V O L U M E 3 , N U M B E R 9 • S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 0
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
On page 133 of Russell Freedman’s new book, The War to End All Wars: World War I (10–14 years), there’s a photograph taken in France in 1918 of three young American soldiers, Freedman’s father among them. I wanted to know how his father’s story informed Freedman’s book and decided to ask the Newbery, Sibert, and Wilder medalist a few questions.
1. You are mostly known for your biographies (with Lincoln: A Photobiography winning the 1988 Newbery Medal). What are the challenges in working from a larger perspective, taking on, in this case, an entire war?
The challenges are not really all that different. Biography lends itself to the art of narrative — the endlessly fascinating spectacle of character meeting circumstance and either changing or being changed by events. History is the equally fascinating story of how and why one event leads to another, how those events are shaped by conscious decisions, by blunders and acts of chance and the unpredictable, how actions may lead to unintended consequences, and how all this affects the lives of the human beings swept up in those events. Perhaps the biggest challenge in writing about World War I was to convey the epic sweep of global events without losing sight of the small, individual moments of human drama that give life and meaning to the story of the war.
2. What is the most surprising or significant thing you discovered about WWI that you did not know before beginning this book?
Before beginning this book I did not realize that World War I was such a catastrophe, that it wasn’t necessary, and that World War II, when it came, was without question the outcome of World War I and in a large measure its continuation.
3. Your father, whose photograph is in the book and to whose memory it is dedicated, fought in the war at the age of sixteen. What part did his “war stories” play in your childhood?
My father was a gifted storyteller who took pride in his army service, and I grew up hearing nostalgic accounts of his adventures as a teenage soldier. His war stories emphasized the positive. They did not prepare me, as I later discovered, for the war’s savage reality. As a boy I was, I must admit, more interested in my dad’s stories of how he ran away from home, changed his name, lied about his age, joined the army at the age of fourteen, and fought Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916, before the U.S. entered World War I. That was the family saga my sister and I could not hear often enough and that I repeated endlessly to my friends. Compared to Pancho Villa, World War I seemed remote and insignificant.
4. The book has an extraordinary array of photographs from the war. Does research bring you to pictures, pictures to research, or both?
Most of my books depend on an interplay between words and pictures — text and illustrations. My textual research suggests all sorts of picture possibilities, and my picture research in turn reveals new angles for the text. The result is a kind of counterpoint in which text and pictures complement each other; sometimes it’s hard to say which came first — the pictures or the words.
5. I want to ask you the same question I asked Jim Murphy when his book Truce was published last year: Have you any hope that armies today could, in Churchill’s words, “suddenly and simultaneously [go] on strike”?
In my lifetime, the United States has engaged in six major ground wars, if I’m counting correctly. Sorry to say this, but if national armies today could “go on strike,” wouldn’t they have done so by now?
Here are five more intelligent, accessible, and absorbing books from children’s literature’s most distinguished historian.
In Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (2006), Freedman shines a spotlight on the sacrifice and courage of thousands of unsung African Americans who boycotted Montgomery’s buses for 381 days — jeopardizing livelihoods and safety. Captioned black-and-white photographs enhance the gripping narrative. (10–14 years)
The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (2004), Freedman’s comprehensive account of the acclaimed African American singer’s career, presents her accomplishments as both an actor in and an emblem of her times. His evocation of Anderson’s historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial is unforgettable. The many photos are well chosen. (10–14 years)
In Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas (2007), Freedman demonstrates how North and South America have been discovered and settled over and over since the Stone Age. His lively narrative encourages readers to ponder serious historical questions. The book’s design makes use of plenty of color, ample white space, and carefully chosen illustrations. (10–14 years)
A baby wombat, a little-girl otter, and two fairy-tale wolves (one unfairly maligned, one reluctantly reformed) display loads of personality in these entertaining picture books starring familiar characters.
There’s something irresistible about a wombat, especially the lovably deadpan ones in Jackie French and Bruce Whatley’s Diary of a Baby Wombat (sequel to Diary of a Wombat). Here the title character meets an equally adorable human baby, and an interspecies friendship blossoms. The diary format is effective — “Monday. Early morning: Slept. Slept. / Late morning: Slept. Woke up” — and the story provides new laughs with each reading. (5–8 years)
Every child has been on both ends of the toy-sharing issue, so Martha Doesn’t Share! will strike a chord. Little otter Martha (from Martha Doesn’t Say Sorry!) asserts ownership over everything. But when her parents and baby brother subsequently leave her be, Martha finds that playing alone isn’t so fun: “It’s hard to ping when you don’t have someone to pong.” Author Samantha Berger treats Martha’s change of heart with respect, while illustrator Bruce Whatley’s expressive illustrations convey the critters’ emotions. (5–8 years)
In Gail Carson Levine’s Betsy Red Hoodie, shepherd Betsy and wolf Zimmo (from Betsy Who Cried Wolf), with smart-alecky sheep in tow, set off to deliver cupcakes to Grandma’s house. Presently Zimmo scoots ahead, leaving Betsy — who has been warned not to trust him — to wonder about his intentions. All ends happily, with a surprise birthday party. Scott Nash’s comical pen drawings feature the energetic, hoodie-clad Betsy, a vest-and-trousers-wearing Zimmo, and ten wayward sheep. (5–8 years)
Another wolf whose motives are called into question is B.B., mischievous star of Judy Sierra’s Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf (from Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf ). Invited to lead a story time, he tries to tell his version of “The Three Little Pigs,” in which he’s just an innocent bystander. Unfortunately for B.B., the nursery-tale-character audience isn’t buying it. J. Otto Seibold’s stylish illustrations boast cartoon energy and zippy details. (5–8 years)
Four cheers for new additions to three terrific chapter book series and one series for readers not quite ready to tackle chapters.
Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes is the third chapter book starring this afraid-of-everything protagonist. Alvin thinks the history re-enactors (Emerson and Alcott) on his class’s field trip are “creepy”; is invited to two same-day-and-time birthday parties; and finds himself dressed in girls’ clothing not once but twice. Speeding along, Look’s story doesn’t give even reluctant readers a chance to lose interest. LeUyen Pham’s small margin sketches add energy to Alvin’s hilarious antics. (7–10 years)
Sara Pennypacker’s latest book about Clementine begins with the third grader readying herself for her reign as Friend of the Week, which means she gets to be the all-around helper and her classmates will sign her Friend of the Week booklet. After a fourth grader brags about the compliments she received as FotW, our heroine sets out on a mission to guarantee the same acclaim. With illustrations by Marla Frazee, Clementine, Friend of the Week is a worthy addition to an already-outstanding series. (7–10 years)
Bobby Ellis-Chan is back for more lesson-learning in Bobby the Brave (Sometimes) by Lisa Yee. Both Bobby and his dad suffer from real and imagined expectations: Bobby thinks he is letting down the PE teacher and his ex-football star dad by excelling at skateboarding, his new goldfish disappoint him by not doing tricks like his old fish did, and his father believes he’s inadequate as a stay-at-home dad. Dan Santat’s sketches contribute to the laughs in this funny sequel to Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), sure to please Bobby’s fans. (7–10 years)
And for young readers just shy of ready for chapter books, there’s Zelda and Ivy: The Big Picture by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Three episodic stories reveal the fox sisters’ independent personalities: a trip to the cinema scares big sister Zelda instead of little Ivy; a spy investigation of neighbor Mrs. Brownlie leads to sophisticated hypotheses; and an ingenious “Plan B” moves the sisters’ sleepover indoors during a thunderstorm. The author’s boldly colored illustrations deftly express each character’s emotions. (5–7 years)
This selection of recent novels offers protagonists who face trying circumstances and difficult decisions.
In Bamboo People, Mitali Perkins draws a persuasive picture of contemporary Burma/Myanmar. Young, bookish Chiko wants to believe the Burmese government is hiring teachers, but at a recruitment meeting he’s abruptly gang-pressed into the army and sent to a remote border region. He’s captured by rebels, and the second half of the narrative is told from the perspective of Tu Reh, a rebel boy involved in Chiko’s capture. Readers will be drawn into the rich drama and action. (12 years and up)
Kristen Chandler’s debut novel, Wolves, Boys, & Other Things That Might Kill Me, features KJ Carson, a feisty protagonist. Life in West End, Montana, gets a lot more exciting for KJ when Virgil Whitman arrives. KJ finds herself increasingly interested in Virgil and in the plight of wolves in nearby Yellowstone National Park. When KJ and Virgil launch “Wolf Notes,” a column in their school newspaper, they stir up controversy. Readers will enjoy following KJ as she not-so-carefully navigates the wolf lover/hater maelstrom and her relationships with both Virgil and her father. (14 years and up)
Jenny Meyerhoff’s Queen of Secrets is a powerful story about family, social pressure, and the challenges that come with growing up. Essie is excited to start her sophomore year now that she’s a cheerleader and her football-player crush knows her name. To preserve her newfound popularity, she doesn’t tell anyone that the football team’s “weird” kicker, an observant Jew, is her cousin. A shocking act of anti-Semitism forces Essie to confront losing her social standing if she does the right thing. (14 years and up)
Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett stands apart for the way it melds tenderness and brutality. Plum, an Australian girl on the cusp of fourteen, both craves and fears adulthood. As the school year begins, the various threads of her life — family problems, untrue friends, and her reliance on stolen keepsakes for emotional strength — converge in disaster. Hartnett’s sensory prose makes this a rewarding read. (14 years and up)
—Chelsey G. H. Philpot
I’d like to invite Notes readers to look for a copy of A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature, written by Martha Parravano and me and published by Candlewick Press later this month. It’s a book for parents who love to read and who want to pass that love along to their children. Martha (executive editor of the Horn Book Magazine) and I and several Horn Book reviewers look at board books for babies through novels for teenagers, discussing the landmark titles in each genre and what to look for in helping children find books. And we make some recommendations for terrific recent titles along the way. Classic articles and interviews from The Horn Book Magazine are also included, making what we hope is both a helpful resource and a stimulating reading experience. While fluency in reading is crucial for such things as success in school, A Family of Readers is concerned with something more basic — to quote from our National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Katherine Paterson, it’s about “reading for your life.” If you can’t live without books, why should your kids?
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