Month: April 2014

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

Jacket-4• Grade Range: high school-adult
• Adventure related title
• Caroline Alexander
• The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
• Publisher: New York, Knopf
• 1998
• 214 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-375-40403-1
• Awards: The ALEX Award
• Author’s website: The author does not appear to have a website.

There is implicit romance and drama in Antarctic exploration and Shackleton’s 1914-17 Expedition may be the most epic of all. Attempting to be the first to cross the continent on foot, their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in the ice. They survived for more than a year marooned on drifting floes, their position impossible and their ordeal only beginning. A desperate bid for rescue involved sailing a 22ft. boat across 850 miles of the most dangerous sea in the world, in winter, in the dark, during a hurricane and then crossing uncharted mountains to reach rescue. Inconceivably they succeeded; their story, accompanied by astonishing, previously unpublished photographs, makes exciting reading.

Alexander writes in clear, elegant, lucid prose. Her admiration for the explorers comes through, but importantly so does a sense of perspective. Too many authors writing on the age of heroic exploration exalt their subjects for their suffering; in her first chapter: on the heroic age, Alexander makes clear suffering was often the result of incompetent planning or vainglorious miscalculation. This frankness establishes trust in her perspective and helps frame her account of Shackleton’s exemplary leadership. He was a leader who put his men first.

Much of Alexander’s account is based on journals kept by the crew. This allows for lots of first hand descriptions which Alexander supplements with background information: the reader gets to know the personalities and foibles of the 27 men, dozens of dogs and one cat. Accompanied by hundreds of incredible photographs the pairing of the words and images provide a powerful and intimate sense of both the personalities and the conditions they endured.

The book succeeds both as an amazing and harrowing adventure story and as an account of a remarkable example of leadership. The real triumph was not over the elements, but of a mastery of human character. They did not merely endure, they “exhibited the grace of expertise under ungodly pressure.” “Optimism, “ Shackleton once said, “is true moral courage.” It is this spirit, which animated many of the men, which makes the account far from dour. Faced with an impossible decent and on the verge of freezing to death, the overland rescue team slid down a mountain: “ Then quite suddenly I felt a glow, and knew that I was grinning! I was actually enjoying it…I yelled with excitement and found Shackleton and Crean were yelling too.” Stuck subsisting under two overturned dories, the men marooned on Elephant Island continued to joke, spin yarns and grew most tired, not of the privation, but of the necessity of killing every animal that landed on their barren island.

Alexander makes the compelling case that Shackleton’s greatness lay in his “conviction that quite ordinary individuals were capable of heroic feats if the circumstances required; the weak and the strong could and must survive together.” During his lifetime his fame was eclipsed by that of the more tragic explorer Scott, but Shackleton’s fame has grown and endured. In her final chapter Alexander tells the fates of many of the expedition, some who didn’t survive the Great War and some who lived to see a man walk on the moon.

Front matter: includes several photographs of the crew and their ship, a dedication to, and photo of, the ship’s mascot: the cat Mrs. Chippy, a photo of the rescue and a map of the journey. Back matter includes several pages of very informative acknowledgments that indicate the depth and scope of Alexander’s research while annotating many of the primary sources, many of which are unpublished. A paragraph describes sources and offers an annotated and selected bibliography for further reading. A note on photographs goes into detail about the processing of and history of the images. An image of the photographer, Hurley, filming from the mast, a brief note about the author and a note on the type conclude the book. There are no contents and no index, which make finding specific passages and images difficult.

This book was published in association with the American Museum of Natural History and its 1999 exhibit, curated by Alexander, which chronicled Shackleton’s voyage.


Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842

Jacket-6• Grade Range: upper high school-adult
• Adventure related title
• Nathanial Philbrick
• Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842
• Publisher: New York, Viking
• 2003
• 452 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-67003-231-0
• Awards: Richie’s Picks
• Author’s website:

In 1838 a squadron of six sailing vessels set out for a four-year journey of exploration. The U.S. Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.) was one of the largest voyages of discovery ever undertaken. Led by Captain Wilkes, the Ex.Ex. redrew the map of the world; the 40 tons of specimens they brought back formed the foundation of the Smithsonian museum. Philbreck answers the question: ‘why have we never heard of Wilkes or the Ex. Ex?’

