excellent job of separating the facts from the myths about Hoover. He astutely draws parallels between past and present events, and raises many provocative and challenging questions for readers to consider. Hoover emerges from this book as a tragic character, one whose insatiable craving for power and control led to corrupt and lawless acts undermining his accomplishments in crime fighting and national security.

Bausum, Ann. Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Hours. National Geographic.
A vivid, engrossing, and superbly researched chronicle of the events leading up to the final days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Blake, Jon. The Last Free Cat. Albert Whitman.
A most unusual dystopian novel with a fast-paced, thrilling narrative and fascinating premise that explores big, dark ideas but also has some nice touches of humor. Gripping and provocative.

Decristofano,Carolyn Cinami. A Black Hole is Not a Hole. Illus. Michael W. Carroll. Charlesbridge.
An excellent presentation and explanation of a complicated subject. Coversational, entertaining and informative with great illustrations.

Hearst, Michael. Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth’s Strangest Animals. Illus. Jelmer Noordeman. Chronicle.
A fascinating and fun collection of profiles of 50 of the oddest critters that inhabit Planet Earth. Hearst injects some great touches of humor to go along with the excellent information. Nooderman’s line drawings in washed colors are a wonderful complement to the text.

Jarrow, Gail. The Amazing Harry Kellar: Great American Magician. Calkins Creek.
Houdini is the name of a magician most people recognize but Harry Kellar is the magician Houdini idolized. Kellar was the first American-born magician to become an international celebrity and Jarrow conjures up a fascinating introduction to the man who served as the model for the Wizard of Oz. Superbly illustrated and elegantly designed.

Knowles, Jo. See You at Harry’s. Candlewick.
A brilliantly written novel, heartbreaking and beautiful.

Lanthier, Jennfier. The Stamp Collector. Illus. François Thisdale. Fitzhenry & Whiteside.
A wonderful story about political oppression, freedom of expression, and the power of stories to change lives.

Levinson, Cynthia. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. Peachtree.
A thoroughly informative, completely engrossing, and truly inspiring account of how the children of Birmingham saved the civil rights movement from failure in that city. Levinson’s narrative is particularly notable for chronicling the heroic actions of four young protestors. This is an excellent companion read to Larry Dane Brimner’s Black and White.

Liu, Na and Andrés Vera Martínez. Little White Duck: A Childhood in China. Lerner/Graphic Universe.
An exceptional graphic memoir about growing up in China in the 1970s. Superbly written and illustrated.

Losure, Mary. The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World. Candlewick.
The fascinating true story about how two girls perpetuated the Cottingsley Fairy hoax and kept it secret for over 60 years.

Master, Irfan. A Beautiful Lie. Albert Whitman.
An incredibly powerful, heartbreaking story set in India in 1947 in the days leading up to the partition of the country. Thirteen-year-old Bilal goes to elaborate lengths to keep his dying father from hearing the news about the imminent division of his beloved Mother India. Particularly poignant is the depiction of the unraveling social fabric as tensions between Hindus and Muslims escalate into open hostilities. An exceptional historical novel.

Micheaux, Vaunda Nelson. No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. Illus. R. Gregory Christie. Carolrhoda.
A fascinating portrait of the pioneering and influential Harlem bookseller and literacy advocate in a wonderful mix of biography and fiction.

Newman, Lesléa. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Candlewick.
A profoundly moving meditation. Pair this one with Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till.

Rajcak, Hélène. Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals. Illus. Damien Laverdunt. Gecko Press.
A wonderful introduction to extinct species and subspecies from five continents. Informational text is paired with folklore or intriguing and entertaining anecdotes. A handsomely designed and illustrated book that will spark readers’ imaginations and interests to learn more about these creatures.

Rapp, Adam. The Children and the Wolves. Candlewick.
Adam Rapp once again demonstrates his mastery of raw, penetrating prose and bleak imagery. A grim, haunting story.

Published in: on January 4, 2013 at 11:13 am  Comments (2)  

Reading the Competition

When I heard Steve Sheinkin wrote a book about the Manhattan Project, I felt a sharp pain in the pit of my stomach. Having read several other books by Mr. Sheinkin, I knew he was a master storyteller, a better one than I can ever hope to be. So it was with great trepidation that I read Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.  My book about the Manhattan Project, The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb, was published in 2007 by Holiday House.

