Kid Lit Review of “Grand Canyon” by Jason Chin

Jason Chin takes us on a tour through time and space to educate us about the Grand Canyon, which, at 277 miles long, is one of the largest canyons in the world. “It is more,” he writes, “than just a big hole in the ground.”

Following a young girl and her father on their trek along the South Kaibab Trail, the author shows the wide range of habitats, geological features, and wildlife that they would have seen on their walk. And yet, as he notes in the back matter, “despite travelling [sic] roughly 20 miles, descending a vertical mile down and up again, they’ve only seen a fraction of Grand Canyon. The canyon is simply too big for any one person to see it all, even in a lifetime of study.”

The watercolor illustrations by the author are terrific, beginning with the front matter which shows an overview of the canyon, to the back matter which provides a cross section of the geological strata. Throughout the book, the diagrams of rock formations, flora, fauna and so on are accompanied by identifying commentary. Occasional cut-outs let the reader see back in time, and a double gatefold vista gives an idea of how stunning the canyon appears to visitors.

Evaluation: Young people will spend hours pouring over this informative introduction to one of the great natural wonders of the country.

Rating: 5/5

A Neal Porter Book, published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, 2017

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Review of “50 Cities of the U.S.A.” by Gabrielle Balkan

This delightful gazetteer takes us on a tour of fifty cities of the U.S. Since I love both infographics and state trivia, it’s as if this book were made just for me, for it combines both of those features into one big book. The author and illustrator explain in the introduction that they “want to paint a picture of each city’s story.” They then show you how the book is organized: for each city, you get a “welcome box” with a quick introduction to the city, a map full of interesting trivia as well as key facts about the city, inspiring people, city icons, a neighborhood spotlight, and what a perfect day would be like in each city. There is one city profiled from each state in the Union.

Of course, like Gabrielle Balkan’s previous book highlighting the fifty states, you can always find people from the area objecting to what you did not choose to include. For example, Chicago is referred to by its nickname, “The Windy City” but most people assume this relates to the weather. People from outside the area always ask us about “all the wind.” I wish she would have mentioned that the term “Windy City” came into common usage when it was popularized by New York City editor, Charles Dana, during the bidding for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and actually referenced the “windbags” (braggarts) from the area, not the weather. (Or maybe it’s better if people don’t know that!)

In Boston, under “inspiring people” the author includes, among others, Matt Damon and Mindy Kaling! Really? None of the Adamses (John, Abigail, and John Quincey)? And what about Susan B. Anthony? No offense to the actors, but I think the others are a bit more inspiring.

Susan B. Anthony

In Tucson, there is a picture of a saguaro, but one of our most famous denizens (and my favorite), the javelina, is omitted. (Full Disclosure of Bias: I even have a javelina cookie cutter!)

Javelina (the “j” is pronounced as an “h”) mom & baby

The author highlights some local foods in Tucson, like the Sonoran Hot Dog and the Raspado (shaved ice soaked in fruit syrup and toppings), but what about margaritas and mojitos? I don’t think you can go anywhere in Tucson without encountering these latter two drinks – in particular that Tucson favorite, the Prickly Pear Margarita. (Perfect for downing one of the 30 different types of Tucson Tamales!) In fact, Tucson has such great things to eat and drink that in 2015 it became the first city in the U.S. to be designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy.

Prickly Pear Margarita

Milwaukee is one of my favorite cities too. The author mentions the Milwaukee Art Museum, but how can you not refer to the amazing building in which it is housed?

The Quadracci Pavilion is a sculptural, postmodern addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum completed in 2001, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The hall’s chancel is shaped like the prow of a ship, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over Lake Michigan. The signature wings, the Burke Brise Soleil, form a moveable sunscreen with a 217-foot wingspan. The entire structure weighs 90 tons. It takes 3.5 minutes for the wings to open or close, which happens Tuesday through Sunday around noon. It is truly one of the wonders of the country.

Washington, D.C. is my most favorite city of any city. How can you beat having so many museums and monuments, all with free admission? But again we have some rather odd choices for “inspiring people.” I love Taraji P. Henson, but is she really more inspiring than Frederick Douglass?

Also, the focus is very much on national, rather than local, aspects of the city. D.C. residents are proud of what the locals have to offer, from the legendary blueberry pancakes at the Saturday Eastern Market to the Maine Avenue Fish Market – a D.C. institution – to the glorious nature on display at Rock Creek Park and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, better known as the C&O Canal.

Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes at the Eastern Market

In addition, because African Americans make up more than half of the city’s population, D.C. offers a cornucopia of places to learn about, celebrate, and enjoy black history and culture, as well as contemporary black life. To name just one of these wonderful resources you can find in D.C., there is the Lincoln Theater (not to be confused with Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated, and where you can also visit). As the Lincoln Theater website explains:

“The Lincoln Theatre, built in 1922, was a cultural center of D.C., predating and influencing Harlem’s renaissance. Washington natives Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey were joined by nationally acclaimed artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughn who performed regularly on the storied stage. President Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrated his birthday parties at the Lincoln Colonnade, a party hall once located at the Theatre.”

The Howard Theater in the “U Street Corridor” of D.C. has a similar history. (All three of these theaters still feature regular performances.)

She also omits some of the most popular tourist attractions, including the Watergate Hotel (she mentions the Watergate Steps, but these are different: the steps are by the Lincoln Memorial and were originally intended to act as a dock for visiting dignitaries and politicians disembarking off the Potomac River); the stairs from the climax of the movie “The Exorcist” in the beautiful and historic neighborhood of Georgetown (which could have well provided a fascinating “neighborhood focus”); and the Dupont Circle area, where you can see locals playing chess and also visit one of the best indie bookstores specializing in history and politics, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. The Dupont Circle fountain, built by sculptor Daniel Chester French, is an iconic landmark of the city.

Dupont Circle Fountain

Then there is the 2-mile stretch along Massachusetts Avenue known as Embassy Row, which I think is a must-see area. There are dozens of gorgeous buildings that house diplomatic missions, each proudly displaying that country’s flag (usually with no other identifying marks so it’s a fun teaching opportunity). Often they also feature sculptures in front of the building highlighting one of the country’s heroes, ranging from the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial outside the Indian embassy to the statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk outside of the Turkish embassy.

Watergate Complex

Finally, I should mention that my favorite museum in Washington, D.C. is not one of the Smithsonian museums (rightfully) highlighted by the book but is rather the off-the-beaten-track National Geographic Museum. Not many tourists know about it, but it is a treasure with outstanding rotating exhibits.

National Geographic Museum Campus

But each city only gets a two-page spread, and the author and illustrator Sol Linero do a great job in packing the two pages with as much as they can. Moreover, as anyone knows, you can put ten people from a city in a room, and come up with ten totally different lists of its most iconic features. It doesn’t really matter; I love the parts that are included, and I love learning new things about all of these cities.

Evaluation: I may have my own personal preferences for what to include, but nevertheless, I love this book; it’s very fun, and would make a great gift.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Wide Eyed Editions, an imprint of The Quarto Group, 2017

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Review of “The Stars Beneath Our Feet” by David Barclay Moore

12-year-old Wallace (“Lolly”) Rachpaul lives in St. Nicholas Houses, a public housing project in Central Harlem, New York City. He lives alone with his mother; she and Lolly’s dad split up after his mother decided she preferred women. His mother has been in a happy relationship with her girlfriend Yvonne for a long time. But Lolly and his mother both still hurt from the loss of Lolly’s brother Jermaine; Jermaine got caught up in gangs and drugs and was shot and killed the previous Halloween. Lolly has still not dealt with the pain and guilt over Jermaine’s death.

Lolly loves legos, so in an effort to help Lolly cope, Yvonne starts bringing him great big bags full of legos she said that Tuttle’s, the toy store where she worked, was throwing out. She brings more and more, and Lolly starts to build a castle. It gets too big for their apartment, so he begins it again in a storeroom at the community center where he spends after-school.

Every day Lolly adds on to his castle he names “The House of Moneekrom.” He dreams up a whole fantasy world around it, eventually even developing it into a game his after-school mates can play. The storeroom is a refuge for Lolly – not only from his pent-up feelings, but from the predatory world outside on the streets, where he and his friend Vega must constantly dodging rival gangs, bullies, and attempts to recruit them to “crews.” They sympathize with a local wild coyote they see on the streets: “Our coyote was part of a species in danger. Hunted down and shot up. We knew how it felt.”

After a time the social worker, Mr. Ali, lets another classmate, Rose, into the storeroom to use the legos also, much to Lolly’s dismay. Rose is on the autism spectrum, and is suffering from a loss in her own family. At first Lolly is loathe to share with her, but he slowly becomes impressed with Rose and her skills. They come to an understanding and eventually even to a collaboration and friendship.

When a new fitness program decides to move into the center and use the storeroom, Rose and Lolly are told they have to tear down their cities. They are upset, but when Lolly displays parts of his construction at a community fair, pictures of it go viral on social media along with ecstatic commentary. Lolly gets lots of compliments on his art, which helps him feel better about himself. But then the police come to Lolly’s apartment, and once again they are facing a catastrophic threat to their family.

Lolly finally opens up about what has kept him feeling so awful about Jermaine, and what he has learned from all that happened since Jermaine’s death, especially the long-lasting import of decisions you make. He decides he is not Lolly anymore; he is Wallace.

Evaluation: This is an affecting coming-of-age story about how a young boy and his family learn to cope with the pain of losing a family member to gang violence. The outcome isn’t always certain as Lolly struggles with outlets for his anger. Lolly isn’t perfect, but it’s hard not to love him anyway. Rose makes the perfect foil. There are a number of issues to ponder about the moral choices of the characters, which would make this a good option for book clubs.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, 2017

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Review of “Hunted” by Meagan Spooner

Note: Some spoilers if you do not know the story of “Beauty and the Beast.”

This is a retelling of the archetypical story of “girl meets bad boy with heart of gold,” i.e., “Beauty and the Beast.”

Yeva is the youngest of three daughters, and has always been called Beauty by her father. Her father, an excellent hunter, became a merchant to make a better living, and then lost his fortune. He was forced to return to a life of hunting, but seemed to go mad, claiming a mythical beast was tracking him and driving away all the game. And then one day he didn’t return.

Yeva was taught to hunt by her father when she was young, and had always felt drawn to the forest. Now living in the city, she harbors a dissatisfaction with her life the origins of which she cannot herself articulate. She is restless and doesn’t feel she belongs somehow. When her father disappeared and she returned to the forest to look for him, she felt herself getting renewed. But then her joy turned to dismay when she came upon his body, and nearby, a fearsome beast. She tried to kill it, but instead, it captured her.

Besides the narration of Yeva, there are also intermittent segments by The Beast, who is looking for a good hunter to help break the curse on him. Since he can no longer count on the father, he focuses his attention on the daughter. He finds he is fascinated by her: “She moves like an animal in a woman’s body. She moves like beauty.”

Beauty can’t see in the pitch-dark place she is being held, but thinks the man who communicates with her behind the door and who leaves her food is a sympathetic rescuer. She feels like she is going crazy from the isolation, and begins speaking through the door of anything and everything that came to her mind, “to fill the hungry silence.”

First she talks to her mysterious rescuer about her family, and then begins to relate to him the Russian fairy tales her father used to tell her.

The man behind the door agrees to let her out of the dark dungeon but only if she promises to keep on her blindfold; he threatens to kill her if she removes it.

The retelling of Beauty and the Beast most of us grew up with

With Beauty now outside the dungeon and in a warmer place, The Beast asks her to keep telling more stories. He seems particularly interested in the tale of Ivan, the young prince who tried to capture the Firebird. At one point though, Beauty manages to get the blindfold off, and realizes her “ally” is also her captor: he is The Beast. Since she believes The Beast killed her father, her feelings about him turn to hate, and to a desire for revenge.

The Beast observes that now:

“There is no animal in her. The way she speaks to us now, so full of fury, is more human than anything we have experienced in many long years. Animals don’t hate. That is the rightful domain of humanity.. . . . It is better this way, that she see us for what we are. We are pleased. She is strong still, despite her illness, and skilled. She will do what we require of her, and it will be done. We will be free.”

She agrees to stay with him as he insists (threatening to harm her family if she does not), but does not agree she won’t try to kill him again. He glowers, “If you try to kill us again, make certain you succeed.”

