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A long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by Ishmael Beah
Douglas & McIntyre, 2007

Ishmael Beah was 12 when a rebel army invaded his village in Sierra Leone. He spent many months running and trying to stay ahead of the rebels who were ruthlessly destroying and killing everything in their path. Since many of the rebel soldiers were young boys, Ishmael and his companions were met with fear almost everywhere they went, and as a result had to survive on their own for months on end.

Less than a year after leaving his village on the run, Ishmael was picked up by the government army and pressed into service. Learning to eat an entire meal in under a minute was perhaps the least violent skill he learned at the camp, and fighting battles and invading villages under the influence of drugs soon became a way of life. A long way gone is a terrible, moving, and ultimately heartwarming tale of one boy's life as a child running from the rebels and fighting them in battle and, later, being rehabilitated.

A long way gone opens masterfully, with a brief anecdote about Ishmael Beah's U.S. high school classmates thinking it was cool how he had seen "people running around with guns and shooting each other." I've heard a similar sentiment expressed many times in the libraries I work in, especially from boys who are the same age as Beah was when he was running and fighting for his life. It is a testament to Beah that he could smile at his classmates' ignorance.

In fact, the whole book is a testament to Beah, although he does not glorify himself nor try to make himself appear any different from other boy soldiers: as a squad leader in the army, he commanded other boys and performed horrific acts himself and was certainly an active participant. He seems to attribute his rehabilitation as much to luck as anything else, and describes his painful recovery in frank terms. He objectively describes his fear, frustration, annoyance, anger, and joy throughout.

While the book is not gratuitously violent, there are definitely some graphic descriptions of village invasions, battles, and merciless revenge. It is my view that it is as tastefully done as was possible and I was always aware that for every horror described in the book, Beah likely experienced hundreds more.

Yes, this is a bleak book, but it is also a tale of the possibility of recovery for children who have lived through horrors that many of us cannot even imagine.

 
 
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The Middle Passage: White Ships | Black Cargoby Tom Feelings
Dial Books, 1995

Twenty years in the making, The Middle Passage wordlessly depicts the horrifying journey across the Atlantic that millions of African captives were forced to take during the slave trade.

I was first introduced to The Middle Passage during a young adult literature class I took during the course of my MLIS, and it hasn't left my mind since. Not an easy book to procure, I luckily found a copy on a used book website and purchased it for the high school library I manage, and I view it as a highly prized part of the collection.

The Middle Passage is not an easy book to experience. I say 'experience' because while wordless, it is immensely powerful and often difficult to view. In fact, the horror that Feelings portrays throughout dozens of black and white paintings cannot possibly be put into words. Scenes of violence, abuse, rape, murder, and death abound, yet while Feelings' artistry reveals enough to make clear what is happening in the paintings, the images are not graphic in the sense that some violence in films and books are graphic. What is shown is enough to clearly indicate what is happening and the blanks are easily, uncomfortably, filled in.

There is a lot to absorb in The Middle Passage. The white men who abduct the African captives are so pale as to be ghostly. Scenes of the ship's hold, with hundreds of shackled men, women, and children crammed into tiny spaces where many fall ill and perish, are unimaginable. The spirit of the slaves emerges strongly, with rage and mutinous intentions made clear.

It is difficult to adequately describe The Middle Passage. It is a book that proves that not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but worth more than words can say.

 
 
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Red sings from treetops: a year in colors by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin, 2009

As a rule, I am not a lover of poetry. The only book of poetry I remember enjoying as a child is Shel Silverstein's Where the sidewalk ends due to its wit, creativity, and occasional weirdness, which fails to explain why I attempted to slog through Sir Walter Scott's epic The Lady of the Lake a few years later. In between, my grade 9 English teacher's apparent obsession with The cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service drove me batty - there is something about the rhythm and rhyme that I didn't like - and I haven't read that blasted poem since. The thing is, if there were poetry books like Red sings from treetops when I was young, I would probably not be so averse to the genre.

Sidman essentially weaves a tale of the colours of the seasons in a narrative told in verse. There is a sequential nature to the poems as later poems tie back to earlier ones: poems about white all describe it as a sound, and poems about green follow its prevalence throughout the seasons. This flow of the poems ties in nicely with the flow of the seasons and as a group as well as individually, the poems are lovely. There is no set rhyming scheme, length, or rhythm, so the poems vary but none are more than 10-12 lines.