My book was well-received but did not get the starred reviews or the unanimous praise of high-profile bloggers showered on Mr. Sheinkin’s book. That made me all the more apprehensive about reading it. My best review, from Kirkus, said: “The Manhattan Project is a complex subject for a book for young readers, but Sullivan does a fine job of relating the fascinating story in clear and lively prose. … Despite the complicated history, this book is completely compelling, a straightforward narrative told with a light touch. … [T]he solid writing, attractive design, abundant photographs, … make this the best work on the subject for young readers.” Would Sheinkin’s book render those words moot, eclipse my history into obsolescence? I had to find out.

I quickly discovered that all of my dread was for naught. To my surprise and great relief, I found Mr. Sheinkin’s approach to the subject is quite different from my own. His focus is on chronicling the acts of espionage and sabotage, which he does brilliantly in a suspenseful and fast-paced, almost breathless, narrative. My book does address those subjects but not to the great extent nor with quite the flair in Mr. Sheinkin’s. He brings readers a riveting story of saboteurs, spies, secret stealing, and daring commando raids.

What Mr. Sheinkin’s book does not chronicle in great detail is how the explosive fuels of the bombs were painstakingly manufactured in mass industrial complexes built from scratch for that singular purpose by a mostly civilian workforce of tens of thousands of people who lived for the duration of the war in secret cities. His book says little about the death and destruction wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the bombs, and nothing about the intense debates behind the scenes among the scientists, and military and government leaders about whether or not the bombs should be used, and the many complex factors that led to President Truman’s final decision to use them.

I’m glad Mr. Sheinkin does not go into great detail about those aspects of the Manhattan Project because that’s what I do in my book, and that means I can look upon his excellent work as complementary rather than competition. I can tell people without reservation that they should read Mr. Sheinkin’s book along with mine, and perhaps he’ll consider doing the same for me.

Published in: on September 24, 2012 at 8:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Why Are So Many Schools Run By Invertebrates?

I have never met a person working in school administration who was not an invertebrate. I’m not ruling out the possibility that there may be a few anomalies out there with a spine but I have yet to meet one. If you think I’m being too harsh, think of all the books ordered pulled from the shelves of libraries and classrooms by administrators because of the complaint of a single parent. Think of all the librarians and teachers (including yours truly) who have lost their jobs because they dared to champion intellectual freedom and protest against such action. Think of all the librarians and teachers who are too afraid to have a particular book on their shelves or even on a suggested reading list because they know that if there is a complaint, they will not have the support of their administration. That’s called self-censorship and it’s rampant in schools because most administrators are invertebrates. Many educators are afraid to do their job because these spineless powers that be create a culture of fear.

There is a recent case in my area of the country of a teacher being punished by his administration for doing his job. His name is James Yoakley and he was, until very recently, an English teacher at Lenoir City High School who served as advisor to the newspaper and yearbook.

In February, eighteen-year-old Krystal Myers had her atheism editorial censored from the Panther Press. She wrote “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist” after learning about separation of church and state laws in class. She researched court cases about religion and applied her findings to the school’s practices. Myers, Panther Press editor, claimed some teachers promote Christianity and that prayer occurs at football games, graduation and school board meetings. Lenoir City Schools Superintendent Wayne Miller disputed the claims. He said prayer at football games is student lead, but admitted the school board does pray before meetings.
Miller justified the censorship claiming that the column would pose “academic challenges” to the school district. Miller said there is no formal review process for the weekly student newspaper, but the topics of sexuality, politics and religion are generally avoided because they inspire “passionate conversations.” You don’t want to give students cause to have passionate conversations in an academic environment.

The editorial was published on the Knoxville News-Sentinel website. Miller and Myers both said they have not noticed any disruption since publication, and Myers said no one at the school has been outwardly negative toward her since. So much for the fear of academic disruption.

Yoakley was called into Principal Steve Millsaps’s office to answer for a story in the yearbook called “It’s O.K. to be Gay,” after a parent complained about it in an email. The student-written story profiles gay student Zac Mitchell, who discusses coming out, bullying, and his family’s donations to gay rights causes and breast cancer research. Mitchell also describes an experience cross-dressing with a friend while in Nashville. Yoakley said the story was the student editor’s idea. The yearbook theme is “In My Element.”

