Biography/Autobiography

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia

Jacket-6• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Narrative nonfiction
• Author: Candace Fleming
• Title: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
• Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books
• 2014
• 292 pages.
• ISBN: 9780375867828
• Awards: Sibert Honor,YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist
• Author’s website: http://www.candacefleming.com/

 

Book trailer for The Family Romanov

Nicholas the second was born into a role of absolute power. He controlled the fate of a sixth of the world’s landmass, had 130 million subjects and was the richest man in the world.

He was a very ordinary man, lonely as a boy, fond of his family, secure in his right to rule who through his sins and omissions caused streets to run with blood, destroyed a thousand years of tradition and, arguably, caused the death of those he most loved.

Candace Fleming does a brilliant job weaving together private letters, historic documents and first person accounts to make intelligible and riveting the unbelievably tragic history of the fall of the Russian Empire. To her credit Fleming covers much more than the lurid side of the story: the lecherous monk, the massacre of innocent children, the astonishing wealth. She delves into the political and economic reasons behind the revolution and provides cultural context. Page-turning revelations about the depth of the Tsar’s anti-semitism, his catastrophic mismanagement of the war effort and the sweet banality of his domestic arrangements form a riveting and chilling whole. This is an unforgettable tour de force and a superb read for anyone age 12 to adult.

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.

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: http://symontgomery.com/

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.

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: http://www.jangreenbergsandrajordan.com/index.html

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: http://www.paulbjaneczko.com/index.htm

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.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out

Jacket-12
• Current issues title
• Age Range: Grades 8th-adult
• Author and photographer: Susan Kuklin
• Title: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out
• Publisher: Somerville, Massachusetts : Candlewick Press
• 2014
• 182 pages.
• ISBN: 978- 0-7636-5611-9
• Awards: Just published~Booklist starred review
• Author’s website: http://www.susankuklin.net/

Six transgender teens from diverse backgrounds share their experiences growing up and transitioning to their preferred gender identity. Immersive first-person accounts include brief editorial comments in a distinct typeface and, where permitted by the subject, illuminating photo essays.

Kuklin privileges the reader with an opportunity to hear the thoughtful and heartfelt reflections of six transgender teens. Despite the diversity of their backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences, what comes across clearly is the realization that as regards identity: gender is one variable and sexual orientation is another. Italicized authorial interjections help tie the narrative together and supply context but sometimes feel didactic: “School made Mariah feel like a loser, so she acted like a loser.” However the clear distinction between the teen’s stories and the editorial remarks allows the reader the freedom to keep perspectives clear and form their own judgments.

These personal reflections on identity, sexuality, societal expectations and biases, relations with peers and parents are fascinating in their own right for all readers. They are particularly useful for those who have a personal or professional stake in transgender experience. This is a valuable tool for expanding understanding of a marginalized group.

Back matter includes a detailed author’s note that outlines the research and interview process, essays that describe the work of the two featured organizations that work with transgender youth, commonly asked questions and answers about transgender issues, a glossary, and list of varies resources: including an extensive list of service and advocacy organizations.

Hole In My Life

Jacket-11

• Biography related title
• Age Range: Grades 8th-adult
• Author: Jack Gantos
• Title: Hole in My Life
• Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux
• 2002
• 208 pages.
• ISBN: 978- 0374399887
• Awards: Robert F. Sibert Honor Book 2003~ Massachusetts Book Award for Children/Young Adult Literature 2003~ Printz Honor 2003~ Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee 2007-ALA Notable Book
• Author’s website: http://www.jackgantos.com/

Newbery Award-winning Jack Gatos’s memoir chronicles his unmoored final year in high school and his subsequent misguided efforts to make enough money to go to college. Smuggling hashish lands him in prison, giving him plenty of time to reflect and write.

Gantos’s Che Guevera-esque mug shot on the cover and the publisher’s summary: The author relates how, as a young adult, he became a drug user and smuggler, was arrested, did time in prison, and eventually got out and went to college, all the while hoping to become a writer, doesn’t incline adults to recommend this book to the teen audience for whom it was intended. Checking my local library system I noted more than half the branches shelve it in adult nonfiction, and when I sought out the title after hearing Gantos’s charming and quirky 2011 Newbery acceptance speech I was nonplussed by the content and passed it by, until now.

I found the book fascinating and entertaining. Gantos walks a delicate line, revealing gritty details, earnest and knuckle-headed choices and an entirely believable teenage cluelessness that adults and teens will recognize. His fear as he contemplates up to six years in Federal prison is palpable. His experiences leading up to prison, and while incarcerated, feel honest, unforgettable, vulnerable and remarkably, often darkly humorous. Gantos to his credit does not minimize the seriousness of his situation nor does he play his travail for laughs, he simply reports the situation as he experienced it, thoughtfully and without didacticism. I was surprised by how well paced the book was and how beautifully it was written.

While there are depictions of drug use, mentions of serious violence and prison rape, the author’s tone and thoughtful reflections make the book suitable for mature 8th graders through adults.

The front matter includes a table of contents and a very apt epigraph by Oscar Wilde: I have learned this: it is not what one does that is wrong, but what one becomes as a consequence of it. There is no back matter and no information on Gantos’s website that addresses the particulars of what came after his release from prison.