Zagarenski's illustrations are stunning. They are a combination of mixed media paintings on wood and computer illustration, and are magical. All the people and animals who make their way through the seasons wear crowns, even the snowman. I find it difficult to describe Zagarenski's style here, as she combines patterns and textures and pasted newsprint in a way I have never seen before. It certainly lends an air of fantasy to the poems, and I am curious if she uses the same techniques in other books.

Lovely to read and beautiful to look at.

 
 
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Mirror Mirror: a book of reversible verse by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josée Masse
Dutton Children's Books, 2010

Fairy tales are told from two perspectives using the same poem, but read in reverse the second time.

Deceptively simple premise, yes? Well, Marilyn Singer has come up with over a dozen pairs of poems that tell parts of fairy tales using the same words and the same lines, in a style she calls reverso. In her words: "When you read a reverso down, it is one poem. When you read it up, with changes allowed only in punctuation and capitalization it is a different poem" (last page of unpaginated book). Amazingly, it really works.

I'm glad I read this book today for a second time, because when I read it for the first time last week I wasn't a huge fan of it: it struck me as gimmicky and some of the poems felt awkward. I must have been tired or in a foul mood because today I really enjoyed it. Admittedly, some of the poems don't flow as nicely as I would have liked, but when it clicks all is well in the world. My favourites of the 14 reverso pairs are The Doubtful Duckling and Longing for Beauty, both of which deal with the characters' emotions (the Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast, respectively) as opposed to a description of events. In fact, the reversos in the book generally fall into one of those two categories: description of events and description of characters' feelings. Overall, I felt the ones that addressed emotions were more effective, but that may be my own bias.

I must comment on the illustrations by Josée Masse because they are, in a word, spectacular. Each illustration is divided into two to reflect the reverso poems on the opposite page, and Masse creates beautiful links between each pair of illustrations. For example, Sleeping Beauty's skirt blends perfectly into the hills being climbed by the prince coming to save her. The illustrations are luminous, full of rich golds and greens and reds, and combine perfectly with the poems.

For young students interested in poetry or fairy tales, this book will open their eyes to a challenging and fun style of writing.

 
 
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Houdini: the handcuff king by Jason Lutes & Nick Bertozzi
The Centre for Cartoon Studies, 2007

It is 5:00am on May 1, 1908, and Harry Houdini is preparing for a handcuffed jump off of Harvard Bridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He checks the police-issued handcuffs, goes for a jog, and reviews the stunt plan with the police and his assistant. With the river almost freezing over and a large crowd expected, Houdini has his livelihood as well as his life at stake.

The handcuff king is from the same publisher as my earlier-reviewed Amelia Earhart: this broad ocean, and it bears some striking similarities. Three colours are used in the drawings - in this case black, white, and a grey-blue - and there is a lengthy introduction by Glen David Gold, who wrote a biography about one of Houdini's contemporaries. Also, at the end of the book, there are more than four pages that provide supplementary details about specific panels in the book, from how the locks of the early 20th century worked to promotion and advertising during that time period. In fact, the back matter provides the context needed for this very brief glimpse into Houdini's life.

The entire book spans the events of one day , and one stunt, in Houdini's career. It is a snapshot of the man he was, from his adoration of his wife Bess to the control he had over every single aspect of a performance, and an indication of his ability to attract huge crowds to his spectacles. The illustrations were detailed, particularly the crowd scenes, although I found the lettering style distracting. My favourite part of the book was when Houdini is struggling to escape from the handcuffs while underwater, which is shown on the panels at the edge of each page, and the reactions of the crowd and the ticking clock is shown in inner panels. It gives a distinct atmosphere of concurrent events and certainly increased the tension of the moment for me, and I appreciate how the Lutes and Bertozzi take this life-threatening stunt that would be a memorable event in most people's lives, and present it as a common occurrence in Houdini's life.

The handcuff king is an accessible introduction to the life of a man that holds mystique for many, and in a format that students will be drawn to and learn from.

 
 
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Nasreen's secret school by Jeanette Winter
Beach Lane Books, 2009

Nasreen and her grandmother live alone in Herat, Afghanistan, after Nasreen's father was taken away by Taliban soldiers and her mother has disappeared in an attempt to locate him. It has been many months and Nasreen has not spoken since her father was taken. Although the Taliban does not allow girls to go to school, Nasreen's grandmother wants her to learn about the world as she had so she finds out about a secret school for girls and takes Nasreen. Although it takes many more months, with the help of a friend Nasreen moves past her parents' disappearances and begins to learn.