After the yearbooks were distributed, an email circulated in the community demanding action from school administrators. “It is time to take a stand for our faith,” the email reads. “We aren’t being called to risk our lives and go before a king like Nehemiah – but our walls are broken down and our gates are burning.”

Van Shaver, a school board member in a neighboring district, called for a criminal investigation into the matter. “If in fact it was Mr. Yoakley or any other teacher who allowed this article to be published in the yearbook, they should be dismissed from the school immediately,” Shaver wrote on his personal blog. Shaver also wrote that if Yoakley or any other teacher talked with students about their sexual orientation “prior to those students being of legal age, those teachers should be charged with child sex abuse by an authority figure and arrested.”

“The editor tried to capture the school from all the different ways and places students fit into the school community,” Yoakley wrote in an email. “She did it quite well. The gay student was just one of many ‘elements’ we covered.” Yoakley also remarked: “I view the school yearbook and newspaper as student media. They make the editorial decisions, they decide the content and layout. I have been the adviser for six years and have developed a philosophy that I think falls in line with student productions across the country.”

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported that Yoakley was recently notified that he was removed from the yearbook and newspaper and transferred to Lenoir City Middle School. Yoakley, who served as English department chair and has been advising the newspaper and yearbook for six years, believes the district’s move was in direct retaliation to the content. Yoakley had refused Lenoir City High School Principal Steve Millsaps’s suggestion that he resign.

“I’m not happy with the reassignment, but will make the most of it and use it as an opportunity to grow as a teacher,” he said in an email. “I think that because I had done nothing that warranted my dismissal and that since I refused to acquiesce to the principal’s suggestion that I resign, the system decided that the only way they could show that they had taken action was to move me to another school.” Superintendent Wayne Miller, who ordered Yoakley’s transfer, denies that the transfer is retaliation or due to political pressure.

As Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Pam Strickland (also a former high school newspaper and yearbook advisor) remarked: “Yoakley has been doing exactly what he’s supposed to do … [T]he students get more than a grade. They get freedom, respect, trust, high expectations. They learn collaboration, research, problem solving. They refine their language skills, and they become comfortable with technology. They can also win contests and scholarships.” Who would find anything wrong with that? A school district superintendent and a high school principal among others apparently.

Read “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist” by Krystal Myers.

Read “It’s O.K. To Be Gay”  by Zac Mitchell

Sources for this post:

http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2339

http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2378

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2012/jun/01/pam-strickland-transferred-lenoir-city-teacher/

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2012/feb/23/lenoir-city-high-school-wont-publish-atheist-on/

Published in: on June 2, 2012 at 12:57 pm  Comments (3)  

WTF is Wrong with These People?

 

Reading reports of books challenged and banned usually makes my stomach turn, but once in a while there’s one that makes my blood boil. The Annville-Cleona School Board in Pennsylvania recently voted unanimously to ban from two elementary school libraries The Dirty Cowboy, a picture book written by Amy Timberlake and illustrated by Adam Rex. It’s a clever, fun story about a young cowboy who instructs his dog to watch his clothes while he takes his annual bath. When the cowboy emerges from his bath in the river, the dog does not recognize his familiar smell and refuses to give back his clothes.

The board voted unanimously (8-0) at its April 19th meeting to remove the book based on the objection of one student’s parents. An evaluation committee consisting of teachers, administrators, and board members met last week to review the book and recommended its removal. According to the Lebanon Daily News: “Cleona Elementary School librarian Anita Mentzer objected to the book’s removal, saying she does not believe that one parent’s objection to a book should determine whether or not the rest of the students in the school can read it.”

In his delightful illustrations, Rex uses various items, such as birds, a hat and a boot, to cover the boy’s genitals and backside while he is bathing and then while he is attempting to get his clothes back. Readers do not see so much as a butt crack. According to Annville-Cleona Schools Superintendent Steven Houser, as reported in the Lebanon Daily News: “They [the parents] were asked what do you feel might be the result of viewing or reading this material, and their answer was, ‘Children may come to the conclusion that looking at nudity is OK, and therefore pornography is OK,'” he said. “The parents asked us to review this book because their concern was parents should have the right to decide whether or not their children view this book.” In trying to rationalize the banning of the book, Houser compared the book to inappropriate content in movies and on the Internet. He noted that some movies are not appropriate for certain age groups, so movies have ratings such as PG and R. He also noted that the district blocks tens of thousands of Internet sites it deems inappropriate from its computers on a daily basis. Erroneous as Houser’s comparisons are, I see no illustrations in The Dirty Cowboy that can be considered anything other than “G” rated. See some samples for yourself at the publisher’s website.

