January 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Stories that Changed the World

”It is not patriotism which prompts war, but greed and gain. Wars are started by those who want to make profit, yet we send our sons to die for that.” -- Jeanette Rankin, October 13, 1934

Prior to reading Gretchen Woelfle’s well written biography, Jeanette Rankin: Political Pioneer, I had never heard of the first congresswoman in U.S. history. I also did not know that she cast a dissenting vote in the decision to enter World War I and decades later, when elected to Congress again, she cast the single vote against entering into World War II. She was committed to the ideal of peace and social justice for all and vehemently argued against military conflict at all costs. In many ways, Rankin was a true American hero -- she spoke her mind, regardless of the political cost. (Both times her votes against war led to her not being re-elected.) Why I never learned about her in school is a mystery, but fortunately Woelfle has done an excellent job of writing a primer on the feminist icon’s life that any student of American politics would enjoy.

In putting together this biography, the author ingeniously used photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, campaign materials, drawings and other documents to illustrate her well-researched text. Every page includes an illustration of some kind and many also have quotes from Rankin. Woelfle covers her subject’s life from birth in Montana until her death ninety-three years later in California. Her pet projects, family and interests are all discussed, making the text far from a dry academic paper. Rankin comes across as someone that readers will understand and whether or not they agree with all her decisions they will certainly find much to admire. She fought long and hard to get women the right to vote, even after she was elected solely by men to Congress. She also fought hard for fair working conditions for her constituents and struggled against corporate power on every front. It would be easy to say that Rankin was a woman before her time but clearly her voice was needed. It is this outspokenness and lack of fear that truly impressed me the most while reading her biography, and also made me curious to find out more on this fascinating woman.

I often think that nonfiction writers for children and young adults are one of the most ignored group of authors in publishing. They do so much hard work to present a product for readers who might find their books wonderful but don’t generate the kind of bulk buying power necessary to garner strong notice. I don’t have any idea why Woelfle chose to write about Jeanette Rankin but she deserves worthy attention for doing so. She has brought a great woman of American history to the forefront with this book and hopefully, will bring both her subject and herself the sort of praise that both women deserve.

Author Jack Batten explores the life of another famous woman in history, Nurse Edith Cavell, in his title Silent in an Evil Time. Cavell, who was executed by firing squad because of her efforts saving Allied soldiers during the First World War, is more widely known than Rankin as her death is one of the reasons often cited for the uprising of anti-German sentiment in America. Batten goes far beyond the paragraph or two in the standard history text however, and explains how she became a nurse, why she traveled to Belgium for a job and the way in which Cavell and others developed an intricate and highly successful underground operation to save French, British and Belgian soldiers caught behind the forward German lines. While he dwells a great deal on her wartime work, readers will also be intrigued to find out why she never married and the fate of the apparent one true love of her life. His story, which hinges on a nervous disorder, is especially poignant in light of modern medical achievements. If this couple were alive today they most certainly would have had their happily ever after, which would have kept Cavell in France and changed history in countless ways. (These sorts of stories always make me think of Harlan Ellison’s classic “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of Star Trek.)

Silent is a no-brainer for all those school reports on historical figures but it is also such an unusual story -- a woman who played a critical role during a time of war and died so publicly for it -- that I hope it will be more widely read. Batten includes a lot of photographs as well which readers will enjoy perusing, but the big draw here is the story of a woman who faced a firing squad and believed until the end that “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”

I can’t think of a more compelling general history book for teens than Laban Carrick Hill’s beautifully designed America Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the ‘60s. With chapters on everything from hippies, to the Black Panthers to the origins of the environmental movement, Hill cuts a huge swath through all the powerful moments of the decade that changed everything. For the purposes of the young adult readers though, it is the way he focuses on the actions of young people that will make this book a true winner. Taking to the streets was never a more useful tool than in the '60s, and while it's easy to dismiss Woodstock or other events as more about partying and drugs than social change, Hill peels back all the flower power cover to show the significant efforts of a lot of people who dedicated their lives to political, social and cultural change. This is an impressive achievement and way better than standard textbook fare. (The stories behind Our Bodies, Ourselves, the American Indian Movement and the Chicano Moratorium are all here -- how can you resist this book?)

Using big bold colorful fonts and varying typefaces, as well as a ton of graphics, photographs, posters and all kinds of other images, Hill makes America Dreaming a history book that would be at home on coffee tables. He gives us not just the quotes we expect, but those we never bothered to learn. (“The only time that nonviolence has been admired is when the Negroes practiced it.” -- James Baldwin) In all, this book is a gorgeous package of critical and crucial American history. It’s readable and invites an enormous amount of future study in all sorts of different directions. War, politics, music, money; you can find it all in America Dreaming. Get this for teens who think their lives don’t matter, and then challenge them to do something about it.

