My health is not what it should be. I’m sure it’s obvious that I’ve been on a hiatus from this blog. Unfortunately, the hiatus will continue a bit longer. I’ll be back and reviewing kid lit about politics ASAP!

Operation Redwood

Operation RedwoodOperation Redwood by S. Terrell French. Amulet Books (an imprit of Abrams), 2009. 368 pages. Recommended for ages 8-12. ISBN: 9780810983540.

2010 Green Earth Book Award for Children’s Fiction
2010 John and Patricia Beatty Award

Operation Redwood nurtures the idea that kids can make a difference in the political process. This particular political process involves an old growth redwood forest scheduled to be clear-cut by a company called IPX. Robin Elder, starts the protest off with an angry e-mail to the CEO of IPX, Sibley Carter. Julian Carter-Li, Sibley Carter’s nephew reads Robin’s e-mail as he sits alone in his uncle’s office with a fever too high to allow him to be in school. He forwards the e-mail to his best friend Danny Lopez, then deletes it so his uncle won’t see it. Danny and Julian, in San Francisco, reply to Robin, who turns out to live four hours north of San Francisco in the Redwoods, and thus begins operation redwood.

As I reached the end of the novel three thoughts occurred to me. First, this is the perfect middle grade novel. It’s well paced and nothing too horrible or traumatic happens.  The kids figure out their way through each problem they encounter and are able to carry out the protest they intended. Second, if I were teaching a class in literature and wanted to give an example of “deus ex machine”, this book would be an excellent choice. Third, this is a very Dickensian story. Julian’s aunt and uncle could change places with David Copperfield’s stepfather. Robin’s parents could be David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsy. The person who comes in as the deus ex machina could be Oliver Twist’s grandfather.  The end of the book could be the end of a Dickens novel: in spite of reality, everything works out. The story also seems Dickensian because Dickens wrote so much about injustice and this is a story about environmental injustice.

Julian, Robin and Danny try different methods to save the Big Tree Grove. Ariel, Robin’s best friend, also becomes involved in the fight. Julian and Danny and the reader learn a great deal about redwoods, especially from Robin and Ariel. Robin tells Julian that the national forests do not protect the old growth redwoods from logging. Julian believes it should be illegal to log such beautiful and ancient forests.

Throughout the prose there are breaks for e-mail between the kids. These e-mail messages help to flesh out the characters of Julian and Robin and Danny.

I left Northern California two years ago for the New Mexico desert. Operation Redwood makes me homesick for those beautiful trees.


Blog Reviews:

Cynsations (an interview with S. Terrell French)
A Fuse #8 Production
Jump Into A Book
Killin’ Time Reading
Literate Lives
LitPick Student Book Reviews Blog
Mother Daughter Book Club
A Patchwork of Books
Shelf Elf: read, write, rave
Steph Su Reads: Books Build Friendships and Lifelines

Professional Reviews:


Other Links:

Operation Redwood Website
Book Trailer


The Great Little Madison

The Great Little MadisonThe Great Little Madison by Jean Fritz. Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 1989. 160 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10-14. ISBN: 9780698116214.

This biography is written as if middle grade kids are thinking people. It’s written for someone who wants to know about James Madison and the first 40 years of the United States. The book could be used to write a report, but unlike some biographies for middle grade readers, it could also be used by a student of history who loves to read about the people involved in the founding of the United States.

James Madison was a short man with a small voice who was involved in many of the key decisions facing the country in its first 40 years. He was part of the convention in Virginia that voted to ratify the Declaration of Independence. He took meticulous notes at the Constitutional Convention and played an important part in the proceedings. While the states were deciding whether or not to ratify the new constitution, Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote the Federalist papers. The papers explain the new constitution and why it was important. Madison represented Virginia in the House of Representatives. He was Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State, and he served two terms as president of the United States. Madison lived long enough (85 years) to see Andrew Jackson be elected president.

Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech were among the rights about which Madison felt strongly.  Furthermore, Madison believed preserving the Union was absolutely critical if the experiment in democracy that is the United States was to survive.

In the early years of the country there were sometimes fierce arguments between the Republicans (similar to today’s Democrats), who believed in “spreading the power democratically among the people” (p. 65) and the Federalists who believed “people of ‘quality’” (p. 65) should have the power. Madison and his lifelong friend Jefferson were Republicans.

Fritz’s style is very straightforward. She packs her paragraphs with information and does so in an effortless way. The book is not compelling, however. In 1989 perhaps middle grade nonfiction books were not compelling. Steve Sheinkin writes nonfiction page turners. Neal Bascomb’s “The Nazi Hunters”  is hard to put down.  When Fritz writes about the war of 1812, which happened when Madison was president, the story becomes a little more compelling, but nothing that comes close to Sheinkin or Bascomb.