The story of the Ex.Ex. is filled with adventure and drama. There are many memorable moments: a snowball fight with Tierra del Fuego’s Yahgan natives: who apparently had flaps of skin that hung over their knees, some brutal encounters with Fijian cannibals: including eyeball munching, and an insanely close encounter with an active volcano. The expedition was charged with surveying Antarctica and determining if it were a continent. They were the first Americans to chart Puget Sound, the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay, establishing the United States basis for claiming those territories. The origin of the theory of plate tectonics stands out among the many scientific discoveries the expedition advanced.

Yet, as Philbrick maintains, the Ex. Ex. is fascinating not because of its successes, but because of what went wrong. Despite the expedition’s scientific discoveries and astonishing adventures, it came to be viewed as a colossal embarrassment. Captain Wilkes was insecure and egotistical with a talent for creating discord and conflict; his morbid hunger for recognition ensured his expedition ended not in glory, but in an ugly court-martial. Wilkes was universally despised by his officers and it is even alleged that Melville based Captain Ahab on him.

Melville and Shakespeare represent that personal flaws are inextricably connected to qualities of greatness; they are not just intertwined: they are one and the same. In exhaustive detail, Philbrick examines whether Wilkes successes can be divorced from his failures. Relying extensively on primary sources, including sailors’ journals, Philbrick recreates the expedition in all its drama and drudgery. Political infighting and petty squabbles sap the energy of the men. This is a fascinating study but, at over 300 pages of text, one few teenagers are likely to have the stamina to wade through. Like the member’s of the expedition: the reader’s eagerness to journey on is worn down by hundreds of Wilkes’s awful decisions and unnecessary cruelties. That said, for those who love true tales of maritime disaster and have an interest in exploration and leadership, it is a memorable and intriguing story.

Sea of Glory also acts as a fascinating counterpoint to Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic journey seventy years later. Shackleton attempted to cross the continent Wilkes was the first to chart. Where Wilkes’ expedition succeed in its goals, lost scores of men and ended with the Captain despised and forgotten, Shackleton’s journey achieved opposite ends: he failed in his task, but due to determinedly optimistic and solicitous leadership, returned with his entire crew and is well-remembered a hundred years later.

Front matter: includes a Table of Contents, a brief author biography, and an extensive preface. Opening with Wilkes’ court-martial the preface establishes the context of the U.S. Ex.Ex. and raises the issues of leadership Philbrick addresses in the book. A modern rendering of the six ships of the Ex. Ex. Concludes the preface. Back matter: An extensive epilogue briefly explores the legacy of the discoveries of the Ex. Ex.: charts of islands in use through the second World War, the establishment of Antarctica as a continent, etc. The epilogue also discusses why Wilkes accomplishments were so quick to be forgotten, dismisses the idea that a cooler more capable Captain would have achieved more and lays the responsibility for the expeditions obscurity on Wilkes inability to partner with Reynolds, a talented officer Wilkes had severely alienated during the voyage. A notes section includes abbreviations for frequently consulted texts, several paragraphs outlining and annotating additional reading, followed by chapter by chapter acknowledgements and notes that discuss the origins of ideas and quotes. An extensive selected bibliography lists unpublished sources first, followed by published sources and dissertations and ending with a list of publications of the United States Exploring Expedition. The notes and suggestions for further reading are extremely impressive and let the reader understand the origins of information and argument. Acknowledgements thank experts and those who aided in the production of the book. An index completes the volume.

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous

Jacket-8• Grade Range: 5th-9th
• History related title
• Georgia Bragg, Illustrated by Kevin O’Malley
• How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous
• Publisher: New York, Walker & Co.
• 2011
• 184 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-8027-9817-6
• Awards: North Carolina Children’s Book Award Nominee~Cybils Award (Non-Fiction)~ALA Notable Children’s Book (ALA)~IRA/CBC Young Adults’ Choice~Kentucky Bluegrass Award Nominee~Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (YALSA)~Texas Lone Star Reading List~Truman Readers Award Nominee~Volunteer State Book Award Nominee~Garden State Book Award Nominee (Teen)
• Author’s website:

Georgia Bragg lays out the big ugly sad mess of death and how it did in 19 famous individuals. Her chatty and irreverent style is matched by Kevin O’Malley’s macabre cartoons.

