Kid Lit Review of “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan

This book is bound to appeal to both children and adults, especially adults who are fans of Bob Dylan.

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The book features the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song, “Forever Young,” which first appeared in 1974 on Dylan’s album “Planet Waves.”

The illustrator, Paul Rogers, uses his ink and acrylic pictures to recreate important events from Dylan’s life, as well as to highlight historical moments and cultural artifacts from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

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These moments aren’t really identified as such, however. Rather, he prefers the reader to discover these hidden gems independently. But he includes a guide at the back of the book. For example, parents may immediately recognize the folk singer on the title page as Woody Guthrie. Does it matter if you don’t? Of course not. It just adds a bit of fun if you do.

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A double page spread in the middle (accompanying the lyrics “May you always know the truth, And see the lights surrounding you”) show two kids studying. But for those who look closely, you’ll find the famous poster of Dylan on back of the bedroom door, a picture of iconic actor James Dean on the wall, the “Meet the Beatles” album on the dresser, and an open copy of the book On the Road on the chair, just to mention a few of the “buried treasures” in the picture.

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Dylan is one of the most poetic of modern song lyricists, and his simple rhythmic phrases will appeal to the children as much as they probably once did to their parents:

May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young…

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young…”

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Evaluation: This book can be used two ways. It contains great messages about self-esteem. It is also a wonderful way for children to learn about Dylan, his times, and his music. Although these particular lyrics don’t require Dylan’s raspy, bluesy voice to help convey his ideas, if you can provide the soundtrack for this book as you read, all the better! (The book itself does not include the music.)

Rating: 4/5

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2008

Bob Dylan in April 1965

Bob Dylan in April 1965

Review of “We Are The Goldens” by Dana Reinhardt

The author employs some common YA tropes: first person narration in the form of a letter by a teenage girl; intimations of a secret (one that is, however, in this story not very hidden); a boy best friend (male best friends in YA books tend to be either gay OR The One You Should Have Been In Love With All This Time); and the usual high school travails of bullying, sexual pressure, drugs and alcohol, and image control.

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This book differs from the rest only in that the protagonist Nell is addressing her letter to her big sister Layla.

15-year-old Nell and 17-year-old Layla have always been close, especially because their parents divorced early, but now, just when they are back in the same school again, Layla is pulling away from Nell. There are rumors about what Layla is up to, but Layla denies everything when questioned by Nell. Meanwhile, there is also vicious gossip bruiting about Nell.

Eventually, Nell discovers something about Layla that gets her very worried. She wonders if she should seek advice from her BFF Felix about Layla, but wouldn’t that be a betrayal of Layla? And Felix has his own (more serious) family problems with which to contend.

Evaluation: I didn’t think there was much to this book. The author throws out a number of possible plot lines that get pushed to the background in deference to the main dilemma, which didn’t seem all that momentous to me. A number of threads were left hanging, in fact, so much so that you might think this was only the first book of a trilogy (but it’s not).

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc., 2014

Review of “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

Many books about the Nazi experience are set in concentration camps, and it takes a lot of mental fortitude to keep reading such accounts. This powerful, emotionally affecting and unforgettable story takes place in the Nazi period, but the focus is more on the impact of Nazism on non-Jews, and in particular, on the German children it was supposed to benefit. It is one of the best books I read all year.

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Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the blind daughter of a widowed French locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Her story is told in alternate chapters with that of Werner Pfennig, an orphaned boy who has a knack for electronics from a coal mining town in Germany. Further, their stories alternate in time between 1934 and 1944.

Marie-Laure’s father adores her and promises he will never leave her, but he knows the war is coming and he can’t predict what will happen. He pushes her to learn her way around the cities in which they live (after the German invasion, they flee Paris for the coastal city of Saint-Malo in Brittany) so that she can survive on her own if necessary. He builds her intricate wooden models of the houses and buildings around them so she can “read” these like Braille maps. On each birthday, he hides gifts for her inside little boxes with trap doors or false bottoms or sides to enhance her ability to sense by touch. He buys her a Braille edition of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a story that takes place in a world far away from the light, and it fascinates her.

Meanwhile, Werner’s ability with radios has won him a place at the national Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta, a brutal place where young boys are shaped into Nazis serving the Reich. The training has two main objectives: military readiness, and the discipline and will to be cruel. It is an illuminating study of how children in oppressive societies are turned into killers. Werner sometimes secretly harbors doubts about the morality of the program but lacks the courage to act on these doubts (and with some justification – it does not end well for a boy who does try to exercise choice).

When Marie-Laure and her father are forced to leave Paris, her father is trusted with custody of a valuable gem from the museum to hide it from the Nazis, who were notoriously confiscating the culture and wealth of subjected peoples for Germany’s greater glory. Nazi Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is on a particular quest to find the magnificent diamond taken by Marie-Laure’s father. Legends hold that the gem will confer immortality on its owner.

All of these characters are connected by some form of light (both visible and invisible), but in addition, as the story builds, we get an increasing sense of the characters being pushed into darkness; crushed – literally and figuratively, spiritually and physically. Away from the light, there is moral decay, madness, and senseless violence. But this too binds the characters and increases their awareness of the alternative.

