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Children's Book Reviews

It’s All True!

It’s All True!
Kate Marley

Although January is traditionally a month of science projects and book reports (for which some of these books will be useful), kids should be encouraged to think of non-fiction as more than a book one has to read for school. For most children, this requirement will automatically make it boring, and non-fiction is just about the most variable, exciting genre around! Encourage your children to look up and read non-fiction for fun, and they will have a much more balanced reading diet. (Setting a good example is the best way.)
                                 Bon appetit!


Discover Great Paintings by Lucy Micklethwait. c 1999, DK Publishing.
This is a very interactive book, with twelve famous paintings, and questions and answers to guide youngsters through the steps of what to look for. Large and colorful, covering such artists as Winslow Homer, Botticelli, and Henri Rousseau, this is a great way to get kids to really look at great art and get their imaginations going. It’s biggest drawback is its Eurocentric focus, and for a visual medium this is a shame. But it’s a good start.

Bugs for Lunch by Margery Facklam. c 1999, Charlesbridge.
Short rhymes coupled with detailed drawings by Sylvia Long tell about the dangers bugs face from all the creatures that eat bugs. Some predators are obvious, such as birds and fish, others, like bears and people, are not. A cute book for any young child who loves the natural world.

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Schwartz. c 1999, Scholastic.
This book works on two levels – first as a book of comparisons. Ants may not seem that strong to children, but when they see that if they were as strong as an ant, and could lift a car, that comparison certainly brings it home to them in a personal way. The end offers more details and the math needed for each animal; and kids are given directions to encourage to make their own comparisons . Colorful cartoony illustrations are by James Warhola.

Journey to Ellis Island by Carol Bierman. c 1998, Madison Press.
A heartwarming and true story about the author’s father, and how he very nearly didn’t make it through the inspectors at Ellis Island. Illustrated by Laurie McGaw with drawings, and embellished by family photographs, this small history lesson will remind youngsters that immigration always has a personal face and story.

Walter Wick’s Optical Tricks by Walter Wick. c 1998, Scholastic.
Parents will enjoy sitting with their kids, trying to figure out how some of these optical illusions were created. Some are revealed, but not all, and figuring them all out is not as easy as it appears!


Cal Ripken, Jr. : Play Ball! by Cal Ripkin, Jr. and Mike Bryan. c 1999, Puffin Books.
This is an excellent early biography of an honest to goodness role model, replete with drawings and photographs. Large print, short chapters and plenty of white space will also lure reluctant readers. Told in first person, it comes across as humble and honest, without being preachy. It’ll be great for those biography assignments, as well as just for fun.

Kid Who Invented the Popsicle by Don L. Wulffson. c 1997, Puffin Books.
This is a fun book to leaf through, with each page offering a short explanation about how some common items came to be. Some, like the popsicle, were accidents and others like Gatorade were deliberate. Kids of all ages love to read about fascinating trivia such as the first person to wear high heels (a man), that flashlights started as an electric flowerpot, or that the toothbrush as we know it was invented by a convict.

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges. c 1999, Scholastic.
Ruby was one of four first graders who integrated public schools in New Orleans, and the only black child at her school. She was made even more famous by Norman Rockwell’s painting of her brave march daily through all the anger and hatred of the segregationists. Told in her own words, and with lots of interviews of the other pivotal people, as well as plenty of photographs, this book is a timely reminder of the price folks must pay for freedom….even the children. Margo Lundell edited and compiled articles and interviews as well.

Gladiator by Richard Watkins. c 1997, Houghton Mifflin.
For nearly 700 years during the Roman Empire, gladiators were part of the culture, celebrities in the same way that football or basketball players are today. The author (who also did the black and white illustrations) did some extensive research about their armor, training and general way of life. And parents shouldn’t worry that he is glorifying gladiators either; phrases such as “disgusting display” and “some of the greatest exhibitions of brutality in history” are freely sprinkled throughout. But there is no denying that this will appeal to many kids, particularly boys.


