December 2010

Colleen Mondor


Nonfiction Books for Curious Young Readers: 2010 Edition

As always, I have spent the past few months combing the catalogs looking for nonfiction that will appeal to teens, even if they're not the intended audience. The end result is a collection of titles ranging from a picture book stunner on Jimi Hendrix (the images must be seen to be believed), to Edith Wharton as literary rock star, to the “notorious Benedict Arnold,” whose story is a lot more complex then you might think. Most intriguing, though, is a relatively unknown British gentlemen who tested the rules of his local post office for decades. He is, simply, the coolest stamp collector ever -- even though he didn’t really collect stamps at all, but rather used them for a lifetime of eccentric postal adventures. (He mailed himself!) John Tingey’s The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects is exactly what I think of when I picture nonfiction that can get teens excited. Beautifully designed, and heavily illustrated by Princeton Architectural Press, this is a book that certain readers will find good as gold.

Tingey starts off Englishman with a bit of a philatelic treasure hunt, recalling an auction discovery of “strangely addressed postcards that travelled through the British post between 1898 and 1899.” The author bought the cards, and promptly filed them away in his office until three years later when he noted a similar card on eBay. Then two years later he found more, and, too curious to resist any longer, embarked on the trail of W. Reginald Bray, a man who had way more fun with the postal system than any of us can imagine.

In the chapters that follow, Tingey provides biographical data on Bray, including an explanation of how he actually mailed himself and his bicycle. There’s photographic proof, plus the receipt his father signed when the special “package” arrived. It is clear that Bray initially was on a lark to test the postal regulations by mailing odd things (a turnip, rabbit skull, embroidered envelopes), and then began addressing postcards in odd ways such as “any person in London” (not delivered), or “the Proprietor of the most remarkable hotel in the world on the road between Santa Cruz and San Jose, California” (it got to the Hotel de Redwood, which was built in live trees and stumps in the Santa Cruz Mountains). In every case he asked the cards be signed and returned to him, and thus slowly obtained one of the largest autograph collections in the world. The combination of celebrity (he sent cards to military commanders, politicians, movie stars, etc.) and mail art makes Bray’s hobby both singular and charming. There is nothing else like it, and because of the inclusion of so many gorgeously photographed examples, Tingey’s salute to this endlessly curious man will likely inspire everyone from amateur historians to artists. Personally, I plan to mail out some postcards of my own in tribute to Bray’s example -- we'll see what I accomplish in the 21st century to compare to his efforts from one hundred years ago.

I will confess: of all the authors I thought might be compelling subjects for teen biographies, Edith Wharton never came close. But Connie Wooldridge’s The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton is not only gorgeous to hold and peruse (the design is outstanding, from the textured dust jacket to the abundance of photographs), but the story is a true shocker. Remember the old adage “keeping up with the Joneses”? Well, Edith’s family was the Joneses, and in the post-Civil War New York she was born into, doing what was expected was no easy thing. To wit:

It was becoming uncomfortably clear to Lucretia Jones that her daughter, Edith, was, in fact, different. Edith did love clothes. That was a relief. But Edith’s other world of books and ideas was pulling her in a direction Lucretia found mysterious and unsettling. One of the fictional characters Edith later created would describe the "universe of thought" as an "enchanted region which, to those who have lingered, comes to have so much more colour and substance." Lucretia never "lingered" in that particular "enchanted region" and she certainly didn’t think it was a good place for her daughter to be lingering.

What Edith needed to do was marry the right man, hopefully the right man with money. But that wasn’t so easy for a bookish girl who gamely attended all the proper social functions, but still could not land the catch her mother wanted. Her first engagement failed for reasons never fully explained, but the story that ran in The Newport Daily News (that's Newport as in Rhode Island, home of the highest society of the time) didn’t help Edith’s reputation:

The only reason assigned for the breaking of the engagement hitherto existing between Henry Stevens and Miss Edith Jones is an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride. Miss Jones is an ambitious authoress, and it is said that, in the eyes of Mr. Stevens, ambition is a grievous fault.

Zam and pow. That’s the end of a glorious coming-out season, isn’t it? Wooldridge goes on to describe Wharton’s continued writing efforts and the moment when she met Walter Berry, the man who became, “in Edith’s own words, ‘the Love of my life’.” She also met the man she would marry (sadly, not Walter Berry), and from there a whole lifetime of companionship, loyalty, literary acclaim and search for love (which always included Berry) followed. Reading about Wharton’s life enriches the experience of reading her novels (especially The House of Mirth) tenfold. I can’t imagine assigning her books without assigning Wooldridge’s as well -- they should go hand in hand -- but even more so, Brave Escape should be mandatory reading for any bookish young woman who dreams of moving beyond her family’s expectations in an unorthodox manner. As much as Janis Joplin’s life (more on Port Arthur's favorite daughter below) is about getting out of Texas to sing her heart out, Edith Wharton’s was about getting away from society’s expectations to pour out her own on paper. She is far more fascinating than I ever gave her credit for (or, rather, than I was led to believe in classroom discussion). Wooldridge makes Wharton the kind of literary heroine that Louisa May Alcott or Emily Dickinson have exemplified for decades. What a truly revolutionary woman and fascinating book. Loved it, plain and simple.