Too often history for children omits the nasty bits. Bragg has single handedly righted that wrong: compiling all the grossest facts about the most gruesome ends of notable individuals from Pocahontas to Albert Einstein. As she forthrightly points out in her introduction: this is not a book for the squeamish. Even if you think you know how gruesome medicine was in the past, nothing could prepare you for the terrible ends of Beethoven or James Garfield: stomach drill or egg and whisky enema, anyone? And as King Tut, Napoleon and Albert Einstein’s corpses could tell you: even if the doctors don’t get you, the souvenir hunters will.

Bragg’s tone is often flippant: Darwin was “a few cards short of a full deck.” Her ‘take no prisoners’ style keeps the narrative rollicking along, as she blithely piles lurid fact on top of ghastly detail. Each chapter gives the circumstances of death and provides context for the historical period. Between each chapter is a two-page spread of facts tangentially related to the previous subject. Among myriad memorable items we learn a few priceless things Pocahontas noticed about King James I and the definition of Napoleon complex.

While the immediate effect of all this information may be to send you speeding to the bathroom to wash your hands, ultimately the account will impress you with both human fortitude and the endless remarkable stories history contains. Bragg’s enthusiasm is infectious and reader’s will be hard pressed not to share gruesome anecdotes and fun facts. However, as Bragg points out: “the people in this book didn’t become famous because of how they croaked but because of how they lived.” Not only does How They Croaked make an excellent elective read, it would be a fabulous way to fire up students before a biography assignment.

Front matter: Contents come complete with humorous and tastelessly named chapters: Marie Curie – You Glow Girl. An Introduction packs a strong warning advising those without ‘guts for gore’ to turn back. Back Matter: ‘One More Thing’ reminds readers of the important lives the famous dead lived and urges readers to emulate them and find something worth devoting your life to, since eventually everybody’s story ends. A diagram notes connections among the historic figures. Acknowledgements thank those who encouraged the author. Extensive bibliographic sources are divided by individual and chapter. Bless her heart-Bragg includes a wonderful annotated selection of further reading and surfing sources for kids, again divided by subject. An index concludes the book.

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World

Jacket-7• Grade Range: 5th-8th
• Current events related title
• Sy Montgomery
• Temple Grandin: How the Girl who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World.
• Publisher: Boston, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
• 2012
• 147 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-547-44315-7
• Awards: NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K—12: 2013~Booklist Top 10 Books for Youth 2013~ALSC 2013 Notable Children’s Books, Older Readers;
• Author’s website:

Autism prevented Temple Grandin from speaking until she was five, isolating her from her peers and family. Autism also allowed her to perceive as animals do: in pictures and with a similar sensitivity to stimulus. Ms. Grandin uses these strengths to advocate for farmed animals and has become a worldwide authority on how to design our food system to treat animals more humanely.

Sy Montgomery interviews Grandin, her friends and family and tells the inspiring story of her life. Lots of photographs, Temple’s drawings and attractive and informal design help to break up the text. Early in Temple’s life few would have predicted she would have a PhD., an international career and be the subject of a biopic starring Claire Danes. Montgomery and Grandin don’t sugarcoat the disruptive behaviors and learning difficulties that Temple struggled with. They chronicle the important breakthroughs: an aunt with a ranch, a kind science teacher, a discovery of a door that became a lifelong metaphor and motivator. Most important Temple learned how to persevere, despite bullies, workplace harassment, and bias. Through her close sympathy with animals she found something worth working for.

The book functions on three levels: as a triumphant role-model biography of a woman with a learning difference, as a story about an animal loving change-maker within the food industry and as a universal tale of the struggle to find one’s place in the world.

Montgomery goes to great lengths to explain autism in concrete terms that children will understand. Sometimes this is very effective: as when she explains why autistic children often twirl or engage in repetitive behavior. On a few occasions her pronouncements come off as overly reductive: “others, whose autism is milder, may be nerdy, geeky kids who grow up to make computers in Silicon Valley.” Like all ‘may’ statements this one could just as easily read ‘may not.’ What compels are the many concrete examples from Grandin’s childhood, which help establish both context and sympathy. Even as an adult Grandin retains a childlike quality that delights, as when she responds to a bullying gross-out tour at a meat packing plant by stomping her feet in the deepest, yuckiest pool of blood: liberally spattering the plant manager. According to Montgomery current data indicates 1 in 100 people are affected by autism. It is also true that an increasingly large number of children’s and YA books feature autistic characters, making this a topic with plenty of currency.

