Monday, October 29, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Columbus, by Demi (Amazon Publishing, 2012)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Author/illustrator Demi is well known for her gorgeous illustrated biographies for children, which range from volumes on Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Tutankhamun, and Marco Polo to biographies of religious figures such as the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad.  The most recent entry in her series, just published this fall, is an examination of the iconic explorer Christopher Columbus.

I can still remember being in second or third grade and learning about the great explorer Christopher Columbus, who "discovered" America, sailing the ocean blue in 1492 with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  Unfortunately, at that time, we learned little about the real Christopher Columbus, and in particular, about the cruelty, disease, and enslavement he brought to the initially friendly native population in the lands he "discovered" and claimed for the Spanish crown.

I'm not sure that today's elementary school students receive a more balanced view of the famous/infamous explorer, although my high school daughter's AP History textbook attempts to provide a more comprehensive viewpoint.  In this gloriously illustrated new picture book biography, Demi also makes an effort to balance Columbus' legitimate accomplishments in navigation with the darker side of his story.

Demi's narrative is organized chronologically, in traditional biography style, and we learn how the young Christopher was fascinated at an early age by ships and sailors that arrived in the port of Genoa, where he was born.  At fourteen Columbus left home to become a sailor, quickly becoming an expert in navigation, studying the stars and predicting weather.  We learn that Columbus was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal, and learned to speak Portuguese and Spanish.  He even sailed to Iceland and above the Arctic Circle.

But as we know, Columbus dreamed of more--of finding a route to the East by sailing west from Europe.  But who would fund such a trip?  After the Portuguese king turned him down, Columbus tried the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.  Initially rejected by the monarchs' advisors, Columbus persevered and eventually Isabella was persuaded to outfit three ships for his expedition.  It's hard to imagine the panic the sailors must have felt on such a long voyage--two months on the open sea.  Demi's narrative makes us feel the joy the sailors felt on finally spotting signs that land was near--birds, crayfish, even a branch with fruit, and then the cry from an anonymous sailor of "Land!"

The aftermath of the dangerous voyage was not so happy.  Demi writes that the natives were friendly but there was not much gold or other riches, and no great palaces.  But the friendliness did not last, and the author points out that Columbus "disrespected their culture and treated them as no more than slaves."  In her text and images, we see the natives being exploited by the Spanish, and how eventually the males were forced to give up their lands and work for the Spaniards.  European diseases decimated those who were not killed by exhaustion, and hundreds of thousands died, virtually wiping out the native population of that part of the world.

Demi's biography gives us information on the rest of Columbus' career and life--including his triumphant homecoming to Spain and his other explorations for the Spanish crown.  However, his mismanagement of the colonies led to his imprisonment and trial in Spain, and he lost his position as governor of Hispaniola.  But Columbus would not retire!  He continued to explore, reaching other islands in the Caribbean on his endless quest for a passage to the East.

Demi concludes that Columbus "died a magnificent failure," having destroyed the Taino culture and enslaved the islanders.  "Yet he was one of the greatest navigators who ever lived...and his voyages had changed the face of the world forever!"  Is that a bit like saying "Hitler was responsible for the murder of millions of people...but he was a great orator."????

While I would have liked to see even more of the text--or perhaps an afterword--devoted to how Columbus and his men treated the native population--I do give Demi credit for at least including this aspect of the explorer's life.  It's a biography well worth reading, and at 64 pages, provides plenty of material for a report.  Once again Demi outdoes herself with her illustrations, painted with Chinese paintbrushes and inks, gold overlays, and Italian marbled paper from Italy.  The details in each illustration are beautiful and well worth plenty of time perusing.  Back matter includes a splendid map showing Columbus' various voyages, and an author's note at the beginning of the book discusses her sources for this biography.

For a picture book on Columbus from the perspective of the Taino population, you may want to read Jane Yolen's Encounter (Sandpiper, 1996), beautifully illustrated by David Shannon (yes, the No, David author!).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Blog Tour: Guest Post from Shana Burg, author of Laugh with the Moon

Shana Burg
I am proud to welcome to The Fourth Musketeer today author Shana Burg, whose most recent book Laugh with the Moon I reviewed on my blog earlier this year. I asked Shana to reflect on how we can get more kids interested in reading about Africa and foreign cultures in general.  I know you will enjoy reading her thoughtful essay on this topic.  You can enter to win an autographed copy of her book and a $25 gift card to your local independent bookstore on her Facebook page, ShanaBurgWrites, or on her blog   

