Month: March 2014

Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley

Jacket-3• Grade Range: 6th-10th
• Science related title
• Author: Sally M. Walker
• Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley
• Publisher: Minneapolis, MN. Carolrhoda
• 2005
• 112 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-57505-830-6
• Awards: Book Links Lasting Connections of 2008~Robert F. Sibert Medal 2006~ALA Notable Book 2006~BCCB 2006 Blue Ribbon Book~2006 Orbis Pictus Recommended Book~Bank Street College Best Childrens Books of the Year~Booklist Top 10 Sci-Tech Books 2005~Master List 2007 Rebecca Caudill Award~VOYA Nonfiction Honor list, 2006~2006 New York Public Library Books for the Teenage~Winner 2006 Children’s Nonfiction Award, Society of Midland Authors~Benjamin Franklin Award Finalist 2006
• Author’s website:

The fate of the Civil War submarine: the H.L. Hunley, remained a mystery for 131 years. The ship and her crew were lost, after sinking the U.S.S. Housatonic, until 1995, when underwater archaeologists discovered and raised her. Walker traces the history of the ship and reports on the cutting edge science and forensic anthropology that allowed archeologists to find the ship and unravel her story.

Chronological chapters outline the construction and design of the submarine, which was spurred by wartime necessity. Confederates desperately needed to break the crippling blockade of Charleston’s harbor and the Hunley offered a way. Walker discusses the submarine’s potential importance to the Confederate War effort but goes no further into Civil War history. The only discussion of race is the fact that it was an African American Union sailor on the Housatonic: Robert Flemming, who spotted the Hunley and gave warning. Pictures, maps, photographs and primary sources help convey the physics, drama, excitement and danger connected to the Hunley. Before her first official mission two crews gruesomely died in training exercises. These historic chapters take us up to the moments just after the Hunley earns her place in history: as the first submarine to sink and enemy ship in war, and leaves us with the questions: what happened to the ship and crew; what caused them to perish?

The second half of the book seeks to answer these questions as Walker traces attempts to locate, excavate and study the ships remains. Walker does a good job including the various elements leading to the ships successful recovery: tracing the efforts of a passionate amateur: Clive Cusssler and a team of underwater archeologists, through the legal tangle associated with finding a famous shipwreck, to the scientific and research breakthroughs necessary to piece together the puzzle of exactly what happened to the ship and her crew. Drawings and photographs help personalize and elucidate the science, which includes stratigraphy: the study of sediment, forensic anthropology: which reveals astonishing personal details from human remains and high-tech artifact conservation.

The range of topics covered by Walker makes the book appealing to kids intrigued by the Civil War, as well as those attracted to the submarine’s dangerous history and the adventure of treasure hunting. It is also a natural for kids interested in forensic anthropology. The team does full facial reconstruction for all eight of the crew. While an astonishing amount is learned from studying the ship and crew’s remains, many questions are left unanswered. Walker makes clear the story isn’t over and the preserved artifacts may yet tell a more complete tale.

A prologue sets the stage and creates a dramatic frame for both the historical and the scientific stories. We are introduced to the mystery surrounding the Hunley’s disappearance, the engineering marvel she was and the compelling science behind her recovery. Contents include not only the chapter titles but also list all the back matter including the glossary. At the end an author’s note describes Walker’s research methods and motivations and thanks various experts. A page of source notes attributes quotes and background information. Photographs are credited. A nine volume selected bibliography is included, but gives no guidance as to which works are most likely to be accessible to children. Two websites are included. Clive Cussler’s site links to reports on hundreds of shipwrecks he has investigated and the Friends of the Hunley site has lots of up to date information. A brief glossary gives definitions for twenty or so terms likely to be unfamiliar. An index concludes the book.



Jacket• Grade Range: 5th-10th
• History related title
• Author: Jim Murphy
• Title: Blizzard! : The Storm that Changed America
• Publisher: New York, Scholastic
• 2000
• 136 pages.
• ISBN: 978-590-67309-2
• Awards: ALA Robert F. Sibert Honor Book for Outstanding Nonfiction~The Jefferson Cup Award~An ALA Notable Book~An ALA Best Books for Young People~Hornbook Fanfare Book~A SLJ Best Book~A BCCB Blue Ribbon Book~A CBC/NCSS Notable Book
• Author’s website:

In early spring 1888 a mammoth winter storm paralyzed the East coast for four days. Detailed personal stories create a gripping narrative and reveal the scope of the disaster. Murphy outlines the epic storm’s importance in prompting municipal and national reforms designed to mitigate catastrophes.