The Dirty Cowboy received starred reviews in the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. A review in Booklist said: “Rex’s rich paintings add sparkle to the story’s dramatic telling with the attention to detail and humor that may remind some grownups of Norman Rockwell’s early work. A simple, slapstick tale that is sure to elicit some giggles.” The book is also the recipient of a Parents Choice Gold Medal, a recognition that does not typically go to controversial or edgy books.

School Board President Tom Tshudy told the Lebanon Daily News that he had no problems with the story itself. “It’s not the story,” he said. “If the author had just gave us a book with less illustrative illustrations, this would be a no-brainer. It’s sort of a judgment call. I can only speak for myself … but I was sort of surprised at the extent of the illustrations.” More alarming than Tshudy’s tenuous grasp of grammatically correct English is his cluelessness about what a picture book is and is supposed to do. His comments about the illustrations remind me of a scene from Amadeus in which the emperor tells Mozart that his composition has “too many notes.”

I never cease to be disgusted by the twisted values of American society. Acts of the most explicit extreme violence will pass without comment, but the mere hint of sexuality or nudity in children’s and young adult books will propel some people to extremes you should only expect from the Taliban or Shibab. I have never understood the mentality of people who teach their children that the human body is bad, dirty, shameful, or ugly. In an interesting coincidence as I was writing this, Australian educator Judith Ridge posted on Facebook a link to a blog discussing the wonderful response of legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom to a school librarian who wrote expressing her distress at the nude depictions of the character Mickey in In the Night Kitchen. I have lost count of how many copies of the book I’ve seen in my years as a librarian in which someone has pasted paper diapers on Mickey or whited out his crotch. I’ve seen this in public and school libraries, and even juvenile collections in colleges. I always imagined a secret army of blue-haired old ladies going from library to library doing this. What do the people who do such things think they are protecting children from? Do they seriously fear a child will be subjected to some emotional or psychological trauma from the seeing the penis on a baby boy? I’ve had children come up to me with art books featuring sculptures and paintings with nudity telling me they are “bad pictures.” I remember a young boy coming up to me in a K-8 school with a copy of Hiroshima No Pika, pointing to the cover and saying it was “a bad book.” He considered the book “bad” because the breasts of the woman on the cover are exposed. The illustrations in the story feature naked people because their clothes were burned from the heat of the atomic bomb blast. Why do parents teach their children such nonsense about the human body?

I pity the librarian. She gave the student the book because “the little guy is a cowboy fan, and I have provided him with other cowboy books in the library.” She did what librarians are supposed to do—connect readers with books they will enjoy. She praised the boy’s parents for taking an interest in what their son reads, but cautioned that their discomfort with the illustrations did not warrant removal of the book from the library. She spoke publicly that she opposed the challenge to the book. When the board voted unanimously to ban the book from the library, she walked out of the meeting room in protest. What the school board did with their unanimous decision is not just ban a book; they stripped the librarian of her professional authority. The board’s decision told parents that they are better qualified than a licensed professional to decide what should be in the library for their children to read. The school board effectively nullified the librarian’s professional education and experience.

 The person I feel sorry for most in this tragedy is the child of the parents who challenged the book. This boy is being taught that the human body is bad and dirty, something to be ashamed of. This boy is not going to be able to appreciate a wide range of great works of art. He is going to be an adult with a lot of hang-ups and issues. God help him if he finds himself wrestling with sexual orientation or gender identity issues in the years to come. The worst thing that this boy is learning from his parents and the Annville-Cleona School Board is that it’s okay to ban books from libraries.