In the end, the pull of both the light and the darkness draws the characters into a complex web and a tension-filled climax that never rings a false or unrealistic note.

Discussion: Doerr is excellent at invoking the pain of the survivors – just the sheer missing of those they have lost. One of the characters wonders, in a mixture of pain and hope, if the souls of all those people so well loved and so sadly lost might be traveling invisible paths like the light waves:

…is it so hard to believe that [those souls]… might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.”

Indeed, whether metaphorical or real, because of war or just because of life, this is what it feels like for anyone who has ever suffered a loss. The loved ones are gone, but their words and influence remain, somewhere in the invisible light.

Is there a possibility of recovery? Can they, like snails, repair their own injured parts? Can they learn to reconcile themselves to what they have left? Some of them can, and for them, the light breaks through the clouds. For others, the light just shows the path for a bullet to hit its mark.

Evaluation: This is a magnificent story, with equal parts of suffocating tragedy and redeeming light and love. In this book, we hear the voices of the last great war, and what it did to those in its wake. The author enables us to imagine vividly what it was like to be alive at that time, subject to the same piercing fears and privations, facing the same obstacles and moral dilemmas, and confronted with both the depths of depravity and the heights of heroism. While the subject matter is dark, the story is told with poetic eloquence and poignant compassion. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, 2014

Review of “Philosophy: An Illustrated History of Thought” by Tom Jackson

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The study of philosophy has the reputation of being dry or boring, but nothing could be further from the case. In fact, almost every question you have asked yourself or argue about at parties has been thoroughly considered by philosophers: Has the universe always existed? Is human nature to blame for aggression and greed? Is there such a thing as “natural law” governing morality, or must we have an overlay of religion to keep us decent? Is the female mind the same as the male mind? Do our brains operate like computers, or is there a soul? How do our ways of seeing affect our realities?

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Many of you will remember the scene in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in which the narrator explains that, as a young boy, he once drew a picture of a boa constrictor with an elephant digesting in its stomach. To his surprise, every adult who saw the picture mistakenly interpreted it as a drawing of a hat. Readers were delighted, but in fact the nature of this illusion had already been explored in depth by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who used the “duckrabbit” to show how different perspectives could identify the creature (shown below) as either a duck or a rabbit.

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In fact, you will learn the origin of many popular cultural memes in this book (as well as the origin of the idea of “memetics”).

Readers are bound to find much of interest in this colorful guide to 100 of the greatest ideas in the history of thought.

Philosophy: An Illustrated History reviews, in a chronological progression, significant developments in thinking about ethics, religion, politics, justice, pleasure, friendship, language, perceptual frameworks, and how we make decisions, among other ideas.

The author does an excellent job in explaining complex doctrines succinctly and understandably. Obviously he can’t be totally comprehensive, but for those wondering about ideas you hear about in conversation or see on t-shirts, like “Schrödinger’s cat,” “The Liar’s Paradox” or “paradigm shifts,” this book will give you a well-written summary.

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After the author reviews his selection of the top 100 philosophical concepts – explained with the help of photos and sidebars, he then explores the field of philosophy itself, appending a section on schools of philosophy. For each school, he provides a short synopsis of its main thrust, as well as a list of the school’s leading figures, major works, notable quotes, and relevant questions for discussion (e.g., Do ends justify the means? Does everything happen for a reason?)

He extends his list of top ideas explored in the past with a glimpse at new issues being debated by philosophers, such as whether or not it is fair that justice is distributed unequally among rich and poor.

A short biography of some of the greatest philosophers follows. The author does a nice job here too, managing to convey the gist of their discoveries along with some of their quirks and “fun stuff” about them. (For example, Plato’s real name was Aristocles, but (as some stories claim) his wrestling teacher gave him the name of “Plato” meaning “broad” in reference to Aristocles’ wide figure and wrestling stance.)

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Finally, a large foldout included with the book gives over 1,000 milestone facts. This poster includes a timeline showing important events corresponding to the expression of philosophical ideas in the areas of Culture, World Events, and Science & Invention.

Evaluation: This book would make an excellent gift, either as a coffee table book for intermittent perusal and a goad to discussion; as a book for students to help them in school; or as an introduction to the most important things we know about what we are, where we came from, and where we might be heading.

Shelter Harbor Press is producing a series of these graphical books on breakthroughs that changed history. Previous topics have been about the elements, mathematics, physics, and the universe.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Shelter Harbor Press, 2014

Kid Lit Review of “Gravity” by Jason Chin

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In very simple and very understandable words – sometimes only one per page – Jason Chin explains what gravity does and why it is so important. He doesn’t say what it is until an Afterword, in which he supplies more (but not exceedingly) complex details about gravity. I think he does a great job.

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The watercolor illustrations also by Chin are striking, while also playful and fun, choosing objects to depict that will resonate with children.

The author said in an interview:

I want kids to read my books and be really excited about the topic and want to know more .… I want the books to be something that gets them curious and makes them wonder, and sparks their imaginations.”

He certainly achieves his goals.

