Kid Lit Review of “No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas” by Tonya Bolden

This award-winning author brings us the story of Junius G. Groves, born into slavery in Kentucky in 1859. He went on to become one of the wealthiest black Americans of his time, earning the moniker in 1902 of “Potato King of the World” after out-producing every one else in America.

When Groves was twenty, he left Kentucky and became an “Exoduster,” one of thousands of people from the South who “shook the dust from their feet” and headed west to the Plains to make better lives for themselves and their families.

Groves is said to have walked the whole way to Kansas – more than five hundred miles – working at odd jobs along the way. He ended his journey in the Great Kaw Valley near Kansas City, and got a job on a potato farm. Under his care the crops thrived so much that he was promoted to foreman of the whole farm. Groves also rented nine acres from his boss to grow his own crops, some of which were white potatoes.

Groves continued to rent more land, growing ever more potatoes. He was helped by his wife Matilda. In 1884, they bought eighty acres near the mouth of the Kaw River. They worked hard, paid off the loan to buy the land in just a year, and bought more – eventually owning more than 500 acres. Because of his astounding success in optimizing potato growth, a railroad company even built a special spur to his potato house. But he wasn’t done yet.

The author writes:

“Over the years, the Potato King grew more than a big family, more than cabbage and carrots and corn, more than fruit trees. More than potatoes.

Junius G. grew jobs – hiring farmhands.
Junius G. grew a park – Groves Park.
And a cozy community – Grovers Center.
And a church – Pleasant Hill Baptist.
A store that sold groceries and other goods.
A golf course, too.”

Groves had a large family to take care of as well. According to the Kansas Historical Society, “Groves and his wife, Matilda, built a 20-room mansion, which featured the latest comforts of the day — electricity, hot and cold running water, and telephones.” Moreover, although the author doesn’t go into details, much of what Groves built was for the benefit of other African American families. For his Groves Center community, small tracts of land were sold to black families, and the golf course was for the use of African Americans, a rare amenity in the segregated country at that time.

Groves was a founding member of the Kansas State Negro Business League, the Kaw Valley Potato Association, the Sunflower State Agricultural Association, and the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church Society.  He was featured in Booker T. Washington’s book, The Negro in Business, (1907).

Junius Groves died in 1925.

The author concludes with a timeline, a glossary, and a list of selected sources for more information.

Illustrator Don Tate, also an award winner, uses mixed media illustrations dominated by the green and brown colors of the farm to flesh out the story.

Evaluation: The author celebrates all of Groves’ achievements without going into the mechanics. How did he overcome the racist attitudes and policies of his time? What was he doing that made his potato farming so much more successful than anyone else’s? Adults who read this book to kids may want to follow up on the story by pursuing some of the resource materials provided by the author. But the positive focus on achievement and what can be accomplished by hard work will provide plenty of thought-provoking and inspirational appeal to the intended audience of ages 5-8.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2018

Junius and Matilda Groves

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Review of “The Orphan’s Song” by Lauren Kate

This novel, set in eighteenth-century Venice, is told by two narrators – Mino and Violetta. They’re both orphans, raised in the House of the Incurables. [As the author explains, the Ospedale degli Incurabili in Venice was originally a hospital and orphanage for foundling children, dating back to the sixteenth century. For hundreds of years the Incurables took in orphans and raised them to be musicians. . . . “The Incurables was the original music conservatory.”]

Violetta always felt a connection to Mino. Although girls and boys were kept separate, Violetta saw Mino’s mother leave him at the door of the Ospedale. Years later, when they were both sixteen, they began to meet secretly since they both had the habit of sneaking up to the roof to observe life outside the Ospedale.

The time in which this story occurs is one of the more interesting in the history of Vienna. Venetians wore masks not just during the pre-Lenten Carnivale period but year-round, enabling them to carry out all sorts of activities (such as extra-marital affairs) without being identified. [The carnival, popularly known as Carnevale di Venezia in Italy, is still held annually in Venice and lasts approximately three weeks.]