 

Published in: on April 21, 2012 at 11:03 pm  Comments (33)  

A Perfect Pair

 

 

 

 

 

I love it when I receive books, almost simultaneously, from different publishers that perfectly complement each other. That’s the case with these two which are both about Sable Island, a unique place of  singing sands, wandering dunes and wild horses that was recently designated a Canadian national park. Sarah Hughes’s The Island Horse (Kids Can Press) is a historical novel set in the early half of the 19th century. Ten-year-old Ellie, adjusting to the recent death of her mother, is unhappy about having to leave her Nova Scotia home and moving to Sable Island for her father’s work. She finds a sense of connection, however, when she encounters the island’s horses. This is historical fiction that will have great appeal for middle grade readers, particularly horse lovers. A perfect companion to this novel is Sable Island: The Wandering Sandbar by Wendy Kitts (Nimbus), a nonfiction book that offers young readers an excellent introduction to the physical geography, science, history, and lore of this unique part of the world. This attractively designed, informative books is abundantly illustrated with color photographs. Discover the wonders of Sable Island with this perfect pair of books.

Published in: on April 19, 2012 at 10:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Titanic Stories

Unless you’ve been living in an ice cave in Antarctica, you are no doubt aware that the centennial of the Titanic sinking is here. The sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 is not the worst maritime disaster in history, but it is the best known. Twelve years before James Cameron romanticized the tragedy with a doomed teenage love story as the heart of his 1997 blockbuster film, oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck two miles below the ocean surface. The unending public fascination with all things Titanic began in 1955 with the publication of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. It’s amazing to think that, forty-three years after the tragedy, Lord’s vivid and completely riveting, moment-by-moment narrative was the first significant account of the sinking.

Lord’s book was my first encounter with the Titanic story, purchased at a school book fair when I was in 5th grade. I’ve read many books, fiction and nonfiction, about the Titanic since then, but Lord’s story still stands out and remains one of the most popular on the subject. With the centennial of the Titanic disaster here, fascination with the subject is at a peak. Fortunately, a rich body of works exists from which readers of all ages can choose.  

Younger readers can get an unusual perspective on the sinking in Pig on the Titanic. Maxixe, a French music-box pig, was given to Edith Rosenbaum for good luck on her voyage. The musical toy pig proves to be the saving grace for the children in a lifeboat after the ship strikes the iceberg. The pig plays a melody after its tail is wound, and the sounds soothe and comfort those aboard the lifeboat. Based on a true story, the author does a wonderful job unraveling events by having the toy pig narrate the tale. Another story from a toy’s perspective is Polar the Titanic Bear. Polar was a real stuffed bear who survived the sinking, then was rescued and safely reunited with his Master. Daisy Corning Stone Spedden wrote the story and gave it to her son Douglas for a Christmas present in 1913; both were survivors themselves. Illustrated with watercolors as well as photographs, the story brings to life an Edwardian era of wealth and privilege one sees in a Downton Abbey episode.

Titanicat, also based on a true story, features a real animal and an Irish cabin boy named Jim who is assigned to care for the little tortoiseshell cat. As the Titanic is readied for her maiden voyage, Jim’s deepening relationship with the cat is framed in the small details about chores to be done and kittens found on B-deck. When the ship docks and the cat goes missing, Jim searches and finds her carrying her kittens off the ship. He interprets this as a bad omen for journey ahead. Concerned for a kitten she leaves behind, he takes it to her and consequently misses the sailing, which he soon realizes is quite lucky. For middle-grade readers, another story featuring real animals is White Star: A Dog on the Titanic. The dramatic story is told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Sam Harris, traveling back to America to be re-united with his mother and her new husband. Sam spends a lot of time in the ship’s dog kennel, and his favorite is White Star, owned by Titanic owner Bruce Ismay. When the ships begins sinking, Sam and White Star brave the icy waters until a lifeboat rescues them.

Readers who enjoy a supernatural twist to their stories will find novels in which the Titanic figures prominently. Science, spiritualism, history, and romance intertwine in Distant Waves. Four sisters and their mother make their way from a spiritualist town in New York to London, becoming acquainted with journalist W. T. Stead, scientist Nikola Tesla, and industrialist John Jacob Astor. When they all find themselves on the Titanic, one of Tesla’s inventions will either assure their doom or survival. In Richard Peck’s Amanda/Miranda, a wise woman prophesies that eighteen-year-old Mary Cooke’s future was beyond a mountain of ice, where she would die and then live again. When Mary is hired as personal maid to the willful and arrogant Amanda Whitwell, she is astonished to find that her new employer is her near-double, a coincidence that has lasting consequences for Mary, especially when she accompanies Amanda on the Titanic’s fateful voyage. Ghosts of the Titanic is a fast-paced, engaging story offering a good mix of history, mystery, and the supernatural. When twelve-year-old Kevin Messenger’s father inherits a house in Halifax, Canada, left to him by a complete stranger named Angus Seaton, Kevin investigates, and the discoveries he makes lead to troubling dreams and a voice he can’t escape calling to him for help. A parallel narrative tells the dramatic story of Angus Seaton, who worked on one of the ships responsible for recovering bodies and personal effects after the Titanic sank. The two stories converge in a suspenseful climax as Kevin is transported aboard the sinking Titanic to try to right the wrongs of the past.