He does need her to kill someone, but he can’t say who it is, because that is part of the spell he is under. As Beauty observes, “In every fairy tale there were rules. Even monsters could not break them. And where, except in fairy tales, did there exist talking beasts?” She muses that “[s]he had never imagined the things her father told her might be reality.”

Broadway retelling

The Beast wants to satisfy her curiosity, but resolves:

“We will not break the terms of our sentence. We cannot explain, or we risk remaining trapped together for the rest of eternity.”

He makes her practice hunting every day. Then he trains her to see the magic in his forest and hear its music. She can hear the music that The Beast emits too.

He lets her see the castle where he lives as well, and to see more glimpses of his life there. She began to be less afraid of him, and at moments, to see his human side coming through.

Still, she is determined to avenge the death of her father. One night she creeps up on him when he is sleeping and is sure she has delivered a death blow. But as she discovers, he cannot be killed. And she also learns he wasn’t the one who killed her father. “Tell me,’ The Beast said softly. ‘If you had known, from the start, that I could not be killed, that you would never have your vengeance . . . would you have stayed?” And indeed, now that she has nothing more to keep her there with The Beast, she feels she must leave to go back to her family.

Recent adaptation of this very popular fairy tale

After she returns to them though, she apprehends – through her dreams – that the part of The Beast that is human is beginning to recede. Yeva decides she must go to The Beast again, and rescue him. She now realizes that “Her Beast was Prince Ivan,” and that, as per the fairy tale about the prince, she needs to find the Firebird to save him. But when she finds it, she learns another truth: the Firebird is the manifestation of an idea: it is the goal; the reward at the end of the quest; what everyone is looking for. As the Firebird explains, “I am the conclusion of your journey. All you’ve ever wanted. Magic. The music of the forest.”

Yeva is trapped by the Firebird, with little hope of escape. Then The Beast arrives, but not necessarily to save her. He is more wolf than man now, and somehow Yeva must bring him back to humanity before he kills her. In the process, they both discover what the curse really is, and what it would actually take to break it.

Evaluation: This retelling is well done, and quite romantic. I loved the slow simmering of the feelings for one another between Beauty and The Beast, and the self-awareness in each of them that these feelings induced. And of course like any fairy tale, this one is replete with thought-provoking metaphors – from the dual nature of humans, to the source of worth in a person, to the difficulties in identifying what you really want in life.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Stand Up and Sing” Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice” by Susanna Reich

This biography of the activist and folk singer Pete Seeger is for older readers (suggested age is 7 and up), although it is a picture book. The author tells readers the story of how Seeger came to become both a musician and an advocate of civil rights, inspiring generations, most recently during the turbulent years of the 1960’s. (A review of a similar biography but for younger readers, Listen: how Pete Seeger Got America Singing by Leda Schubert is reviewed here.)

Over his long life (he lived to be 94), Seeger never stopped playing to crowds gathered to protest injustice of any kind. His was a unique kind of “nonviolent” protesting; he used his words and music on his five-string banjo to convey workers’ rights issues, the need for civil rights for blacks, objections to the Vietnam War, and respect for the environment, inter alia.

Seeger was investigated, censored, and blacklisted, but still he persisted. “We Shall Overcome,” an old gospel song, became one of the key songs of the Civil Rights Movement thanks to Seeger.

The author, in a note at the end of this book, relates that she grew up in a situation much like that of Pete Seeger: among other similarities, their families had traditions of political activism, and one parent was a professional musicologist. She heard Seeger perform many times, and was greatly influenced by him.

She writes:

“As I researched this book, I came to understand why Pete saw himself as a link in a chain. It’s a chain in which music and social responsibility are intertwined, one that began long before he was born and will continue now that he’s gone. This book is meant to be a link in that chain.”

I loved the illustrations by award-winning illustrator Adam Gustavson, who uses digitized gouache, watercolor, pencil, and oil paintings to portray scenes from Seeger’s life.

Evaluation: This is an excellent introduction to the life of someone today’s kids may not know, but should. His songs continue to permeate popular culture, and to encourage a new generation of performers to become politically engaged.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2017

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