Why My 8-Year Old Son Won't Be Reading The Hunger Games

As the mother of an eight-year-old boy, I keep thinking that kids these days seem older and wiser than when I was growing up. And I don’t really mean that as a good thing. Though my husband and I make sure not to watch the news when our son’s in the room, being a curious and attentive kid, he catches snippets of the human existence anyway.
“What is a dirty bomb, mom?” he asked the other day. “Why are we having a war with Afghanistan?” he asked this morning. And then, indignantly, and on a regular basis, “Why can’t I read The Hunger Games. Everyone else is!”
As everyone knows, the world is getting smaller and smaller thanks to the Internet and Japanese manga and Justin Bieber. Kids are drawn to dystopian novels because they sense our fear about the state of the universe and the violence that seems to encompass everything these days. They have questions. They want answers.
And they deserve answers too.
For that reason, literature that deals with contemporary global events—books that allow children and teens to travel the world, and present real-world depictions of cultures both similar and different from our own—provide them with what they crave. 
Young readers are fascinated with the lives of their peers around the world. What do their schools look like? What do they eat for lunch? Do those kids go to parties and soccer games like me? While authors can draw in readers with portrayals of youth across the globe, we also owe it to them not to sugarcoat what are often disturbing truths.
The comment I hear most often regarding my tween novel Laugh with the Moon (Random House, 2012) is, “Why did Innocent have to die?” Interestingly, this question is asked by adult readers and not children. My answer is that I want my young readers to learn about malaria—a preventable disease that kills hundreds of thousands of children every single year—  so that they can understand the world and work to improve lives.
I won’t let my son watch the news, because the stories aren’t formulated specifically for his young mind. And no, I won’t let him read The Hunger Games, because I don’t want him exposed to gratuitous violence when he’s not yet ready to analyze the deeper meaning of the story.
Still, I do encourage him to travel the world through fiction and nonfiction specifically designed to open his young mind to the disparities that exist between countries and expose him to the often overlooked gifts that materially poor, non-American youth have to offer.

Shana Burg is the award-winning author of Laugh with the Moon (Random House, 2012) and A Thousand Never Evers (Random House, 2008). You can follow her on her blog at, on Twitter @ShanaBurgWrites and on Facebook at

For readers of Laugh with the Moon, you can visit via a rural hospital in Malawi with the nonprofit World Altering Medicine by viewing this very special YouTube video:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin (Flashpoint, 2012)

Recommended for ages 10 to adult.

Although I love to read nonfiction, particularly about history, I can't say there are many books in this genre that I literally can't put down until I finish them because I am so engrossed in the story.  Steve Sheinkin's latest work, Bomb:  The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, was one of those I drag to the bathroom with me.  He makes the reader feels as if he or she is reading the newest thriller from James Patterson or Lee Child.  Even adults are likely to find this book riveting, and it's a real winner for middle school or high school readers with an interest in history, spy stories, or technology.  And last week, Bomb was one of 5 YA books nominated for the National Book Award!

Sheinkin likes to call himself a "recovering textbook writer," blaming the boring history textbooks used in schools for so many young people's dislike of history as a subject.  He has, however, more than atoned for writing boring textbooks with his highly readable nonfiction works for kids, including The Notorious Benedict Arnold (Flash Point, 2010).

His newest masterful work of narrative nonfiction tells three simultaneous stories:  American physicists realize the potential bomb-making power of atomic fission (splitting atoms in two) and with the backing of the US government, set up a top-secret research institute in an isolated campus in New Mexico to try to build--and test--an atomic bomb before the German physicists develop one; the Soviets try to steal the bomb from the Americans; and the Allies try to sabotage the German bomb project.  It features a cast of colorful characters that no one could make up, complete with dozens of story lines organized by Sheinkin into a "cinematic style thriller."  It's full of details sure to be fascinating to young people--i.e. did you know Oppenheimer's parents, worried about their very geeky and brilliant son's social skills (or lack thereof), sent him to sports camp, where he was mercilessly bullied by other campers?

Sheinkin consulted a impressive variety of sources for this book, and back matter includes detailed source notes that are organized by bomb race sources, character sources, and primary sources.  Photo credits, quotation notes, and an index are also included.   Check out an interview with Sheinkin about this book from School Library Journal.  You can listen to Steve introduce his book and read an excerpt from it at the following link.

On another note, if you're a fan of Sheinkin's nonfiction, you should try out his hilarious graphic novels about Rabbi Harvey, a rabbi in the Wild West.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Book Review: Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices, by Gwenyth Swain (Calkins Creek, 2012)

Recommended for ages 9 and up.

Author Gwenyth Swain brings stories of Ellis Island vividly to life through text and photographs in the beautifully rendered Hope and Tears:  Ellis Island Voices.  She uses poetry, monologues, and dialogues combined with a selection of archival photographs to help us imagine Ellis Island at various stages of its existence, beginning in the late 1500's with a poem by a native Lenni Lenape boy.

