"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Monday, November 7, 2022

Reviewing four books where I learned something new


I'm old. Yet every day I still want to learn something new. Don't you? 

These four books each opened my eyes to new information. I love that!


African Town by Irene Latham and Charles Waters
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2022
Target audience: YA
"Chronicling the story of the last Africans brought illegally to America in 1860, African Town is a powerful and stunning novel-in-verse."

"In 1860, long after the United States outlawed the importation of enslaved laborers, 110 men, women and children from Benin and Nigeria were captured and brought to Mobile, Alabama aboard a ship called Clotilda. Their journey includes the savage Middle Passage and being hidden in the swamplands along the Alabama River before being secretly parceled out to various plantations, where they made desperate attempts to maintain both their culture and also fit into the place of captivity to which they'd been delivered. At the end of the Civil War, the survivors created a community for themselves they called African Town, which still exists to this day. Told in 14 distinct voices, including that of the ship that brought them to the American shores and the founder of African Town, this powerfully affecting historical novel-in-verse recreates a pivotal moment in US and world history, the impacts of which we still feel today" (Publisher).
I was blown away by this story based on the actual lives of several of the last Africans brought to America as slaves. I had never heard of African Town (now called Africatown) either, so everything about this story was new to me. 
I listened to the audiobook version at first, which was a good choice since the producer chose to have fourteen different narrators for the fourteen distinct voices. (The narrators were: Cassandra Campbell, Ronald Peet, Andrew Eiden, Cary Hite, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Sandra Okuboyejo, Soneela Nankani, Nene Nwoko, Michael Obiora, Prentice Onayemi, Mark Sanderlin, Mirron Willis, Patrick Zeller.) I especially appreciated hearing the pronunciation of words in the native languages. But what I didn't realize until I picked up the print version was that each distinct voice was written in a specific poetic form or style. Suddenly those voices took on new shapes and tones in keeping with the artist decisions the authors made, matching styles to characters. Ingenious.
Much or some is known about each of the characters through the characters own journals, writings, or interviews conducted during their lives. Kossola, the leader of African Town, was kidnapped from his homeland, now Benin, when he was nineteen in 1860. He died an American citizen in 1935, when he was in his nineties. He was interviewed by several people including the author Zora Neale Hurston.
Though a work of fiction, the authors did their best to stay true to actual events, sometimes changing a few things here or there for sake of the flow of the story. In the back of the book they explain these changes in their authors' notes. They also include a timeline of events, a glossary, the characters in order of appearance, information about what happened to the characters who were living after 1901 (when the story comes to an end), information about Africatown today, a selected bibliography, and the poetic forms and styles used for each voice. 

Other than I found myself completely irritated that any human being thinks it is okay to kidnap and bring any amount of other humans into slavery, I was transfixed by this story of bravery, determination, and pride. I highly recommend to all YA and up readers.

Rating: 5 stars.

Awe-some Days: Poems about the Jewish Holidays by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2022.
Target audience: elementary-aged students

"Discover and celebrate all of the Jewish holidays with this warm and engaging poetry collection.

"In this cheerful, enjoyable poetry collection, a family decides to celebrate every Jewish holiday for a full year, "the ones we know well, the ones we do not." Starting with new-year apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah all the way to flowers and chocolates on Tu B'Av (often called "Jewish Valentine's Day"), readers can explore the joy and meaning of the various holidays along with this lively family of five. A brief explanation of the holiday accompanies each poem.

"By an award-winning and beloved children's poet, this is a wonderful introduction to Jewish celebrations, observances, and days of remembrance" (Publisher).
I am not Jewish and I do not have many Jewish friends so almost all of the holidays and days of remembrance highlighted in this children's book were new to me. Even for those I knew a bit about I gained new knowledge/insights. Each celebration was highlighted by an insightful poem written by Ms. Singer on one side of the page and a brief, but more thorough description to enhance understanding on the other side. (See photo below for an example.)
Shemini Atzeret

I think this would be a nice addition to any elementary library. I am even thinking of buying it for my church library. I am sure others would appreciate knowing more about the Jewish faith.