Grandin’s empathy with animals and her practical advocacy on their behalf are very appealing. Many kids, who struggle with social relationships and overwhelming emotions during adolescence, will readily identify with Temple’s assertion that animals saved her. The neatness that she, in turn, now saves them from unnecessary distress, makes sense. And, in a world where most food oriented books for kids emphasize organics and small-scale producers, it is refreshing to read one focused on large-scale applications. Grandin is eminently practical: she makes the case that partnering with huge firms like McDonalds allows her to affect the welfare of billions of food animals in the United States. Rather than being the bad guys, we see how giant corporations can be tremendous forces for reform; more than half the cattle in the U.S. and Canada are handled is systems Grandin designed.

Front matter: A foreword by Temple Grandin speaks directly to kids about her experiences and offers advice and encouragement. Back matter: An appendix offers seven pieces of advice from Temple to kids on the spectrum. A selected bibliography and resources provides books, articles, many websites and even a couple movies used in researched and/or recommended by Temple for kids, teachers and parents. The list, while divided by category, doesn’t indicate the recommended age group, thought titles are often indicative. Acknowledgements, a photo of Temple and her mother, photo credits and an index conclude the book.

Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain

Jacket• Grade Range: 5-8.
• Diversity related title
• Author Russell Freedman
• Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain
• Publisher:Boston, Clarion Books
• 2014
• 81 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-547-90378-1
• Awards: Richie’s Picks, Just published in 2014.
• Author’s website: the author does not appear to have a website.

A park ranger’s discovery of Chinese calligraphic poems etched into the walls of the derelict Angel Island detention station sets in motion the preservation of the remains of the Ellis Island of the West. Freedman tells the larger story of immigration on the West Coast and the shameful history of institutional and individual discrimination against Chinese immigrants.

Freedman begins the story with Weiss’s enthusiastic discovery: ” I looked around and shined my flashlight up and I could see that the entire wall was covered with calligraphy. And that was what blew me away…People had carved the stuff on every square inch of wall space.” An immigrant himself, Weiss identified with those who had been held in the immigration-processing center and, alarmed by its planned demolition, alerted a former professor connected to the Asian community, which then rallied support for its preservation.

What makes the story particularly poignant was how close we came to losing, not only the poems-which were considered graffiti, but also this most significant reminder of an important, and very uncomfortable piece of American history. Freedman summarizes the story of Asian immigration clearly, concisely and well, making it accessible to middle school children. He gives background on the racism facing Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese, citing the Chinese Exclusion Act: the only immigration law to target a specific ethnicity. He describes how the Gold Rush drew immigrants hoping for a better life and how whites resented Chinese competition in mining, and after the economic downturn in 1873, resented them even more for their willingness to work hard for low wages. It is understandable that governments and labor groups don’t like to recall their role in Asian persecution, but Freedman notes that Asians, humiliated by the aggressive screening and long detentions at Angel Island, were similarly unwilling to remember a period of history that they found shameful.

Freedman points out how much Chinese immigrants contributed to the United States, helping to build not only railroads but also farming infrastructure. He takes pains to point out the ways they fought back against racist laws. The resistance to the Geary Law, that required all Chinese to carry identity cards, is considered the largest act of civil disobedience in U.S. History. While he mentions some of the violence against Chinese: the L.A. riots, he does not emphasize how pervasive the violence was, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, and how it dramatically changed settlement patterns; Chinese were effectively driven into large urban ghettos that afforded protection in numbers. Nor in this slim book does Freedman take the time to fully explore the fascinating subject of the gender imbalance among Asian immigrants and the huge problem of forced prostitution that spawned, and then was reinforced by, punitive laws. He does touch briefly on the practice of paper sons and daughters that allowed Chinese to enter on assumed identities after the earthquake destroyed San Francisco’s records.