I am fascinated by Madison’s influence on the early days of the United States. Many people today speak as if they know the Constitution. Those people would be shocked to read Madison’s actual ideas.

Blog Reviews:

Best Book Reviews

Professional Reviews:

Kirkus (a starred review)


Rated a Best Book of 1989 by The Horn Book

Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad

Africa is My HomeAfrica is My Home: A Child of the Amistad. Written by Monica Edinger. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick Press, 2013. 64 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10 and older. ISBN:  9780763650384.

The character who tells this story has three names. She was named Magulu by her parents in Mendeland (modern day Sierra Leone). At nine years old she was sold into slavery, taken to Cuba where she boarded the Amistad. The Africans on the Amistad ended up in New Haven, Connecticut.  In New Haven she was renamed Margru because the Americans misunderstood her pronunciation of her name. After two years of legal battles, the Africans on the Amistad were freed from jail. Before returning home to Africa, Margru was renamed Sarah Kinson, a name she chose, in a church ceremony.

The voice telling the story seems to be the voice of Sarah Kinson. It’s the voice of an adult or young adult but she tells the story through the eyes of her childhood self. There are times when the voice is poetic. The events she experienced had both legal and political implications, however her focus is not on these implications but on what she was aware of as a child.

Margru was very aware of abolitionists in Connecticut, particularly Lewis Tappan. He arranged for Margru and her friends to be taught to read, a skill she loved. The abolitionists helped free the Africans. They also introduced the Africans to Christianity. Margru found Christianity helped her through the rough times. Once the Africans were freed the abolitionists helped them earn money to pay for their trip home to Africa. Sarah returned to the United States when she was 16 and Lewis Tappan arranged for her to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. After Oberlin, she went home to Africa.

It’s amazing to me that Edinger was able to provide such a solid historical underpinning to the story. Researching the life of one African child on the Amistad cannot have been an easy task. The book is essentially nonfiction. The only fiction is the imagining of Margru’s feelings as a child and imaginings of some of the dialogue.

The illustrations are detailed and colorful. I have never seen such effective illustrations of dreams. Circles intertwine with other circles and inside each is a different image of Africa. It’s as if one image moves into another image the way images move in dreams.

The book never bogs down. It’s very well paced.

I graduated from Oberlin in 1980. Tappan Square is central to the town and the school, yet I never knew who the square was named for until I read this book. Lewis Tappan and his brother were instrumental in founding the school in the 1830s. In the late 1970s Oberlin was still true to the social justice emphasis present at its founding.  I’ve just learned something new about Oberlin and thus something new about an institution that’s been profoundly influential in my life.  I thank Monica Edinger for that knowledge!

Blog Reviews:

For Those About to Mock
A Fuse #8 Production
Killin’ Time Reading
LS 5385 Blog
Ms. Yingling Reads
The Pirate Tree
Randomly Reading
Waking Brain Cells

Professional Reviews:

The New York Times
Publisher’s Weekly
School Library Journal

Book Trailer:


The Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward

The Brothers KennedyThe Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward. Written by Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Amy June Bates. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010. 40 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 4-8. ISBN: 9781416991588.

The Brothers Kennedy captures the magic and tragedy of Joseph Kennedy’s sons. The first part of the book features a chapter each on the childhood and young adulthood of Joe, John, Robert and Edward. Each brother is different, but each has a strong sense of competitiveness, of the importance of public service, of compassion and of fairness.

The second part of the book addresses the hope represented by John and Robert and Edward, and the tragic loss of hope with the deaths of Joe and John and Robert. It also looks at Edward’s the long career in the Senate, carrying forward the vision of the Kennedy’s. John and Robert both work for civil rights for African-Americans. Edward was present when Barack Obama was nominated by the Democratic Party to be its presidential candidate.

The book doesn’t present a complete picture of the Kennedy brothers. There is no mention of Chappaquiddick or of the famous womanizing of the Kennedy men. It doesn’t address the intricacies of John’s policies as president. There’s no need for a complete picture in this book, in fact it would be inappropriate for the target age group. This is a book that presents the magic of the Kennedys to a new generation.

The illustrations are outstanding. My favorite is an illustration of John as he wins the presidency and is inaugurated. All but one of the illustrations contain boys and young men full of energy. Towards the end of the book is an illustration of Edward sitting on the stage as Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination. He is old and ill in this illustration, an elder statesman who has lived see what he worked so hard to bring about.

There are extensive notes at the end of the book, as well as a timeline and a list of sources.

