Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, November 26, 2012

Last Airlift by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Last Airlift: a Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War 
By Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Pajama Press Inc.
ISBN: 978098694950
Grades 4 and up
We obtained this book from our local public library.
In 1975, over 2,000 orphaned children were airlifted out of South Vietnam when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Children who were disabled or the product of a Vietnamese woman and U.S. soldier would be killed. In Last Airlift, Marsha Skrypuch describes the rescue experience by one orphan, Son Thi Anh Tuyet, who suffered from polio. For Tuyet, leaving Vietnam meant a promise of a new life in a new country.

Tuyet was eight years old in 1975. She thought all children lived together in a building. She never went outside, it was far too dangerous. Tuyet could not remember ever seeing the sky above her head. 

One day, without any warning, everything changed. A man came to the orphanage and helped the nuns pack up diapers, formula, water, and bedding. Babies were placed in boxes, sometimes two to a box. Each child’s name was written on a plastic strip that was placed on its wrist. Then, everything was packed into a white Volkswagon van and driven to the airport. As Tuyet was entering the van she looked around her and saw the streets full of people running. Some carried suitcases; others carried children. Some people were screaming; others were weeping. What Tuyet did not know was that North Vietnam tanks were entering Saigon. 

Readers will immediately be drawn in from the very first page. The book only covers Tuyet’s journey by airplane from Saigon to Toronto, Canada and her adoption to a new family who loves her very much. When Tuyet is flying to Canada, another orphan, Linh, gives her some advise. Whenever someone asks you something in English, answer, No. That will stop them from doing what they were going to do. The last three chapters are most touching as we learn just how patient Tuyet’s new family is as they learn how to communicate with each other. (They do not speak Vietnamese) Some of the changes in Tuyet’s life were difficult. For instance, Tuyet was used to sleeping with all the other orphans on the floor at the orphanage, she is unable to adjust to sleeping alone in a bed in her own bedroom.

Historic black & white photographs, including some of Tuyet, enhance the reading experience. 

In a historic note, Skrypuch briefly explains the rescue operation. In her Author’s note, we learn that Tuyet currenly lives in Skrypuch’s hometown of Brantford, Ontario. It is great to see Tuyet as a grown up woman.

The Vietnam War era was a time of monumental social change. There was Roe v. Wade, protest songs, Hippies, Woodstock, anti-establishment, Malcolm X, Hell’s Angels, student led marches and protests demanding the US end their involvement in Vietnam.  Bob Dole even wore bell-bottoms!

You could tie this book with other nonfiction titles about Vietnam, The Vietnam War, Escape from Saigon: a Vietnam War Orphan becomes an American boy by Andrea Warren, and a biography of Muhammand Ali. For fiction, try Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, Free-Fire Zone by Chris Lynch (and other titles in this series), All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg, and The Wall by Eve Bunting. Visit the author's web site.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Living in the Wild: Primates series
by Buffy Silverman
Heinemann Library, 2012
ISBN: 9781432958619
Grades 4 and up

The reviewer received a copy of the book from the publisher.

Recently I read Endangered by Eliot Schrefer. Endangered is a young adult novel about a Congolese American girl who rescues a bonobo while visiting her mother's bonobo preserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Civil war breaks out, and Sophie finds herself on the run while trying to protect the bonobos. The title was recently a named a finalist for the National Book Award, and it came highly recommended by a number of teacher and librarian friends. As I read Endangered, I learned a lot about bonobos and the many threats they face in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was intrigued, so I picked up a nonfiction text to learn more about the primates.  

Bonobos by Buffy Silverman is a straight forward, expository text that is full of information about the lives of bonobos. The book is well-organized and begins with a look at primates in general. A diagram showing how all primates evolved is helpful for readers to see where bonobos fit into the primate family.

Bonobos is chock full of information for young researchers. The book is organized into fourteen chapters; each chapter begin with a question. In the chapter entitles, What Are Bonobos?, readers learn that bonobos share 98% of their genes with humans. Bonobos are social animals and live together in groups. Each night bonobos make nests in treetops. Baby bonobos are highly reliant on their mothers for food and protection during the first year of life. Like humans, bonobos enjoy playing, and they use tools. Dozens of color photographs show bonobos in the wild; captions are used to clearly label each photo.

Silverman points out the threats to bonobos in later chapters. Unfortunately, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the only country where the primates live. A decade of civil war has taken a toll on the bonobo population; many were killed for meat. Clear cutting forests for farming and mining has also had an impact on bonobos. The author leaves readers with a glimmer of hope as she highlights efforts to save the bonobo including the Sankuru Nature Reserve. Back matter includes a glossary, index, and a list of recommended books and web sites.

