Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & The Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade, 2014)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Candace Fleming is a master at writing narrative nonfiction that is entertaining as well as informative, and her newest book on the tragic and doomed Romanovs is a worthy successor to her last foray into nonfiction, the highly acclaimed Amelia Lost

Fleming expertly weaves together the intimate life of Russia's last czar and his family with the saga of the revolution brewing underneath their royal noses, beginning with workers' strikes in 1905 and leading up to Lenin's seizing power in 1917.  Interspersed with her compelling narrative are original documents from the time that tell the stories of ordinary men and women swept up in the dramatic events in Russia. 

Unlike many books for young people, which seem to romanticize the Romanovs, Fleming doesn't try to make the family into martyrs.  Indeed, it is hard to have a lot of sympathy for the Russian royal family after reading Fleming's account.  Fleming describes Nicholas as a young boy as "shy and gentle," unable to stand up to his "Russian bear of a father."  His wife, the Empress Alexandra, a German princess raised to be a proper Englishwoman under the wing of Queen Victoria, never felt comfortable with the excesses of the bejeweled, partying Russian aristocracy, and encouraged her husband to retreat to Tsarskoe Selo, a park 15 miles and a world apart from St. Petersburg.  Fleming brings us inside of their privileged--but also strangely spartan--life (for example the children were bathed with cold water in the mornings and slept on army cots in their palace!), one in which they had almost no contact with outsiders. 

Fleming manages to integrate her narrative history of the Romanov family with the larger history of the turbulent times in Russia, as the czar is forced to resign and he and his family are exiled to Siberia, fleeing in a train disguised as a "Japanese Red Cross Mission" so that the royal family would not be captured by angry peasants.  She skips back and forth from the family's saga to what is happening in the capital, with plenty of original documents such as an excerpt from journalist John Reed's first-hand account of the swarming of the Winter Palace as well as excerpts from many other diaries.

In my favorite quote in the book, Fleming discusses how Lenin nationalized the mansions and private homes throughout the country, while the owners were forced to live in the servants' quarters.  She quotes one ex-servant as saying:
"I've spent all my life in the stables while they live in their beautiful flats and lie on soft couches playing with their poodles...no more of that, I say!  It's my turn to play with poodles now."  

Whatever one's feelings about the Romanovs, one cannot help but be moved by the account of their cruel assassination in the basement of their quarters in Siberia.  Particularly ironic is the fate of the royal children, who did not die immediately because they were hiding the family jewels in their camisoles and other undergarments.  This layer of jewels unwittingly created a bullet proof vest that protected them initially, until they were finally murdered with bayonets and then with gunshots.  The bodies were immediately hidden in the woods, where the remains were not found until 1979 and then kept secret until the fall of communism in Russia.  Ironically, the Romanovs have since been canonized by the Orthodox Church in Russia.

The book is abundantly illustrated with archival photographs.  An extensive bibliography is included, as well as a discussion of primary and secondary sources.  Fleming also includes suggestions of websites on the Romanovs, as well as source notes for each chapter and an index.

Highly recommended for middle school and high school students.




Thursday, September 18, 2014

Blog Tour and Giveaway: Pig and Small, by Alex Latimer (Peachtree Publishers, 2014)



Recommended for ages 4-8.

In this laugh-out-loud new picture book from  South African writer-illustrator Alex Latimer, we discover that while it's not always easy to be friends with those who are different from us, the result can be worth the extra effort.

Pig is completely flummoxed when, for no reason at all, his nose begins to squeak.


What could it be? Time to get out the medical book, of course, to look for Squeaky Nose Syndrome.  But it's not in the book (although the book includes Squeaky Knee Syndrome and others).  Finally, after much observation, Pig discovers there's a tiny bug on the end of his nose, waving and squeaking at him.  Pig can tell by the bug's friendly squeaking that he wants to be friends, but the activities they try --a tandem bike ride (with Pig pedaling and Bug holding on for dear life), a game of chess, making matching sweaters--don't work very well.


