Posts tagged ‘History’

Swing Sisters

Swing SistersTitle: Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Author: Karen Deans
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Pages: unpaged
ISBN: 9780823419708
Publisher/Date: Holiday House, c2015.

Dr. Jones loved music and wanted the children to love it too. In 1939 he started a school band that was just for girls, and he called it the Sweethearts.

Started as an fundraiser for a African American orphanage founded in 1909, the Sweethearts soon became something more. They played in the beginning for schools and church groups. When the musicians aged out of the orphanage, they stayed together, playing all over the country, including at the Howard Theater in Washington to an audience of 35,000 people and overseas in Europe for the troops during World War II. For years they quietly broke Jim Crow laws, allowing any women who could jump, jive, and swing on an instrument to join their band. This caused problems with some folks, forcing some of their members to sneak out of their bus and head to the train station via taxi rather than getting caught by the police in the company of African Americans. Eventually, the group disbanded as the women pursued other goals and interests, like other jobs or families.

It’s interesting to learn about an African American orphanage during the 1900s that taught literacy skills to children many saw as underprivileged, when so many African American children weren’t taught how to read or write. With sparse writing that conveys just enough information for younger readers which the book is geared toward, it’s a welcome addition that websites, books, and documentaries are available for those who would like to learn more, including a NPR broadcast and a Smithsonian feature from a few years ago. While just a blip in music, women’s, and African American histories, these trail blazers have not been forgotten, even if — as one interview remarks — few recordings of their work are still around.

The illustrations are multicolored and textured, and the oil and acrylic paintings lend a texture, similar to cracked paint, that encourage a lingering look and give it an old time feel. The crowd scenes are equally impressive as many of the people have distinguishing characteristics and skin tones, and the period clothing is quite colorful. The closing scenes of a silhouetted band playing in front of a sunset orange and yellow hued background, paired with an older women passing along a trumpet to a younger girl, reflect the closing sentiments of the book. “Those Sweethearts didn’t know it at the time, but they helped open doors for women of all backgrounds.” (unpaged)

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

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.

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?

The Last Great Walk

Last Great WalkTitle: The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk From New York to San Francisco, and Why It Matters Today
Author: Wayne Curtis
ISBN: 9781609613723
Pages: 236 pages
Publisher/Date: Rodale Inc., c2014.

I first came across a mention of Edward Payson Weston about twenty years ago. […] I happened upon a brief wire service story about a man’s cross-country journey on foot in 1909. I skimmed enough to get the gist — a seventy-year-old man was walking about forty miles a day for a hundred days en route from New York to San Francisco. Good for him, I thought, and then I scrolled ahead in search of the page I needed.
A few minutes later, I had another thought: Wait . . . what? Forty miles a day? A hundred days in a row? At seventy years old? (Introduction, xii)

Wayne Curtis probably describes his book best when he writes his introduction:

Part of my goal in this book is to explore, revive, and expand on the message that Weston was intent on publicizing — advocacy for the long walk, once common and now rare. As such, this book is only in part about a single man and his obsession, and just as much about mobility, about how we choose to get around and how that impacts the health of our bodies and our minds. Above all, it’s about what we lost when humans, starting roughly a century ago, opted to stop using their legs to get from here to there and instead chose to regularly climb into a metal box harnessed to a series of small explosions. Some of what happened in the intervening century you might easily guess, but much of it you might not. Walking is more complexly knitted into our bodies and minds than you might think. How we move can determine our relationship to the land and people around us and even, to some degree, how we understand ourselves.
Not walking, I believe, is one of the most radical things we’ve ever decided to do. Here’s why. (Introduction, xviii)

To say that Curtis has an agenda is an understatement. We seem glimpses of Weston’s walk framed by free-ranging commentary involving the evolution of humans (both physical and mental), urban planning, technology, pedestrian patterns, and societal statistics such as number of hours spent watching television and walkability ratings for neighborhoods. But people who pick up this book are more than likely looking for just this sort of justification for walking and slowing down, assuming an almost existentialist philosophy towards the task. Just as people who dislike witchcraft aren’t going to read Harry Potter, people who dislike walking aren’t going to read this book.

