The Family Romanov

Family RomanovTitle: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
ISBN: 9780375867828
Pages: 292 pages
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.
Awards: Sibert Honor (2015), YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult Finalist (2015)

Now, learning from advisers that the palace guard had deserted, he finally grasped the situation. There was, he concluded, no other choice. He would have to give in and appoint a government acceptable to the people. He immediately telegraphed Rodzianko with his offer. Minutes later, Rodzianko answered: “His Majesty . . . [is] apparently . . . unable to realize what is happening in the capital. A terrible revolution has broken out. . . . The measures you propose are too late. The time for them is gone. There is no return.” (173-174)

There was no return for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. For years the Russian nobility had turned a blind eye to the crippling poverty overwhelming the populace. Instead of consulting with his advisers, he relied heavily on the advice of his wife, Empress Alexandra, a foreigner who married him under the dark mourning cloud of the former emperor’s death. She in turn was driven by “a deep belief in the miraculous and mystical” and consulted a questionable character named Rasputin, who was also looked upon with suspicion by everyone except the royal family (28). It didn’t help that the heirs were isolated, and the only son’s illness was kept a secret. Breeding suspicion and discontent among the famine, frustration, and fear of the first World War, those feelings soon followed the royal family into hiding, but the worst was yet to come.

Anyone who has seen the movie Anastasia is at least partly familiar with the story of the last Russian Tsar and his family. I had the refrain of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” stuck in my brain through most of my reading. Most people probably never realized how inaccurate the plot of the movie was to history. As always, Fleming’s research is thorough, quoting extensively from the diaries and correspondence that have been miraculously saved for all these years. The details were surprising, including first hand accounts of what happened when the murders took place and a photograph of the room where the deed took place.

It’s an intentionally disheartening read, almost like when reading about the Titanic, because history tells you that this is not going to end well for the family. I found myself shaking my head in amazement that Tsar Nicholas II could be so out of touch and purposely naive regarding his responsibilities, to the point where he stopped opening telegrams from his advisers and took the word of his wife over his generals. Probably the best decision that Fleming made was to include the final chapter regarding life after the Tsar, the rumors of survival, and the final nail on the coffin so to speak when the bodies were revealed, 25 years after their initial discovery. A fascinating read, this one will intrigue and inform.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Draw What You See

Draw What You SeeTitle: Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews
Author: Kathleen Benson
Illustrator: Illustrated with paintings by Benny Andrews
ISBN: 9780544104877
Pages: 32 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, c2015.

Benny started to draw when he was three years old. Once he started, he never stopped. (6)

This picture book biography summarizes the life of Benny Andrews, an African-American artist born in the 1930s and living long enough to teach children displaced by Hurricane Katrina how to express their emotions through art. While I enjoyed the use of his actual works to illustrate, rather than having an illustrator mimic his style, I was somewhat disappointed that the majority of the pieces selected were from his later years. For someone who has lived and painted as long as he had, I expected a broader selection, although I found myself enjoying his later pieces (done in the last decade of his life) more than the very few earlier works that were included. A detailed time line pairs years with the information in the narrative, but they highlight works that are not included in the book. Back mater also identifies each of the images, and cites sources and resources, although most of them are not easily accessible as they are movies and exhibition catalogs. The narrative portrays racism in easy to understand vignettes, including walking to school, missing school due to work, and being unrepresented in museum exhibits. It’s important to enlighten children that there are other, more modern artists, rather than always falling on the classics (Van Gogh and Picasso). For that reason alone this book should be included in the collection, but it will have to be publicized as Benny Andrews is not someone most kids will search out and you may find yourself withdrawing it due to low use in just a few years.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Blizzard

BlizzardTitle: Blizzard
Author/Illustrator: John Rocco
ISBN: 9781423178651
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Disney Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, c2014.

On Monday, February 6, 1978, New England experienced one of the biggest snowstorms in its history. It snowed for two days, and by the time it stopped, parts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were buried under forty inches of snow. That’s four times the height of this book! The wind was blowing fifty miles an hour and created snowdrifts up to fifteen feet high. Where I grew up in Rhode Island, it took over a week for snowplows to get to our street.
This book is based on my experience as a ten-year-old boy in that blizzard and how I got to the store, over a mile from my house, with tennis rackets tied to my feet.

