Kid Lit Review of “Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon” by Kelly Starling Lyons

Philip Freelon, the acclaimed African American architect, struggled with reading as a child. But while words gave him trouble, he excelled at art, math, and science. He could see images in his mind, and build them. He decided to become an architect, which would take advantage of his creativity and skill set.

He also wanted to help make the world better through his projects. To that end, he decided he would not design prisons or casinos, but schools, libraries, bus stations, and museums. He felt compelled, as he wrote himself in an Afterword, to contribute in some way to the struggle for social justice.

His commitment ultimately led to being selected as Architect of Record for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.

Opening in 2016, the NMAAHC is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. To date, the Museum has collected more than 36,000 artifacts. (You can explore the museum online here.)

The author was at NMAAHC on its opening day, and reports on being “moved and amazed,” and eager to write a book about the architect. She was able to interview him and his family, and learn about the “young artist who found his calling and used it to honor Black contributions and culture.” Sadly, he died in 2019 from ALS, but as Lyons notes, his legacy lives in on the stunning museums and spaces he designed.

The book concludes with a bibliography.

Prolific illustrator Laura Freeman uses bold colors to display the obviously well-researched sociocultural context of the time portrayed. Her artwork is clean-lined, yet remarkably expressive; she ably depicts the dreams of a young boy as well as the output of a professional adult. Freeman includes many historical touches that will make it fun for adults to peruse as well as the recommended reading audience of ages 5 and up.

Evaluation: Kids who are discouraged by difficulties in school will find Philip Freelon’s story so inspiring, and will hopefully encourage them to look for ways to express their talents and dreams.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Lee & Low Books, 2020

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Review of “The Christmas Bookshop” by Jenny Colgan

Carmen Hogan is nearly 30, boyfriend-less, and still working in the department store she’d started in during high school. She feels like a failure compared to her older sister Sofia, an Edinburgh lawyer with a handsome international-lawyer husband, 3 children and a fourth on the way in a month, a lovely house, a Range Rover, and a nanny.

When the department store closes, Carmen has to move back in with her parents and try to find another job, which is difficult to do in her dying west-coast Scottish town. Sofia has a client that needs help in his dying bookstore in Edinburgh, and convinces Carmen to move there and become Mr. McCredie’s shop assistant, just until they could find a buyer for the shop. Carmen could stay in Sofia’s basement bedroom, and would also help babysit on the nights the nanny, Skylar, had to go take classes.

When Carmen arrives at the shop, it is a dusty, disorganized mess. Carmen’s old boss, Mrs. Marsh, now residing in Edinburgh, stops by and gives Carmen some advice in her imperious manner, admonishing her to clean up the shop, get to know the stock, and take advantage of the coming Christmas holiday. She reluctantly complies.

Through her work in the shop, Carmen meets two vastly different men who develop an interest in her: internationally famous self-help author Blair Pfenning, and local dendrologist (tree expert) Oke Benezet.

As Carmen warms to her role, she gets to know and love the customers, other shopkeepers on Victoria Street, and even Sofia’s kids, whom she had initially dismissed as noisy and bratty. In fact, she later tells Sofia’s daughter Phoebe, she had never liked any children at all before. But of course, all that changes….

Evaluation: This lovely feel-good Christmas story will melt your heart. It is full of Colgan’s trademark snarky and self-deprecating humor, but filtered through the gauzy, snowy glitter of Christmas. There’s even a hint of magic, although it might just be another way to show how love works. It is also a love letter to sisters, to Edinburgh, and a celebration of joy and friendship. Admittedly, it doesn’t take much to make me want to go back to Edinburgh, but this book definitely added to that desire!

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2021

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Kid Lit Review of “Samuel Morse, That’s Who” by Tracy Nelson Maurer

This book, subtitled “The Story of the Telegraph and Morse Code” tells the story of how instant messages were first invented back in the 1800s.

The author begins by pointing out for children ages 5 and up:

“Back when Samuel Morse was a boy, news wasn’t usually new by the time folks heard it. A letter could ride for weeks between towns or sail for months between countries.”

Samuel dreamed up a machine that would use electric pulses to carry coded messages through wires to machines far away from each other. He created a code that used dots and dashes to stand for numbers that in turn referred to words. He shared his idea with a science professor and an engineer who helped him realize his invention. He tried various schemes to bury cable but ran into difficulties. Under water, a ship inadvertently pulled up his cable. On land, poorly made pipes caused the wires to fail. Then he tried above ground, using tall chestnut poles strung with wires. This plan, completed in 1844, was the one that finally worked. The first message went from the U.S. Supreme Court changer to a Baltimore train depot and read “What Hath God Wrought.”

The invention took off like wildfire and spread from coast to coast, and then across the oceans.

The author ends with: “So, who made electricity useful? Who created instant messages and changed the world forever? Samuel Morris, that’s who!” And part of Morris’s name is rendered in code.

Backmatter includes a time line, list of additional facts, bibliography, and Author’s Note.

Charcoal-lined mixed media Illustrations by Borja Ramón López Cotelo, also known as el primo Ramón, have a comic-book feel.