It Is A Good Day To Die by Herman J. Viola. c 1998, Crown.
The Battle of the Greasy Grass (better known to whites as Custer’s Last Stand) is told here from the Indian point of view from eyewitness accounts. They paint a vivid picture of a peaceful encampment, who had believed themselves safe because of their numbers, forced to defend their women and children from the brutality of the white soldiers and their Indian scouts. A sad and poignant retelling, it will remind children to consider both sides of the story in history.

Who Am I?…and other Questions of Adopted by Charlene C. Giannetti. c 1999, Price, Stern, Sloan.
This delicate subject is handled with tact and gentleness by the author but she pulls no punches when puncturing fantasies. Facts, common sense and positive courses of action are offered to help kids work through the mixed emotions that adoption can bring.

Witches and Witch-hunts by Milton Meltzer. c 1999, Blue Sky Press.
The supernatural is fascinating to kids, and this “history of persecution” is as interesting to read for fun as it is for schoolwork. The author takes us through a short history of witchcraft in the Western world, with a few famous examples, and then offers chapters exploring other aspects, such as why women were targeted, and the role of children in witchcraft hysteria. A bibliography and index will be especially useful for book reports and anyone interested in more material.

When Nothing Matters Anymore by Bev Cobain. c 1998, Free Spirit Publishing.
Subtitled as “a survival guide for depressed teens”, this can be equally informative for parents as well. Different types of depression are explored and there are lots of teens who tell their own story about how they worked through this misunderstood and deadly disease. The author, now a psychiatric nurse, has gone through depression herself as well as suicides in her family; her cousin Kurt Cobain was only the most famous. Resources such as hotlines, organizations, books and websites are listed, and there is an excellent index also. Packed with positive, practical information, I highly recommend it.

Eleanor’s Story by Eleanor Ramrath Garner. c 1999, Peachtree.
Born to immigrant German parents, Eleanor and her older brother lived as most American children did in the late thirties – until their father was offered a job in Germany. Despite some misgivings, the economic opportunity and the chance to see family again was too strong to resist. But war was declared as the family was sailing over in 1939, and with no way back, they tried to make the best of it. For seven years, Eleanor details their awkward position of being Americans in wartime Germany, adjusting to school, of bombings, food and clothing shortages and friends being killed and raped. Why read another wartime chronicle? Her own words sum it up well – “Each one of the millions who died and every person who miraculously survived has a story. Mine is only one of them. This war lives on in infamy. It should never be forgotten, lest we forget our humanity.”


Ask the Children by Ellen Galinsky. c 1999, William Morrow.
It seems so simple…just ask America’s children how they feel about their parents’ working…but the answers may surprise you. Through interviews and statistics (lots of statistics!) readers will learn what kids really feel about work and their parents. The unspoken question is, of course, whether the mother working (at a paid job) is bad for the children…but one of the most surprising findings of this survey is that “children 8 through 18 years old are more likely to feel that they have too little time with their employed fathers than with their employed mothers” (emphasis is author’s). And while parents worry mostly about the younger children feeling deprived, it turns out that it’s the teens who miss spending time …with their dads. The whole book, while written in a fairly formal, scholarly manner, is full of such interesting insights. I found it fascinating, and feel that most parents would come away with a different point of view, and certainly less guilt.

Street Smarts for Kids by Detective Ric Bentz & Christine Allison. c 1999, Fawcett Books.
While more colloquial, yet less reassuring, I still highly recommended this book as well. Subtitled “what parents must know to keep their children safe”, it’s a collection of different concerns that face all modern parents…latchkey kids, the Internet, child abuse….and the author’s methods and strategies to help you protect your kids as much as possible. I particularly liked the chapter called “Pedophiles Among Us”, which explodes the Stranger Danger myth and gives parents the real low down on these low down creatures, and what to really watch for. As a “front-line cop”, the author has “learned a lot about the kind of people who do horrible things to children” and about what behaviors put kids at risk. His is a common sense, no nonsense approach that is a breath of fresh air through all the cloudy pyscho-babble, and all parents should pay attention.

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