Beautiful illustrations detail the storm in all it’s glory, white space assuming the role of the heaps and drifts of snow. The intrepid young boy in the story shows his ingenuity when, after being snowbound for a week, he straps tennis rackets to his shoes and makes the journey to the store for necessary supplies. Along the way, he picks up orders from the neighbors. Slices of family life show the ups and downs of being snowbound, from playing in the snow to curling up next to the fire. The passage of time is subtly conveyed in the pictures, which read like a graphic novel, at one point bringing to mind the Family Circus cartoons. Based on a true story, this is the perfect book to snuggle up with during these record-breaking winter storms.

Boundless

BoundlessTitle: Boundless
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Illustrator: Jim Tierney
Narrator: Nick Podehl
ISBN: 9781480584143 (audiobook), 9781442472884 (hardcover)
Pages: 332 pages
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours 12 minutes
Publisher/Date: Brillance Audio, c2014. (audiobook), Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2014. (hardback)

Amidst the greenery the silver keychain is easy to spot. Will bends to pick it up. It holds only a single key, unusually thick, with plenty of notches. At once he recognizes it as the key to the funeral car — same as his father’s. The guard must have dropped it. Will pockets it.
He is hurrying back toward the shantytown to catch up with the guard, when he hears a grumble off to his right. Likely the fellow has fallen down again. Will wonders if he should tell his father. The guard’s clearly unfit for his post. Will walks through the trees in the direction of the noise. Through the thick foliage he catches a glimpse of the guard’s jacket. […]
The guard is pushed back against a tree, his eyes wide with surprise. A second man has an elbow against the guard’s throat and is pulling the knife from between his ribs. Will can’t tear his eyes from the knife, darkly wet. He feels like he’s been touched with something searingly cold. The man with the knife turns. (87-88)

In the last three years, Will’s life has a had a dramatic change ever since he and his father were involved in the laying of the last spike connecting the Canadian Railway from one side of the country to the other. Will is riding with his father on the longest and biggest train ever built, the Boundless, and in addition to all the passengers and a circus, there is also a funeral car for the manager of the railroad, who is intent on spending the rest of his days, even after death, riding the rails. Rumors fly about the treasures contained in the funeral car, and when the guard is murdered, Will protects the key but ends up isolated in the back of the train. His efforts to make it back to his father and authorities are thwarted again and again, and just when he thinks he can trust the circus folk, he learns their ringmaster might have his own motives for keeping Will and the key close.

This is the first book of Kenneth Oppel’s I’ve read, having missed his previous bestsellers. His other books will be going on the to be read pile if they are anything like this. His world building is fantastic, including descriptions of the train and details of the furnishings. Elaborate information about how technology of that day work are included, and I noticed little details like how the clothing buttons instead of zippers closed. There’s also pieces of magical realism that connect effortlessly with the story, with Sasquatches being very real, in addition to the Muskeg hag that bewitches people and magic tricks where you wonder if real magic is happening.

Will is a multifaceted character, gullible in the beginning but also suspicious once he gets the key. Originally intent on mimicking his father’s exploits and having an adventure of his own to tell people, he sets off to prove his abilities, both to others and to himself. We see him grow as a character, and assume some control over his life. I totally expected Mr. Dorian’s plot to go in a different direction, but that wasn’t the case, and I’ll admit I was slightly disappointed. If you are familiar with the classics, you may draw the same conclusions when you hear what Mr. Dorian is after. When Will finds himself in trouble again and again, his rescues and solutions do not strain credulity, and you’re left with a tale that makes you wonder “Could that have really happened?” Maren is also a capable and self-assured young lady who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go to great lengths to get it. Both Will and Maren think fast on their feet and play off the other’s strengths in order to help each person get what they want most, and their interactions with each other were highly entertaining.