Growing up just down the road from Ormond Beach, I followed the career of world champion surfer Lisa Andersen from the beginning. Her story, told now by former Surfing editor Nick Carroll, is the sort of class and gender struggle that you hardly ever find in YA fiction, let alone nonfiction. There are a lot of books that Lisa Andersen’s story could have been -- big flashy titles full of Roxy gear, glossy magazine photos and glory day reminiscences -- but thankfully, Fearlessness is none of those. This is the story of a teenager from a difficult household who ran away to the California beaches determined to take her athletic talent as far as she could. She had more than one bad relationship (and more than one good one), was homeless for awhile and still got to the top of her sport and then proved herself capable of holding that position even after she had a baby. (Surfing is one of the most physical sports in the world; doing it pregnant and post-childbirth at the level where Andersen performed could not have been easy.) But all of that is not what makes this book such an excellent choice for teens. Surfers will want to read it and female athletes will enjoy the story of a woman who made it to the top, but any teenager who ever felt trapped and alone by circumstance, any teen who knew her parents were never going to understand, that her life was on a deadend trajectory with high school fading into a crap job at some low-paying retail outlet, needs to know how Lisa Andersen made it. They need to know that you can do anything -- anything -- when you work your ever loving ass off at it.

There are tons of pictures in Fearlessness, from Andersen’s grade school years to Annie Leibovitz’s iconic beach shot, and a ton of water moments in between. But mostly Carroll has put together a title that salutes one small town girl who was crazy determined to find a way to make a living at what she loved. Andersen is a complicated subject; she doesn’t make all the right choices and even when she is at the top of her game she still suffers from lapses of self-confidence that clearly confuse her friends. Her moments of anger or indecision will just endear her all the more to teen readers however, and show that you don’t always have it together to get where you want to go. You don’t have to have all the answers in other words, to make your life a lot better.

As a U.P.I. correspondent, Wilborn Hampton was in a unique position to cover international events and writes about two of them: the Jordanian Civil War, known as Black September, and the Yom Kippur War, in War in the Middle East: A Reporter’s Story. It is unlikely that most western teens will know about either of these conflicts (one in 1970, the other in 1973), and adults will also find much in this gripping title to keep their attention. Hampton does an excellent job of providing enough history to explain who the major players are and why they felt the way did (there is also an excellent map of the region before and after the 1967 War which set up the events to follow). You can come to War in the Middle East with practically no knowledge of why the Palestinians, Israelis, Egyptians and Syrians would be close to armed conflict and still have a quick grip on what happened in the region in the 1970s. Understanding these short wars goes a long way toward understanding events in the area today, and why the Middle East remains such a tense part of the world.

Hampton has included a ton of photographs, and also keeps the narrative very personal as he recounts his own tense moments in areas under fire. He never strays into taking sides -- in fact he makes it clear that it is impossible to place white and black hats on any side and that most of the people in the crossfire are just trying to stay alive. War in the Middle East is a no-brainer choice for research or home schooling but please consider reading this one just so you could learn something about the world. Highly readable, well researched, elegantly put together -- this title has everything going for it along with a subject that commands as much intelligent conversation as it can garner. Consider it yet one more example of why nonfiction for children and young adults deserves an enormous amount of respect and then go give it some attention of your own.

Finally, Nicola Griffith’s multimedia memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes From a Writer’s Early Life was published as an adult title but as I was reading through it I could not shake the feeling that there are a lot of music-loving, writerly sorts out there in high schools across America that would love this collection of mini books along with CD and other artifacts from Griffith’s life. The five books cover the period from childhood to attending Clarion and her decision to move to the US (a decision prompted by love -- it’s all in the books). But more than anything Party is an excellent coming-of-age tale about a fearless writer who is willing to share all the dark corners in her life in pursuit of gaining answers and personal insight. Griffith is a great talent (see my review last summer of her latest book, Always) and she has been there/done that in a major way. Teens are always looking for someone who will understand them -- anyone who might have understood just how complicated adolescence can be -- and Griffith is one of those people. Her memoir is an outstanding example of just what you can do with this kind of story and its design is head and shoulders above any other book I’ve seen in years. Somewhere out there a pissed off seventeen-year-old is looking for a reason to believe in the future; give her Griffith’s book and she will know she’s not alone, she will know that what happens next might just might make this whole growing up nightmare worth it.

As usual, you can find me at chasingray.com where conversation on books for teens and adults continues five days a week.

Cool Read: Michael Morpurgo’s I Believe in Unicorns is one of those quirky books that defies easy classification and thus lives in danger of being overlooked. At only 66 pages and beautifully illustrated by Gary Blythe it seems to be closer to picture book status than novel. But with a story that sits firmly in the realm of war and conflict while also managing to include a fable about the history of unicorns, it is most definitely not written for the very young.

Young Tomas lives in an unnamed mountain village far from bustling cities and their politics. Early on his mother takes him to the town library. He doesn’t want to go -- the children present for the story hour are all much younger than him -- but he has no choice and is lured out of a hiding place in the shelves by both the very friendly new librarian and an amazing carved unicorn. It is the librarian’s stories that keep all of the children transfixed and soon Tomas and many of his friends turn the library into the most popular children’s destination in town.

There are hints as the story progresses of a distant war, but when it does come to the village so suddenly and shockingly, readers will be as surprised as the children. Everyone runs for their lives, the village is horribly damaged and in the midst of the chaos the library catches on fire. To save the books the children and townspeople must help each other and work together. In that moment of cooperation and dedication there is a small miracle and proof that amazing things can happen even in the face of death.

This is what war is, you could tell the child reading I Believe in Unicorns; absolute insanity. Saving books in the face of such madness is the height of nobility but one wonders if that is ever really enough. As Tomas learns though, at least it is doing something good to save your own part of the world for the future. Bravo Michael Morpurgo for crafting this message in a way that children will understand, and also to Candlewick for making this book so lovely and articulate that even teenagers will enjoy what it has to say.