Mrs. McGriff's Reading Blog

Happy reading!

January 9, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff
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“The President Has Been Shot!” by James L. Swanson

imageI was not yet born when John F. Kennedy was President, but I grew up hearing my parents and grandparents and their friends talk about the impact his assassination had on them.  Each one could remember the details of when and where they were when they first learned of it.  Every national tragedy of my childhood was compared to that impact, from the assassination attempt on Reagan to the Challenger explosion, was compared to–and found to fall short of–the Kennedy assassination.

James L. Swanson gives an account not only of that November day in Texas, but he also provides the context.  Part I of the book introduces John F. Kennedy.  After a brief survey of his early life, Swanson focuses on the important events in his short Presidency and portrays a little of the Kennedy mystique that enthralled the country.  Part II details the events leading up to and following the assassination, tracing the actions of the Kennedys and of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I did not find this book as compelling as Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, but I think that had more to do with Oswald himself than with the writing. Swanson gives no credibility to any of the conspiracy theories that swirl around the assassination.  (He does list a few books that explore conspiracy theories in the bibliography with the disclaimer that their inclusion “does not mean that I endorse any of them or support any of their theories.”)  So little is known about Oswald’s motivation or even the details of how he planned that it is hard to find him a compelling character.  We simply don’t know what was going on inside his head.

In addition to giving an overview of the historical events and context, “The President Has Been Shot!” is packed with photographs, diagrams, and copies of original documents.  The appendix shares a list of important places connected with the assassination and lists a bibliography for further reading.

December 31, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb

imageIf you think history is dull and dusty and has absolutely no bearing on the events of today, you’re wrong.  Neal Bascomb will show you just how exciting and thrilling history can be–and how its lessons are still relevant today–in The Nazi Hunters.

A large cast of characters come together to track down, capture and and bring the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann to trial in Israel.  At the end of World War II, Eichmann went into hiding and eventually fled to Argentina.  Over a decade later, rumors of his new life began to trickle into the ears of Israeli government officials and Nazi hunters, but the trail went cold more than once.

In 1959, Fritz Bauer, a German district attorney, went to Israel to plead with them to pursue Eichmann.  He had no hope of Germany acting against any more former Nazis.  Instead, more and more former Nazis were coming back to power along with a resurgence of neoNazism.  Before committing to break–or at least bend–international law, Israel wanted definite confirmation of Eichmann’s identity.

Once the Mossad confirmed that it was indeed Eichmann living in Argentina, the Israelis assembled a team of super spies to capture, hold, and remove Eichman.  The team had experts in forgery, disguise, mechanics, construction, and more.  Every detail was planned, rehearsed, and backed up with more plans.  If any detail went wrong, all of them could end up in an Argentine prison for years or worse.  Once they were on the ground in Argentina, they were on their own because of the diplomatic problems their whole enterprise would cause.

Do I give anything away if I tell you that Eichmann’s trial in Israel opened the floodgates for survivors of the Nazi camps to tell their stories?  The trial not only brought one of the most notorious Nazi criminals to justice, but it allowed the world to remember.

November 21, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson

imageI didn’t live through the Civil Rights Movement, but I have been reading quite a lot about it in the last few years.  Even so I was surprised by what I learned from Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job:  The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Scholastic 2012).

I had read and studied Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but I didn’t realize that the entire movement was at such a pivotal crossroads in 1963.

I knew that the violent images of police turning fire hoses and dogs on to the protesters jolted a nation, but I did not realize that the majority of protesters were teenagers were children.

Levinson tells the stories of four children who came to the Civil Rights Movement and the Birmingham Children’s March in different ways.  Audrey Hendricks was one of the youngest marchers at nine years old, but she had grown up in a family involved with organizing and taking a stand for equality.  Washington Booker III grew up without the privileges of Audrey’s family, and frequently found trouble.  James W. Stewart, the son of a doctor, was a strong student, but still chafed under the restrictions caused by segregation.  Arnetta Streeter worked with the Peace Ponies, a social and savings club at school, to bring justice through peaceful protests.

Throughout the stories of these children and teens, we learn the history of segregation in Birmingham and the history of the struggle to gain equality and destroy the system of segregation.  Once again, I am stunned by the hatred felt by those who supported segregation and impressed with the courage of those who worked to e

July 10, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

imageI have been fascinated with Amelia Earhart for as long as I can remember.  I have wanted to read Candace Fleming’s new biography of the pilot ever since I first heard of it.  I was thrilled when I learned that Amelia Lost:  The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart was included on the Young Hoosier Award list for the coming year.  Now that I’ve read it, I will be pushing it on everyone.

I like how the chapters alternate between the search for the Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan and the events of her life.  The suspense builds even though we know the story ends in tragedy.  In addition to the search by the Coast Guard cutter the Itasca and later the US Navy, several civilians picked up possible transmissions from the downed pilot over their shortwave radios.  None of it was enough to find them.