Students in need of print sources for research assignments should be sure to check out this series. Bonobos will also satisfy readers who wish to learn more about these amazing primates, and it would make an excellent fiction/nonfiction pairing with Endangered.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Interview with Monica Kulling and Review of Going Up!

Going Up! Elisha Otis's Trip to the Top
by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by David Parkins
Tundra Books, 2012
ISBN: 9781770492400
Grades: 2-5

The reviewers received a copy of the book from the publishers.
Inventors are popular subjects in the biography section. Most biography sections are chock full of books about Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. We're fortunate that Monica Kulling sheds light on little known inventors with her Great Idea series.  Kulling focuses on the life and work of Elisha Otis and his "people-hoisting machine" (also known as the elevator) in Going Up! Elisha Otis's Trip to the Top.

Kulling engages readers with her narrative style and fast-paced storytelling. She keeps the story moving without leaving out important details. As a librarian who frequently reads aloud picture book biographies to classes, I appreciate that Kulling provides the time period and location on the first page of the story.

"It was 1818, and Elisha Otis was seven. He loved watching farm machines at work. 

The hay hoist was the most fun of all. The ropes broke often, and when they did-SNAP!-the hay came tumbling down."

Otis was an idea man. During the construction of a bed-frame factory in Yonkers, Otis worried that heavy machinery would hurt workers if it came crashing down as it was moved to the second floor. Otis invented a safety brake that attached to a platform. It worked so well at moving machinery that Otis decided it would work for moving people. Children who enjoy figuring out how things work will be inspired by Otis's ingenuity.

Detailed pen, ink and watercolor illustrations depict history while also being kid-friendly. Parkins effectively captures the expressions on the faces of people throughout the book. In one illustration, Elisha looks eagerly at his boss who is delighted with Otis's plans for a new bed rail machine. In the background, readers can see the forlorn look on a worker's face as he makes a bed rail by hand.

A note at the end of the book provides more details about Otis's first elevator and how his invention made skyscrapers a possibility. The next time a child needs a biography for a school assignment, pull out Going Up! It is sure to captivate readers while teaching them something new.

An Interview with Monica Kulling

Louise had the pleasure of interviewing author, Monica Kulling. Kulling is the author of a number of picture book biographies including In the Bag: Margaret Knight Wraps it Up and It's a Snap: George Eastman's First Photograph.