His chapters on the history of the Angel Island station broaden the scope and include other immigrant ethnicities: Russians: fleeing the revolution, Japanese brides: travelling for arranged marriages, and South Asian freedom fighters. The handsomely produced book has many wonderful historic photographs that put faces on these large movements of people. Freedman helps personalize the history: including many first person accounts from those who passed through Angel Island.

Front matter includes contents. Back Matter includes source notes divided by chapter. A note clarifies the sources of quotations, providing a bibliographic key, and notes the translation source of poems. A selected bibliography does not contain annotations or indications of which books are suited for children. Acknowledgements thank a California librarian who suggested the topic. Picture credits and an index conclude the book. No websites are included.

This book is an excellent start to a fascinating topic. It does not attempt to cover all the aspects of Asian immigration. I wish Freedman had included kid friendly sources for further reading such as William Daley’s The Chinese Americans, the Hoobler’s The Chinese American Family Album, Emmey Werner’s Passages to America: Oral histories of Child Immigrants from Ellis Island and Angel Island, and the child friendly, if disturbing, book of period cartoons: Choy’s The Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese. There are also many excellent websites devoted specifically to Angel Island and its poetry:, which offers a video virtual tour, has stories of immigrants who passed through the station and notes upcoming events. tells the story of one 7 year-old Chinese girl’s experience immigrating to America through Angel Island. Reproduces a handful of the poems.
A site devoted to the poetry and its history.

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer

Jacket-1• Grade Range: 5-12.
• History related title
• James L Swanson
• Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
• Publisher: New York, Scholastic
• 2009
• 208 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-439-90354-8
• Awards: YALSA Best Book for Young Adults
• Author’s website: The author does not appear to have a website but does have a twitter account.

Outraged at the North’s defeat of the South, John Wilkes Booth took the chance fate offered him and assassinated President Lincoln. That death was the beginning of a 12-day manhunt that galvanized the nation as Union loyalists sought the conspirators and those sympathetic to the Confederacy helped them escape.

Swanson has written an unabashed thriller that plays up the astonishing details and gruesome facts of Lincoln’s assassination and the manhunt that followed. This is a condensed version of his 400+ page adult book: Manhunt. Frequently Swanson reports the thoughts and sensations of characters: Booth heard the dialogue on stage not a “words but like the last ticks of a dying clock winding down”- “Seward choked on the warm, metallic-tasting blood that spurted from his mouth and poured down his throat.” These vivid images do help propel the narrative but without source notes undermine the credibility of the text, which is a pity as there is much to be admired in the book.

Even though most readers will know of Lincoln’s assassination and the eventual capture of Booth, Swanson manages to keep readers on the edge of their seats as the events play out minute by minute. He has unearthed and brought together an impressive amount of information that lets us know what Booth did and said virtually every moment from the time he decided to kill the President until his death. Lots of period images and photographs break up the text and help create the mood of the time. Even those who think they know about Lincoln’s assassination will find lots of new information in this impressively immersive book. The lack of sources, photo and quotation credits is a serious flaw.

Front matter: a brief paragraph states the story is true, all the characters are real and text within quotation marks comes from original sources. A photo of the author as a boy accompanies a brief blurb that establishes the author’s long personal interest in Lincoln’s assassination. A list of participants helps keep characters straight. A two-page essay establishes the historic context of the civil war and its final confusing ‘lost-cause’ chapter after Robert E. Lee’s surrender but before the surrender of the rest of the Confederate army. A prologue describes Lincoln’s second inauguration and two subsequent public appearances he made. John Wilkes Booth, present at two of the speeches recognized he had missed chances to kill the president and vowed Lincoln would never make another speech.

Back matter: An epilogue provides many fascinating summaries of the fates of principal characters, including what happened to the bodies of some of the conspirators. A brief blurb about the author adds more biographical information. Acknowledgments thank those who helped and encouraged the author. A few libraries and museums are thanked but no specific experts are named. A map shows the route of the assassins. What is missing is any bibliographic information, any substantiation of facts or quotations, any credits for images and photographs or an index. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is based on Swanson’s adult book Manhunt, which has an extensive annotated bibliography, copious notes divided by chapter and an index. I cannot understand how the publishers could have allowed this book to go to press with only a flimsy ‘everything in here is true-because I say so’ paragraph at the front.