Contemporary group of masked Carnevale participants in Venice, Italy

Violetta, watching it all from the rooftop, always wanted to be a part of it. Although she had ambitions for a career as a soprano with the “Coro,” or choir, of the Incurables, she also had desires and dreams that extended beyond its walls. Alas, the two seemed to be incompatible: girls who were selected for the Coro had to vow ten years of performance, and swear that if they ever left the Incurables to marry, they would never play or sing in public.

After Mino left the Incurables to apprentice for a job, Violetta was envious, and managed to find a way to sidestep her vows and get everything she wanted. Or so it seemed. Neither Mino or Violetta could forget the other, and this determined the paths they took in their lives. Having been abandoned by their parents had shaped them as well, and both had a lot to learn not only about the price of freedom, but about what love really meant.

Façade of the former Ospedale degli Incurabili, now home of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia

Mino came to understand, “Life was like music; if you changed a single note, you changed the entire song.” For her part, Violetta finally realized love means not trying to change someone else’s imperfections, but making them sing.

Evaluation: The rich atmosphere of Venice, both glamorous and decadent, helps transform this story about loss and love into something more intriguing. I would have liked more development of the surprising twist at the end, but the decision by the author not to expand on it will leave much for book clubs to discuss.

Rating: 4/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

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Review of “On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle” by Hampton Sides

If you are unfamiliar with other histories by Hampton Sides, you may be forgiven for double-checking to make sure you didn’t pick up this book from the thriller section of a bookstore or library. This real-life page-turner focuses on the battle at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. The Marines trapped in the mountains of Korea around the reservoir were desperately outnumbered and fighting in – at best – minus-twenty-degree weather. (Who would have thought this turned out to be life-saving for some, since wounds were instantly frozen shut….?)

The Korean War was fought between June, 1950 and July, 1953 between North Korea (with the support of China and the Soviet Union) and South Korea (with the support of the United Nations, and in particular, the United States).

General Douglas MacArthur, in charge of U.S. forces in the area, met with President Truman in October of 1950 and assured him the Chinese were not going to enter the war. This was in spite of the warning from Mao Zedong he would take military action if MacArthur sent United Nation forces (made up principally of Americans) north of the 38th parallel, which divided North from South Korea. MacArthur, however, claimed he had special insight into “the Oriental mind,” and although intelligence indicated the Chinese were spotted in large numbers along the border, MacArthur ignored it.

And yet, it was almost impossible to ignore. That same month, some 300,000 Red Chinese soldiers began crossing the Manchurian border into Korea.

The brutal conflict at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea began in late November, 1950, about a month after the People’s Republic of China surreptitiously entered the Korean War on the side of the North Koreans. (And only a month after MacArthur assured Truman this would never happen.)

Even when confronted with evidence of the massive Chinese presence, MacArthur and Major General Edward Almond, the commander of the U.S. forces, pooh-poohed the idea that “Chinese laundrymen” represented any threat to Americans. Almond maintained that reports about the Chinese had to have been exaggerated, and those worried about them were cowards: how could a “crude bamboo army” be any threat whatsoever? (Notably, Almond was also prejudiced against African-American soldiers.)

Almond, acting on MacArthur’s wishes, insisted their troops – primarily the 20,000 men of the 1st Marine Division – advance to the Chosin Reservoir up in the mountains of North Korea, over a single unpaved road through the heart of the T’aebaek Mountains in freezing weather and blinding snowstorms. They were to take the reservoir and then keep on going to the Yalu River (which forms the border between North Korea and China). The result of this racism and hubris at the top of the American military hierarchy was a Chinese ambush followed by many deaths on both sides.

For over two weeks the soldiers under the field command of Major General Oliver P. Smith (some 30,000 in all, later nicknamed “The Chosin Few”) were encircled and attacked by between 120,000 and 150,000 Chinese, who had been ordered by Mao Zedong to destroy the UN forces. The fact that the UN combatants were able to break out of the encirclement (albeit with heavy casualties) against such daunting odds and to make a (fighting) withdrawal to the port of Hungnam was nothing less than miraculous. Upon reaching Hungnam, the surviving veterans were evacuated as part of the large amphibious operation to rescue UN troops from northeastern Korea.