Murphy deftly layers first person and primary source accounts, creating an exciting narrative of the blizzard and its devastating effect. Time is collapsed and the reader feels an intimate connection to people 126 years ago as we read detailed descriptions of their thoughts and actions as they fight for their lives. Lots of photographs, maps and period drawings provide a powerful sense of the scope of the storm. As in all disasters there are examples of great kindness, heroism and folly; we marvel at the role luck plays and the insignificant moments that manage to make all the difference. Blizzard will appeal to those who are fascinated by dramatic disaster narratives, but provides insight beyond a simple man versus nature tale. Disasters push individuals past their limits but also push communities to adapt and change.

Murphy deepens the story beyond the roller-coaster ride of human struggle for existence. He ties public dismay over the disruption and devastation the storm wrought, to important local and municipal reforms. Laws to bury electric and communication wires were enforced, spurred by the experiences of witnessing gruesome electrocutions and being cut off from outside information. In New York, Boss Tweed’s cynical blockage of a subway system was finally swept aside as the public demanded a more weatherproof form of public transportation. Cities began to take seriously keeping streets clear of debris and took responsibility for snow removal. On the Federal level the attitude towards weather forecasting changed: an organizational shake-up occurred, operations became a seven-day-a-week proposition and investment in research began. Most importantly officials and the public began to realize that urbanization and modernization were no protection from natural disasters; paradoxically, the advantages of modern interconnection made natural disasters worse: cutting off large dependent populations from essentials such as food, transportation and heat.

Murphy provides a table of contents and titles his chapters from first person accounts: giving readers a vivid sense of what to expect. At the end of the book is a six page narrative discussion of notes on sources and related reading material. Murphy begins with an author’s note about a frightening childhood blizzard experience, which informs his perspective. Anecdotal notes and an annotated bibliography provide a sense of the character and usefulness of sources, which are grouped according to the aspect of the narrative they informed: individual’s stories, historical background, weather related material, New York City particulars, food and coal shortages and effects on the poor and homeless. A detailed index completes the text. Image sources appear directly below each image.

Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal- the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Jacket-14• Grade Range: 6th-Adult
• History related title
• Author: Steve Sheinkin
• Title: Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
• Publisher: New York, Roaring Brook
• 2012
• 266 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-59643-487-5
• Awards: Newbery Honor Book~National Book Awards Finalist~Robert F. Sibert Award~YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction~Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year~BCCB Recommended Title~CCBC Choice (Univ. of WI)~Washington Post Best Books of the Year~Maine Student Book Award Master List~VA Jefferson Cup Winner (Older Readers)~Vermont Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award Master List
• Author’s website:

At secret locations in America, brilliant and eccentric scientists raced to develop the atomic bomb ahead of Hitler. Meanwhile teams of Allied spies sought to sabotage German efforts, while Soviet agents infiltrated and stole the bomb’s plans, before it was even deployed.

Sheinkin masterfully tells the big story of the creation and theft of the most destructive weapon ever invented. His cinematic style, and exemplary editing and pacing make Bomb a real page-turner. He introduces tens of characters, from Robert Oppenheimer: the original, brilliant absent-minded-professor, through Knut Haukelid: a Norweigan real-life Jason Bourne, to Harry Gould: an innocuous American whose desire to please caused him to hand the world’s deadliest weapon to one of the century’s most ruthless dictators.

Sheinkin packs his story with fascinating personalities and intriguing anecdotes. The well-chosen details and telling quotes let the reader get to know the characters and helps to keep them straight. It’s hard to forget Oppenheimer once we’ve been introduced to the fact he once got so wrapped up in thinking of physics he left a date parked in a romantic spot while he walked home and went to bed. Chapters end with cliffhangers, drawing the reader on. But like any masterful storyteller Sheinkin teases out our interest, deftly interweaving chapters on bomb development with those covering espionage and the political and practical maneuverings that led to the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sheinkin sets up his story with a dramatic prologue: the moment the spy Harry Gould decides to confess to the two FBI agents who had finally tracked him down: “Yes, I am the man,’ Gold said…There is a great deal more to this story. It goes way back…I would like to tell it all.” The final chapter of the book, after the story has been told, wraps up back at the beginning: with Harry Gold moments before the agents knock on his door, starting up the stairs to try to destroy seventeen years of evidence. An epilogue briefly explores the fates of some of the main characters: the spies Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and Ted Hall and the scientist Robert Oppenheimer. A reflective essay briefly summarizes the arms race up to the present day.

Throughout the book period photographs, diagrams and relevant documents enhance understanding. The letter Albert Einstein wrote to FDR, making him aware of the danger of German development of atomic weapons, is reproduced in full. As usual Sheinkin’s source notes are exemplary: he groups his sources according to topic and provides brief annotations for each group to help readers research areas of interest. Photos are credited and all direct quotes are documented by chapter. The acknowledgments include experts who helped him vet material. An index concludes the book.

