Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

“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.

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.

Which book will survive?

Today is our rescheduled meeting for Survivor Book Club.  If you couldn’t make it, check out the books we presented.  Which book will you read?  Which book will be your favorite?

Hidden by Helen Frost

Two girls are brought together by a carjacking turned kidnapping.  Years later their paths cross again at summer camp.  The alternating voices in this novel in verse will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Emerald Atlas by John Stevens

Three children are taken from their parents and hidden in orphanage after orphanage.  At their last stop, they discover a magical atlas and a dangerous prophecy that says they must save the world from the power of an evil witch and her friends.  The only bad news—this is the first of three books.

City of Orphans by Avi

The streets of New York City in 189 are a tough place to be if you’re a kid like newsie Maks or orphan Willa.  Can they avoid the Plug Ugly gang and free Maks’ sister from jail with the help of only a washed up detective?

Amelia Lost:  The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

I thought I knew a lot about my favorite flyer, but I learned much about her life and the search for her after her plane disappeared.  I loved the photographs!

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

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.

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?

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.

Writing Stories by Carolyn Coman

imageLast March I took part in the Slice of Life writing challenge sponsored by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.  I got carried away with the commenting challenge for first time participants.  (It happened to be the first week of our spring break, so I went all out and commented on almost every blog.  My family thought I had lost it completely.)  Not only did I read amazing slices from some of the most amazing teachers, I also won five professional development books.  Now that summer vacation is here, I am sitting down to read them.

I read Writing Stories by Carolyn Coman yesterday, and it is a treasure.  I agree wholeheartedly that good writing is grounded in writing good stories.  As we move to the Common Core, we as teachers need to remember that good stories provide the basis for all good writing, including argumentative and informative writing.  Reading this book is like having Carolyn sit beside you and guide you through the writing process, both as a writer and as a teacher of writers.

At the heart of this book are the connections between writing and reading and teaching.  It is filled with clear explanations of story elements and how they fit together, writing exercises to explore and experiment with, and questions–questions to ask yourself as a writer, questions to ask your students, and questions to explore together.  After reading through this guide just once, I have already dogeared many pages and highlighted many words of wisdom.  I know this will be a book I turn to again and again in both my own writing and teaching.

I want to share with you some of my favorite lines:

  • On finding ideas for writing:  ”Bit by bit it began to dawn on me that everything was possible material.  Reading showed me that I could journey inwardly into heart and soul as much as outwardly into the world, and that small moments held worlds within them and treasures of their own” (Coman 24).
  • On choosing controversial words or topics:  ”Considering the power of words seems to me a better way to go than simply laying down rules point-blank” (Coman 33).
  • On working with student writers:  ”A big part of our work as teachers is to help writers see what they’ve got that they might not be aware of–in other words, to help them see inside their stories” (Coman 78).
  • On responding to drafts: “To articulate that single thing requires looking into the story, past the obvious small corrections that need to be made, in search of the fundamental knot that keeps the story from realizing its intention…Settling on the basic question or comment about a story is our chance, as teachers, to practice what we preach: pare down, hone, and respectfully address what we see as the heart of the matter” (Coman 146).
  • On respect for the writer: “There are a million and one honest simple questions to be asked–without attitude, frustration, or judgment–to help the writer write the clearest, best story he or she can.  Please note:  asking the questions doesn’t mean the writer knows (should know or can know) the answer yet.  Questions are seeds, and the best ones take root, get the writer thinking and wondering about new possibilities.  We’re just asking.  If the answer isn’t clear, then the story is still evolving.  The writer needs to write more to discover the answers” (Conan 146-147).
  • On connections:  ”A writer’s interest in his or her topic does not guarantee that the piece will engage others, but a writer who’s not interested in the material pretty much guarantees that no one else will be either.  Whatever the topic, fiction or nonfiction, there has to be a point of connection between the writer and what is written” (Conan 148-149).
  • On difficulties:  ”Things not going well is part of the process–of writing and of teaching writing, too.  At least in my experience there is no way around it, only acknowledgment and humble acceptance as you try to make–or simply wait for–things to turn around….simply accept that the process unfolds at its own pace, as long as you keep showing up” (Conan 164).
  • On difficult students:  ”So the most resistant students are the ones who need us most.  We have to start where each student is and go from there.  First, and always, we want to do no harm…One size does not fit all” (Conan 165).
  • On getting stuck:  ”It’s my job to be patient and keep saying what I see in as many ways as I can, until the writer can see it too, or until the writer lets me see deeper into his or her story or process…It is never right until I come back to a place of respect for the writer and what he or she has written” (Conan 167).
  • On conventions:  ”Yes, spelling, grammar, and punctuation must be addressed (to the extent and at the level it’s appropriate for your students), but let’s not kid ourselves that addressing them constitutes teaching writing or means that we have don our job in responding fully to a story…Incorrect punctuation or misspellings show that a piece of writing is not yet finished” (Conan 175-176).
  • On sticking with it:  ”None of us got into teaching because it was easy” (Conan 169).

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.

Dewey the Library Cat by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

imageIt’s now official.  I want a library (a bookstore would probably do, too) and a library cat.  I’m not sure any cat could top Dewey’s story as recounted by Vicky Myron (with Brett Witter) in Dewey the Library Cat (Little, Brown and Company 2010).Dewey had a rough start that turned out to be the beginning of the best life.  On the coldest night of the year he somehow got into the book drop return in the Spencer, Iowa, library.  His wide eyes and bedraggled fur greeted the librarians in the morning.  How could they resist?  Vicky Myron couldn’t.  With the help of the other librarians, she introduced Dewey to the library patrons, library board, and the wider Spencer community. Almost everyone agreed:  Dewey could remain the official library cat.  His official name became Dewey Readmore Books. (Yes, he has his own website.)

Dewey took his responsibilities seriously.  He greeted patrons every morning when the library opened.  He snuggled in laps, especially for those who needed a little extra that day.  He tolerated the tugs and rough pats of toddlers and the squeals of children.  He invited librarians to play hide and seek among the stacks.  He posed for cameras and performed for news crews.  As time went on, he held court for visitors who travelled from across the country and around the world to see him.  Little by little, he inspired the residents of a small town and gave them hope to hang on through the tough times.

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