Posts tagged ‘biographies’

Breakthrough!

Breakthrough.jpgTitle: Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780547821832
Pages: 130 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2015.

It wasn’t only that the operation was very complex and risky. The surgery he was about to perform on Eileen’s struggling heart had never been done on a human before, let alone one so tiny or frail. This was why the balcony-type observation stand along the west side of room 706 was packed with curious Johns Hopkins staff and why a movie camera had been set up pointing at the operating table. If the operation worked — if the patient survived — history would be made.
Moreover, Blalock had never performed this procedure, not even on an experimental animal. In fact, the only person to have done it successfully start to finish, wasn’t an official member of the surgical team. According to hospital rules, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the room. But he was there now, at Blalock’s request, standing just behind the surgeon on a wooden step stool. His name was Vivien Thomas, and most people at the hospital thought he was a janitor. (xiii)

On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, history was made. The first ever operation on a child to increase blood flow to the heart was scheduled to take place. Not only was it a moment in medical history, but it was also a moment in women’s rights and African-American rights. For over a year Dr. Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his African-American research assistant Vivien Thomas had been studying the research of hearing-impaired pediatric physician Dr. Helen Taussig. At Taussig’s request, they had been searching for a means to solve this reoccurring problem of abnormal development of the heart, which had cost her the lives of over two hundred patients. When they finally develop what they think is a solution, they find themselves in a race against time with undeveloped technology and unpracticed procedures to save the life of a young child.

An interesting introduction to a rarely considered medical event, this narrative nonfiction provides background contextual information, primary source photographs, and simplified descriptions of scientific concepts. Mentioned in the short description above, this book could be used to spread knowledge about medical, women’s, or African-American history. Vivien Thomas is unable to attend medical school due to the economic collapse of the 1930s, and ends up being essentially educated on-the-job after he is hired by Blalock, ten years his senior. With his boss and upon first arriving at Johns Hopkins, Thomas is forced to confront racist tendencies that had been culturally ingrained for decades. Dr. Helen Taussig also had to confront others’ prejudices against her, including not being allowed to take more than one or two classes at a time and not being allowed to study in the same room as her classmates for fear she would “contaminate” the other students. Her gradual hearing loss also proved unique problems that she solved in order to continue the professional career track she had fought so hard to achieve. Other social issues at the time that are still prevalent today, including animal testing, sterilization methods, and insider industry information, are touched upon to provide context.

It’s the personal vignettes behind the discovery that create the compelling narrative. The inclusion of period photographs featuring the people and places involved all bring the incredible story to life. The medical concepts are broken down into the barest, most simplistic terms. While that makes it easy to understand for readers, additional visuals to aid in comprehending the surgery and the anatomy involved would have been appreciated. The sequence of development of the heart on page 28 and the drawing of the chest cavity inside a child on page 49 was extremely helpful in envisioning it, although the captain makes it sound like the drawing was done by Thomas. Even enlarging the newspaper clipping found on page 77 would have sufficed, to make it easier to read the information contained and see the drawing provided, although it is a remarkably clear and readable scan.

For a fuller picture of the historic event, it’s implications, and aftermath, readers should read the detailed source notes, which contain information that regrettably did not make it into the primary text. It’s my impression that most people neglect to read the included back matter in informational texts. For instance, while the text vaguely mentions that Thomas was later recognized, including a formal portrait, an honorary doctorate, and made head of the laboratory, the significance of his becoming an “instructor of surgery at the school, an extraordinarily rare appointment for someone who was neither a surgeon nor a doctor” is only mentioned in the source notes. Overall, the book does a solid job recognizing the accomplishments of scientists that no one has heard of or probably even considered investigating.