Lincoln’s Flying Spies falls into one of those “stuff you didn’t know about the Civil War, and is wicked cool” categories that get so often overlooked in traditional retellings of the war. A zillion books have been written about Lincoln, and yet how many are there about Thaddeus Lowe and the Balloon Corps who constituted, quite frankly, the very first U.S. air force? (Historians can argue all they want. They were in the air. They gathered valuable intelligence. They got shot at. They were the first air force, period.) Gail Jarrow has created a real gem with this title -- she has an irresistibly interesting subject (hot air balloons in war!), lots of photographs and quotes from people who were there -- and all of it is a perfect example of not realizing the value of what you had when you had it. In other words, there’s a reason why no one mentions the use of balloons at Gettysburg. In spite of providing a lot in information in prior battles, Union commanders decided not to fund their use anymore, and Thaddeus Lowe and his fellow aeronauts were pretty much done. And that’s just so wrong, I don’t even know where to begin.

As much as Lincoln’s Flying Spies is about the use of hot air balloons by the North however (the Confederacy never was able to operate one successfully), it is also about Lowe, who was already a pioneering aeronaut when the war began. From the very beginning, he saw what balloons could do by viewing enemy encampments and troop movements from the air. Although tethered during their ascensions for safety, Lowe and his fellow aeronauts, along with the military officers who ascended with them, were able to determine if the Confederates were preparing attacks, retreating, changing positions or gathering forces. While communication with the ground during battles was difficult (Lowe tried to assemble telegraph lines so he could report on troop movements in real-time), there were still many officers, on both sides, who acknowledged the powerful impact the balloons had on the fighting. Jarrow explains all of this, and also places readers right in the heart of the battles -- a place that a lot of history buffs will especially enjoy. She provides enough about Lowe to make him fodder for many school biography assignments and another unsung American to emulate. Here’s hoping this title finds its way into the hands of backyard inventors, would-be aviators and every kid plotting war games on the bedroom floor.

Steve Sheinkin has a killer tagline on the cover of his new book The Notorious Benedict Arnold. In this “true story of adventure, heroism and treachery,” Arnold is described as “America’s Original Action Hero.” It might be difficult for the average elementary school graduate to believe that the man who tried to hand over West Point to the British could ever be anything other than the Revolutionary War’s most infamous traitor -- and yet Sheinkin, who has authored several outstanding history books for younger teens, does an excellent job of humanizing Arnold and making him someone readers will understand. The author makes clear in fact that his heroics early in the war can not and should not be denied and there is a solid argument to be made from the evidence here that without Arnold, Washington would not have made it successfully through the first years of the war. This makes the fact that it is only in spite of Arnold that America eventually was victorious that much more difficult to accept. All of our history hinged on a few moments when  Benedict Arnold led our troops into battle, and then later, when he did his best to destroy the American military.

Sheinkin keeps readers on the edge of their seats as he shows the many key moments Arnold was part of, and then the slow unraveling of his character, which led to his final fateful choice. He should have been a general lauded along with Washington, Ethan Allen, Nathaniel Greene and Lafayette, and by placing him with the great military leaders of the Revolution, Sheinkin more than proves his book's relevance. I found Arnold an incredibly compelling figure, and his tragic fall -- due largely to his own hubris, although certainly helped by the politics of a Congress terrified of strong military personalities, and a young wife enamored with financial success -- is truly sad to read about. In fact, there is much of The Notorious Benedict Arnold that is sad because you know it’s going to end badly for the main character. The hook here is that Sheinkin manages to make you care about a story whose ending is common knowledge. It’s his authorial gift to make history come alive and why I recommend all of his books to teens eager for what their teachers have no time to share. Especially consider Notorious for reluctant older teen readers, as this is not an author who talks down to his audience. All the smart kids should be reading Sheinkin before they pick up Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin; he’s a true talent at knowing his audience as well (if not better) than he knows his subject.

Tanya Lee Stone deservedly received many kudos for her last book about women in the early days of the U.S. space program, Almost Astronauts. She's followed it with a unusual pop culture biography, The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact On Us. This heavily-illustrated title looks not only at the doll, but at the woman who invented her and the history of the Mattel toy company. In many ways, Stone has written one of the most accessible business books for MG and YA readers I’ve ever seen. Barbie is certainly the point, but she’s not the only interesting thing here, and her story is about a lot more than blonde hair and high heels than most people realize.