Evaluation: This story emphasizes Morse’s persistence in the face of repeated failures, and the fact that his ideas required collaboration with others. Both of these messages are laudatory for children. I thought it a bit of an exaggeration to claim Morse “made electricity useful” however, as it was quite useful even aside from its role in enabling telegraphy.

The author, who expressed her admiration for Morse in her note, did not mention that Morse, who was anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, was also a well-known defender of slavery in the 1850s, declaring it sanctioned by God. Specifically, he wrote:

“Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom. The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than the being a parent, or employer, or ruler.”

It would be a good lesson to point out to young readers that people are not all one thing or the other, and that many prominent figures in America’s history bear the stain of racism and prejudice, in addition to their accomplishments.

Note: This book received a number of accolades, including NSTA Best STEM Book of the Year, Junior Library Guild Selection, and A Bank Street College Best Book of the Year.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2019

Daguerrotype of Morse in 1840

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Review of “The Darkness Knows: A Novel” by Arnaldur Indridason

I enjoyed the premise of this Icelandic crime novel. A murder victim named Sigurvin was thrown into the crevasse of Langjökull glacier, with the idea the man’s body would never be found. Alas, thanks to global warming, the glacier changed radically since he had been deposited there. It had lost some three meters in height, and the ice cap had shrunk by more than seven cubic kilometers. [According to a Guide to Iceland, some researchers fear that if climate change continues at its current rate the glacier may be gone in 150 years. Less optimistic scientists have said it could be gone in as few as 50.] The victim’s body, well preserved even after thirty years, thus emerged, much to the consternation of some tourists who came upon it while visiting the glacier.

Konrád Flovent, 71, is the retired detective who originally investigated the cold case (so to speak), and it continued to haunt him all these years. After the body was found, and the original main suspect refused to talk to anyone but Konrád, he found himself involved once again.

Slowly and methodically he goes back to see the people involved in that case and also that of the hit-and-run murder of Vilmar Hákonarson six years ago. Villi’s sister is convinced the deaths are related, and Konrád comes around to her point of view.

The story behind the deaths unfolds slowly in the cold, dark setting, which is also of interest. In Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, the shortest day of the year only lasts 4 hours and 8 minutes. Darkness indeed!

I also liked the unusual twist at the end of the story. Unlike most twists in crime novels, this one had nothing to do with the crime itself or even the criminals.

Evaluation: I found this story a bit slow for my tastes, but not without some appeal. The Icelandic setting is unique for me, and I enjoyed learning more about that country. In addition, Konrád certainly has a number of unexpected and interesting layers. I don’t anticipate continuing with the series, although the first book has a lot to recommend it.

Rating: 3/5

Published in the U.S. by Minotaur Books, 2021

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Kid Lit Review of “Starstruck: The Cosmic Journey of Neil deGrasse Tyson by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer

This biography of the famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson is part of the Step into Reading Series, specifically in the Step 3 category for grades 1-3 (appropriate for ages 5-8). Educational factoids and definitions of concepts are included.

The story begins when Neil is nine, and he goes to the Hayden Planetarium in New York. The experience left him “starstruck.” He determined that he wanted to be an astrophysicist. He got odd jobs to save up money for a big telescope. On the roof of his building with his big new telescope, he was taken for an armed robber with a rifle. But when the police came, he just showed them the planets, and they too were dazzled.

He wasn’t too successful in school, since he was only interested in astronomy. One teacher finally told him there were classes for young people at Hayden Planetarium and he started attending them: “The classes were hard. But he wouldn’t quit. Neil pushed himself to learn more and more.” He was thrilled to get invited along with scientists to Africa to view a rare solar eclipse. He was only fourteen, but he felt like a science superhero.

He was accepted into the Bronx High School of Science, and attended astronomy camp in the California desert. He even began speaking to adults about science. The author notes that by the end of high school, many scientists knew about Neil and competed for him to attend their colleges. He chose Harvard, and after eleven more years of study, he earned the highest degree possible in astrophysics.

At age 35, Neil went to work at Hayden Planetarium, “where his love of the stars had begun.” Part of his job was to appear on television to share the latest news about space.

In 2000, Neil contributed to the discovery that Pluto was only a dwarf planet: “Neil showed that science can change as new facts get discovered.”

The author concludes: “Today Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rock star among scientists.”

Charming illustrations by Frank Morrison add interest to the text.

Evaluation: The author elides over the fact that Tyson is Black, although she could have expanded on the incident with the police being called when he was on the roof with his telescope. Tyson himself, in a 2020 article, “Reflections on the Color of My Skin,” refers to other encounters he and his colleagues in the National Society of Black Physicists had with police. He writes, “We were guilty not of DWI (Driving While Intoxicated), but of other violations none of us knew were on the books: DWB (Driving While Black), WWB (Walking While Black), and of course, JBB (Just Being Black).” He noted:

“None of us were beaten senseless. None of us were shot. But what does it take for a police encounter to turn lethal? On average, police in America kill more than 100 unarmed black people per year. Who never made it to our circle? I suspect our multi-hour conversation would be rare among most groups of law-abiding people.”

The important point that even world-famous astrophysicists who are not white have to contend with racial prejudice would have enhanced this otherwise excellent biography. The message about being in charge of your own education, however, is well made.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House Children’s Books, 2018

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