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

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.jpgTitle: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition)
Author: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
ISBN: 9780803740808
Pages: 293 pages
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of the Penguin Group LLC, c2015

Many of you have probably been saying, “But doesn’t everyone have electricity?” It’s true that most people in Europe and America are lucky to have lights whenever they want them, plus things like air-conditioning and microwave ovens. But in Africa, we’re not so lucky. In fact, only about eight percent of Malawians have electricity in their homes, and most of them live in the city.
Not having electricity meant that I couldn’t do anything at night. I couldn’t read or finish my radio repairs. I couldn’t do my homework or study for school. No watching television. It also meant that when I walked outside to the toilet, I couldn’t see the big spiders or roaches that liked to play in the latrine at night. I only felt them crunch under my bare feet.
Whenever the sun went down, most people stopped what they were doing, brushed their teeth, and went straight to bed. Not at ten p.m., of even nine o’clock–but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, most of Africa. (54)

William Kamkwamba was born into a family of six sisters, located in a tiny village in the heart of the African country of Malawi.He spent his time studying for school, helping his family maintain their farm, and fixing radios in his spare time. When he was 13, tragedy struck as a drought swept the country, and with it extreme shortages of food and starvation. With no money for school and no crops to tend at the farm, William started spending time at the library. It was there he discovered the power of windmills, and the idea that a windmill could pump water from the well, fertilize their crops, and provide them with free electricity. He spent the next year teaching himself and collecting and buying scrap metal, including a rusty bicycle, a tractor fan, and a shock absorber. But would a teenager who barely passed middle school be able to design and assemble these pieces and parts together and make something?

This is an uplifting true story about the power of engineering, ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. William didn’t know about electricity when he first started taking apart and putting back together radios, but he wasn’t afraid to learn. After dropping out of school due to lack of funds, William tries valiantly to stay on top of his studies so he can rejoin the class next year. He copies his friend’s notes and visits the library often, which he describes in great detail. I can picture the dusty shelves stuffed haphazardly with books that libraries here in America probably discarded because they were out of date or didn’t have colored pictures, but their information is still relevant enough to get William the information he needs.

Anything he can’t find he’s willing to work to acquire. He pleads with this father to have the broken family bicycle. In order to pay for the services of a welder, he stacks firewood for hours to get enough money. When he needed washers, he collected bottle caps, pounded them flat, and hammered a hole into the center. It’s inspiring to think that this young man who so many would see as disadvantaged could do something so extraordinary that it would capture the public’s attention.While the book includes color photographs of his family and invention, it would have been nice and more enlightening if the book had included diagrams of his innovation. The descriptions are very detailed and paired with a picture you get an idea, but for children wanting to duplicate his efforts they may need to mimic his methods and do some more research.

William’s family is disadvantaged, and he recognizes it, but it doesn’t impact his happiness. He doesn’t complain about using the latrine or lacking running water or electricity, only bringing up these details to better explain his situation, not try to excuse it. Overall he has a relatively happy life, with friends and games and free time to pursue his passion, even if that happens to be electrical engineering. In American he’d probably be playing with Lego Mindstorms instead of old radios. It’s important for readers, especially here in the United States, to understand his circumstances and the uniqueness of his accomplishment, and that he had to improvise with what he had instead of purchasing something he needed. The scenes of famine are heart-wrenching, but not sensationalized, and I think every reader will grow teary-eyed at the matter-of-fact telling of the situation with his dog and the medical maladies that fall on William and his friends. It’s one thing to say that African nations are poor or undeveloped or suffering from a famine, but it’s quite different to read about it through the eyes of a child who experienced it and brings those feelings to life.

Rather than stay in American after college, it’s also unique to see that William wants to return to his country and work on projects for Africa, in Africa, and run by Africans. He doesn’t disparage his country or community, and wants to help it thrive by building on what is there, instead of changing it culturally or Americanizing it. Ending this blog post in the same way Kamkwamba ends his autobiography, hopefully his story will inspire others.