Historical fiction without the supernatural trappings abounds. In No Moon, fourteen-year-old Louisa Gardener is the nursemaid to the young daughter of a wealthy, titled family living in London,England in 1912. When the children’s nanny is incapacitated, Louisa assumes the responsibility of looking after them on the voyage, then with saving their lives. No Moon is exceptional historical fiction, especially notable for vividly depicting the rigid class divisions of the time. So much has been written about the Titanic, it’s hard to imagine an author finding a fresh perspective, but Allan Wolf pulls it off brilliantly in The Watch That Ends the Night. The voices of the captain, crew members, passengers from all three classes, the shipboard rats, the embalmer searching for bodies floating among the wreckage, and even the iceberg are vividly brought to life in this novel in verse. Another unique approach is Barry Denenberg’s Titanic Sinks!, a kind of fiction/nonfiction hybrid book. Denenberg presents the facts of the Titanic catastrophe framed in a 1912 special edition of a fictitious magazine called Modern Times and excerpts from the journal of a Modern Times correspondent found after the sinking. Handsomely designed, this dramatic and unique presentation of the story illustrated with actual photographs of the Titanic and people mentioned in the narrative is sure to be popular.

Readers preferring a straightforward informational book have many from which to choose. Don Brown’s All Stations! Distress! is an excellent introduction for younger readers. Brown’s “you are there”-style narrative features a fast pace and the incorporation of quotations and well-observed but straightforward reportage that readers will find engrossing. Adept at humanizing complicated ideas in words and images, Brown’s subtle watercolor-and-pencil compositions effectively capture moments described in the text. Another outstanding book for younger readers is Martin Jenkins’s Titanic, the highlight of which is a single impressive pop-up of a 33″ long paper model of the huge ill-fated ship. The 32-page text offers a clear and entertaining illustrated history of the ship containing all anyone could possibly want to know about the ship and its tragic ending. There is also a pocket in the front with more fascinating information specific to passenger luxury and a gallery of interior drawings showing life aboard a luxury liner in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Older readers looking for a complete history of the Titanic need look no further than Iceberg, Right Ahead!, a thorough, informative chronicle that is notable for including chapters on the enquiries into the circumstances of the collision and sinking, what became of some of the survivors, exploration of the wreck site, and controversies surrounding the salvaging of artifacts for exhibition. Though it does not offer a detailed account of the aftermath of the sinking,  Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is a thoroughly detailed, dramatic chronicle that makes extensive use of quotes from survivors. The voices include a stewardess, a science teacher, a 9-year-old boy, the ship’s designer, the captain, and a mother on her way to a new life in America. Hopkinson encourages readers to think like historians and imagine what it would have been like on the Titanic and imagine each character’s story. The highlight of the book is a huge number of archival photographs and reproductions of telegrams, maps, letters, illustrations, sidebars, and even a dinner menu to complement the text.

If the sinking of the Titanic had never happened, would it have been possible to imagine it? Could an author conceive of a story so improbable and utterly fantastic?  It is a story that combines completely the elements of tragedy, drama, mythology, morality play, and social statement, and what makes it so irresistibly fascinating is that it’s true. Anyone reading a book about the disaster will face the same question. What would I have done under a similar set of circumstances? The sinking of the Titanic took 2 hours and 40 minutes, and people had to make moral choices. It’s the ability to relate to that situation and those choices that make the Titanic story so compelling.

Published in: on April 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Best of the Indies 2011

I know end-of the-year best lists are abundant now, so why add to the deluge? I wanted to create a list that shines a spotlight on independent publishers. These are my favorites published by indies in 2011. My only criteria is that I find these books beautiful and/or brilliant and I want everyone to read them. Clicking on the titles will take you to further information about the titles on Goodreads. If you are not yet a member of Goodreads, resolve to join in 2012 ASAP! Cheers and Happy Reading!