This is not a light storybook, and Jeannette Winter does an admirable job explaining the Taliban regime and its ramifications on the daily lives of women in a succinct and easily understood manner. The recent history of Afghanistan is very briefly summarized in the first couple of pages, enough to provide context to the story, especially that the Taliban was a new regime and made radical changes to society. The arrival of the Taliban is correlated with a dark cloud settling over the city, and that cloud is visible in the majority of the illustrations. The author's note at the beginning reveals that the Taliban fell in 2001 but that danger still remains, and that girls going to school is still not accepted practice.

Not wholly dark, apart from the cloud Winter's illustrations are generally quite bright and patterned. Nasreen always wears the same clothing which makes it easier to pick her out from the crowd of girls at her school, as do her green eyes, and the pinks, oranges, and greens Winter often uses are a welcome lift from the text.

The idea of having a parent taken away and another disappearing is undoubtedly a scary subject for young children, especially as the book is based on a true story. As well, while the story ends on a happy note, within the confines of the book news of Nasreen's parents is never found and the Taliban is still, presumably, in power. For children who balk at the idea of parents being taken away this could prove to be a bit much, and so I would caution adults to read this book before presenting it to young children.

Nasreen's secret school provides a perspective not often seen in picture books: children who need to avoid mortal danger simply to have the opportunity to learn. Although perhaps scary for some children, it is a book that ends with hope and a positive look to the future, and would be an excellent read-aloud to raise awareness of the continuing plight of women in Afghanistan for older children and teens as well.

 
 
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You and me together: Moms, Dads, and kids around the world by Barbara Kerley
National Geographic Society, 2005

With spare, rhythmic text and gorgeous photographs from all around the world, You and me together looks at the common experiences shared by parents and children regardless of culture, language, nationality, or religion.

This is an absolutely gorgeous book. The photos all have a parent with one or more children partaking in activities described by the text, from playing with a ball to riding ponies to just having a chat. Each photo in the book (including the cover image) has a brief caption at the back explaining where the photograph was taken and something interesting about the subjects or event depicted in the image. Although North America is the continent depicted most often in the book, the images cover all continents (except Antarctica). Although one spread in particular that shows a young Karen girl gazing at her guitar-playing mother with an expression of absolute adoration just about undoes me, You and me together is chock full of lovely everyday moments between children and their parents.

Most of the children depicted in the images  fall within the 4- to 8-year-old  age group, which is likely the target child audience. An outstanding book to demonstrate for young children the similarities and differences between cultures.

 
 
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Amelia Earhart: this broad ocean, written by Sarah Stewart Taylor and James Sturm, illustrated by Ben Towle
Hyperion Books, 2010

Amelia Earhart departed on her historic 1928 voyage across the Atlantic from the small Newfoundland port town of Trepassey. After several days of false starts due to weather and other complications, Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. This graphic novel tells Earhart's story - and her influence - through the eyes of Grace, a curious young girl of Trepassey.

The framing of this story works very well: Grace is intent on being a reporter (even among the real newspaper reporters sent to Trepassey from around North America) which reflects Amelia Earhart's determination to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and I found myself wanting to see them both succeed. In fact, I was hoping that Grace and Earhart shared a second characteristic and that they were both real historical figures. Alas, there is no indication in the supporting information that Grace was a real person.

This broad ocean has a distinctive visual style with the use of only black, white, and a light turquoise colour in the illustrations. The drawings are simple in both their lack of colours and the lines used, but movement is well indicated. I am not sure if it was intentional, but Grace and Earhart bear a  striking physical resemblance to one another with freckles and short, fly-away hair (truly, they have the same haircut except that Grace's is a touch longer), which undoubtedly contributed to my impression that Grace is the reflection of a young Earhart.

Despite some fictionalization in this graphic novel, there is quite a bit of supplementary information to the main text of the book for those who are curious to know more. Over four pages of discussion about individual illustrated panels found in the book are at the back, as well as a bibliography and selected reading list. The introduction by Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, is a personal testament to Earhart's impact in her own life and achievements.

Ultimately, this is a great introduction to Amelia Earhart's life and influence in a format that is popular with young students.