I worry that kids in school today don’t have the same feeling about the Kennedys that I do. It’s a feeling that’s hard to put into words, but Kathleen Krull and Amy June Bates capture it in their words and illustrations.

Blog Reviews:

None Found

Professional Reviews:

None Found

John F. Kennedy: A Photographic Story of a Life

DD179 DK Bio JFK_PPB.qxdJohn F. Kennedy: A Photographic Story of a Life by Howard S. Kaplan. DK Publishing, 2004. 128 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10-17. ISBN: 9780756603403.

This book is adequate. It’s full of solid information about Kennedy. He wasn’t healthy, he competed with his older brother throughout their childhood and adolescence, he was smart but not a great student, he was a hero in the second world war when his PT boat was fired on and fell to pieces, he started in the House of Representatives, then moved to the Senate, and finally to the White House. Along the way he married Jacqueline Bouvier and they had two children.

These are all facts. I’m impressed with the amount of information in this 128 page book. I was surprised to find facts I didn’t know. For example, I didn’t realize that Jack Kennedy abstained from voting when the Senate voted to censure Joseph McCarthy.  I wish the author had addressed allegations that Kennedy’s father bought the Chicago vote for Kennedy and thus the presidential race.

The book doesn’t read as if it’s crammed with facts. It’s more like a narrative and less like a textbook.

Kennedy was killed when I was five years old. My parents cried as they watched his funeral. Why? His death was a loss beyond words, because in life he had an inexpressible greatness. I wish the book conveyed Kennedy’s place in the American pantheon.

This book is written almost entirely in the present tense. I found the use of present tense confusing when the author wanted to write about events to come and events that had happened already. The present tense, plus the use of “Jack” instead of “Kennedy” or “President Kennedy” serve to make Kennedy seem like a buddy.

The book is full of black and white and color photographs. Each photograph is accompanied by a short paragraph. In addition, short side paragraphs are scattered throughout the book. I sometimes have trouble with DK books because it’s hard to follow the main text with so many distractions. In this book, the distractions are kept to a minimum.

Shortly after Kennedy was killed, I thought it made sense that just as Jesus was resurrected, so Kennedy would be resurrected. If the book spent more time on Kennedy as a human being instead of focusing on the facts of his life, I suspect a reader of the book wouldn’t be surprised that I expected I might see Kennedy on the subway weeks after his death.

Blog Reviews:

Through The Looking Glass Children’s Book Reviews

Nonfiction Monday


Lincoln: A Photobiography

LincolnLincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 1987. 160 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780395518489.

1988 Newbery Medal.

Russell Freedman takes kids seriously. This is not a “nice” biography that gives kids a story about honest Abe. This is a serious attempt to write about Lincoln in all of his complexity.

Freedman shows Lincoln as a human being. Lincoln was sometimes deeply depressed, as was his wife, Mary. He sank into despair after the deaths of his two sons. Lincoln had a self-disparaging sense of humor that he used to put people at ease and to please crowds when he gave speeches. Above all, Lincoln had an interest in and concern for his fellow human beings regardless of the color of their skin. Frederick Douglass is quoted as saying that Lincoln was unique because he never reminded Douglass of the different colors of their skin. Every afternoon Lincoln talked with constituents who lined up to ask the president for help.

Ambition was always a part of Lincoln’s personality. He wanted to learn to read, and then to read widely. He wanted to study the law, and eventually had a successful legal practice. He wanted to win elections, and he did.

Lincoln was not a leader in the cause of abolition. He believed slavery would end naturally. Freedman allows the reader to watch as Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery gradually changes until close to the end of his life he pushes hard for the 13th amendment to the Constitution which outlaws slavery.

Preserving the union was the original purpose of the Civil War. Freedman shows the reader how the view of the purpose of the war changed slowly until at the end of the war it was clear the war was about freeing the slaves.

The day-to-day details of the Civil War were a frustration to Lincoln. It took him several years to find the right generals, but when he finally did the war ended quickly.

The text is full of quotations from Lincoln and others. The quotations are woven into the text so well that the reader is never jolted out of the story by the quotations.

The book contains many pictures. Some are of Lincoln. Some are of political rivals, and generals and soldiers. There are pictures of Lincoln’s wife and his sons. I was particularly struck by a photograph of Lincoln taken on April 10, 1865, just before his death. The photo captures Lincoln’s eyes, rich with intelligence and feeling. Freedman captures the same richness in Lincoln the man.

Blog Reviews:

Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac
Books 4 Learning
Kazumi Reads
The Newbery Project
Sunday Cummins Experience Nonfiction

Professional Reviews: