Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

Jacket-5• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Adventure related title
• Author: Jennifer Armstrong
• Title: Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World
• Publisher: New York, Crown
• 1998
• 134 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-375-40403-1
• Awards: 1999 Orbis Pictus winner ~1999 Boston Globe Horn Book Honor in nonfiction~ALA Best Book for YAs~1999 Riverbank Review Children’s Books of Distinction
• Author’s website: http://www.jennifer-armstrong.com/

In 1914, at the dawn of World War I, Ernest Shackleton was one of the most famous and most famously disappointed explores in the world. He had just missed being the first to reach the South Pole. Three years after that historic event he and twenty-seven men set sail for Antarctica, intent on being the first to cross the continent. An unusually cold Antarctic summer thwarted their hopes and tested their endurance, ingenuity and bravery beyond the bounds of human imagination.

Armstrong frames this remarkable story with appropriate and relevant historic, factual and scientific information. In a few economic paragraphs readers learn structurally why Antarctica is the most hostile place on earth and why it is also one of the most fertile ecosystems in the world. Armstrong incorporates a multitude of quotes, primary documents and stunning archival photographs, painting a vivid picture of a truly astonishing adventure. From the point at which the ice crushes Shackleton’s ship the story becomes extremely gripping. The pace of disasters and escapes surpasses the best of Indiana Jones or the Die Hard franchise and the reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World is more suitable to a slightly younger reader than the previously reviewed The Endurance. Armstrong doesn’t rely as heavily on journal entries and summarizes points Alexander makes through multiple examples. Armstrong focuses on the dramatic moments, and there are many, and her writing is slightly more lyrical in her descriptions of wildlife. She doesn’t focus as much on the personal relationships among the crew: avoiding their dislikes, making this book better suited for a reader who wants the facts, the adventure and the hardships without as much in-depth information on the characters. In both books Shackleton’s leadership comes through and the reader is left amazed at what humans can endure and overcome. Particularly intriguing is the moment where the normally cautious Shackleton risks all on a slide down a mountain into the unknown. Using dialogue, Armstrong lets readers watch as the unthinkable becomes the only possible choice.

There are two other topics missing from Armstrong’s book that are included by Alexander: Hurley’s fudged photograph-Saved and the singular unhelpfulness of the British in the final rescue effort. We learn in Alexander’s book that Hurley deliberately removed The James Caird: the boat the six men sailed to South Georgia island in, from an image taken as the men wave good luck to the departing rescuers. On the lecture circuit Hurley and Shackleton represented the doctored photo as capturing the moment the men see a boat returning to rescue them, duplicitously titling the image Saved. Armstrong includes the photo with its misleading title as if it actually did show the rescue. Armstrong also avoids going into detail about Shakleton’s struggles to find a boat and return to his marooned men. In the midst of a war the British were indifferent to their plight and Shackleton had to rely on Chileans and Argentines to effect a rescue. Both omissions simplify the ending.

Front matter: A photograph of the Endurance stuck in the ice is on the title page. A Contents page is followed by a labeled photograph of most of the crew at the outset of the journey. All the members of the team: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, are listed on the facing page. Two pages of original drawings and plans of the Endurance are included as is a map of Antarctica and a close up map of Shackleton’s journey. Perhaps the best epigram of all time wraps up the front matter: “For scientific discovery, give me Scott. For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” Apsley Cherry-Garrand, polar explorer, 1922.

Back Matter: A brief Epilogue mentions that most of the men joined the war after their return and some were killed in action. Shackleton’s time during the war and final journey to South Georgia Island are discussed and his death and burial on the island is briefly described. A verse from one of Shackleton’s favorite school songs ends the Epilogue. Acknowledgements note the most useful materials and assistance in the writing of the book. A bibliography is divided roughly by topic: Antarctica, Shackleton, and Periodicals. An index and brief author biography conclude the book.

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: http://nathanielphilbrick.com/

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.

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 http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2006-08-21-9-11-report-book_x.htm?csp=34.
** Beveridge, Andrew. (n.d.). Demographics: 9/11/01-02: A demographic portrait of the victims in 10048. Gotham Gazette.com. Retrieved April 5, 2014 from http://www.gothamgazette.com/demographics/91102.shtml


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: http://www.jimmurphybooks.com/

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.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights


  • Diversity related title
  • Age Range: Grades 7-adult
  • Author: Steve Sheinkin
  • Title: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights.
  • Publisher: New York, Roaring Brook
  • 2014
  • 200 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1-59643-796-8
  • Awards: Just published January 2014…they are sure to come.
  • Author’s website: http://www.stevesheinkin.com/

A deadly munitions explosion at a segregated Naval-base near San Francisco during World War II leads to a mutiny trial of 50 African-American Navy men. Sheinkin dramatically relates events surrounding the trial and argues their fight for justice precipitated civil-rights gains in the military and society at large.

Once again Sheinkin brings strong writing and cinematic flair to a thoroughly researched and engrossing topic. Quotes based on interviews and primary sources combined with historic and contemporary photographs bring to life the riveting and chilling story of the systematic racism and segregation that precipitated the largest loss of life on U.S. soil during World War II as well as the largest mutiny trial in U.S. history. The evidence is compelling that their sacrifice and courage effected military and societal integration.

Front-matter includes a list of the Port Chicago 50, and contents. Back-matter includes extensive source notes, a list of works cited, acknowledgements, picture credits, and an index.


Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem


  • History related title
  • Age Range: Grades 5-high school
  • Author: Rosalyn Schanzer
  • Title: Witches! : The absolutely true tale of disaster in Salem
  • Publisher: Washington, D.C. :, National Geographic Society
  • 2011
  • 144 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1-4263-0869-7
  • Awards: Society of Illustrators Gold Medal for Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2011~2012 Robert F. Sibert Honor Award~ALA Notable Children’s Book~School Library Journal Starred Review and Best Book of the Year~NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book~A Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2011~NY Public Library’s 25 Best Nonfiction Titles of 2011~A Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Book~Fuse #8 list of 100 Magnificent Children’s Books of 2011~Kid Lit Frenzy top 5 Middle Grade Picks of 2011~Included in Communication Arts Magazine’s May/June 2012 Annual Illustration Issue
  • Author’s website: http://www.rosalynschanzer.com/, Author’s video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FD3sI0LgKSM

Strong black and white graphics compliment vivid, rhythmic and colorful language that details the story of the Salem witch trials. Accused of deviltry, hundreds had their reputations, livelihoods and lives ruined; more than twenty lost their lives.

Schanzer’s excellent illustrations both set the mood and help keep the many characters straight in the reader’s mind. Her well-researched account seamlessly blends background material, authorial exposition and primary sources to create a vivid and unforgettable account that is enhanced by effective book design.

An index, portrait chronology of accused and accusers, and a preface set the stage. Back matter includes notes, an extensive bibliography, index and an author’s note that describes how she clarified and abridged some primary documents: original text can be found through the notes.