Nick Podehl is probably at his best here, as he incorporates the global nature of the travelers, including accents and even a few words of Hindi. Although I can’t vouch for their accuracy, they sound authentic enough. For fans of trains, fantastical creatures, or just readers who are looking for the next great adventure, they are in for one wild ride.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingTitle: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
ISBN: 9780399252518
Pages: 337 pages
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Group, c2014.
Awards: National Book Award (winner), Coretta Scott King Award (winner), Newbery Medal (honor), and Sibert Award (honor)

Each day a new world
opens itself up to you. And all the worlds you are–
Ohio and Greenville
Woodson and Irby
Gunnar’s child and Jack’s daughter
Jahovah’s Witness and nonbeliever
listener and writer
Jackie and Jacqueline–

gather into one world

called You

where You decide

what each world
and each story
and each ending

will finally be. (319-320)

Jacqueline Woodson’s poetic memoir focuses on her childhood. Born in Ohio, her parents were divorced and she, her mother, and her two older siblings had moved down south to live with her grandparents before she even began to walk. She loved living with her grandparents, even when her mother left for Brooklyn, but they soon joined her and their new younger brother in the north again. Living in both hemispheres of the country, Jacqueline talks about the civil rights movements that she witnessed on television and in real life. As life revolves and revolutionizes around her like a merry-go-around, and even as she struggles with reading fast enough for her teachers, she begins to write down her story, so she and others can remember.

Woodson’s poems match her portrayal of herself. They are slow, reflective, and precise. She talks about how she doesn’t know the time of her birth, which is something unheard of for today as everything gets recorded, from height, weight, date and time to what you ate for breakfast. I imagine that might be one reason she became a writer, so she wouldn’t have to rely on “other people’s bad memory.” (18) There are a number of poems that appear multiple times, with numbers after their title. I wish the names of the poems had been included in the Table of contents at the front of the book. Read together, they paint their own story, especially the ones titled “How to Listen”. When she talks about growing up in the south, she and her siblings are identified by their relations “Sister Irby’s Grands / MaryAnn’s Babies”, which I could relate to being described that way countless times at family reunions and introductions. (45)

It’s readers ability to relate to Woodson’s life experiences that draws readers into the story. We may not have grown up in the same state or at the same time, but we sense what she is feelings. As an adult, I really understood when she described her mother’s dissatisfaction with moving her family back in with her parents. “Everyone else / has gone away. / And now coming back home / isn’t really coming back home / at all.” (46-47) Woodson also has that longing to identify with the people that surround her, whether it’s making up stories about her absent father, wanting to be smart like her brother, the joy she feels when she finds a book featuring an African-American character, or imitating the Black Panthers on television by proclaiming “I’m Black and I’m Proud”.

Middle school students are always coming into my library looking for biographies and/or autobiographies. While it’s light on specific facts and I’m frequently finding it in the poetry section because of the format, this would fit most assignment criteria. Woodson might agree, write this one down and don’t let it be forgotten.

It Will Get There — Eventually

I don’t normally do this, but I just recently read two nonfiction picture books that struck me as similar, not because of the format or the topic but because of the actions taken in each story.

Henry and the CannonsTitle: Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revolution
Author/Illustrator: Don Brown
ISBN: 9781596432666
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Press Books, c2013.
Publication Date: January 22, 2013

Stourbridge LionTitle: The Stourbridge Lion: America’s First Locomotive
Author: Karl Zimmermann
Illustrator: Steven Walker
ISBN: 9781590788592
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, c2012.
Publication Date: March 1, 2012

On the surface, these tales have nothing alike. One tells the story of Henry Knox, who convinced George Washington during the American Revolution that he could transport the desperately needed cannons from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Boston Massachusetts. As the book relates; “300 miles of lakes and rivers, hills and glades, and mountain forests separated Boston from Fort Ticonderoga. Dragging cannons the whole, hard way in winter was impossible.” But Henry did it, rescuing them from ships that were snagged on rocks and at one point sunk, dragging them through mud, lifting them out from the frigid waters when the ice they were traveling on broke, until all 59 were safely delivered.

In contrast, delivering a steam locomotive from England to Pennsylvania seems easy. Horatio Allen traveled to England, purchased several engines, and sailed back to New York City to await their arrival by several different boats. The tracks however were ill-equipped to handle the engine, which weighed almost twice what the gravity powered locomotives held, and ended up sitting idle for most of its time until it took up a new residence in a museum.

The stories I’ll admit have very little in common. Henry and the Cannons is a well told, little-known portion of history during the American Revolution. The pictures are somewhat muted in tone, but they convey the hazards of the journey in a style that is oddly engaging although not incredibly detailed in a way that one might expect. I find myself comparing them to a cartoon that I known I have seen. Schoolhouse Rock comes to mind, but that’s not right. The faces are almost indistinguishable from one another, and yet readers see the ice and snow forming on the row-boat as waves lap and one unlucky sailor bails. We see footprints left behind as the men struggled through the knee-deep mud. When the cannon is fired for show, everyone watching in the background is prepared for the impending sound as they cover their ears with their hands.