You have to live under a rock not to be familiar with the Barbie name. It’s odd how some things can so permeate our culture that even when people do not own an object, they still know what it is, and question what what it represents. Barbie has been dragged through the mud as “bad for young girls” due to her unattainable body dimensions; as racist, due to her Caucasian looks (it was 1980 before the first black Barbie appeared); and as sexist, due to more than a few dubious fashion statements (not to mention the infamous Teen Talk Barbie “Math class is tough” scandal of 1992). Stone includes all of that and more, while balancing the stories of those who found inspiration in Barbie, a long look at the many careers she was dressed for over the years (soldier, race car driver, veterinarian, astronaut!), and an irresistible section on Barbie fashion and Barbie as art. As she points out, Barbie was designed first and foremost as a fashion doll, a more durable alternative to popular paper dolls. She was never intended to be the face of American women in doll form or the unlikely inspiration to generations of American girls. After all, did anyone look to Chatty Cathy for career advice? Somehow, though, Barbie slipped into the public zeitgeist and now we're all stuck with her.

The Good, the Bad and the Barbie goes a long way towards deconstructing just how a toy is created, the atmosphere in which it can “take off,” and the manner in which something becomes a phenomenon. You can hope for pop culture stardom, she points out, but you can’t force it. What Stone does is show how it happened in this instance, and then everything else that has followed in fame’s wake. (My personal favorite chapter was the one about all the ways Barbie has been stripped naked and parted out over the years. This makes me realize that my brother, who hung our cousin’s headless Barbies from the curtain rods to torment her when she came home from school, really was perfectly normal. Big sigh of relief.) Adult aficionados are going to enjoy this book for all the nostalgia, and I certainly recommend it as an unorthodox gift for adults. But teens should look to it as an excellent example of studying our culture, consumer buying habits, and gender studies. There's a lot to learn from Stone’s research, and a lot of enjoyment in store while turning these pages.

What are the odds that I would receive books on both Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in the same month? Ann Angel’s Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing is written for young adults, and captures both the powerful spirit and wry tenderness of the great rock and blues icon. The temptation to make Joplin’s life a cautionary tale for teens is enormous, but Angel, while clear that the singer fell victim to substance abuse she could not control, does not offer her life as something to fear. Joplin lived large, in a celebration of her powerful voice and a powerful love for family and friends. Her death is a tragedy, plain and simple, and the only lesson offered here is how sad it is that we didn’t have her with us for many more decades of soul.

After a brief introduction from longtime bandmate Sam Andrews, Angel follows Joplin’s life from her upbringing in the refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas, to the fame she found with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the adulation at the Monterey Pop Festival, and her long struggles with alcohol and drugs (especially heroin). While all of this is fascinating (and well worthy of discussion), teens will likely identify most with Joplin’s high school struggle to fit in with her classmates in a time that demanded conformity above all else. In the 1950s, Angel writes, “Being smart wasn’t as important as behaving like a good, churchgoing American.” Joplin found herself gravitating to the words of the new, explosive writers of the Beat Generation, and in spite of her membership in the Future Teachers of America, glee club, and school newspaper, she couldn’t hide who she was. Soon enough, she was traveling with a group of guy friends to blues clubs and roadhouses, and trading in her proper Peter Pan collars for art and pondering the wide world beyond her company town. Clearly, Joplin was always destined for something more; it was her voice that decided her path, and her insatiable need for friendship that drove her on a search for fame that demanded artificial means to support it.

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing is no celebrity biography, but rather a deep look into the life of a talented artist. Heavily illustrated with photographs, this is also the dream of what might have been. If only, if only, if only Janis had not needed her fans so much, then maybe she would have survived to continue singing for them. Here’s hoping this title gets some teen readers to seek out her music -- an achievement that Angel would likely be thrilled to make happen.

Jimi Hendrix makes an excellent picture book subject in Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow by Gary Golio, with stunning illustrations by Javaka Steptoe. Wisely focusing on the rock legend’s younger years, Jimi follows his childhood as he was raised by his single parent father, and hung out in Seattle with close friends who shared his love of music. The story of how he acquired his first guitar is here, as are the artists who inspired him early on. Mostly, though, Golio focuses on how Hendrix “saw” music, how sound dominated his life, and his lifelong embrace of music, which transformed him into a singular talent. The text is engaging and interesting, but the illustrations -- holy cow, the illustrations -- are incredible. Steptoe uses layers of colors to fill the pages, and then collages over them in a manner that makes not only images, but textures, leap off the page. Jimi is not only a story, but a work of art -- a perfect homage to its subject. All in all, this is a class act all the way, and would be appreciated by Jimi Hendrix fans of any age. (Teens and adults will surely appreciate it for the thing of beauty that it is.) And Golio includes not only a note on Hendrix’s tragic early death (where he discusses that addiction can be prevented and treated), but also links to websites and other books on the musician. One of the more impressive gift books I’ve come across; Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow is truly great reading for fans of all ages.