Prose introductions provide background on each period of Ellis Island's history, from the processing of its first immigrant in 1892 to its busiest period in the early 20th century and beyond.  In moving free verse, Swain chronicles all aspects of Ellis Island's life, from the arrivals, complete with their hopes and dreams, to the dreaded inspections, in which families could be separated and detained in hospital's on the island or even sent back if they were deemed "likely to become public charges."  She doesn't forget the various workers on the island, from the nurses and aid workers to the clerks, cooks, and Salvation Army volunteers, who are pictured handing out doughnuts to hungry immigrants.

In the 1920's, when Congress put limits on immigration, Ellis Island became a place mostly used for deportation rather than immigration, and eventually was abandoned after 1954.  But in the preparation for the nation's bicentennial, interest in Ellis Island as an important historical landmark surged, and in 1990, after many years of renovation and fundraising, the island reopened as an immigration museum. Additional poems mark this more recent period of Ellis Island's history as well, ending with a poem from a National Park Service employee, who remarks about the many visitors:
...maybe they feel what I feel./The sense that,/after all these years,/spirits live here,/along with all their hopes and tears.
This book would be perfect for a class performance as part of a unit on family history and immigration.  There are many parts for boys and girls and only simple costumes--or no costumes at all--would be required.

Back matter includes source notes, a bibliography which includes websites, films, books, articles, and interviews, an index, and suggestions for going further in exploring the themes of this book.  Swain's website will also offer an extensive teacher's guide (available soon).

Monday, October 1, 2012

Book Review: A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero, by Marissa Moss (Amulet Books, 2012)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Laurie Halse Anderson once wrote in her blog that she preferred to call her historical books "historical thrillers" rather than "historical fiction," given that many kids and teens associate historical fiction with BORING.  However, it's not every historical fiction title that can be justly called a "thriller."  With A Soldier's Secret, Marissa Moss definitely joins the club of historical thriller writers for teens.  Based on the true story of Civil War hero Sarah Edmonds, who enlisted in the Union Army as Frank Thompson, this is one story so full of incredible twists and turns that readers will be compelled have to finish it just to find out what happens.

In this novel, Moss returns to explore in greater depth Sarah Edmonds' life, which she portrayed in the lively 2011 picture book  biography Nurse, Soldier, Spy.  When we meet Sarah at the opening of this novel, it's the spring of 1861, and she has been living as Frank Thompson, a traveling book salesman, for more than three years.  Writing in the first person, Sarah fills the reader in on her back story growing up on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada, with a cruel and abusive father; when her father is about to force her into an unwanted marriage, Sarah cuts her hair, dresses as a boy, and runs away, ending up in the United States.

But when the war breaks out, the teenaged Sarah wants to be a part of history, and enlists in the Union Army as Private Frank Thompson, Army nurse.  An accomplished shot and rider, she is especially skilled at hiding her female parts when she "does her business," and no one questions her sex or her ability as a soldier.  Moss does an excellent job portraying the tedium and occasional terror of a soldier's existence through Sarah's eyes, as she wonders if she will be able to measure up in battle.  When the Union loses the first Battle of Bull Run, Sarah/Frank no longer needs to wonder; she's running around helping the doctors amputate limbs, writing letters to loved ones, and carrying out the last wishes of dying soldiers, as the reader gets a close-up view of the primitive nature of medical care in the 19th century.

But of course Sarah is a woman, and living in close proximity with so many eligible young men, the inevitable happens--she develops romantic feelings for a fellow soldier, fantasizing about him.  Eventually her feelings are so strong, she asks for a reassignment, next serving as a postmaster delivering letters to the troops.  Soon she is recruited as a Union spy, where her skill at disguises comes in very handy.  She even "disguises" herself as a woman for one of her assignments!

While there are hundreds of documented cases of women disguising themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, Sarah was the only woman to be recognized by Congress as an honorably discharged soldier, with rights to back pay and pension, and the only woman allowed to join the association for Civil War veterans.  At her death she was granted a military funeral and buried in a cemetery for Civil War veterans.

Moss' well-researched novel is based in part on Sarah Edmonds' own memoir, as well as many other sources on women in the Civil War and the Civil War in general.  Moss includes extensive back matter, including background on Sarah Edmonds, brief biographies of Union Army officers, a brief Civil War timeline, which includes annotations for battles in which Frank/Sarah participated, and selected bibliography.

This is a terrific novel for middle schoolers or high schoolers, male or female.  It offers great action, suspense, twists, and star-crossed romance that should intrigue even reluctant readers of historical fiction.