Often people with the best ideas face the greatest challenges–their country at war; a lack of money or education or the support of those around them. But like me, they choose to stay focused because that dream–as far away as it seems–is the truest and most hopeful thing they have. Think of your dreams and ideas as tiny miracle machines inside you that no one can touch. The more faith you put into them, the bigger they get, until one day they’ll rise up and take you with them. (290)

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

The Rain Wizard

Rain Wizard.jpgTitle: The Rain Wizard: The Amazing, Mysterious, True Life of Charles Mallory Hatfield
Author: Larry Dane Brimner
ISBN: 9781590789902
Pages: 119 pages
Publisher/Date: Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, c2015 (Larry Dane Brimner, Trustee, Brimner-Gregg Trust)

On December 15, 1904, he set up his cloud-attracting apparatus on the grounds of Esperanza Sanitarium, a hospital for people with lung diseases. […] The hospital was located in the foothills northeast of Los Angeles, near Altadena. Rain began to fall almost immediately and continued through Christmas. […]
Soon, though, local newspapers were pleading with him to give them a dry, sunny day on Monday, January 2, 1905, so the annual Tournament of Roses Parade could go on as scheduled in Pasadena. When rain fell in the morning but cleared in time for the parade, organizers publicly expressed thanks. (38-39)

Charles Hatfield was not the first to claim that he could control the weather, and bring down rain from the sky during a drought. Rather than using the war paint and rain dances of Native American tribes, or the ringing of bells like eighteenth century English towns, Hatfield used a secretive mix of heated chemicals. To this day, no one knows what he used or has concrete evidence that it even worked, but he succeeded in making a name for himself as a Rain Wizard or conjurer for a decade. His techniques might have proven too successful when an attempt to fill a San Diego reservoir at the request of the city resulted in the 1916 flood that resulted in death, damage, and destruction, including washing houses and train tracks away. Was Hatfield responsible for the rain, and if so was he then responsible for the damages it caused?

Having never heard of Charles Hatfield, it was a unique person to feature in a biography. Readers though will be left scratching their heads, as Brimner, like the people who actually lived during that time, is unable to answer the question of if he actually made it rain or not. There is no known record of Hatfield’s secret formula, so curious readers will be unable to replicate the results. However, based on the inclusion of rainmakers who came before and after Hatfield, and details about their methods, it seems a safe conclusion that there is some truth to the practice of both rain making future efforts to collect moisture from the sky.

I must say I was slightly taken aback by Brimner’s inclusion of a Wikipedia site in his list of resources for readers looking for more information. I showed it to several coworkers and they were equally flummoxed by the inclusion. Our assumption is that he was merely including easily obtained and readily available resources. For someone who went to the effort of tracking down the family descendants and first hand newspaper accounts of the events, we were shocked that he would even mention a website that is not vetted or reliably credible and is routinely frowned upon by teachers when assigning research projects to their students. Especially when his works cited and photo credits lists are so thorough, although I do question the necessity of quoting a reference librarian’s email in describing the state of things at that time. Brimner even talks about the inaccuracy of first hand accounts in his author’s note, so maybe he is stressing that no source is one hundred percent reliable. It is definitely a shock to my system that an author who has received recognition with starred reviews and a Sibert Honor would stoop to referencing Wikipedia and casts a shadow on what I felt was a well presented narrative on a little-known and still-disputed event.

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

 

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings

Enchanted Air.jpgTitle: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir
Author: Margarita Engle
ISBN: 9781481435222
Pages: 192 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

In one country, I hear the sweet words of another.
Dulce de leche means sweet of milk.
Guarapo is sugarcane juice.

At home in California, when I speak
boastful English, I can say that I fly,
but when I make the same claim in Spanish,
I have to say: voy por avion
I go by airplane

Two countries.
Two families.
Two sets of words.

Am I free to need both,
or will I always have to choose
only one way
of thinking? (13)

Margarita’s mother is from Cuba, and her father’s family is Ukraine. For a while they travel from Cuba to the United States and back, visiting family and a whole new culture and world in Cuba. But then conflicts between her two homes flare, and her family is unable to travel back to Cuba. In the beginning, her family is observed and questioned, but as the hostility continues Margarita can’t understand the animosity present, and how her fellow Americans are uneducated and unaffected, since she is privy to a wholly different perspective.