They are about to give up, when Pig has a sudden inspiration--a movie!  Bug doesn't eat much popcorn, and he can sit right on Pig's ear.  Soon they can think of all kinds of things they could do together!  They even forget that one of them is big and the other little, until, in a surprise twist, an elephant comes along to ask if he can be friends, too.    

Alex Latimer's whimsical cartoon-style artwork is distinctive, with speech and thought bubbles taken from traditional cartoons.  The illustrations are created first as pencil drawings, then digitized and finished with a bright color palette with orange and turquoise dominating.  The colorful artwork meshes perfectly with his witty and engaging text. The theme of the challenges of friendship with someone different is a universal one, perhaps particularly appropriate in Latimer's hometown of Cape Town, South Africa, where the "rainbow nation" of post-apartheid still struggles with issues of equality for all its citizens, as we continue to do in the United States.   This book would work well in a preschool or early elementary storytime, and could encourage discussions about how we get along with others.  I could easily see a writing prompt about imagining activities Pig, Bug, and elephant could do together, for example.  Latimer's earlier work, Lion vs. Rabbit (Peachtree, 2013), in which a clever trickster rabbit outwits a lion, is also a terrific storytime selection.  

For more on Pig and Small, check out these other blog tour stops:


Monday 9/15- Green Bean Teen Queen
Tuesday 9/16- Geo Librarian, & Kid Lit Reviews
Wednesday 9/17- Chat with Vera
Friday 9/19- Sally's Bookshelf 

To enter to win a copy of this wonderful new book, leave your e-mail in a comment below.  Winner will be drawn on 9/30/14.


                                                            

Friday, September 5, 2014

Blog Tour and Giveaway: Stanley the Builder, by William Bee (Peachtree, 2014)

Recommended for ages 1-7.

In this delightful new picture book series from British author and illustrator William Bee, Stanley the hamster is very busy--building houses,  working at a garage, even running a farm.

In Stanley the Builder, Stanley is building a house for his friend Myrtle the mouse.  He'll need his orange bulldozer, his yellow digger, and his green crane. Step by step, he prepares the land and then builds the house. Together with his friend Charlie, he finishes the project by painting the house in Myrtle's favorite colors--red, white, and blue--before returning home for supper, a bath, and bedtime.

In this series, Bee uses very simple vocabulary and minimal text together with very appealing digitally-created images to craft a story that is equally appropriate for two distinct audiences:  toddlers/preschoolers and beginning readers.

There are so many things to like about this book, but first and foremost are the illustrations, with their clean black outlines, flat bright colors, and simple shapes (not to mention adorable hamsters...)  Bee's U.S. publisher for this series, Peachtree Publishers, has kindly provided some artwork so The Fourth Musketeer's readers can get a better sense for Bee's unique artistic style.  I was especially interested to note that Bee trained as a designer (check out his quirky website, which gives little information on his books but tells you all sorts of interesting trivia about his passions for vintage cars and the Queen).  His design flair can be seen in everything from the endpapers (see first image below) to the font chosen for the text.

















While this series is a sure-fire winner with toddlers and preschoolers, it's also ideal for beginning readers, with simple sentences and minimal vocabulary.  Even with the limited vocabulary, Bee uses correct words for different tools and parts of the house, such as "shingles" for the roof, thus providing a rich use of words for the earliest readers.  The book will also allow young readers to practice sequencing, since the steps for building a house are clearly delineated, and they can even re-tell the story using just the pictures as well.

Highly recommended!

For more on Stanley, please see the following blog tour stops from earlier this week:
Wednesday 9/3- Chat with Vera

Thursday 9/4- Blue Owl and Kiss the Book

For a chance to win a copy of Stanley The Builder, courtesy of Peachtree, please leave a comment below (include your e-mail address so I can reach you!)




Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer M. Holm (Random House, 2014)

Release date:  August 26, 2014

When a strange boy shows up at 11-year old Ellie's house, he looks a lot like Ellie's grandfather, a scientist who's obsessed with immortality. But could it really be Grandpa Melvin? The reader needs to suspend his or her disbelief in this quirky new realistic fiction/fantasy mash-up from award-winning children's novelist Jennifer Holm, as Ellie and her friend from school try to help the suddenly teen-aged Melvin recover his newest invention from the lab--one that has made him young again.  But Melvin has a lot of other problems to cope with--from doing his homework to dealing with his daughter who is now acting as his parent! 

Holm mixes in lots of information about real scientists, and it's nice to see a novel in which the main character is fascinated by science and is a female. Ellie realizes that the great achievements of science, like those of Marie Curie and Robert Oppenheimer, can have their negative aspects as well, and the novel sensitively delves into these serious issues as well as whether immortality would be a good thing or not while maintaining a sense of humor in this appealing middle-grade novel. Back matter includes recommended resources on science and famous scientists mentioned in the novel that are appropriate for middle-grade readers.

Highly recommended!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Blog Tour: About Parrots: A Guide for Children, by Cathryn Sill (Peachtree Press, 2014)

Recommended for children 3 and up.

With the adoption of Common Core nationwide, we are already starting to see increased demand at our library for nonfiction resources for children, particularly for books suitable for kindergarten and first grade.  Animal reports are particularly popular with these early grades, and Cathryn Sill's new book, About Parrots, a new release from Peachtree Press, is ideally suited for that purpose.

The large format book features beautiful full-page paintings of different colorful parrots from around the world by wildlife artist John Sill, along with very brief and simple text that is targeted toward young children (see example below).  Catherine Sill is a former elementary school teacher, and it is clear that she knows her audience well and what will interest young children as well as information they will require for school.  The simple text covers diverse topics such as the parrots' diet, habitat, communication, predators, and nests.  The main part of the book talks only about wild parrots, and does not cover their long history as pets, or their skills at imitating sounds such as human speech.




An afterword features additional information about each illustration, providing further details that would  enhance the book for older children who are interested in going beyond the very basic information covered in the text.  The afterword does touch briefly on how many parrot species are endangered because of both habitat destruction and being captured as pets.


In addition to the afterword, other back matter includes a glossary, suggestions for further reading, helpful websites for children on parrots, and a brief bibliography.  About Parrots is part of the "About...Series," which includes volumes on various animal groups (i.e. mammals and amphibians) as well as particular species, such as penguins and raptors.

At a recent professional meeting for children's librarians, we were advised that with Common Core, we should be incorporating nonfiction books regularly into storytimes for preschoolers and even toddlers.  This is a wonderful example of a nonfiction book that could be easily incorporated into a storytime for young children about birds, since the minimal text and large illustrations make it well suited to reading aloud to young children as well as for school reports.

For more on About Parrots, please see blog tour stops from earlier in the week:

Kid Lit ReviewsJean Little LibraryGeo LibrarianChat with VeraKid Lit Frenzy, and Blue Owl.


Note:  An advance copy of this book was furnished by the publisher.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Review: Freedom Summer: the 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, by Susan Goldman Rubin (Holiday House, 2014)


In this well researched book, author Susan Goldman Rubin takes us back to 1964 Mississippi, when the nation was shocked by the disappearance--and discovery of the murder--of three Freedom Summer workers.  The Freedom Summer workers were courageous young people, mostly college students from Northern schools, who travelled to Mississippi, living with black families, trying to register black voters and opening Freedom Schools to educate black children and their parents. 