Hampton Sides tells what happened in a way that will have you gasping with shock and awe, and crying and cheering both, in turns.

Some standout moments from the story:

  • Marine First Lieutenant John Yancey, 32, a WWII veteran, remaining in action despite being seriously wounded, even with one eyeball dangling from its socket; he grasped his dangling eye and mashed it back into place. He felt it imperative that he stand his ground because there was a 90% fatality rate in his platoon;
  • Private Stan Robinson, who, with frostbite so bad the skin had sloughed off of both anklebones, crawling back up the hill from the hospital tent to fight by Yancey’s side;
  • Private Hector Cafferata, 21, fighting in his stocking feet (it was 20 below zero), and killing over a hundred Chinese soldiers with the help of his best buddy, Private Kenneth Benson, 19. Benson, although blinded by shrapnel, readied guns for Cafferata which Benson reloaded from memory;
  • Army Private First Class Ed Reeves, 19, somehow persevering after having both legs blown to bits and being shot in the head by the Chinese and left for dead. When the Chinese saw Reeves was still alive, they pummeled his head with rifle butts and broke the bones in his hands. Still he lived! He crawled on his belly and elbows across the frozen lake at Chosin to be rescued.
  • The darkly funny episode when a supply drop for ammo was called in at embattled East Hill in Hagaru. Someone wasn’t apprised that “Tootsie Rolls” was code for 60-millimeter mortar shells, and boxes of the candy were delivered instead of the ammo. The Marines softened them up in their mouths and used them as spackling to plug the bullet holes in their trucks and tanks.
  • The U.N. troops feeling a deep sympathy for the Chinese troops; they were young and were clearly being sacrificed as cannon fodder. Yet it was kill or be killed, and so they mowed down the Chinese in wave upon wave, using the frozen corpses as sniper screens and even ballast for rebuilding a blown bridge when they ran out of sand bags.

The bitter cold proved as deadly as the Chinese. On one night, the actual temperature was 25 below and the wind chill was 70 below. Overall, eighty-five percent of the UN combatants suffered from frostbite, and many died of exposure. In all, US Army losses numbered around 2,000 killed and 1,000 wounded. For the First Marine Division, the numbers were some 750 dead with 3,000 wounded and just under 200 missing in action. Precise casualties for the Chinese are not known but are estimated between 19,000 to 30,000. Sides also provides interesting information on how the machinery was (adversely) affected by the cold, and what the cold did to the minds as well as the bodies of the soldiers.

Marines at Chosin Reservoir in 1950. Photo by Ed Aversa via Philadelphia Inquirer

Afterwards, the First Marine Division was lauded by Truman’s liaison in Korea as “the most efficient ad courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of” and Truman himself called the departure from Chosin “one of the greatest fighting retreats that ever was.” Military historians placed most of Chosin’s success in the hands of one man: General Oliver Smith. Smith, however, credited his men and officers for what was accomplished at Chosin.

Evaluation: Once again, Hampton Sides turns history about an episode many Americans know nothing about into vivid, heart-racing drama. This terrific story makes you feel as if the American military can do anything, even while realizing that “the American military” is just a bunch of American kids, made up of equal parts of fear and bravado. My only criticism is that Sides assumes readers will know the relative sizes of companies, platoons, divisions, battalions, etc. But that may just be a problem experienced by this particular reader. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in hardcover by Doubleday, 2018

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to this book on audio. The narrator, David Pittu, does a wonderful job acting out the parts and imbuing the narration with emotion. I can’t speak to his mastery of words in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, but he had quite a challenge, and it sounded very impressive.

There were a few mispronunciations of common words, like “internecine” and “miscellany” but the narrator had his work cut out for him with all the foreign words.

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (approximately 12 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2018

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Kid Lit Review of “Spectacular Spots” by Susan Stockdale

The colorful acrylics reflecting the author/illustrator’s background in design form the basis of the appeal of this book intended for a very young audience (aged 2-6). Instead of restricting herself to the usual panoply of farm animals, Stockdale introduces children to spotted animals both familiar and exotic, from “strutting fowl” to “creeping slugs.” Each colorful two-page spread shows the creature in its habitat, blended in so well it will demonstrate to children just how useful those spots can be for survival, inter alia.