This is another book I have a hard time envisioning recommending to someone unless they had a special interest in autobiographies, prejudices, and the Cuban/American tensions. The word choices and verses are powerfully brief in nature, and fans of Brown Girl Dreaming may also enjoy this novel. But this is essentially a travelogue without any travel. Starting with some prettily portrayed trips, the second half details the prejudice and trials that the family faces. Instead, she waxes reflectively on idealized travels to Cuba in her childhood, where she rides horses with her cousins and juxtaposes them with the horrors of a closed Cuba after the Bay of Pigs invasion. It’s an eye-opening portrayal and certainly one that is relevant in the recent reopening of relations with Cuba by President Barack Obama, but not one that is discussed in-depth in schools, a disparity that is ironically addressed in the book itself and will impact and contribute to its obscurity. I can’t end this review without commenting that the cover is horrible, with a symbolic dove overlaid by half an illustrated face, and not at all appealing.

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

 

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower

Tricky VicTitle: Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
Author/Illustrator: Greg Pizzoli
ISBN: 9780670016525
Pages: 39 pages
Publisher/Date: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, c2015.

“Victor” was a convincing count: exceedingly well dress, soft spoken, and always with lots of money to spare at the game tables. Once the ship docked and the passengers disembarked, “Count Lustig” would disappear, along with their money. (5)

“Count Victor Lustig” was the alias of Robert Miller, a man born in the Czech Republic who didn’t stay in one place for very long. He traveled around the world playing people for their money, from his home country to America, Europe, and back again, earning the respect of Al Capone before finally getting caught and imprisoned in Alcatraz. Two popular cons were either selling a money making box to an unsuspecting person or simply counterfeiting the money directly. His most well-known con however was selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal, a trick that proved so successful that he attempted it a second time.

Little is known with certainty about Robert Miller, and Pizzoli makes that clear in his author’s note. Teachers will also appreciate a glossary of terms, an extensive works cited list, and a word about the artwork. The effort to include primary sources within the illustrations, like Miller’s death certificate, should also be highlighted if used in a classroom. There’s some light symbolism in the use of a finger print in place of Miller’s face in every illustration, which was a distinctive but very effective method of obscuring his identity but still allude to the criminal nature of his work (being fingerprinted when arrested) and his unique fabricated identity and business (since all fingerprints are different). Adults might be interested to seek out more information, but this is a succinct narrative and an age-appropriate introduction to the idea of con artists, fakes, and double crosses.

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

Around the World

Around the WorldTitle: Around the World
Author/Illustrator: Matt Phelan
ISBN: 9780763636197
Pages: 237 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2011.

“I will bet twenty thousand pounds against anyone who wishes that I will make the tour of the world in eighty days or less: in nineteen hundred and twenty hours, or one hundred and fifteen thousand two hundred minutes. Do you accept?”
Thus begins Jules Verne’s rollicking adventure novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne’s novel, like his previous books, was an international success. Millions read it and pondered the possibility of racing around the planet Earth. A few intrepid adventurers — for a variety of reasons both known and unknown — decided to attempt the amazing feat. (11)

Author Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days planted in many minds the thought of seeing the world, traveling to foreign lands, and experiencing all that the planet has to offer. Three people who actually set out upon the journey are featured in this compilation biography. First came former miner Thomas Stevens, whose efforts began with a 3.5 month trip across the United States on a big-wheeled bicycle. Once he succeeded with that trip and secured sponsorship, he continued on across the globe, spending a year showcasing the bicycle’s abilities as he went. Two years after he returned, reporter Nellie Bly had the intention of beating the challenge that Phineas Fog set in the novel. Many said it couldn’t be done, and the paper she wrote for even took guesses from readers as to when she’d arrive back. Finally, there was the old retired sea-captain Joshua Slocum, who quietly set sail in a time of steam ships and pirates, spending years alone as he circumnavigated the globe just like old times.