Bomb does a superb job of telling a compelling and complex story. It is clear Sheinkin respects children’s sophistication, curiosity and intelligence and that respect is both well-placed and returned. When I recently asked a seventh grade boy if he had read Bomb he replied simply: “it’s the best book I’ve ever read.”

For those who want more on this topic, check out the excellent graphic novel Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorn. While it doesn’t cover much of the espionage it does an excellent job explaining the physics behind the bomb and covers the destruction of Hiroshima more thoroughly than Bomb. Another excellent complimentary book is Edward T. Sullivan’s The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb. Sullivan’s work goes into details about the secret industrial complexes, staffed by civilians, where the plutonium and uranium were produced. It also offers more material on the internal debate about using the bomb among scientists, politicians and military leaders and spends more time on the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty

Jacket• History related title
• Age Range: Grades 6th-adult
• Author: Tonya Bolden
• Title: Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty
• Publisher: New York : Abrams
• 2013
• 120 pages.
• ISBN: 978- 1-4197-0390-4
• Awards: 2013 Orbis Pictus recommended book ~ Starred reviews: Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
• Author’s website:

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a pivotal moment in history. Bolden unpacks the moment: revealing the complex interplay of events and personalities that shaped Lincoln’s thinking and strategy leading up to the proclamation that changed America forever.

This is a gorgeous book: lovingly and effectively designed. It is filled with well-reproduced large format historic prints, photographs and documents that draw the reader in. The abundance of period images, which include some remarkable political cartoons, help hold interest and allow readers to interact directly with primary sources: drawing their own conclusions and enriching the reading experience.

Bolden has done a remarkable job: reintroducing complexity and tension both to a moment in time that seems preordained and to a president we have made too saintly. The problem with simply accepting the Emancipation Proclamation is that we miss an opportunity to understand how hard won and how difficult and dangerous a decision it was. We make it dull by accepting it too easily. In assuming ‘of course Lincoln freed the slaves’ we miss both an opportunity to appreciate Lincoln’s human nature and to see how his thinking evolved and what he himself believed to be his highest duty. We rob ourselves of any real historical understanding and thus are ill equipped to understand the history being made in our own lifetimes.

Bolden provides context to understand the forces affecting the emancipation decision. We learn that in 1861 most escaped slaves were returned by Union forces to their Confederate owners. Primary sources, images and Bolden’s text, help us see how the Union moved from enforcing the 1850 Fugitive Slave law to, by 1862, passing the Confiscation Act that freed escaped and captured slaves and the Militia Act that allowed blacks to serve in the U.S. Army.

Readers are shown that the decision of states to secede or remain loyal wasn’t a binary choice. Crucial pro-union states like Maryland, which surrounds the Capital, and Kentucky and Missouri, which allow access to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, were divided in their support of the Union. Marylanders rioted and killed Union troops passing through their state. Understanding the great range of opinion and what fears and hopes drove those beliefs affords readers a far more nuanced understanding and is much more interesting. We learn that, as feared by many political leaders, the Republicans were punished at the polls in the mid-term elections following the Emancipation Proclamation. Knowing how divided opinion was both in the North and South sets readers up to understand why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the end of the struggle for civil rights. As Frederick Douglas so presciently noted in 1862, “the slave having ceased to be the abject slave of a single master, his enemies will endeavor to make him the slave of society at large.”

Along the way Bolden introduces us to remarkable characters, some like Frederick Douglass are well known but others, nearly as fascinating, have been overlooked by history. Seeing the range of opinion and concern, being introduced to multiple voices from the time, helps to take the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln and Civil War History out of the box we have put it in.

The only questionable element in Emancipation Proclamation is Bolden’s decision to tell parts 1 and 3 in the third person plural. She uses the personal ‘we’: speaking from the perspective of African Americans and abolitionists. While this approach does make the narrative more immediate and personal it occasionally confuses, as the reader puzzles who is actually included in the ‘we’.

In her epilogue Bolden asks big and challenging questions, which before reading her text might have seemed simple to answer. Addressing the reader in first person she briefly outlines her perspective on the Emancipation Proclamation and introduces the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery. A seven-page timeline from 1860-1865 highlights key events associated with the emancipation of slaves. A glossary defines key terms. Notes provide sources for quotes. There is a page and a half of selected sources. Unfortunately Bolden does not share her criteria for selection or annotate any of her sources. Her acknowledgements include thanks to two experts who she consulted. Helpfully image credits provide the provenance of the many remarkable images included in the text. An extensive and specific index helps readers find exactly the topic they seek.