Fleming presents the captivating image that Amelia and her publisher/publicist and husband George Putman showed the world, but she also digs behind the image to reveal the woman behind it.  Yes, Amelia was brave and funny, but she was also stubborn and cavalier.  She didn’t always make the best choices, and some of those choices may have led to her disappearance.

Here I am with Amelia and her plane at the Smithsonian.

Here I am with Amelia and her plane at the Smithsonian.

If you want to learn even more about Earhart, Fleming provides a list of helpful resources in the back of the book.  In addition to archives and books written by Earhart herself, there are books and collections from her husband and family.  Much information is available online, too, and she gives those web addresses.

Even so, Amelia Earhart inspired–and continues to inspire–generations of women to dare to dream big dreams.  If you want to hear for yourself how warm and funny and inspiring she could be, check out her own book, For the Fun of It.  Since no one has taken the hint and given it to me for Christmas, I’m just going to have to buy it for myself.

July 8, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Candy Bomber by Michael O. Tunnell

imageI remembered learning about the Berlin Airlift in history classes, but I had never heard of the Candy Bomber.  Michael O. Tunnell captures the excitement and hope created by the simple act of dropping parachutes attached to packets of candy for the children of Berlin.  Even more than that, Tunnell reveals and shares the person behind it all:  Lt. Gail Halvorsen, otherwise known as the Candy Bomber or Uncle Wiggly Wings.

Candy Bomber:  The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocoate Pilot” gives enough historical context for the Berlin Airlift to make sense, but not so much that the story bogs down.  Instead, the heart of the story is on the relationships between Lt. Halvorsen and the children of Berlin.

It all started when Lt. Halvorsen met a group of children on the other side of a barbed wire fence surrounding the airfield.  When he saw their gratitude for the two sticks of gum he gave them (they even took turns smelling the wrapper), he promised to drop a packet of candy for them when he flew over Berlin again.  They would recognize him because he would wiggle the wings of his plane.

From this simple act of generosity, an entire movement grew that soon involved more than just the Air Force.  Groups and individuals from across the United States and other countries joined together to provide candy–and hope–for the children of Berlin.

Why can’t all history be written like this?

July 5, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Titanic Sinks! by Barry Denenberg

imageBarry Denenberg combines fact and fiction to write a compelling account of the Titanic’s doomed maiden voyage. Titanic Sinks! (Scholastic 20111) blends a magazine format with the fictional journal of S. F. Vanni, Chief Correspondent for Modern Times. Even though the correspondent is fictional, the contents of the articles and journal are based on research.

Even though we all know the boat sinks and thousands die in one of the worst disasters at sea, the format recreates the excitement leading up to the maiden voyage of the world’s largest and most luxurious ship. Pictures of the Titanic, its crew and passengers add to the realism and immediacy. Sidebars listing facts about the ship and an “interview” with Captain Rostron of the Carpathia provide even more information in a lively format.  Did you know that this ship was only 92 feet wide?

The most heartbreaking words are those from the survivors. I cannot imagine sitting in those tiny lifeboats watching the great ship sink and listening to the cries of the dying.

Anyone fascinated with all things Titanic will enjoy this addition that goes from initial planning to the discovery of the wreckage under the North Atlantic.

July 2, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Witches! by Rosalyn Schanzer

imageI have always been fascinated by the dark period in our history known as the Salem Witch Trials.  What caused the townspeople to turn on each other and hurl accusations of witchcraft that led to the death of more than twenty people and the imprisonment of hundreds of others?

Rosalyn Schanzer sets the stage, gathers the cast of characters, and describes the gruesome events that occurred in Salem Village in 1692.  Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (National Geographic 2011) sorts out fact from fancy in a riveting account of that year.  Primary sources give voice to both the accused and their accusers as well as to witnesses of the trials and hangings.  The black-white-and-red scratchboard illustrations add to the horrific mood.

Even though 1692 seems long ago, the events still seem relevant today.  The charges might not be witchcraft, but our fears can still distort our view of reality and lead to accusations that can ruin lives.  If you, too, are fascinated by this story, you might enjoy reading more.  Here are some of my favorite historical fiction books dealing with the Salem Witch Trials:

  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller – This is the one I first remember the power of the Salem Witch Trials.  The stark horror on the stage intertwined with our class discussions of the Red Scare and McCarthyism.
  • A Break with Charity by Ann Rinaldi – This is my favorite.  Susannah English must find the courage to speak the truth and grapple with her own beliefs.
  • Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry – Learn the story of one of the central characters from the trials who often doesn’t have a voice.
  • Gallows Hill by Lois Duncan – This story brings the Salem Witch Trials into a contemporary setting with a supernatural twist.
  • Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare – I know this is not really set in Salem, but the story explores many of the same fears.