Matt Phelan’s style is almost instantly recognizable once you’ve read some of his works featuring watercolors accented with pencil, ink, and gouache. Thomas Stevens’s story is the most colorful, featuring panoramic landscapes in greens, golds, and reds and a beautiful double page spread silhouetting the rider in front of the iconic Taj Mahal. Phelan briefly touches upon the changes that were happening while Stevens was on his ride, including the development of newer bicycle models and a gasoline engine. Phelan’s portrayal of the trip is the shortest of the three stories in terms of page count, and I do wish we had heard and seen more the trip, especially since Phelan mentions the exorbitant length of Stevens’ own account of his journey.

Nellie Bly’s is more muted, with her bright blue outfit and plaid orange-brown ulster standing out among the grays, whites, and browns of her transportation methods. I was somewhat surprised at his portrayal of Nellie as an impatient, irritable woman, but maybe she has good reason to be perturbed. It’s shown that the deck is stacked against her from the very beginning as she purposes the idea to her editor, is shot down immediately by staff due to her gender, and then she is given the assignment a year later as their own idea. It’s just another reason that I should do some research on a trailblazer in journalism.

Joshua Slocum’s journey sets a very different tone, both in the style of illustrations and the actual narration. It’s a solitary tale of a solitary man who is not in a race against time like Nellie or interacting with many people like Thomas. In fact, the minimal interactions portrayed are with hallucinations, memories, and ghosts from his past indicated with greens and yellows that separate their content from the blues and grays of the seemingly never-ending sea journey. There was no mighty fanfare upon his return, and when the story ends with his disappearance at sea 10 years later, it’s made abundantly clear to readers that this restless man was searching for a life and solace he could not find.

Phelan includes a short author’s note and bibliography of sources at the end, although I question how many of those resources would be beneficial to children. Epilogues are also included after each of the three stories, giving answers to the inevitable “and then?” questions that would follow a tale of a trip around the world. Captain Slocum’s is the only one played out in graphic novel format. Readers expecting the daring feats that they find in the 39 Clues series will be disappointed, but introspective adventurers looking to whet their appetite on true tales may enjoy the stories and provide a launching point for further speculation on their own future endeavors.

El Deafo

El DeafoTitle: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Color: David Lasky
ISBN: 9781419710209
Pages: 242 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS, c2014.
Awards: Newbery Honor (2015)

I wake up every morning happy and relieved to be home. I stay close to Mama, no matter where she is. But suddenly, I lose her. Where is she? I call out but she doesn’t answer me! When I finally find her, I know that everything is different. I think she knows it, too. I can’t hear. (11-12)

As a result of meningitis when she was four, Cece spent some time in the hospital. When she got back home, her parents and her realized that there was something wrong. She had become deaf. After being fit with hearing aids, Cece attends a special school to adapt to her lost hearing, but a family move means she leaves behind the welcoming environment. A new school means she needs to adapt to kids not understanding what the hearing aids do and how to react and interact with her.

The idea of portraying the people as bunnies was an inspired choice on the author’s part. Deafness seems more pronounced when exhibited by an animal with such pronounced ears, and that makes real the anxiety that the author feels when trying to hide her defining characteristic. I had a classmate with a similar hearing device that Cece wears and uses in school, and it’s interesting to see the world from that perspective. Cece’s reluctance to learn sign language was surprising to me, but her reasoning makes sense. She is trying so hard to not appear different that she is isolating herself because she can’t change her differences. It’s when she finally embraces her differences and uses them to the class’s advantage (like a super power) that she makes friends. But honestly, I’m glad she made friends like Martha, who didn’t care about her hearing aids, either as a positive super power or a negative disability.

Most of the feelings of acceptance are universal, they are simply amplified by Cece’s difference. Fans of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will probably enjoy this graphic novel with a similar story line. These books are important to have to teach acceptance to children and share unique perspectives, but some may be turned off by the continued emphasis of the differences and the primary role they play in the plot.

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