However, it’s also the sort of book that may provoke thoughtful discourse between like-minded individuals, compiling fodder for future conversations. For instance, I’ve had a long personal belief about how long I’m willing to drive to get to a destination. Turns out this may be influenced by prehistoric habits. Curtis presents research by Cesare Marchetti that proposes humans have been willing to spend about an hour in unsheltered transit before retreating from the threat of being exposed to possible threats like enemies and the elements, and that constant has maintained itself, simply expanding as we are able to travel faster and farther in the same amount of time. The 2009 US Census Bureau data supports this philosophy, reporting the mean one-way commute is about 25 minutes (so an hour both ways). A Gallup poll confirms this by reporting the average American spends 190 hours a year (about 30 minutes a day) commuting. Although, Curtis also quotes an unnamed study that hours in delayed in traffic has increased from seven hours annually in 1982 to twenty-six hours in 2001. (131-133, 53)

The book is filled with those type of statistics that you’ll kick yourself for never fully remembering, but always remember the impact that they allude to. A few more to whet your curiosity:

  • Melvin Webber “noted that one’s perception of what constitutes a mile varies depending on the speed of travel. So it turns out it’s not just the actual exertion of walking a mile that dissuades many from taking to foot, but that they have also developed the belief that a given trip is far longer than it actually is.” (drivers thought distances were twice as much as what they actually were, whereas walkers and bikers were much more accurate) (109)
  • “In 1969, about half of all schoolkids still walked to school; 41 percent of all students lived within a mile of their school, and 89 percent of these students walked. […] Today, only 13 percent of America’s children walk to school.” (54)
  • “According to a 2009 Nielsen survey, the average American watches about 151 hours of television a month, or about 5 hours every day.” (52) “after the age of twenty-five, every hour of watching television reduced life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.” (54-55)
  • “While different studies arrive at moderately different conclusions via various routes, the recent research of dozens of scientists more often than not converges at a single intersection. And that consistently suggests that if you exercise, your brain will be fitter than if you don’t.” (97)
  • The same can also be said towards physical health, as skimming over study results yields benefits by reducing the risk of coronary disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, gallstones prevention, immune dysfunction, adult-onset asthma, arthritis, and osteoporosis, and cancer. (68-69)

For a book covering an actual walk, I was more intrigued by the above mentioned statistics and studies and the historical, psychological, and physical evolution brought about by walking than I was about Weston’s vague (and more than likely biases) reports regarding weather, landscape, reception, and conditions in general. I was somewhat surprised that there were no images. No maps of Weston’s route, which is described with varying degrees of precision and details, no pictures of Weston, and no charts to support the multitude of statistics presented in the pages. For all of that (minus the charts), you’ll have to visit the website. Upon arrival, you receive an interactive Google Map with individual points plotted based on newspaper articles. Sources are broken down by chapter on the website. While I understand he was making the book more approachable for the general public, I wish footnotes and a full source notes had been included in the printed copy, so as to better guide further research into various quoted statistics. There seems to be an influx in interest in walking and voluntary isolation (Wild, Into the Wild, Castaway, to name a few) and this book supplements all those introspective self-reflections with science. It’s a worthwhile, thought-provoking read for meandering minds and bodies.

2 the Point Tuesday — Lindbergh: The Tale of the Flying Mouse

Each month for my job, I write a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ll be expanding that idea to the blog in a new feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

LindberghTitle: Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse
Author/Illustrator: Torben Kuhlmann
Foreward by F. Robert van der Linden
Translator: Suzanne Levesque
ISBN: 9780735841673
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: NorthSouth Books Inc., c2014

Since cats guard the ships heading to America, one little mouse has to find another way to escape from the mouse traps. Inspired by bats, the intrepid and aspiring aviator works on several prototypes of machines to aid his journey, but will he be successful? Could he be the motivation for a human’s attempt to come? Take your time pouring over the primarily sepia-toned illustrations. Torben Kuhlmann’s debut tale inspires all of us, and his detailed depictions evoke the size of the project and the mouse’s world. This mouse would make a worthy companion to Despereaux or Ralph S. Mouse.

Short biographies of famous aviators supplement the text.

Truce

0-545-13049-2Title: Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780545130493
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc.

In a matter of days, six million soldiers would find themselves facing weapons of unimaginable destructive power. Many of them would be blasted from the face of the earth, while others would be left permanently wounded in horrible ways. None of these young men realized that their leaders had lied to get them to fight in a war that did not have to happen. Nor could they know that on December 25, 1914, they would openly defy their commanding officers and meet on the battlefield in what can only be described as a Christmas miracle. (x)

Since I’ve read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan I know that World War I started when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated while visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also previously heard about the impromptu truce that was called between troops in order to celebrate Christmas, which when the war started was when everyone thought the war would be over. Little did they know at that point it was just starting. But Jim Murphy glosses over the causes of the war and strives to put the focus on the soldiers involved in the conflict. There are copious photos of soldiers in the trenches, close-ups of the no-mans land that they could not cross, and the aftermath of the futile charges when they did attempt an attack. Soldiers from both sides are quoted extensively, with first-hand accounts taken from journals, letters home, and official correspondence. Even if you’d previously heard about the impromptu and imperfect truce, there’s new insight to be gained.

