Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ category

The Book of Blood by H.P. Newquist

September 12th, 2013

For the record, I am glad that I am not a doctor. When you are in the operating room, you do not want your medical professional squealing in fright at the insides of the human body. The Book of Blood is not a gross-out book, at least not intentionally.

But it’s blood! They’re talking about blood! [this is where I faint]

Until the past century, large gaps of time passed between breakthroughs in the study of blood. Part of that is because humans need blood and are usually pretty opinionated about parting with it. The Book of Blood traces the history of the study of blood, from Herophilus and Ibn al-Nafis to Karl Landsteiner and the oligosaccharide polymer. I had heard of Herophilus before but not the other two and that’s what I appreciate about the book. It branches into parts of scientific history that I was not familiar with. I also knew that there were different types of blood, but I didn’t realize what the differences between A and B and positive and negative were (it’s about the presence or absence of certain polymers).

The science is there. The history is there. It makes for a great nonfiction read.

Even a simple sentence like:

“In times when the body is sick or injured and is losing blood, the spleen can squeeze some of its stored-up reserves back into the body so that the proper amount is still flowing through the arteries and veins.”

grips the reader’s attention.

Squeeze? [this is where I scream and faint again]

Ghosts in the Fog by Samantha Seiple

February 14th, 2013

Alaska was invaded.

I had heard rumors, but Ghosts in the Fog details the facts. During World War II, Japan had decimated a sizable portion of the United States fleet by striking at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In 1942, Japan kept the momentum going by launching a series of invasions on islands throughout the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

The Aleutian Islands (the tail part of Alaska) were one destination for invasion.

Ghosts in the Fog starts with U.S. code crackers catching a message about a possible invasion in one of two locations. The diligent cryppies at Station HYPO cracked part of the code and gave what they knew to Admiral Nimitz and Naval intelligence, who then decided where to send the remnants of the fleet that were still operational. The book then details key points in the Japanese invasion leading up to the eventual retreat of the Japanese fleet and a turning point in the war in the Pacific.

Where Seiple excels is in maintaining the human element of the events. This is a war story about more than boats and bombs. She did her research and draws quotes from both sides of the conflict.

  • We witness Admiral Theobald disobey orders and pull his ships from where they’re supposed to be and instead to where he thinks the invasion will happen; he’s wrong and an island full of people pay for his mistake.
  • We follow Charlie House in his attempt to avoid capture by burying himself in the Alaskan snow with no supplies.
  • I was surprised at how cooperative the Japanese soldiers were once they were captured; when they were so used to a bushido “death before dishonor”, no one had told them how to act as prisoners of war.
  • One of the most heart-wrenching parts was reading about the native Aleutians who were caught in the middle, either to be shipped to Japan as prisoners of war or dumped onto a different island by the U.S. Navy with little resources to start a new life.

Where the sequencing struggles a bit is when events were happening simultaneously. To Seiple’s credit, one event builds into another, so the events need to be included, but it caught me off guard a couple of times to read that the starting events of a chapter happened two months before what was just mentioned. Seiple labeled the sections well, but it still broke me out of my flow of reading.

This is definitely a purchase that librarians need to make if they want engaging nonfiction. Yes, there are a bunch of books about World War II, but because this one focuses on Alaska instead of other operational theaters, it stands out as something fresh. I was glad that Seiple was able to record these heroic stories before they faded into second- and third-hand accounts. This is magnified by the fact that, until recently, a good portion of this information was still classified and hidden from the general public.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

February 4th, 2013

What do Bill Gates, The Beatles, and Andrew Carnegie have in common? They’re outliers, statistical anomalies that stray from average society into the land of superstar success.

But is that all that they share? What led to their success?

That’s what Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is about. Gladwell looks at factors that successful people have no control over, things like access to resources and the year/location of their birth. Sure, we know that The Beatles had their big debut on The Ed Sullivan Show and started Beatlemania, but did you know that they were playing for eight hours a day in Hamburg, Germany (after starting out in Liverpool, England) years before Ed Sullivan? They had enough time to weed out the average (and, by some accounts, downright bad) songs and instead lock into the sound that made them famous.

Another case in point: Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. If we only looked at the surface, then the secret to success in the computer industry is to go to an Ivy League school and then drop out, right? What doesn’t get mentioned much is that when he was 13, the parents organization at his elite prep school bought a terminal to access a computer owned by General Electric. This was at a time when you got charged to log into a computer because they were so rare and could only handle one process – let alone one user – at a time. (Think about how many processes are running just on your cell phone as it’s checking for signal strength, synching the time, managing the battery, checking for messages and/or email, and running any additional apps.)

On top of that, even before setting foot on Harvard’s campus, Gates had exploited a bug (keep in mind that he was still a teenager) to get additional time on Computer Center Corporation’s system after the donation from the Lakeside parents organization ran out with General Electric. When he got caught, instead of getting severely punished, he was hired to check for bugs in their system. Just like the Beatles, he put in a ton of time before trying to launch Microsoft. Those hours and hours of work cannot be ignored.

At first these look like rare stories of success, but Gladwell takes it one step further and suggests that we can create these opportunities as a society – opportunities that give people a chance to show off their talent – if we really want to. His thoughts on education are intriguing and the whole point of why he wrote the book. It’s one giant case zeroing in on the last five pages where he makes suggestions on how to improve schooling to capitalize on the talent of our students.