For Younger Readers

Atinuke. The No. 1 Car Spotter. Illus. Warwick Johnson Cadwell. Kane/Miller. 112p. 
A delightful, fun story set in contemporary Africa by the author of the Anna Hibiscus stories.

Dowson, Nick. North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration. Illus. Patrick Benson. Candlewick. 56p.
A stunning  and inspiring nature book!

Henrichs, Wendy. I Am Tama, Lucky Cat: A Japanese Legend. Illus. Yoshiko Jaeggi. Peachtree.
I have always been fond of this tale and this is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Japanese legend of Maneki Neko.

Jenkins, Martin. Can We Save the Tiger? Illus. Vicky White. Candlewick. 56p.
Absolutely stunning! Troubling but hopeful. Pair this title with J. Patrick Lewis’s Swan Song: Poems of Extinction (Creative Editions, 2003).

Kimura, Ken. 999 Tadpoles. Illus. Yasunari Murakami. North South. 40p.
In this totally delightful Japanese import, 999 young frogs and their parents demonstrate amazing resourcefulness as they escape predators on their way to a new home.

Klassen, Jon. I Want My Hat Back. Candlewick. 40p.
A delightfully droll picture book.

Lund, Darrin. After the Kill. Illus. Catherine Stock. Charlesbridge. 32p.
An excellent, realistic portrait of predators, prey, and scavengers on the plains of East Africa.

Lyon, George Ella. Which Side Are You On?: The Story of a Song. Illus. Christopher Cardinale. Cinco Puntos. 40p.
A great story about Florence Reece, the wife of a coal miner, who wrote the classic union song in the midst of the bloody confrontation between a company’s hired guns and miners trying to organize in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Moundlic, Charlotte. The Scar. Illus. Olivier Tallec. Candlewick. 32p.
A powerful, deeply touching story about a young boy grieving for his recently deceased mother.

Paterson, Katherine. Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Illus. Pamela Dalton. Chronicle.
A beautiful and reverent “reimagining” of St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures.”

Roth, Susan L. and Cindy Trumbore. The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families. Lee & Low. 40p.
The delightful and inspiring true story of the remarkable Dr. Gordon Sato, a scientist who enriches people’s lives and the environment with mangrove trees.

Schubert, Ingrid and Deiter. The Umbrella. Lemniscaat. 40p.
This Dutch import is a delightful wordless wonder. I love everything this couple has done. They are superb picture book creators.

Tullet, Hervé. Press Here. Chronicle. 56p.
Awesome interactive fun!

Werner, Sharon and Sarah Forss. Bugs by the Numbers. Blue Apple. 56p.
From the people who created the fabulous Alphabeasties is this visually stunning, informative and fun book about all sorts of creepy crawlies.

For Older Readers

Arni, Samhita. Sita’s Ramayana. Illus. Moyna Chitrakar. Groundwood. 152p.
A stunning graphic novel version of the Ramayana from Hindu mythology.

Deedy, Carmen Agra and Randall Wright. The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale. Illus. Barry Moser. Peachtree. 228p.
A cat and a mouse form an unlikely alliance in this clever, fun and utterly delightful tale.

Jacobson, Jennifer Richard. Small as an Elephant. Candlewick. 275p.
Jack’s mom leaves him all alone on a campsite in Maine. Can the eleven-year-old  find his way back to Boston before the authorities realize what happened? A beautifully written, moving, spirited story.

McClafferty, Carla Killough. The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential. Carolrhoda. 128p.
A fascinating look at the many disparate ways artists have portrayed George Washington, and the painstaking work of a group of experts to create “authentic” representations of him in different stages of life.

Ness, Patrick and Siobhan Dowd. A Monster Calls. Illus. Jim Kay Candlewick. 215p.
An exceptional, extraordinarily moving novel about coming to terms with loss.

Perera, Anna. Guantanamo Boy. Albert Whitman. 352p.
A chilling and harrowing story of a young victim of a profound injustice brought about by paranoia, prejudice, and an appalling disregard for human rights. This novel left me angry and disgusted. It should be widely read and discussed.

Powers, J.L. This Thing Called the Future. Cinco Puntos. 202p.
A poignant, realistic story with supernatural elements set in an AIDS-ravaged South Africa shantytown. A beautifully written, honest, engrossing story that provides a window into a fascinating world.