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Evaluation: This book offers a great way to get small kids (lower elementary) interested in science.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, 2014

Review of “The Low Road” by A.D. Scott

This is the fifth book in a somewhat cozy murder mystery series set in the late 1950’s in the Scottish Highlands. The recurring characters operate a small newspaper, the Highland Gazette. Sometimes, in order to get the bottom of a story, they end up investigating and solving a crime as well.

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In this book, Highland Gazette editor John McAllister is taking care of his fiancée, Joanne Ross – one of the reporters on the Gazette. In the previous book, Joanne received a brain injury at the hands of a psychopath, and she has not yet recovered. McAllister has taken her into his house to recuperate, along with her two girls, Annie, 11 1/2, and “wee Jean,” 9, as well as Joanne’s former mother-in-law, Granny Ross, who is helping with the girls.

The wedding they had scheduled is just six weeks away, but McAllister is full of misgivings:

What if she’s never herself again? What if Joanne is never again the woman I love, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with?”

McAllister is ashamed of having these thoughts, and yet he can’t deny them. But in spite of his shame, he craves normality. He longs “to escape the troupe of doctors and nurses and police and friends and parents-in-law ….”

And there is more that is bothering McAllister. Although he transformed the Highland Gazette, elevating it from a boring local broadsheet, it will never be the kind of exciting career he had when he was working for Glasgow’s Herald as a renowned war correspondent in Europe. And Glasgow itself – so much more exciting than the sleepy, though beautiful, Highlands. The technicolor of his youth, he is thinking, has dimmed to sepia. McAllister is starting to feel very trapped, and spends much too much time drinking whiskey.

Just at his most vulnerable, McAllister is asked by an old friend, Jenny McPhee, to help find her grown son Jimmy, gone missing in Glasgow. McAllister’s mother, still in Glasgow, has also contacted McAllister about Jimmy. McAllister goes to his old workplace at The Glasgow Herald for help, and there meets Mary Ballantyne, a young (28), pretty, ambitious reporter who senses a good story and decides to help McAllister. McAllister not only has to navigate the dangerous waters of gang feuds in Glasgow, but deal with his own desires to escape his quiet life; damaged fiancée; inherited family obligations back in the Highlands; and his growing attraction to Mary and to the youth she represents. And while Joanne may not be herself, she understands enough to be terrified that McAllister may not return.

Discussion: Scott has taken us through the emotional ups and downs of these characters in previous books, and the realistic way they are drawn is very impressive. In addition, the author has a knack for making the settings come to life as well, whether the atmospheric beauty of the Highlands or desolation of the post-war landscape of Glasgow:

…it was a tall, soot-blackened tenement block, one that had survived the carpet bombing of Clydeside. They parked in front of an empty block, bright with fireweed and broken glass, which had not been so lucky. Shipyard cranes filled the skyline to the right. And litter and dust and empty dreams tumbled in a wind coming off the river.”

Scott also beautifully captures the guilt so many caretakers feel, with the feelings of being ready to scream from frustration and even resentment, while also hating themselves for wanting to escape.

Evaluation: I value this series more for the portrayal of life in the 1950’s Scottish Highlands than for the crime story per se. In addition, I have come to care about the characters, and look forward to seeing what befalls them. In spite of often having quite a convoluted mystery as the plot, these books stand out more to me as well-made portraits of a fascinating time and place, in which an endearing and very human group of people struggle to achieve self-fulfillment and happiness.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2014

Review of “The Infinite Sea” by Rick Yancey

Note: There are no spoilers in this review (so basically I pretty much don’t say much of anything).

This is the second book in the post-apocalyptic series that began with the widely-acclaimed The 5th Wave.

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Book One primarily focuses on Cassie Sullivan, 16, who survives four waves of attacks by alien invaders which took the population of Earth from some seven billion to only a couple hundred thousand. Cassie has a number of goals: to stay alive, to find her little brother and rescue him if he is still alive, and above all, to stay human. To become like the aliens – blindly killing, lacking compassion, and never recognizing the value of individuals – is to lose the war in every way. The probability of Cassie attaining any of her goals is low, until she is offered help by another survivor, Evan Walker. But this is a world in which it is very difficult to determine who can be trusted, or who is even human, because the enemy looks just like us.

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Book Two continues this riveting story, and this time it is the girl Ringer whose point of view dominates. And in this book, the survivors start questioning all of their previous beliefs, because they just don’t make sense.

Discussion: Yancey has created a story in which a small number of people are confronted by overwhelming odds against the possibility of survival. Yet, he never causes us to lose faith in realism. Yes, there are some technological advances in the plot, but they don’t seem out of the realm of possibility. There are not happy outcomes for all the main protagonists – far from it. And most importantly, there are no deus ex machini to help anyone survive. Only two factors seem to make any difference whatsoever: luck, and love, and even those don’t always suffice.

Evaluation: This book is definitely not a standalone, but is a must-read for fans of Book One; it has some big surprises in store for those who are following the series. I enjoyed it a lot, but it is definitely a trilogy “middle child.”

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014

Note: Hollywood is adapting the story, and has cast Chloë Grace Moretz as heroine Cassie Sullivan.

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