For instance, did you know that the truce was previously coordinated? Mini-truces had been organized between the troops, as they exchanged songs and sometimes supplies over the crumbling walls. Murphy relates that one area even had a shooting competition, where a target was placed in the middle and each sides shot until it was hit. But arranging the truce depended upon the individual platoons, battalions, and soldiers.

The most surprising thing was that it was frowned upon by the superior officers!

Back at headquarters, [English] General Horace Smith-Dorrien had been disturbing reports all day about strange goings-on at the front. […] The commander of all British troops, Field Marshall John French, was just as angry. “When this [fraternization] was reported to me I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a good deal of trouble.
The German High Command took much the same view and issued a terse order: “Commander Second Army directs that informal understandings with enemy are to cease. Officers . . . allowing them are to be brought before a court-martial.” (82-83)

As a result, some of the opposing officers in the field met to warn their enemies that they’d be resuming their hostilities. Some soldiers initially refused to resume firing, and others warned their counterparts each time they were forced to give the impression that they were still fighting, such as when they were being inspected by higher ranking members. While most places continued to fight by the new year, soldiers stationed on both sides at Ploegsteert Wood kept the friendship until March. I laughed at some of the comments, as I’m sure the commanding generals did not, such as when one captain declared that the men waved at each other and made tea and acted “most gentlemanly” and that “this useless and annoying sniping can have no real effect on the progress of the campaign.” (88)

A truly intriguing idea that begs the perpetual and never solved “What if” question that is probably hanging over the heads of every soldier involved. “What if the fighting had stopped there?” How different would history and the world be? Especially how reluctantly some of the parties were to even get involved in the conflict, I wish the practice of listening to the troops and the people would have enacted some change. As the holidays approach and we hear about “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men,” consider reading this book and learning about how this idea was practiced in the worst of circumstances.

This was posted in conjunction with Nonfiction Mondays, a drive around the internet to encourage reading and reviewing nonfiction titles.

We’ve Got a Job

We've Got a JobTitle: We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March
Author: Cynthia Levinson
ISBN: 9781561456277
Pages: 176 pages
Publisher/Date: Peachtree Publishers, c2012
Awards: Finalist for The YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction (2013)

Though nonviolent, all of these confrontations were illegal. King reasoned that if enough protesters were arrested, they would fill the jails and overwhelm Connor’s ability to enforce segregation laws. […] Only a few hundred adults heard Bevel’s frenzied sermon that night, and just seventeen volunteered to go to jail. But kids got the message, especially when the preacher who followed Bevel proclaimed, “Some of these students say they have got to go to school, but they will get more education in five days in the City Jail than they will get in five months in a segregated school.” (48, 59)

Segregation in the 1960s was a violent time of upheaval. Most of us have heard the most familiar stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But very few people may realize the effect that children and teens had in moving segregation efforts forward. During the entire month of April, 1963, the first in an effort to fill the jails and bring attention to the cause, only 123 people were arrested. But then a rallying cry and concentrated effort was made to enlist teenagers to a cause that would directly affect them. “Between Thursday, May 2, and Monday, May 6, almost 2,500 young people had been arrested.” (114) The treatment of these individuals, some as young as nine-years old, who flooded the streets brought national attention to events in the south. Ultimately, four children died in a church bombing that was the culmination of tensions between the black and white populations.

Cynthia Levinson spent four years tracking down and interviewing these participants and researching how history played out almost 50 years ago. Including a map, a timeline, an index, pictures of those interviewed and an assortment of notes, this book is an amazing glimpse into a time that changed America. Levinson does a thorough job of bringing to life the actions of the teenagers but also those of the adults involved. Readers finish the book with a solid understanding of how divided not only the community was on the issue of segregation, but also how disorganized the leadership was in achieving their goals. The government endorsed and encouraged the police’s prejudices against these protesters and it is hard to come to terms with their behavior based on today’s laws prohibiting such actions. At one point, government officials notified the Ku Klux Klan that they would be given 15 minutes to confront Freedom Riders, and the perpetrators who were caught after those violent fifteen minutes were given a minimal sentence.

Pair this book with The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, which is set a few years earlier or The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, which are both set a few years later. Especially in this unsteady time when unrest is reigning and emotions are high with so many political issues, including gay rights, immigration, and gun control, teens might take notes about nonviolent actions that they can use to affect change in today’s society.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. For the entire round-up of all the bloggers who participated, check out Anastasia Suen’s blog.

This book in particular was read as I participate in YALSA’s 2013 Hub Reading Challenge which challenges readers to finish 25 books by June 22nd from a list of 83 titles that were recognized and published over the last year.

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