Ross, Stewart. Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air. Illus. Stephen Biesty. Candlewick. 96p.
Absolutely stunning! The engaging, informative text chronicles exciting adventures by daring explorers. Biesty’s huge, fold out, cutaway cross-section illustrations are remarkably detailed. A handsomely designed visual experience.

Vernic, Shirley Reva. The Blood Lie: A Novel. Cinco Puntos. 141p.
Inspired by a real blood libel that took place when a small girl disappeared from Massena, New York, in 1928, and an innocent Jewish boy was called a murderer, this is a chilling story of anti-Semitism.

Wallace, Jason. Out of Shadows. Holiday House.  272p.
A superb debut novel centered in an elite private boys school that begins in the early 1980s when Rhodesia has become Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe has taken power as Prime Minister. A riveting story that explores deeply and thoughtfully a host of compelling themes and subjects: colonialism, racism, guilt, bullying, inequality, justice, revenge, and much more. A richly layered, gripping story!

Wolf, Allan. The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic. Candlewick. 480p.
So much has been written about the Titanic, it’s hard to imagine an author finding a fresh perspective but Allan Wolf pulls it off and quite brilliantly. The voices of the captain, crew members, passengers from all three class, the shipboard rats, the embalmer searching for bodies floating among the wreckage, and even the iceberg are brought vividly to life in verse. Like his New Found Land, this is unique, engrossing historical fiction.

Published in: on January 2, 2012 at 8:52 pm  Comments (2)  

Remembering September 11th, 2001

Middle school-age children are too young to remember the events of  that tragic Tuesday morning. Teenagers have only a sketchy memory. Most elementary-age children were not yet born. Ten years later, there are plenty of horrific images on the airwaves of airplanes crashing, the towers falling, and the Falling Man but it is the stories behind the death and destruction that matter most. Fortunately, there are some excellent stories for young people that capture the fear, grief and loss of that day, and also the great acts of heroism and gestures of compassion that day brought.

  • Brown, Dan. America is Under Attack. Roaring Brook, 2011.
    An excellent chronicle of the tragic day for readers too young to remember or not yet born. I especially like the focus on individual victims and survivors. Vivid, emotional and powerful.

 

 

Deedy, Carmen Agra in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. 14 Cows for America. Illus. Thomas Gonzalez. Peachtree, 2009.
While in New York studying medicine, Kimeli witnesses the September 11th attacks. When Kimeli returns to his village in Kenya, he tells his Maasai elders that he will offer his cow to the people of America. The elders agree and invite a diplomat from the United States Embassy in Nairobi to visit the village where he is greeted with a ceremony and presented with not one, but fourteen cows. A wonderfully told, beautifully illustrated true story.

Gerstein, Mordicai. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Roaring Brook, 2003. Gerstein’s Caldecott Medal-winning story of how in 1974 French aerialist Philippe Petit threw a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center and spent an hour walking, dancing, and performing high-wire tricks a quarter mile in the sky. A poignant and riveting tribute to the lost towers.

 

Kalman. Maira. Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey. Putnam, 2002.
Reissued this year, this is my favorite book for children about the September 11th attacks. Nearly scrapped  by York City in 1995, the fireboat John J. Harvey was called in to help put out the fires at the World Trade Center site.

 

Maynard, Joyce. The Usual Rules. St. Martin’s, 2003.
Maynard brings the September 11th tragedy to readers through its effect on thirteen-year-old Wendy and her extended family. Sensitive, real and powerful.

 

 

9-11: Artists Respond, vols. 1&2. DC Comics, 2002.
Two volumes of original stories and powerful illustrations about the September 11th attacks from a stellar group of contributors, including Will Eisner, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, John J. Muth and dozens more.

 

 

Speigelman, Art. In the Shadow of No Towers. Pantheon, 2004.
Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman presents his very personal observation of and response to the destruction of the World Trade Center. A resident of lower Manhattan, with children attending school on the morning of September 11th, Spieglman vividly conveys his experiences of the day’s events. Powerful and revealing.

 

Winter, Jeanette. September Roses. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.
The true story of how roses, originally destined for a flower show, were used to recreate the image of the World Trade Center Towers and help heal people’s hearts. A moving story of compassion, generosity and kindness.

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 9:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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