It’s definitely an entertaining read, which is funny given how much data is presented. Instead of coming off as a textbook lecture, Gladwell presents the information in a clear, concise, and witty manner.

Primary sources from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

December 13th, 2012

Check out Cornell University’s collection of testimonials, newspaper articles, and letters from the time period of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Hear what happened from the people who were actually there.

Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case by Chris Crowe

September 28th, 2012

Emmett Till is not a household name, but his death impacted the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s in the United States. Chris Crowe, author of the award-winning Mississippi, 1955, set out to inform his readers in Getting Away with Murder about the controversial murder trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. Till, a young black man, whistled at Roy Bryant’s wife. That much can be verified by other witnesses. Whether Till said or did more, only Till’s accuser can tell. Roy Bryant found out about the situation and decided to “teach that boy a lesson”. Bryant and his half-brother, Milam, grabbed Till from his great uncle’s house in the middle of the night, kidnapped him, beat him, and then shot him. Milam and Bryant tied a length of barbed wire around Till’s neck and to a gin fan and then threw Till’s dead body into the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett Till’s gruesome murder was followed by a trial riddled with injustice. Sheriff Clarence Strider locked up two witnesses to the murder and filed their paperwork under different names so that they could not testify at the trial, for instance. Milam and Bryant were found innocent of the murder of the 14 year-old boy. Years later, when Milam and Bryant could not be convicted of the same crime again because of double jeopardy, the two sold their story two a magazine and admitted to everything.

Crowe’s book does a good job presenting the facts. The second chapter does make a couple of guesses about what Emmett would like to do for fun based on what other boys his age enjoyed, but other than that it sticks pretty closely to interviews and media records.

At 121 pages, it’s a quick read that I recommend to introduce students to the civil rights movement. There are a ton of pictures, which is a necessity for nonfiction for the middle grade target audience. I’m proud of Crowe for including the photo of Till’s disfigured corpse because it’s that photo that caught people’s attention to what atrocities racism can lead to.

It Can Wait

July 31st, 2012

Last Friday I was able to go to the American Idol Live concert in connection with AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign. AT&T had people at the entrance to Arena to talk with about the dangers of texting and driving. They had iPads queued up with the Facebook page to take the pledge with a few simple clicks. You can take the pledge on Facebook here or through AT&T’s dedicated website here.

The seats were great and I was able to chat with some of the people about the It Can Wait campaign. One of the messages that I posted on Twitter about it was displayed on the Jumbotron screens in the arena, which was fun.

AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign is sobering in its focus: to give real-life examples of people affected by teens texting and driving. We are currently in the 100 deadliest days of summer according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Teens are more at risk now to get in a fatal accident than any other time of the year. A study from Virginia Tech found that drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to get in a crash.

If you want more information about distracted driving, check out

A real-life version of Caroline Cooney’s Face on the Milk Carton

April 27th, 2012

Steve Carter was adopted when he was four. He’s now 35 and found his picture on a missing children website, which caused him to dig deeper into his past. Check it out here.

Investigating the Mafia by Carla Mooney

April 2nd, 2012

I’m always on the search for engaging nonfiction for my students and I just finished reading Investigating the Mafia by Carla Mooney.

What I appreciate about the book is that it does not glorify the Mafia. This is not The Sopranos or The Godfather. Mooney describes the history of the Mafia and what they’ve done, but more of the focus is on how the FBI and prosecutors work to stop organized crime.

There are lots of photos and inserts, which I appreciate in a nonfiction book like this. Even better, the photos are interesting without being gruesome. It’s enough to help the pacing of the text.

The reading level is spot-on for junior high students and the organization of the text makes it easy to progress from one thought to the next.

The thing that really surprised me about the book was that, even into the 1960’s, members of the U.S. government denied the existence of organized crime families. In the 1980’s, the use of RICO laws helped expose the Commission and the five families of New York.

For students using this for independent reading projects, I would connect this to fiction like Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman or Don’t Look Behind You by Lois Duncan.

The Dark Game by Paul B. Janeczko

March 8th, 2012

The Dark Game is a history of spying in the United States, from current FBI moles all the way back to the Culper spy ring that helped the U.S. defeat the British in the Revolutionary War.

Now, it’s not tough to make a book about spies interesting. The Dark Game is no exception. The short histories are the perfect length to give details about the person or events but not so long that they take away from the rest of the book.

Janeczko has done his research. I checked the bibliography for more books that I want to read. The details that he has included are not just the same old stories that I had read before, even though I was familiar with most of the events described. It’s the little details, like a photo of Juan Pujol‘s imaginary spy network (which is really funny…you have to read about it), that make history engaging and remind us that this stuff actually happened.

The Dark Game is definitely worth the purchase and fits well with the current push for more nonfiction in the library.

Happy Birthday, Arizona!

February 14th, 2012

Want some ideas on how to celebrate 100 years of Arizona? Check out the events happening today or subscribe to the Google calendar to get updates throughout the year.

If you want to see the actual documents that led to our statehood, from the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 all the way to the proclamation by President Taft in 1912, click here.