VIncent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist

bk_vangogh_265• Grade Range: 5th-high school
• Biography related title
• Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
• Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist
• Publisher: New York, Delacorte Press
• 2001
• 144 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-38532-806-7
• Awards: Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, 2001~ALA Notable Children’s Book, 2001~ALA Best Book for Young Adults, 2001~School Library Journal: Best Books of the Year~The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: Blue Ribbon Book~Booklist: Editor’s Choice~A New York Public Library Book for the Teenage
• Author’s website:

Vincent van Gogh deserves to be known as more than a crazy artist who cut off his ear and painted some of the world’s most valuable art. This biography tells the detailed and very human story of van Gogh’s complex personality and his successful struggle to find his calling and create great work.

Greenberg and Jordan have collaborated together on many award-winning books about art and artists; their understanding of artists and their sympathy for them comes through in this sensitive and nuanced biography of van Gogh. The letters between Vincent and his brother Theo, among many other primary sources, allow the authors to let readers in on van Gogh’s thoughts, and also give glimpses of what friends and relatives thought of him. We learn that van Gogh struggled to find his calling, trying several different careers before he settled on painting. The authors do a good job of showing the evolution of van Gogh’s personality and the trouble he put his family through as they endeavored to help him.

No matter how interesting the details of van Gogh’s life are, it is because of his work we remember him. Excerpts from letters begin each chapter and offer insight into his art: ”I try to put the same sentiment into the landscape as I put into the figure.” Greenberg and Jordan devote a lot of text to van Gogh’s descriptions of his painting process: what it was he was trying to capture and to evoke. The reader gets a great education in art history while being given intimate glimpses into a fascinating and compulsive genius’ mind. While the book has many color plates, they are clumped together and not all the paintings talked about are pictured. For kids with Internet access, images are only a click away, but others will need to flip back and forth and check out other books to see the art.

Van Gogh’s short life span and his late adoption of painting mean that all of his work was completed in ten years, with an astonishing flurry of production at the very end of his life. This manic energy comes across, pushing through the authors’ elegant prose, making the biography crackle with energy. Readers come away with a strong sense of the passion van Gogh poured into his art. We also learn of the importance of Theo’s wife Jo; it was she who faithfully kept the paintings others urged her to throw out. She collected and catalogued letters, drawings and paintings, arranged exhibits and wrote the first biography of van Gogh. It is thanks to her that Greenberg and Jordan can show readers his vibrant art and enable us to relive his story.

Front matter includes contents, a map of the areas van Gogh lived and a prologue that vividly imagines van Gogh as he heads out from Arles to paint Harvest at Le Crau. Back matter includes a helpful biographical time line, a list of museums where his work is located, a glossary of artists and terms, extensive notes, which are divided by chapter, an extensive bibliography, photography credits and a brief biographic sketch of the authors.

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories

Jacket-2• Grade Range: 5-8
• Adventure related title
• Paul B Janeczko
• The Dark Game
• Publisher: Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press
• 2010
• 248 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-763-62915-1
• Awards: YALSA-ALA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist
• Author’s website:

Six self-contained chapters tell intriguing stories of spies and their craft, from the American Revolution through the Cold War. Janeczko makes the point that often, marginalized groups: women, African Americans, Native Americans and even one handicapped individual, made excellent spies, as bias prevented them from being perceived as either a threat or a resource.

While the chronological chapters are self-contained there are some overarching themes. Taken together the chapters tell a rough history of spying as it affected the United States from the Revolutionary War into the end of the 20th century. Janeczko traces the increasing professionalization of espionage as America moved from all amateur spies: including Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin and the amazing WWII double agent: Juan Pujol, to a trained force, schooled in combat, cyber-espionage, sabotage, survival skills, and codes and ciphers. While the professional training has lots of 007 appeal, it is the stories of the amateurs that capture the imagination, in part because they are a far more diverse group: Harriet Tubman and her 300 strong unit of African-American riverboat pilots and soldiers who rescued 800 slaves, an intrepid WWII agent Virginia Hall, who named her wooden leg Cuthbert, Choctaw code talkers, Rebel Rose the Confederate socialite spy and her opposite Van Lew the spinster who helped organize the daring behind-enemy-lines escape of 109 Union soldiers from Libby Prison.