The Nonfiction Detectives: You have written four books in Tundra’s Great Idea Series. What drew you to the topic of inventors
Monica: I love reading about the struggle everyone goes through to achieve his or her goals. Inventors are clever and ingenious in finding ways to realize their dreams. For me the “aha moment” is the most fascinating. It’s that moment when a great idea first clicks in your brain and has you racing off in pursuit.
The first inventor story I wrote was about George Eastman and his Kodak camera. I shelved the story after sending it to several publishers and not getting even a nibble. I then wrote about Henry Ford and his Model T, and sold Eat My Dust! Henry Ford’s First Race to Random House, adding Listen Up! Alexander Graham Bell’s Talking Machine to the Step-Into Reading lineup a couple years later. Then, a fabulous editor at Tundra Books here in Toronto grabbed It’s A Snap! George Eastman’s First Photograph and the Great Idea series was born. The picture-book format allows me to bring depth and breadth to each inventor’s story.
    The Nonfiction Detectives: You have written a wide variety of books for children. Do you prefer writing one genre over another? If so, why?
Monica: No, I can’t say that I do. I enjoy writing fiction because there isn’t much research involved and I can merrily fly by the seat of my pants, inventing away, and nobody can come along and say, “Hey! That didn’t happen.” I also love biography, giving kids a peek inside another time and at people whose lives were vastly different from our own.
    The Nonfiction Detectives: Where do you get your ideas?
Monica: I have ideas popping up all the time. The best place seems to be while walking my dogs through High Park, a large city park in Toronto. To quote Dr. Linus Pauling, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” When I am struck by an idea I jot it down in a handy notepad. Much later, I’ll see whether any of these ideas still contain a latent spark, an electrical charge. If so, I’ll pursue it. If not, forget it.
    The Nonfiction Detectives: What was your process for researching this book?
Monica: Going Up! was a strange book to research, because there are no books about Elisha Otis. I couldn’t tackle the subject in my usual way, reading widely and choosing facts from several sources. I gleaned all my information online. But because I had set out to write the story in the same folksy way as It’s A Snap!, I felt free to give the facts a supporting role and to focus on the story of a young man who took years and years to find his groove. Not everyone appreciates this method of serving up non-fiction. One reviewer, for example, didn’t like the phrase, “Betsy could almost see the lightbulb over her husband’s head,” rightly citing it as an anachronism. Oops.
    The Nonfiction Detectives: Did you always want to be a writer?
Monica: No. Writing came to me quite by accident. In my teens, I needed my own space and a place where I could get away from day-to-day family life. I took to writing poetry after being struck, and I know this will sound trite, by the passion and lyricism of Melanie Safka’s song, “Lay Down (Candles In the Rain).” It was the opening that blew me away, for some inexplicable reason. The power of it woke me up! And I started to write.
    The Nonfiction Detectives: Do you make your living as a writer?
Monica: Yes, such as it is.  
    The Nonfiction Detectives: What is your writing schedule like? Do you write every morning? Do you have a studio?
Monica: I have an office and write every morning. I research most afternoons. But I can write any time, because writing is never far from my mind.
    The Nonfiction Detectives: Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?
Monica: That’s a good question, and one I can’t easily answer because I wasn’t much of a reader when I was younger. The few books that made a deep impression on me were the ones I actually got through in high school, such as Jean Valjean’s story from Les Miserables, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Animal Farm, and Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. As for influences today, there are many writers I read and admire and think, “Wow. I could never write like that.”
    The Nonfiction Detectives: What do you hope readers take away from In the Bag! and other books in the Great Idea series?
Monica: I hope readers will realize that life offers a world of possibilities, and that they can do whatever they choose to do if they put the time, energy, and will behind the enterprise. In the case of Elijah McCoy (All Aboard!) and Margaret Knight (In the Bag!), I’d like readers to see that struggle is part of life and that if you are at a disadvantage by virtue of something beyond your control, there are ways to overcome that unfairness.
I’d also like them to know that people living long ago in less comfortable conditions than many of us enjoy, made a contribution to the way we live our lives today, and these contributions have nothing to do with anything digital.
    The Nonfiction Detectives: What do you hope readers will take away from Going Up!?
Monica: Again, I hope readers will come to learn a little about a man who made elevators a reality. We take those “quiet rooms” for granted whenever we step into one, but all you have to do is look up to see the “Otis” name. Going Up! will clear up the mystery, just a little, about who that man was, how he came to invent the safety brake, and what it meant during his lifetime and what it means to us today.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Monsieur Marceau

Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words
by Leda Schubert
illustrated by Gerard Dubois
Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Roaring Brook Press) 2012
ISBN: 9781596435292
Grades 1-4

The reviewer received a copy of the book from the publisher.

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge
We have partnered with Alyson at Kid Lit Frenzy to encourage people to read more nonfiction picture books this year. Here's a new picture book biography that has made it to the top of my list of favorite books for 2012.

I love introducing the readers in my library to people they don't know much about (Bessie Coleman, Jacques Cousteau, Charles Atlas, Annette Kellerman). I think it's safe to say that most children have probably never heard of Marcel Marceau. Leda Schubert masterfully introduces young readers to Marceau's work and the art of mime. In the beginning of the book, Schubert describes mime in a clear manner young readers will understand.

"He is the superstar of silence,
the maestro of mime-
acting without words.
He uses his whole body onstage:
his hands, his feet, his eyebrows, his toes"

As a teenager growing up in France, Marceau Mangrel was greatly impacted by World War II. Mangrel changed his name to Marceau to hide that he was Jewish. As a young man, Marceau helped groups of Jewish children escape from the Nazis by leading them over the border to Switzerland. His father later died in a concentration camp, and after the war Marceau took up mime. The author points out that the silence of mime reflects the silence of people who survived the Holocaust and were never able to talk about it. The story is poetic as Schubert uses the fewest words possible to convey the Marceau's work. When the narrative shifts from Marceau's childhood and teenage years to his work as a mime, the author shifts from past tense to present tense giving readers the sense they are watching him perform.

"Alone on stage,
a spotlight follows him.
He plays tug of war all by himself
with a rope that doesn't exist."

The illustrations use muted colors that give the story a somber tone.  Dubois intentionally leaves areas unpainted or with little paint creating a grainy texture which give readers a feeling they are reading about history.  Later in the book, a black background provides a strong contrast to the white face and red lips of Marceau's character, Bip. An author's note provides readers with more insight into the life of Marceau, and Rob Mermin of Circus Smirkus advises readers how to try mime at home. Librarians, teachers and parents will want to read aloud this masterpiece to the children in their lives and introduce a new generation to an amazing artist.