At the back of the book, thumbnail sketches explain what functions the spots perform for each creature, and in what areas of the world the animals can be located. The book concludes with a quiz in which close-ups of animal spots are in squares. The author asks, “Can you find the animals that belong to these spots?” Children can turn the book upside down to see the correct answers.

Evaluation: I’m all for books that try to show children animals beyond the farm (although of course Holstein cattle make an appearance).

Stockdale has an excellent eye for detecting aesthetically appealing patterns around her. I also appreciate that the author doesn’t dumb down the vocabulary, even while her rhymes are simple (for example, “gliding snails . . . singing quails . . .”). Children will not only learn how patterns in nature serve a purpose, but they also have the opportunity to gain insights from the resemblance of the illustrations to textile design. Parents and teachers can encourage kids to look around them and identify recurring forms in nature, from spirals to stripes, increasing their understanding of how important nature is to our sense of beauty and order.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Peachtree Publishers, 2015

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Review of “Searching for Sylvie Lee” by Jean Kwok

This novel begins with a Willa Cather quote reflecting the main theme of the story: “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”

Amy Lee, 26, travels from Queens, New York to the suburbs of Amsterdam in the Netherlands after her older sister Sylvie goes missing. Sylvie had lived in the Netherlands until she was nine with their Grandma and their cousins, the Tan family, because her young immigrant parents in New York could not afford to support her. Sylvie recently went back to the Netherlands when she heard her beloved Grandma was dying. Then Sylvie disappeared.

Amy has always idolized Sylvie:

“Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. And me, I am only a shadow, an afterthought, a faltering echo.”

Ironically, we learn in the chapters narrated alternately by Amy, Sylvie, and Ma, that Sylvie felt the same way about Amy. As much as the sisters love each other, each doesn’t really know who the other is, nor what is in her heart. Nor do they really see behind the facades of others in their family.

There were a number of barriers to transparency in their lives. As with many immigrant families, the younger generation spoke a different language. Amy’s native language was English and Sylvie’s was Dutch, while Ma continued to speak primarily in Chinese. Not only were their languages different; all three of them grew up in different cultures. The daughters also experienced tension between, on the one hand, the culture at school and work, and on the other, the culture their parents inculcated at home. This split seemed especially salient for them because both in the U.S. and in the Netherlands, Amy and Sylvie had been taunted and bullied for being Asian. All of this encouraged them to keep their heads low and remain apart from others: the effects were long-lasting. For Sylvie it meant developing a persona that was “acceptable” for someone of a minority race (although, as she found, it was never really acceptable not to be white). But after a while, even Sylvie didn’t know who she was anymore.

Sylvie also discovered she didn’t even know her own husband, Jim. When she came to see him as Amy did, she realized “In love and life, we never know when we are telling ourselves stories. We are the ultimate unreliable narrators.” Or as Billy Joel said in his lyrics for “The Stranger”:

“Why were you so surprised
That you never saw the stranger
Did you ever let your lover
See the stranger in yourself…”

Some of the secrets everyone is harboring do eventually come to light however, and we finally learn what happened to Sylvie.

An epilogue eight months later ties up loose ends. As Amy muses:

“How my knowledge of Sylvie, and Ma, of myself has changed. We had all been hidden behind the curtain of language and culture: from each other, from ourselves. I have learned that though the curtains in the Netherlands are always open, there is much that can be concealed in broad daylight. . . . The truth is, it is impossible to hide from yourself. Another truth: it is possible to find yourself anywhere.”

Discussion: I tend to concur with the view promulgated by Benjamin Dreyer, Random House Copy Chief, in his recent book Dreyer’s English. He advocates judicious and sparing use of dialect. For example, non-English speakers think in their native language, not in broken English. In this book, the author has Ma thinking in broken English rather than in a grammatical version of her native Chinese.

Evaluation: I liked this very moving story, although I wasn’t as impressed with the writing as I had been with Kwok’s previous two books. I would still recommend it – the author offers wonderful insights in all of her work into the perils and promises of immigration, and the acculturation challenges for all involved.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2019

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