Rating: 4 stars

Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler by Ibi Zoboi
Dutton Children's Books, 2022.
Target audience: Middle grades 

"A biography in verse and prose of science fiction visionary Octavia Butler.

Acclaimed novelist Ibi Zoboi illuminates the young life of the visionary storyteller Octavia E. Butler in poems and prose. Born into the Space Race, the Red Scare, and the dawning Civil Rights Movement, Butler experienced an American childhood that shaped her into the groundbreaking science-fiction storyteller whose novels continue to challenge and delight readers fifteen years after her death" (Publisher).
During one of my first years as a new high school librarian and new teacher sought me out to talk about her favorite author: Octavia Butler. I wasn't familiar with the author since I didn't read much Sci-Fi and at the time was just starting to read YA books. The teacher raved so much I made a mental note to read something by this author before year's end. I read Kindred, a story about a Black women living in the mid-1970s who has to time travel back to save the life of her slave-owning forefather. It was a very compelling read and I understood immediately why the book had stood the test of time and was still on many high school reading lists.
Star Child looks at the life of Octavia Butler from her birth through her later years as she struggled to make friends as an awkwardly tall, Black girl in an integrated school. She found comfort in her pink notebook where she would write down her story ideas. She was especially drawn to stories about Mars and about telepathy. She kept writing and kept writing, though most of her stories were rejected by publishers until she was in her early 20s. Today Octavia Butler is thought to be the mother of Afrofuturism, which defines the "cultural intersection between Black people and technology."

I liked the poems a lot. I liked the samples in Octavia Butler's own handwriting and the short snippets, written in prose which described her life and her blossoming writing skills. The book, written for middle grade students, felt like just an introduction to me and left me wanting more. Maybe that was the point, most new knowledge requires additional research.

Rating: 3.75 stars.

Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner's Call to Science by Jeannine Atkins
Atheneum Books, 2022
Target Audience: Middle and high school students

"A gorgeously written biography in “deliberate, delicate verse” (Kirkus Reviews) about the pioneering Jewish woman physicist whose scientific prowess changed the course of World War II.

"At the turn of the 20th century, Lise Meitner dreamed of becoming a scientist. In her time, girls were not supposed to want careers, much less ones in science. But Lise was smart—and determined. She earned a PhD in physics, then became the first woman physics professor at the University of Berlin. The work was thrilling, but Nazi Germany was a dangerous place for a Jewish woman. When the risks grew too great, Lise escaped to Sweden, where she continued the experiments that she and her laboratory partner had worked on for years. Her efforts led to the discovery of nuclear fission and altered the course of history. Only Lise’s partner, a man, received the Nobel Prize for their findings, but this moving and accessible biography shows how Lise’s legacy endures" (Publisher).
I'd never heard of Lise Meitner before. How about you? Her story is such a frustrating story about women who are smart and capable, possibly even brilliant, and yet their stories almost always end up pushed way back in order to highlight the accomplishments of men. For this reason, I am tremendously glad that Jeannine Atkins has written such an interesting and accessible biography of this accomplished scientist.
By the time that 'Nobel Prize' was becoming a possibility for the work that Meisner and her partner were doing in nuclear fission, the Nazis were already wreaking havoc among Jewish communities in Germany and elsewhere. When Lise Meitner escaped to Sweden to continue her work in safety, it was decided that she best not draw attention to herself, so she did not put her name on any of the scientific papers published by she and her partner. When she learned that her work would lead to creation of the Atomic bomb, she wanted nothing to do with it. She wanted to be remembered for her discoveries not the fact that those findings led to the hugest and most destructive bomb every set off in war. Yet when the Nobel Prize was award, only her partner got recognition.
The biography is written in verse which makes it both more delicate and more demanding than if it were done in prose. I am so glad I had the chance to learn about this remarkable woman.
Rating: 4 stars. 


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