June 1, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Stolen into Slavery by Judith and Dennis Fradin

imageI cannot imagine the horror of being born and living free and then being kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve years, but that horrifying fate is just what Solomon Northup survived.  Judith and Dennis Fradin recount Solomon’s story in Stolen into Slavery: The True Story of Solomon Northup, Free Black Man (Scholastic 2012).

Solomon Northup was born free in New York state in the early 1800s.  He was educated and worked as a carpenter.  He also played the violin.  He married and had three children.  Then in 1841 he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery.  He spent the next twelve years on cotton plantations deep in the Louisiana swamps.  His name had been changed, so it was nearly impossible for his family to discover what had happened to him.  Since his kidnappers had stolen his money and the papers proving he was free, it was impossible foa him to prove his identity and regain his freedom.  For twelve long years, Solomon looked for a chance to escape and return to his family.  Even though it was illegal to kidnap and sell a free black, the guilty parties were never brought to justice even though they were known.

Basing their research on Solomon’s own account of his years of slavery and on other records including bills of sale and court documents, the Fradins bring Solomon’s story to life in a gripping narrative.

May 25, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Behind Enemy Lines by Bill Doyle

I picked up these two books by Bill Doyle for the students in my classes.  I know have readers who are looking for something short and quick to read.  Many of those same readers are fascinated by war, danger, and adventure.  I expect these books in the Behind Enemy Lines series will be a hit with them.  What I didn’t expect was these books to be such a hit with me, but I found them hard to put down.  I came away amazed and inspired by the courage shown by each soldier, sailor, or airman featured.

Behind Enemy Lines:  True Stories of Amazing Courage (Scholastic 2009)

imageThese stories highlight deeds of derring-d0 from wars throughout our history, from Nathan Hale in the American Revolution to Green Berets in the Iraq War.  One of my favorites is the story of Emma Edmonds, who pretended to be Private Frank Thompson in the Civil War.  Not only did she pull of her disguise as a man in the Union army, but she also created multiple other disguises in her work as a Union spy.  I had also never hear of Moe Berg, a Major League Baseball player, who used his talent for learning languages as a spy during World War II.  There are eight inspiring stories in this collection, each one more exciting than the one before.

Behind Enemy Lines: Under Fire in the Middle East (Scholastic 2011)

imageThese stories focus on more recent conflicts in Iraq (both Desert Storm and more recently) Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  In addition to the courageous acts of military personnel in these wars, “Caught in the Crossfire” illustrates the devastation that war creates for civilians.  A group of orphans, including two brothers, must flee across the war-torn country to escape the fighting that has taken their parents.  ”Duke’s Dogs” highlights the lifesaving actions of a trio of strays that accompanied one platoon in Iraq.  Again and again, the men and women in these true stories (some names and details were changed to protect those involved) show courage under fire and sometimes receive help from unexpected places.

May 13, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Two Brave Men, a Century Apart

I just finished reading two biographies of men born a century apart.  Even though they were born into very different circumstances and faced different problems, both men were leaders who helped our country through difficult and violent times.  I was struck by both the similarities and differences between Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., in how they faced the turbulent times of their lives.  I was also surprised by how much I still have to learn about both men.  Even though I have studied both men in history classes, I was surprised by some of what I read, in particular the controversy and criticism that each faced.

Lincoln:  A Photobiography by Russell Freedman (Scholastic 1987)

First off, I love the photographs that help tell this story.  There are pictures of Lincoln, of course, but also of people, places, and even documents that surrounded and filled Lincoln’s life.  We may never fully unravel the mystery and legend that have grown up around Lincoln, but Freedman gives us a glimpse of the man behind the public figure.  Did you know that Lincoln’s in-laws tried to prevent their daughter’s marriage to Abe?  They thought he was well beneath their station in life.  In addition to showing how Lincoln’s early life led to his political career and his changing views of slavery, Freedman includes extra material at the back that I enjoyed.  ”A Lincoln Sampler” gives quotes from Lincoln’s speeches and writings, both famous and not so much.  ”In Lincoln’s Footsteps” describes historic sites related to Lincoln’s life that you can visit.  Then Freedman also highlights some of the many books about Lincoln that readers might want to pursue for more information.

10 Days:  Martin Luther King, Jr. by David Colbert (Scholastic 2012)

I wasn’t sure about the organization of this book at first.  How could you give a sense of such a complex and dynamic individual as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in just 10 days?  By focusing on 10 pivotal days in King’s life, Colbert weaves in many of the issues facing King and the history of the Civil Rights movement.  Once again, I am shocked and horrified at the violence that met the protesters.  I am impressed with the courage with which King met white bigotry and violence and with which he brought together people with very different philosophies.