The Stourbridge Lion has an uneven hand when it comes to details. While readers see the popped nails from the wooden tracks and I LOVE the fact that there is not one or two but THREE maps to provide context for readers, we really don’t get a sense of how historic this first steam locomotive might have been. Readers are privy to the test run, but not to the actual work, if any, that the locomotive accomplishes. I got the impression that unlike the cannons, which definitely had an impact on the outcome of the war, it seems the importation of the locomotive was ill-conceived and almost pointless, since the tracks, infrastructure, and operators had to adapt before it could serve a productive use.

What links the two of them however is the journey. They actually both used the Hudson River, with 50 years separating the two journeys, which proves the importance of the Hudson River and begs the question of who else and what else has traveled on it over the years. But I kept thinking about how cumbersome, awkward, and difficult it would be to transport each of these shipments in their respective time frames. Both were moved before cars were popular and readily available. Instead, horses and ships were used to haul the two loads. The sheer man power it must have taken to get the cannons over the hills and through the snow is mind-boggling, and the comparison of the ships used to transport the cannons to the ship used to transport the locomotive would be interesting. Reading these two books side-by-side allowed me to make comparisons that I don’t think I would have considered. While I felt the presentation and subject matter of Henry’s Cannons was handled better and made a more interesting read, The Stourbridge Lion brings to light an interesting event where early adapters of a new invention were way before their time.

Have you made an interesting connection between two books recently? What books would you pair together?

Geisel Awards 2015

WINNER

You Are Not SmallTitle: You Are (Not) Small
Author: Anna Kang
Illustrator: Christopher Weyant
ISBN: 9781477847725
Pages: unpaged
Publication/Date: Two Lions, c2014.

Sometimes a book comes along that is so simple, so universal, and so utterly charming that you look at wondering “Why didn’t I ever write this?” Two fuzzy creatures (they look like bears to me) meet and “argue” over whether or not they are small or big. That’s it. That is the entire book, with some newcomers towards the end of the book proving that it’s all a matter of perspective. Bright colors, lots of white space, simple language, and minimalist drawings all place the focus squarely on the building debate. The back cover predicts a sequel, and if it becomes a series I can predict lots of fans. No complaints here.

HONORS

Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the PageTitle: Mr. Putter & Tabby Turn the Page
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Arthur Howard
ISBN: 9780152060633
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2014.

This wasn’t my favorite of the titles on the list, but I read so few easy readers on a regular basis that maybe I’m loosing a grasp of what makes a good one. It’s a slight story where Mr. Putter and Tabby are joined by Mrs. Teaberry and Zeke in a “Read Aloud to Your Pets” program at their library. Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry display good habits, such as pre-reading the books before the event, reading with “gusto”, and showing the pictures. It was a nice touch that Zeke provides the sound effects for the story Mrs. Teaberry chooses to read. Tabby seems like a nice cat, and this is a nice story. Not especially memorable in my opinion, but fans of the series will enjoy.

Waiting is Not EasyTitle: Waiting Is Not Easy!
Author/Illustrator: Mo Willems
ISBN: 9781423199571
Pages: 57 pages
Publisher/Date: Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of Disney Book Group, c2014.

I joked with a coworker that the Geisel Awards should be renamed the Willems Award. Out of 22 books, seven (including this one) have been recognized in some way by the Geisel committee time after time after time. While the interactions between Elephant and Piggie are sounding a little repetitive to me, Willems throws a curve ball to readers with the final two pages of graphics. Subtle shading and color change show the passage of time, as Gerald is forced to wait for Piggie’s surprise, which Piggie has no difficulty waiting for since he knows what it is and when it will arrive. I was struck by what could be a discrepancy in Gerald’s coloring in one of the double page spreads. I believe it was page 40-41 or 42-43, but I don’t have the book in front of me and if I’m the only one who questions it then maybe it’s just my copy of the book. Willems has not lost his ability with self-explanatory expressions, and the dialogue is just begging to be read aloud.

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