The book is focused on spies associated with the United States; this includes double agents, Allies in both world wars and foreign saboteurs on U.S. soil. Of particular interest is the little known story of the extensive and effective sabotage carried out in the U.S. by German agents during World War I.

The organization of the book allows readers to dip in an out, reading about time periods or incidents of special interest. The text is enhanced by primary source photos and pictures of ciphers, which are a particular interest of Mr. Janeczko, (Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, Candlewick 2004, Loads of Codes and Secret Ciphers, Simon & Schuster 1984). While most readers will be drawn to the book for the fun of it, the material is well researched enough to be useful in reports. The author’s enthusiasm and fascination with the topic comes through clearly.

The writing is plain and rather inelegant, but doesn’t detract from the compelling stories. Of course some information is missing or is debatable. After a fascinating account of the story behind the Zimmerman telegram: which precipitated U.S. entry into WWI, Janeczko repeats the assertion that “never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message”. The idea that U.S. troops were what turned the tide in WWI is a discredited theory. I could also wish there was more about the appalling Allen Dulles and the fact that, on his watch, undiscovered Russian moles sent thousands of CIA agents to their death and undercut U.S. espionage effectiveness for decades. But these are minor quibbles; overall The Dark Game is a fascinating, eye-opening and very appealing read for middle school kids.

Front matter: The Contents helpfully subdivides the six chapters into four named topics per chapter, giving readers a sense of what the chapters cover and allowing them to focus on topics or individuals of particular interest. An introduction explains the author’s historic interest in, and enthusiasm for, the subject. Back Matter: Source notes are broken down by chapter and quotes are attributed. An extensive bibliography is included. Photography credits are also broken down by chapter, making it easy to learn where an image came from.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Jacket-5• Grade Range: 3rd-Adult
• Diversity related title
• Author and Illustrator Kadir Nelson
• We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
• Publisher: New York, Jump at the Sun
• 88 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-7868-0832-8
• Awards: 2009 Coretta Scott King Author Award~ 2009Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor~2009 Sibert Winner~ 2008 Casey Award.
• Author’s website:

From 1887 until 1945 an unofficial ‘gentleman’s agreement’ closed major league baseball to African American players. They responded with their own storied Negro League filled with fantastic athletes and fascinating characters. In a conversational style, Kadir Nelson tells the story of this legendary group, illustrating the tales with gorgeous and heroic full-page paintings.

This is one of those books that tells an important story but is so fun and infectious that it draws readers in regardless of their interest in history, civil rights or baseball. The illustrations have so much style, strength and power the reader instantly believes in the greatness of what’s pictured and wants to know more.

Nelson narrates in the first-person persona of an old-timer who was there; the reader feels lucky to be able to draw up a chair and hear the tale. We quickly learn that the kind of baseball the Negro-leaguers played had plenty of flash and drama. After some white umpires called a game, they apologize for their mistakes; they had never seen that style of play. Recognizing the crowd-pleasing appeal they said “if they played like we did in the majors, they’d have to make the parks bigger to seat all the fans.”

Readers learn that it wasn’t just innovative play that the Negro League bequeathed to baseball, it was safety equipment too. The Negro Leagues style of play was so edgy and rough players resorted to wearing a mining helmet when at bat and placing barrel staves in their socks to avoid being slashed by spikes. Night baseball was another Negro League innovation.

Nelson also recounts the impact Jim Crow attitudes had on the players as they traveled through unfriendly areas: unable to find food, lodging or even a place to go to the bathroom. Often they would play multiple games in one day. The stories and statistics leave little doubt that Negro-League baseball and its players were the best show in town; readers feel what a shame it was that more of the world didn’t get to see them play. But eventually the Major League recognized they needed the talent and draw of the best Negro League players.The ninth chapter, or inning, recounts Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League baseball in 1945. And the chapter Extra Innings tells of the withering demise of the Negro Leagues as their best players and their fans went to the majors.

We Are the Ship is exquisitely designed. The copyright and dedication pages have quotations from Negro league greats in various sized pale font so that the reader feels they are overhearing snippets from a great party in the next room. A two-page spread of a ticket to the first Colored World Series folds out into a four-page spread of the two teams in front of a crowd. More than every other page is filled with stunning art that has as much muscular power, and more gravitas, than a Thomas Hart Benton.

Front matter includes three pages of quotes from negro league greats, the eponymous quote by Rube Foster and a foreword by Hank Aaron. Back matter includes ‘Extra Innings,’ which recounts the demise of Negro League ball, which struggled on after integration until 1960. Hall-of-Fame Negro Leaguers and those who have made the Hall of Fame are listed. A thoughtful Author’s Note, acknowledgements, a bibliography, filmography, endnotes, and an index conclude the book.

The 911 Report; A Graphic Adaptation

Jacket-4• Grade Range: 6th-Adult
• Current issues title
• Author: Sid Jacobson, Illustrated by Ernie Colon
• The 911 Report; A Graphic Adaptation
• Publisher: New York, Hill and Wang
• 2006
• 133 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-8090-5739-9
• Awards: None known.
• Author’s website: Neither author nor artist have a website.

The official 911 report is 800 pages long; this graphic adaptation remains true to the report but clarifies and condenses it. The combination of visuals and text show what happened, what led up to the attack, who knew about it and when. The book conveys the 911 Commission’s findings on government agencies’ communication gaps and failures.

Jacobson and Colon deserve nothing but praise for this innovative and brilliant adaptation of an important document most of us will never read. There are few historical events that have as much emotional and historic impact as the 911 attacks. Today’s teenagers and young adults know 911 was important, but typically have few memories and lots of misinformation.

While a comic book treatment of a national tragedy might seem inappropriate, there are many good reasons to overcome this bias. Jacobson and Colon have been scrupulous in avoiding sensationalism. Nearly all of Jacobson’s text comes directly from the commission’s report and Colón, who drew from photographic images, went out of his way to avoid partisan stereotyping.* The medium’s ability to show sequential events is capitalized on: an 18 page illustrated-timeline allows readers to follow the unfolding events on the four flights simultaneously. Some drawings do imagine the violence on board the planes, but limit it to incidents we have anecdotal confirmation of. Colon also goes out of his way to avoid any images that might offend someone who lost a loved one.* He was personally unwilling to draw victims jumping from the towers and no children are pictured on board the planes or at the scene of the tragedies. Of course the most important reason to embrace Jacobson and Colon’s graphic journalism is that it means more Americans will read the report and thus be equipped with facts and information that will cause them to reflect and allow them to act. As the two vice-chairs of the 911 Commission report in their foreword to the book: “the safety and the security of our country require a well-informed public to hold its elected leaders to account.”

Despite the tremendous quality of The 911 Report: A Graphic Adaptation and the clearly splendid intentions of the author and illustrator, there are two disconcerting elements that merit mention. In the first 30 pages there is a woeful lack of persons of color other than the hijackers. 911 appears to have occurred in a very white and male world. Colon definitely does include heroic individuals of color, but I could wish there had been one black or brown man or woman, other than the hijackers, pictured aboard the airlines, if only to be certain to avoid the message that brown people are the bad guys and those with lighter skin are innocent victims. Given the catastrophic nature of the event it is silly to quibble about politically correct representation and I did learn that the victims of 911 actually were 75% male between the ages of 40-50 and 75% white.** I still wish for one brown face in the scrum of passengers. Despite Colon’s attempts to resist characterization, occasionally a few of the terrorists appear cartoonish. Again, overall there is a scrupulous effort to not caricature, but the rare occasions where the pen is loosed, I did wince. I bring these discomforts up because I recognize there is a tendency to find fault when uncomfortable and this book is likely to make many readers uncomfortable. After reflection and research I don’t think Colon misrepresents the demographics and visually the terrorists come off better than Condoleezza Rice. That said, I still wish for a minority passenger.

Front matter: The book is dedicated to the victims of 911. Contents list chapters, postscript and acknowledgements and provide thumbnail sketches. A well written and stirring foreword from both vice-chairs of the 911 Commission endorses the adaptation and challenges the citizen reader. Back matter contains the single most important take away: a graphic report card rating the government’s response to the commission’s findings and recommendations. Brief personal acknowledgements conclude the book.

* Minzesheimer, Bob. (2005, August 22). 9/11 gets a graphic retelling. USA Today. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from
** Beveridge, Andrew. (n.d.). Demographics: 9/11/01-02: A demographic portrait of the victims in 10048. Gotham Retrieved April 5, 2014 from