Isaac Newton-Giants of Science

Jacket-10

  • Biography related title
  • Age Range: Grades 5-8
  • Author: Kathleen Krull, Illustrated by Boris Kulikov
  • Title: Isaac Newton
  • Publisher: New York : Viking
  • 2006
  • 126 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-0-670-05921-8
  • Awards: BCCB Blue Ribbon~School Library Journal Best Book~A Booklist “Top 10 Youth Biography”~ALA Notable Book for Children~Finalist for the Cybils, the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Award~A Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year
  • Author’s website: http://www.kathleenkrull.com/

Arguably Isaac Newton is the most influential scientist ever. In lively and anecdotal prose Krull explains and contextualizes Newton’s massive scientific contributions and illuminates his prickly and often vindictive personality. Wry pen and ink illustrations compliment this irreverent treatment.

Krull’s Giant’s of Science series sets a high bar for entertaining and informative biographies. Her conversational and assured tone carries the reader along as she explains the personalities and scientific accomplishments of these fascinating and influential individuals; her Isaac Newton is no exception. While most of her unflattering observations are well supported by facts included in the text, some of her more speculative topics: his sexual orientation, mental illness and religious beliefs, suffer from a treatment that feels too glib and condescending. For example can it really be right to refer to the man who elucidated the scientific method, developed calculus, the reflecting telescope, the laws of motion, the theory of gravity and of optics as “several slices short of a loaf.” While Krull does provide a bibliography, her lack of source notes combined with her sensationalist speculations diminishes her otherwise excellent and valuable book.

Front matter includes acknowledgments for research help and contents. Back matter includes a bibliography that highlights books and articles suitable for young readers, websites and an index. The lack of source notes, quotation sources or even an annotated biography is a real flaw in an otherwise outstanding, and highly readable, biography.

The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins

Jacket-3

  • Science related title
  • Age Range: Grades 4-6
  • Author: Lee R. Berger & Marc Aronson
  • Title: The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins
  • Publisher: Washington, D.C. :, National Geographic
  • 2012
  • 64 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1-4263-1010-2
  • Awards: AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prizes for Excellence in Science Books, 2014 Finalist, Children’s Middle Grades Books ~CCBC’s Book of Choice 2013~Richie’s Picks
  • Authors’ website: http://profleeberger.com/ and  http://www.marcaronson.com/, companion website to the book http://www.scimania.org/

Speaking directly to the child-reader Aronson traces the career of a dynamic paleoanthropologist: Lee Berger, and captures the excitement of scientific discovery as Berger uncovers some of the oldest and most astonishingly complete human ancestors ever found, including the newly discovered Australopithecus sediba.

The Skull in the Rock is part biography, part fossil discovery story and part exhortation to kids to develop observational skills and make discoveries. It tells an exciting tale of exploration fueled by theories and insights. I found the interactive tone of directly addressing questions and remarks to the child reader to be distracting, but can see it could be very effective for younger children age 10-12. The science is explained well and the large photographs add interest and break the text into digestible chunks.

Front and back matter include contents, a schematic of hominid evolution, suggestions for further reading, a glossary/index and an author’s note. The authors pledge to maintain a website that keeps current with the science and discoveries associated with the Australopithecus sediba fossil at the center of the story. A link is provided.

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Bravery

Jacket-1

  • History related title
  • Author: Steve Sheinkin
  • Age Range: Grades 6-adult
  • Title: The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Bravery.
  • Publisher: New York :, Roaring Brook Press
  • 2010
  • 337 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1-59643-486-8
  • Awards: YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction~Horn Book Award for Nonfiction~School Library Journal Best Book~ Horn Book Magazine Fanfare List, Best of 2010 ~ Beacon of Freedom Award~ School Library Journal, Best Children’s
    Books of 2010~ New York Charlotte Award Master List
  • Author’s website: http://www.stevesheinkin.com/

Benedict Arnold was more than just a traitor, in many ways he was responsible for the success of the American Revolution: both through his military achievements and though the galvanic effect his betrayal had on the country at a crucial moment in the conflict.

In a narrative as exciting as an action film and as gripping as the best spy-thriller, Sheinkin relates the fantastic, improbable and tragic story of America’s greatest revolutionary hero turning into her most reviled traitor. The dynamism of Arnold’s character and Sheinkin’s cinematic writing style make this a compelling story that shines a fresh light on the unlikely success of the American Revolution.

Sheinkin’s fascination with his subject is contagious. His in-depth research and use of primary sources allows us to hear the words of the characters. We even get a glimpse into Benedict Arnold’s love life; he wrote the same maudlin letter to two different women. Sheinkin distills his deep understanding of the subject and produces a compelling, cogent, and often witty, account of the Revolution and Arnold’s remarkable part in it. “Benedict Arnold never could stand inaction. So he decided to invade Canada.” The ending is a tour-de-force.

Front matter includes two relevant maps and contents. Back matter includes extensive source and quotation notes and an index. Sheinkin has helpfully annotated his sources: indicating which were most useful in research, which to read to pursue information on key characters, specific aspects of the Revolution and where to find firsthand accounts.