Rubin follows the story chronologically, focusing on specific anecdotes which make the story more immediate for young people. The book is greatly enriched by personal interviews Rubin was able to do with participants, as well as extensive use of original source material. In addition, the book is handsomely illustrated with archival photographs and drawings. Extensive back matter includes information on the trial of the main organizer of the murders, who did not face justice until 2005. Information is provided on additional resources; there is also a timeline, source notes, reproduction of original documents, a detailed bibliography, and an index. This is an excellent nonfiction book for the new common core curriculum or for anyone interested in the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. Recommended for students in grades 5 and up.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Guest Post by Author Claire Rudolf Murphy: My Country 'Tis of Thee: Matching Subject to Style



My Country ‘Tis of Thee: Matching Subject to Style


Author Claire Rudolf Murphy
Writing my new book My Country ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Tells the Story of Civil Rights taught me a craft lesson that I am working to replicate again in other nonfiction projects, matching subject to style. When writing for young readers, it is a great challenge how to share one’s research in a style that connects with their lives and brings clarity and enjoyment to new, complex subjects. Stephen J. Pyne’s wonderful nonfiction craft book Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction discusses the importance of identifying a vision for one’s book and that finding the right style and structure to carry it out.

For many years I had been conducting research on civil rights activists throughout American history. I wanted to tell this larger story that began when the colonists first began protesting against the English taxes and continues today in areas like immigration and gay rights. But that is a great deal of material to cover in one book. As Pyne says, “If you’re lucky you have an epiphany (on what structure to use.) But if unlucky, your manuscript crawls and sprawls and never comes together.”

For many years I had been researching people of color and women who had fought for equal rights throughout our country’s history. I wanted to write a collection of stories about them. But editors kept saying the profiles were too dense, not riveting enough and wouldn’t connect enough with younger readers. For several years my project sprawled every which way, growing more unwieldy every week, with new activists and events I had uncovered, but no structure to carry the load.

Until I was knee deep into research on the women’s suffrage movement for my 2011 book Marching With Aunt Susan: Susan B. Anthony and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage. I ran across suffrage verses set to the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Like many protest movements, the suffragists had written verses to well known tunes to support their cause and sing at meetings and rallies. I’ve long known that music can convince and connect with people in a way that words alone cannot.

When I found their verse (that ended up in Marching With Aunt Susan,) something clicked in me. I had that epiphany Pyne talks about. I wondered - did other movements use this same song to promote their cause? Some quick research uncovered several examples. I found more and more, until I found my climax with Martin Luther King, Jr. quoting the song in his “I Have a Dream” speech and the resolution of Aretha Franklin singing the song at President Obama’s first inauguration.



I knew immediately that all my years of research had brought me to this place where I could put this history together for young readers in a format that would connect with them in an inventive way because they already knew the melody. Everybody does. I knew immediately that I had finally discovered the structure I needed, possibly the best structure I’ve ever used in a nonfiction book.  And it brought double pleasure because it also tied into my love of music. Because I had done all that research for so many years it allowed me to realize how this song truly did represent the history of civil rights in our country. I wouldn’t have realized how important these verses were if I didn’t already understand the power and depth and breadth of protest throughout our country’s two hundred plus years. Most of my research doesn’t appear in the book, but it holds up, gives gravitas to the verses I feature, even if the reader doesn’t fully understand it. They get it. And Bryan Collier’s stunning illustrations bring these protest verses to life in a new way, too, for readers to pore over.

I am delighted that I end the book with the line: “Now it’s your turn. Write a verse for a cause you believe in.” Because this invitation to young readers has become the focus of my promotion as I help launch this book. With the support of my publisher, I have started a contest, inviting students across the country to submit new verses. I have books and posters to send to the winners.

Second graders in Spokane wrote this verse:

Schools should be bully-free,
Full of our honesty,
Friends should be kind.
Include us in your game,
Please treat us all the same,
Stop calling us those names,
Friends should be kind.


A 5th/6th grade class wrote this one:

My country ‘tis of thee
So sad the poverty
Homeless abound
God keep them in your sight
Help us relieve their plight
Shelter them for the night
New hope is found
                      
My hope is that teachers will grab onto this way to teach history and music and use it as a writing activity in class. New verses can be submitted on my web site and musical recordings of the verses can be found there too.

Let freedom ring!

Thanks so much, Claire, for writing this insightful and inspirational post for The Fourth Musketeer's readers.