Visit the Macmillan site to view illustrations from the book.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Steve Jobs by Karen Blumenthal

Steve Jobs: the Man Who Thought Different
a biography by Karen Blumenthal
Feiwel and Friends. 2012
ISBN: 9781250015570
Grades 7 and up
I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

Question: “What’s in your iPod? “
Answer: “Well, how much time do you have?”

Initially, when the iPod was introduced in October 2001, it didn’t rock the world as Steven Jobs had hoped. It was definitely cool, but there was still the problem of how to get music on it. Songs had to be imported from you own CD’s. It wasn’t until the creation of the iTunes store in 2003 did the iPod take off.  In six days, iTunes sold its first million songs! How fun it is to have your whole music collection no more than three clicks away.

In Steven Jobs: the Man Who Thought Different, we learn a lot about this highly creative man who was neither an engineer nor a computer geek, but with his marketing genius and attention to details created one gotta-have-it product after another. From iMacs to iPods to iPhones, many people worldwide are in love with their Apple products.

Blumenthal bases the book on three stories Jobs told during a commencement speech given in 2005 at Stanford University. Part One is about "connecting the dots." It covers Jobs childhood, meeting Steve Wozniak, their creation of the first Apple computers and Jobs eventual removal from the company he founded. Part two is about “love and loss," those ten years Jobs was not working at Apple. We learn about his company NeXT and the development of Pixar, his marriage, children, and his explosive return to Apple. Part three covers the final years at Apple and his battle with pancreatic cancer.

Somebody told me when I was seventeen to live each day as if it were my last, and that one day I’d be right.

The book includes black & white photographs. Karen Blumenthal did a lot of research for this unauthorized biography. A critically acclaimed children's nonfiction writer and journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Blumenthal consulted books and articles written about Jobs, Apple, and his related companies and former colleagues. She also interviewed former classmates, found oral histories, looked at original financial documents for Apple and Pixar, and interviewed key journalists who covered Jobs.

The book is interesting and will offer a good introduction for those interested in Jobs. The conversational tone is upbeat and not heavily laden with tons of details that would overwhelm reluctant readers. Blumenthal keeps her focus on Jobs and his role in his companies. She includes Jobs short-comings, while always placing them into the bigger picture: his passion and drive to create a desktop computer that would be special, an amazing tool that would improve a persons life.

Curious about what was on Steven Jobs iPod? Go to page 222 of Blumenthal's book. There you will find a small listing taken from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography: Steve Jobs. (Simon & Schuster.2011)

So, what's on your iPod? Let us know!

[Reviewed by Louise]

Friday, November 2, 2012

Nic Bishop Snakes

Nic Bishop Snakes
by Nic Bishop
Scholastic Nonfiction, 2012
Grades 2-5

The reviewer received a copy of the book from the publisher.

I have to confess... I'm not a fan of snakes. In fact, I'm downright scared of snakes. I don't mind frogs, toads, spiders, and most insects. However, creatures that slither give me the creeps. You can image my hesitation when I sat down recently to read Nic Bishops latest nonfiction book about the scaly creatures.  Bishop is known for his up-close photography, and I wasn't so sure I wanted to see snakes under a zoom lens. However, Bishop's stunning photography coupled with amazing snake facts made me appreciate the beauty of snakes.

Each two-page spread includes a full-page, close-up photograph of a snake with a page of text on the opposite page. The vibrant colors and textures of the reptiles are amplified by the close-up photography. The page I found amazing shows a feathered bush viper with large scales that look like leaves. Bishop includes detailed captions to help readers identify the species. Children will love the photograph of an African eat-eating snaked with an enormous egg in its jaws.

"Special spines inside the snake's throat will crack the egg, so the snake can slurp down the contents. Then it will spit out the empty eggshell and take a rest, looking very exhausted."

Other snakes featured in the book include the carpet python, Mojave rattlesnake, hognose snake, and parrot snake. Bishop explains in an author's note that it took him a while to make the decision to focus on snakes because he knew they would be difficult to photograph. He photographed a number of the snakes in captivity so he that could capture them in just the right light and in ways that showed off their scales or coils.

Librarians only need to put this book on display, and it will be scooped up by animal lovers. Nic Bishop Snakes even made my snake phobia melt away while I was learning about these incredible reptiles.

Visit Nic Bishop's web site to find out more about how he researches his books: