Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Look Up! by Robert Burleigh

Over one hundred years ago, a woman astronomer named Henrietta Swan Leavitt made a remarkable discovery that changed forever how astronomers viewed the universe. For her breakthrough, Henrietta Leavitt received absolutely no recognition. It was a discovery that other astronomers such as Ejinar Hertzsprung and Edwin Hubble would use in their own research. In fact, Hubble never credited Leavitt's previous work as a significant factor in his own research. Recognition for Leavitt's outstanding contributions to astronomy would come after her death in 1921. InLook Up!, Robert Burleigh tells Henrietta Leavitt's story for a new generation of young girls, inspiring them to follow their interest in science.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt was born in Massachusetts on July 14, 1868. She was an intelligent, hard-working student, attending Oberlin College and then the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women, which was eventually renamed Radcliffe College. At Radcliffe, Henrietta received an intensive education that if she were a man, would have led to a career in academia. However, in the late 19th century, such a possibility was not open to young, intelligent, well educated women.

In 1892, in her senior year at Radcliffe, Henrietta discovered astronomy. In 1893, after graduation, Henrietta  joined the Harvard College Observatory as an unpaid volunteer where she became a "Harvard computer" under the direction of astronomer Edward Pickering. Despite her rigorous education this was the only type of job available to educated young women. Henrietta was forced to leave due to a serious illness that left her profoundly deaf. She eventually returned to the Observatory in 1902. Her job, at a pay of 30 cents, was to catalogue the brightness of stars.

The 'Harvard computers' was a group of over eighty women who came to be collectively known in scientific circles as 'Pickering's Harem', a somewhat demeaning reference. The Harvard Computers included many brilliant women who would come to make outstanding contributions to the field of astronomy. These included Williamina Fleming who discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888, Annie Jump Cannon who helped catalogue over one million stars, Margaret Harwood who was later to become the first woman director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, and Cecilia Payne who discovered that the Sun was comprised mainly of hydrogen.

Leavitt's job was to look at variable stars, so named because their luminosity changes over time in a regular pattern known as a period.  She was working with Cepheid stars in the Magellanic Clouds (two dwarf galaxies near the Milky Way). Henrietta discovered by mathematical calculation and detailed observation of these Cepheid variable stars that there is a direct correlation between how bright a star is (called the star's magnitude) and the length of time it goes from dim to peak brightness (its period of luminosity). In other words, brighter stars had larger periods of luminosity. This became known at the period-luminosity relationship or Leavitt's Law. Since the Cepheid stars are all about the same distance from Earth, their period is directly related to the magnitude, not distance. Using magnitude, one can determine their distance from Earth. Henrietta did this, not by telescope which she was not, as a woman, allowed to use, but by examining photographic plates. She published her results in 1912 in the form of a chart that allowed astronomers to determine very accurately the distance of stars from Earth and the distance between stars. Astronomers would even be able to attempt to calculate how large the universe is.

Unfortunately Henrietta Leavitt never received the recognition she deserved for this discovery which immediately set off a chain of amazing discoveries in the field of astronomy. At the time, the universe was believed to contain only the Milky Way galaxy but working from Henrietta's discovery, astronomers quickly learned the vastness of the cosmos. She was under consideration to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1925 but this was too little too late. She had passed away four years earlier. Even one hundred years after her amazing discovery, little has been done to commemorate her outstanding contribution to astronomy.


Look Up! tells Henrietta Leavitt's story for young readers, capturing many of the crucial points of her life. Burleigh does a good job of attempting to explain exactly what Henrietta discovered and its significance to the discipline of astronomy. Raul Colon's exquisite illustrations are "rendered in watercolors, Prismacolor pencils and lithograph pencils on Arches paper."  They add lovely visual dimension to this beautiful picture book, as they should, enhancing Burleigh's simple text.

Look Up! is a must-have book for any library or school wishing to promote the hidden accomplishments of women scientists to young girl readers.  Burleigh has included an Afterword that tells a bit about Henrietta Leavitt, a Glossary of Terms, and a list of resources, both online and print for learning more about the stars, telescopes, planets and the solar system. Although there is a small portrait of Henrietta Leavitt , it would have been wonderful to see more photographs of her included in the afterword.

Book Details:

Look Up! by Robert Burleigh
New York: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers 2013

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What I Lost by Alexandra Ballard

Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Barnes finds herself entering Wallingfield Psychiatric Facility for her anorexia. In the lobby Elizabeth meets Lexi a very thin girl from Long Island Massapequa. Elizabeth and her parents meet Mary who will be Elizabeth's therapist who tells them that it is almost snack time. Mary explains that every day the girls meet in the dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner and that there are three snacks each day. Sally the nutritionist will work with Elizabeth to set up a meal plan and at every meal a nurse will check to see that everything has been eaten. Every morning weights and vitals are taken but numbers are not revealed. Elizabeth is scheduled to have a bone density test done. Elizabeth learns that Lexi is her roommate.

First snack is horrifying to Elizabeth because it consists of milk, one muffin and one apple. Willa tells her if she doesn't eat, Kay the mean monitor will force her to drink Ensure. Elizabeth is unable to eat most of her snack but Kay lets her off because it's her first day. Willa who has hidden all of her muffin under her shoe has to drink an Ensure.

Elizabeth's roommate Lexi who exercises at night, tells Elizabeth she has been in treatment before and has had both an nasogastric tube and a stomach tube. Elizabeth's first breakfast is a nightmare as she struggles to eat all the food on her plate. Not being used to so much food at once, she vomits up her breakfast and is made to drink Ensure. Lunch is even more difficult, because it includes salad with a dressing.

Group therapy for Elizabeth's cohort is run by Marci, a twentysomething counselor. This group includes Elizabeth, Lexi, Willa, Beth, Jean and Margot Camby who is someone Elizabeth once knew from ballet class when she was six years old. None of the girls are eager to participate but to spare Margot, Elizabeth mentions about hating the lanugo (fine hair) that is growing all over her body.

Lunch is even more difficult for Elizabeth; she manages to eat everything but the salad which she must eat with salad dressing that she describes as "unhealthy" and "disgusting". Kay insists that she will have to drink an Ensure but with the support of Willa and Lexi,  Elizabeth manages to eat the salad.

As Elizabeth goes through treatment, she discovers an inner strength she didn't know she had. That courage will be needed as she confronts her own problems, struggles to deal with her parents and must find her place at school where she faces bullies and the fallout from social media.


What I Lost offers a poignant, candid treatment of anorexia that will help readers better empathize and understand this serious illness.  Ballard knows her subject well and has captured many of the ritualistic behaviours and the thoughts experienced by those with an eating disorder. Through the experiences of both the main character, Elizabeth Barnes and several of the secondary characters, the author also demonstrates how difficult it can be to overcome this illness, presents some of the consequences anorexia can have on the body, but also offers hope to those who are impacted by anorexia.

What I Lost begins with Elizabeth's admittance to a treatment facility and focuses on portraying her struggle towards recovery. When Elizabeth arrives at Wallingfield she is in a state of denial; she believes she doesn't belong there. But her frame of mind is quickly revealed when she catches a glance of herself in the mirror above the fireplace in the common room. "That girl made me sick. I hated catching glimpses of her. It didn't matter where --whether in a mirror, or a window reflection, or on my phone screen after a group selfie."

Her state of mind reveals that she is focused on being thin, especially when she sees Lexi. "Her purple hoodie and black leggings hung off her like clothes on a hanger, and her legs, folded beneath her, were so thin they made her feet look too big for her body. My cheeks burned. I felt inferior. She was so much skinnier than me." Elizabeth notes that although she has her dad's genes, she is now skinnier than her mom, something she is proud of.

However Elizabeth's illness quickly manifests itself at Wallingfield when she struggles to eat her first snack. Unlike some of the other girls there however, Elizabeth does force herself to eat. This is a hint that deep down, Elizabeth wants to get well. This is demonstrated when Lexi explains how the treatment center works."You can either refuse to do everything, and then eventually  they'll kick you out...Or you can do what they tell you, get fat, and go home.." But Elizabeth wonders "What about girls who want to get well?", a thought she quickly suppresses.

After her first group therapy session Elizabeth realizes that she feels understood at Wallingfield but she also wants to go home and have a normal life. "These girls got me. And yet...a part of me wanted to cry. This wasn't normal. I wanted to be home, listening to Spotify wit Katrina, studying for my SAT's, reading Hamlet, and training for states with my cross-country team."

In therapy Elizabeth begins to explore some of the factors that have led her to where she is now. Elizabeth believes that her mother wants her to be thin. At first she can't tell Mary this because she doesn't know how she will react. Elizabeth knows her mother has "expectations" or hopes. "Hopes for my appearance, anyway." Memory of a shopping trip to Macy's brings up what Elizabeth's mother's hopes are. "Our shopping trips usually led to horrible fights where I begged her to leave me alone and she told me that if I let her dress me, I'd look great. You just have to purchase the right clothes for your figure, she'd say. You don't have the right body for the juniors' department. But the juniors department was where all my friends shopped, and I wanted to shop there too. And sometimes the things he hated on me, I didn't think looked that bad. Until she pointed out the flaws -- my hips, my thighs, my chubby knees." 

When her parents become involved in both group and family therapy Elizabeth must deal with intense conflict as she begins to realize that her mother's view of food is not a healthy one. In family group therapy Elizabeth decides to be honest about what's happening. "No one would ever have guessed my mom was anything besides a naturally thin woman who'd won the genetic lottery unless they ate with her." During a family phone call that includes her therapist, Elizabeth realizes that her mother's behaviour during meals makes her feel "ashamed that I was such a pig" and "ashamed of my appetite". Her parents' inability to confront this leaves Elizabeth feeling vulnerable and disappointed. Eventually Elizabeth is forced to confront her parents over her mother's disordered eating during lunch with parents. " 'Mom! It is so hard to eat when you're acting like that. You're supposed to model normal behavior for me!' Before Wallingfield I'd watch Mom eat and feel guilty if I ate more than she did. Now, though, I saw her eating for what it was. Screwed up..." As Elizabeth gets further into her recovery she recognizes her mother's disordered eating and understands her denial because she experienced the same thing.

Seeing the other girls struggling with the effects of anorexia on their bodies has a lasting impact on Elizabeth. When Lexi reveals that her anorexia has damaged her heart possibly irreparably, she tells Elizabeth "Be scared for yourself. Really, really scared, because that's what's going to make you better." Elizabeth knows from her previous support group twenty percent of girls never recover from anorexia and she doesn't want to be one of those girls. Yet Elizabeth continues to struggle. When Sally meets with her to plan  her meals, Elizabeth has the unrealistic expectation that she can cure herself while limiting her food to 800 calories per day. At the same time Elizabeth knows she has to eat if she wants to recover - a conundrum for many people suffering from anorexia. Elizabeth knows the increased food intake is changing her body and she states, "I was mourning the body I was losing each day a little, too."

As is the case with many girls with anorexia, eating begins to heal the body and the brain, something Elizabeth soon begins to recognize. "I did have things to be happy about. I'd finished my lunch. In fact, I was proud to report that I'd finished every meal and snack in the past week. Because of that, I felt better both in my body and my brain. I wasn't psyched to be gaining weight, but my thoughts were clearer and they moved through my head faster." 

In the end several things help Elizabeth to eat and begin to recover; she begins to confront the unhealthy approach to eating that her mother has and how that has affected her, she fears damaging her body as Lexi and Margot have done, and she realizes that she wants her life back and wants to be healthy. Ballard makes all of this seem realistic because Elizabeth still struggles with how she views her body. "I did want to stay how I was and eat pancakes. There were healthy size 0 girls. Why couldn't I be one?" The most important thing is that Elizabeth decides to get well for herself. "And right then I knew. If I went home and started to restrict my eating again, I would shrivel up like a dry plant. If I ever wanted to run again -- to live again-- I'd have to get better. And I'd have to do it for me."

And when she returns home, she almost immediately falls into her old pattern of lying and trying to get around eating. This too is a realistic portrayal. In the end, it is Elizabeth who owns her illness and decides she wants to recover. "Did I want to spend my life bouncing in and out of treatment centers, have bone scans and waiting for the bad one?...If I skipped lunch I'd find a way to skip dinner. Then breakfast, and lunch, and dinner again. It wasn't a slippery slope. It was a straight free fall, and I knew it." 

Ballard includes several subplots involving Elizabeth's friends which serve to provide context and setting later on in the novel when Elizabeth is released from treatment and must return to school. Elizabeth receives a series of mysterious packages which she believes comes from her ex-boyfriend. Ultimately, these packages help her to work through what happened between them, to heal from that experience and to recognize her own strength. There is also a second storyline involving her continued bullying by a classmate which Elizabeth faces with grace and courage. With her new found strength, Elizabeth with the help of friends and family, confronts these challenges and continues to move forward.

Overall What I Lost is a realistic portrayal of someone struggling with an eating disorder. While Elizabeth's recovery may seem somewhat fast-tracked, her timeline of actively restricting is relatively short. The longer disordered eating occurs, the more entrenched the behaviours become and the more difficult it is to remove them and the accompanying thoughts. Balland undertook considerable research for her book and this is evident throughout. The ending is positive and hopeful  - which is something people with an eating disorder need to know. Recovery is difficult and hard work but there is hope!

Book Details:

What I Lost by Alexandra Ballard
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux      2017
390 pp.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries by Don Brown

Rare Treasure tells the story of the greatest "fossilist" of all time - Mary Anning of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. Mary was born on May 21, 1799 to a cabinetmaker who supplemented his income by selling the strange finds from the fossil beds by the town. Although Mary's parents, Richard and Molly had ten children, only Mary and her brother Joseph survived to adulthood.

When Mary was a toddler, she was with a group of women watching an equestrian show when a storm blew up. The women took shelter beneath a tree when it was struck by lightning. Only Mary survived. This event seemed to mark a change in Mary who grew into a lively child full of curiosity.  Although Mary learned to read and write, she never received much education. The Anning family was poor and because of war on the continent, (England was at war with France), there were often food shortages.

Lyme Regis soon became a tourist mecca for the English looking to get away from the polluted, dirty cities of the north.  Richard Anning took Mary and Joseph with him as he scoured the limestone and shale cliffs around Lyme Regis looking for fossils. They would then set up a table in the town and sell their finds to tourists.

In November 1810, Mary's father passed away, leaving the family in even more serious poverty. To supplement their income from the parish relief they received Mary continued to hunt for fossils on the cliffs of Lyme Regis. Over the years she built up a substantial business and a reputation.

Her first major find was in 1811 when she was twelve years old. Over the period of several months she and Joseph dug up a fossilized skeleton of an what would later be called an ichthyosaur. Other substantial finds included a pleisosaur  in 1823, a pterosaur in 1828 and a squaloraja in 1829.

Although Mary Anning had received little schooling she read scientific papers and even studied the anatomy of living creatures to better understand the fossils she was finding. She lived at a time when women had few rights, the could not vote and were not allowed entry into universities. Although she was often not given full credit for her discoveries, eventually her contributions to the field of paleontology was recognized by several prominent geologists of the time. Mary Anning's discoveries had a profound influence on how humans thought about the planet and its past. At the turn of the century, the belief that the Earth and everything in it was created in six days by God was common. However, the fossils that Mary Anning discovered were of creatures that no longer existed and they made scientists rethink the past and how the present came to be.

Mary Anning's sketch of a Plesiosaur, 1824
Rare Treasure is a well written, short account of Mary Anning's life. Brown is a capable storyteller, capturing the more important parts of Mary Anning's life; her family's struggles with poverty, the dangerous work of searching for fossils on the shore, the wonderful discoveries she made, and her desire to understand what she found.Although some of the obstacles Anning encountered are omitted, Brown does emphasize that Mary Anning came to be highly regarded by many prominent scientists of the day including William Buckland and Richard Owens.  The pen, ink and watercolour illlustrations of Don Brown are a wonderful supplement to the story of this intelligent and courageous English woman.

Rare Treasure is recommended for young readers, especially girls interested in dinosaurs, earth science or science in general.

Book Details:

Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries by Don Brown
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company     1999

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In A Perfect World by Trish Doller

Seventeen-year-old Caroline Kelly is stunned to learn she will be spending her senior year of high school living in Cairo, Egypt. Caroline had planned to spend her summer vacation working at Cedar Point with her best friend Hannah. Her parents had also arranged for her to attend a summer soccer camp at Ohio State and Caroline's goal was to make captain of the girl's team in her senior year.

Instead, Caroline and her mother will be spending the year in Cairo where her mother will be working for OneVision, a nongovernmental global health organization that "provides eye examinations and glasses to people in need, and eye surgeries to restore sight." Her mother, has been asked to set up an eye clinic in Cairo. Caroline will finish her senior year at the American school. Caroline's father who is a tugboat captain will only stay for a week to help them get set up in their apartment.

At the airport they meet Ahmed Saleh Elhadad who is their driver. Mr. Elhadad drives them to Rhoda Island, where their apartment is located. Their third floor apartment is large and sunny, but not furnished as agreed on, meaning they must buy everything. Mr. Elhadad sends his son Adam to set up their new furniture a few days later. Caroline notes that Adam is cute but is puzzled by his reluctant greeting. Her mother explains this is his way of showing respect.

The next morning Mr. Elhadad takes Caroline and her parents to see Manshiyat Nasr neighborhood where the new clinic is located. He tells them that it is known as the Garbage city because the "people who live there - the Zabbaleen - collect the garbage from around Cairo and take it back to Manshiyat Nasr to sort out the recyclables."  The city has no running water, sewers and little electricity.  However, Dr. Kelly's clinic is clean and bright, already for her to set up.

Manshiyat Nasr- the Garbage City
Caroline attempts to follow her mother's suggestion that she not stay within the confines of their apartment, but her first outing, an attempt to walk to the movie theater is disastrous when she is harassed by an older Egyptian man. She flees back to the apartment where she tells Adam what happened. He tells her she must try to ignore this behaviour as even some of the niqabi are assaulted. Caroline notes that Adam seems interested in her and she wonders if she could be attracted to someone like him.

After a week in the apartment, Caroline's mother calls Mr. Elhadad who offers to take Caroline to the pyramids. However, it is Adam who shows up, when Mr. Elhadad becomes ill. Caroline isn't ready to see the pyramids, so Adam takes her to the restaurant where he works, gets a take-out order of ksohary and they go to the park to eat.  A few days later, Caroline summons her courage and walks down to the movie theatre to see a film. This time she has no problems. Adam takes Caroline to the Friday Market, the souk al-Gomaa which Caroline describes as "more like a garage sale on the surface of the sun." Adam is helpful and tries to teach Caroline how to haggle. She also begins to learn more about Adam, that his mother Manar works in a wedding shop altering dresses, and that he has a younger sister Aya who is fifteen.

Koshary - popular street food in Cairo.
After Caroline and her mother are taken to the pyramids at Giza by Mr. Elhadad, who has now recovered, they stop for a snack at the shop where Adam works.Following the meal, Mr. Elhadad has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. This development means that Adam must leave his job and take over his father's responsibilities as Caroline's driver. This sets up an awkward situation because both Caroline and Adam feel increasingly attracted to one another. As Adam drives Caroline to various sites around Cairo (the Hanging Church, Khan el-Khalili) their budding friendship blossoms into a forbidden love. But when radical Islamists attack the OneVision clinic, Caroline's family must change their plans. Can their new love overcome the obstacles of culture and distance?


In A Perfect World is a touching story about identity, forbidden love and acceptance. Doller focuses on Caroline's journey towards understanding a culture very different from her own. Caroline is an Irish Catholic who has grown up in predominantly white Sandusky, Ohio. Her mother, Dr. Rebecca Kelly is an eye specialist, while her father is a rugged tugboat captain. Caroline's has played soccer and dated and is planning to study anthropology at university. In contrast Adam Elhadad is a devout Muslim who is working in koshary shop and hopes to be a chef one day. His sister Aya wants to study engineering but that is dependent on her test scores. Unlike Caroline who doesn't believe in fate, Aya believes whatever happens is the will of Allah.

The Hanging Church
As soon as she arrives in Cairo, Caroline experiences a profound culture shock. "...people are staring. At her. At me. Particularly the men, who drag their gazes from my hair to my chest -- even though my red bandana-print top covers me completely..." Caroline is surprised to see some women with their hair uncovered, "flowing around their shoulders or knotted in buns." Some girls wear hijabs, others are dressed in jeans and sandals. "Many --but not all--of the older women are cloaked in black abayas and hijabs, while a few wear veils over the lower part of their faces. These women unsettle me because their identities, their personalities, are concealed. Are they happy? Sad? With their mouths covered, it feels as if they've been silenced...Clearly the rules are more complex than I thought. But if Muslim women have a choice in what they wear, why would they choose to cover themselves up?"

Caroline is even put off by the Arabic language which she describes as "...a harsh and unyielding language that I will never be able to understand." When she and her family first hear the Muslim call to prayer from the nearby mosque, Caroline describes it as "eerie as it is beautiful, but unsettling in the same way as the veiled woman at the airport. Fear of the unknown. I don't understand what is being sung--or why."

When she first meets Adam Elhadad, Caroline is surprised to discover that he looks like an ordinary guy that she might meet back home in Sandusky and that he's handsome. She "expected something more unusual" and wonders if she could be attracted to a boy like him.

However as she experiences life in Egypt, Caroline begins to learn about the culture and her preconceived ideas about Islam begin to change. This is demonstrated in her conversation with her best friend Hannah who believes all Middle Eastern men have beards and admits that the only Middle Eastern man she knows is Osama bin Laden, a terrorist. Caroline tells her "The Middle East is a huge place -- a bunch of different countries that have their own cultures. Not all the men have beards, just like not all the women wear hijabs, but misconceptions like these are how people end up believing that everyone from the Middle East is a terrorist."

When the adhan (call to prayer) begins, Caroline no longer finds it so scary, "especially now that I'm getting used to it, now that I know people who rise before the sun to say the prayers and perform the movements that accompany them." She begins to learn a bit of Arabic, teaching herself numbers and invites Adam to teach her some basic words.

Doller attempts to show through Caroline and Adam, that despite their obvious differences, people are often more similar than is immediately evident. For example, Caroline's mother helps her to see that some things about the Muslim's practice of their faith is not so different from their own faith. She points out that as a Catholic she says morning and evening prayers and even prays throughout the day, something she has in common with the Egyptian Muslims. Their calls to prayer are similar to the ringing of church bells in Sandusky for Mass. When Adam informs Caroline that Muslims use their right hand for all things honorable they discover that they are both left handed and that family members have been discouraged from using their left hand. Later on when talking with Aya, Caroline notes that her grandmother has a similar saying to the Arabic "Inshallah" which means "If it is God's will."

Doller tackles many different issues in her novel including how different life is for women in Egypt compared to America, the role religion plays in Egyptian society, the strong influence of family on young people and how both cultures have generalized misconceptions about the other.

As Caroline and Adam fall in love they face increasing resistance from their concerned families and friends. Adam knows a relationship with Caroline is "haram" but he decides to follow his heart. He must deal with the expectations of his family to marry a Muslim girl while Caroline struggles to fit in with his friends, some of whom do not like her. She also feels deep conflict over what a possible marriage to Adam might mean. Caroline cannot envisage herself converting to Islam and living the rest of her life in Cairo as she feels strongly drawn to her Catholic faith. As it turns out neither have to decide at this time to go against their culture or their beliefs.

Doller weaves in a satisfying ending for her readers, that is both romantic and plausible. Adam and Caroline are free to choose their relationship but only in America where society is more open. This novel's strengths are its descriptions of life in Cairo and the well drawn cast of characters.  Even the secondary characters are real and interesting.

Sadly this novel is marred by a stereotypical portrayal of an older Catholic, Caroline's Grandma Irene who is characterized as a bigot. She warns Caroline "to stay away from Muslims." obviously an impossible task for her granddaughter who is living in a Muslim country. Grandma Irene is a hypocritical Catholic despite attending weekly Mass. She is the foil to the younger Caroline, who represents the modern Catholic, open, flexible, and tolerant. Of course no mention is made of why Caroline's grandmother feels this way, only that it is wrong and intolerant. (The animosity between Muslims and Catholics goes back to the 7th century with the loss of important Christian shrines in the Holy Land, the persecution of Catholics in Muslim countries, as well as several attempts to conquer Christian Europe throughout the centuries. Persecution continues unabated today with attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt. In April 2017 two churches were bombed in Tanta and Alexandria during Easter and in May 2017 a group of Coptic Christians on a pilgrimage were massacred by Muslim extremists. Christians who make up ten per cent of Egypt's population complain of little protection by police and non enforcement of freedom of religion laws.) To make her grandmother even more intolerant, it turns out she doesn't like blacks either. It would be nice to see a positive characterization of a Catholic in young adult literature.

Overall, In A Perfect World is a timely novel that explores both the differences and similarities between a Muslim and a post-Christian culture through the eyes of two young people.

Book Details:

In A Perfect World by Trish Doller
Toronto: Simon Pulse     2017
294 pp.

Monday, October 23, 2017

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and The Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul

"I think that when you abuse the environment, you abuse yourself."

When Isatou Ceesay was growing up in Njau, the Gambia she discovered that plastic bags easily replaced her broken palm leaf basket. Telling Grandmother Mbombeh of her new way to carry home fruit and vegetables, led her grandmother to note that the city was full of plastic bags. At first Isatou finds the plastic bags handy and attractive. But soon she comes to realize they don't last forever and that unlike her palm leaf basket, the plastic bags do not crumble and mix in with the soil. Instead, discarded plastic bags clog the pathways and fields, marring the beauty of her village. Not only that but the goats, a source of wealth for Isatou's family and other families, are eating the plastic bags and dying. Isatou's grandmother loses three goats this way.

Isatou decides she must do something but what? She begins collecting and washing the discarded plastic bags she finds in Njau. Then a brilliant idea comes to Isatou, one that not only helps to recycle the bags but also provides a source of income for the women of Njau.


In Canada we have a well developed municipal waste collection program that includes regular garbage, recycling and in some communities organic waste collection. However in the Gambia this did not exist and still does not in most communities in the country. The result is that garbage litters city streets and rural areas and is often burned, releasing damaging chemical compounds into the air. Litter chokes and kills livestock and creates unsanitary conditions leading to disease.

In 1997 Isatou and three other women started the Recycling Center of Njau. Their initial goal was to teach the women of her village to recycle plastic waste and become leaders in the management of waste within their communities. This meant changing the role of women in their village to some extent, encouraging them to become advocates for recycling and social responsibility and to become small business entrepeneurs.

Miranda Paul tells the Isatou Ceesay's story in simple prose. Isatou Ceesay demonstrates how just one person can have a profound influence on her community. In this case Isatou not only found a way to recycle the plastic bags which were choking the beautiful countryside but also eventually turn the women of Njau's efforts into an economically viable business.

Elizabeth Zunon utilizes collages made of colourful papers and leftover plastic shopping bags to create the illustrations for One Plastic Bag, connecting her artwork to the story of recycling. Miranda Paul also includes an Author's Note that details her visits to The Gambia and how the country was overwhelmed with garbage. But one person began to work to change that. Isatou Ceesay's efforts not only helped clean up N'Jau but also brought the first public library to her region. The book also includes a glossary of Wolof, on of the native languages of the Gambia.

Book Details:

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and The Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul
Minmeapolis, Minnesota: Millbrook Press 2015

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Women Who Dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers & Rebels by Linda Skeers

Women Who Dared features stories of remarkable women who were fearless in their quest to follow their dreams. Linda Skeers has put together a fascinating collection of stories that will captivate young and not-so-young readers.

The book is divided into three sections: Daredevils, Adventurers and Rebels. In Daredevils, readers will meet Annie Edson Taylor who decided to take the plunge over Niagara Falls, Florence Chadwick who swam the English Channel-both ways, Lillian Boyer who was an aerial acrobat and Valentina Tereshkova, a cosmonaut who orbited Earth forty-eight times.

The Adventurers section introduces readers to Barbara Hillary, explorer of both the North and South Poles, Beatrice Ayettey who grew up in Ghana and became that country's first maritime captain, Dr. Eugenie Clark whose passion for the sea led her study sharks, and Canadian Mina Hubbard who explored the uncharted wilds of Labrador.

The final section, Rebels describes the heroic efforts of Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library in Basra, Iraq to save the rare books from destruction during the Iraq War. Readers will also meet Irene Sendler who save 2,500 Jewish children from death during World War II, Keiko Fukudo who was one of the first women to master judo, Margaret "Molly" Tobin Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic and Minnie Spotted Wolf a member of the Blackfeet Nation who became the first Native American woman to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

Some of the women profiled are well known, such as (unsinkable) Molly Brown, Irene Sendler and Mary Anning. Others such as Amelia Earhart and Nellie Bly are missing.  Each one page biography is accompanied by a colourful rendering of the person profiled by illustrator Livi Gosling. While most of the women featured are American, Skeers does include women from other countries including Canada, Ghana, France, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Jamaica, England, France and Nicaragua.  There is an extensive Bibliography at the back of the book for further research. This is a great companion volume to Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky.

Book Details:

Women Who Dared by Linda Skeers
Naperville, Illinois:  Sourcebooks, Inc.       2017

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Life in the Ocean by Claire A. Nivola

Dr. Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer whose work to save our planet's oceans is legendary. Life in the Ocean tells young readers about how Sylvia's love of the natural world around her led to a career dedicated to learning about and preserving the world's oceans.

Sylvia was born in 1935 in Gibbstown, New Jersey. She spent her early childhood on a farm where she enjoyed exploring the nearby woods. When she was twelve, Sylvia's family moved to Dunedin, Florida, close to the ocean. Her backyard was now the Gulf of Mexico. This home offered Sylvia the opportunity to observe the oceans and the nearby salt marshes. Sylvia decided that this was what she wanted to do with her life.

She attended Florida State University and graduated in 1955 with a degree in botany. Sylvia obtained her Masters in botany from Duke University a year later and went on to earn her doctorate in 1966.

She became renowned for her groundbreaking exploration of the ocean. In 1964 Sylvia had the opportunity to be a part of the International Indian Ocean Expedition. At that time it was unheard of for women to be part of an oceanographic research team. Sylvia was the only woman with seventy men on board a research vessel for six weeks at sea. Although the headlines focused on this, Sylvia had no problems and enjoyed this experience immensely.

In 1970, Sylvia Earle led an all-female team of researchers who were part of the Tektite II experiment. This experiment saw the women aquanauts live for up to twenty days underwater in a special habitat to undertake research and observe the effects of living in a confined environment. During the 1970's she began an association with National Geographic to write books and produce films on ocean life. She led many undersea explorations and in 1979 set a world record for the deepest untethered dive, descending 1250 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Sylvia Earle was the first woman to serve as chief scientist of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) from 1990 to 1992 and in 1998 she became the first female explorer in residence for the National Geographic Society.

Dr. Sylvia Earle
In 2009 Sylvia launched Mission Blue, an alliance of scientists, philanthropists and others to establish "hope spots" around the globe. These hope spots are marine protected areas. 

In interviews, Sylvia has stated that it "was considered a little unusual for girls to want to be scientists when I began." She stated that her parents were extremely supportive of her decision to become a scientist. "..I think because they had that attitude I didn't know that it was unusual."

Sylvia's message is to "encourage people to connect to nature, to understand that our lives are totally linked to the natural world..."

Life in the Ocean describes Sylvia's early life and her oceanographic work in detail accompanied by the delicate and colourful watercolour illustrations by the author. Nivola's paintings capture the beauty and mystery of the world's oceans and help portray its vastness to younger readers.

 The author includes a detailed Author's Note and also a Selected Bibilography at the back. Life in the Oceans is a beacon to all young girls who desire a career as a scientist and a reminder to their parents that the best way to encourage more women in science is the nurturing and support of these interests by parents.

Book Details: 

Life in the Ocean by Clair A. Nivola
New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux            2012

Friday, October 13, 2017

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ten-year-old Ada lives with her Mam and her younger brother, Jamie in London, England. Ada's mother works nights in the pub below their third floor flat. It was Ada's job to get Jamie breakfast in the morning and tea at night. Ada isn't able to walk because her right foot is small and twisted, so she gets around their flat by crawling. Because of her foot, Ada's mother will not allow her to ever leave their flat. She believes her daughter's crippled foot is shameful and that people judge her as a parent. She also frequently tells Ada that her foot is her own fault. Ada hasn't been to school and instead is forced to care for Jamie. She is often hungry.

As Jamie gets older he no longer wants to stay in their flat and one day to prevent him from leaving, Ada ties him up. Seeing how upset he becomes, Ada releases him, realizing that she is becoming cruel like her Mam. That day she decides to teach herself to walk, hoping that if she can walk, Mam will be proud. Learning to walk is a painful process but Ada persists, deciding to keep it a secret. When Mam discovers that Jamie has been stealing food, she punishes Ada by forcing her into the cabinet beneath their sink. This is a terrifying experience for Ada because it is damp, smelly, dark and infested with roaches. And now that she's older and bigger, being in the cabinet all night is painful.

In late August, 1939, Jamie tells Mam that his best friend Billy White says that all the children in London are leaving, being sent to the country. London is going to be bombed by the Germans. Mam decides to send Jamie but not Ada, telling her that "Nice people don't want to look at that foot." Later on Ada tells Jamie to make sure he knows the time and place they are to be, because she intends to leave with him.

On a Friday morning, Ada, wearing her Mam's shoes leaves with Jamie. The walk is painful for Ada, but they make it inside the school. At the school Ada meets Stephen White who is surprised to see Ada. He reveals to her that everyone believes she is "simple" and cannot talk and that people feel sorry for her Mam. Stephen gives Ada a piggy-back ride to the train station and by noon Ada is on the train with the rest of the children headed out of London.

The train ride proves to be a learning experience for Ada who has never seen grass or trees and is astonished to see a girl riding a pony racing the train. For Ada, the girl on the pony leaves a lasting impression. Finally Ada and Jamie along with the other children arrive at a train station and are lined up so they can be paired with adults who will take them into their homes. Ada and Jamie are so scruffy that no one chooses them.The woman in charge of placing the children and whom Ada nicknames the "iron woman" consoles them and then drives them to a house set amongst trees.

They overhear the "iron woman" and the lady who lives at the house, Miss Smith arguing about taking the children. Initially Ada doesn't care whether Miss Smith takes them or not, until she sees the bright yellow pony poking its head through the bushes. This makes Ada take matters into her own hands and she has Jamie help her back to the house. In the end, the iron lady whose name is Lady Thorton, leaves Ada and Jamie with Miss Smith who is not at all very happy.

They are forced to have baths and it is at this time that Miss Smith discovers Ada's foot was not injured by a brewers cart but instead that she has a club foot. She tells Ada that they will go to see the doctor in the morning. Miss Smith learns that Jamie is ready to go to school but that Ada doesn't attend because of her "ugly foot" and that the children do not know their last name. Ada's only concern is the pony whom she learns is named Butter. The doctor tells Miss Smith that the children have impetigo (a skin infection), that they are very malnourished to the point that Ada is developing rickets (a Vitamin D deficiency) The doctor is also disturbed by Ada's untreated club foot, which Ada learns could have been treated when she was a baby. Miss Smith decides she will write Ada's mother immediately in order to get permission for her to have surgery to correct her foot.

Life with Miss Smith is very different from life with Mam. There is lots of food, baths, and special clothes for sleeping in, called pajamas. Ada is allowed to be outside and play. They learn about soup served in bowls and eaten with spoons, little green things called peas and thin white blankets on the beds called sheets. Then with England at war with Germany, comes the risk of being bombed. While Jamie misses Mam and wants to go home, Ada knows "Home was more frightening than bombs." Ada knows if she goes back home she will run away again. But when Jamie has a tantrum at the train station after his friend Billy White is taken home by his mother, Ada wonders if her mother will be happy with her now that she can walk with crutches. Maybe Mam will see that she's not simple. As Ada's health improves and she comes to trust Miss Smith, Ada begins to realize there might not be any going back.


The War that Saved My Life traces the journey of Ada Smith who discovers herself and saves her life and that of her brother Jamie after they are sent out of London to the countryside during the early days of World War II. Born with a club foot, abused by her Mam and malnourished, ten-year-old Ada  has no idea of the outside world.

Ada struggles to understand the world she's been dropped into. It seems that people use words but don't really mean what they say.  For example,  Miss Smith claims she's not a nice person, "but she cleaned up the floor. She was not a nice person, but she bandaged my foot in a white piece of cloth, and gave us two of her own clean shirts to wear."  Miss Smith tells them eggs are "all the food I have", but "All the food she had, she said, except there was butter on the slightly stale bread, and sugar in the tea." Ada notes that "Miss Smith was not a nice person, but the bed she put us in was soft and clean, with smooth thin blankets and warm thicker ones."

Because she can't trust the words people use, Ada doesn't know how to respond to questions, so she often shrugs. When Miss Smith asks if she's hungry Ada's not sure whether to say yes and she wonders, "Did Miss Smith want me to be hungry, or not?" She is in fact very hungry but telling her Mam would not have changed anything. What would telling Miss Smith mean? Ada has been told by Mam that her clubfoot is her fault but Ada has always wondered whether this was true. The doctor's shock at seeing her untreated clubfoot makes Ada feel like she's done something wrong. When the doctor asks her if she's in very much pain, again Ada has no idea how to answer this question; "How much was very much? What did he want me to say?" And when Ada makes tea for Miss Smith who tells her this was thoughtful, but is thoughtful good or bad?

At first Ada's experiences in the village seem to confirm what she thinks about herself and what her Mam has labelled her. When they arrive in Kent, Ada and her brother are passed over by all the adults. One woman wants Jamie but not Ada. Lady Thorton then takes them to the home of Miss Smith, who initially rejects the two children but is forced to take them into her home.

Ada discovers that her mother has not told anyone about her club foot but instead has told people that Ada is "simple". Ada is not sure if she is "simple".  Mrs. White who arrives to take her younger son home to London, expresses shock and disgust that Ada is living in the village and not in an asylum. Even the evacuee teacher believes that Ada is "not educable", because she cannot read. However Miss Smith does not believe what she hears about Ada and tells her, "You mustn't listen to people who don't know you. Listen to what you know, yourself."

As time passes Ada struggles mightily with how she views herself compared to how Miss Smith and Maggie and Fred Grimes see her because her entire life she's been told she's filthy and trash. For example, despite Miss Smith's kindness and generosity, Ada rejects her because she doesn't believe she's worthy of such treatment. She refuses Miss Smith's offer to make her a beautiful green velvet dress. "I had more than I needed. More than I felt comfortable with, really. I was still the girl I'd seen in the train station mirror, still the feeble-minded girl stuck behind a window. The simple one. I was okay with wearing Maggie's castoffs, but I knew my limits."

This feeling reaches a crisis point on Christmas Eve when Miss Smith (Ada now calls her Susan) gives Ada a beautiful green velvet dress she has made. She tells Ada she looks beautiful when she tries it on, but Ada believes she's lying and that she is not worthy of such a beautiful gift. "She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn't bear it. I heard Mam's voice shrieking in my head. 'You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!" My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash I could wear Maggie's discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn't bear to hear her call me beautiful."

On Christmas Day Ada manages to wear the dress because she knows it will make Susan happy but she states, "I felt like an imposter. It was worse than when I tried to talk like Maggie. Here I was, looking like Maggie. Looking like a shiny bright girl with hair ribbons. Looking like a girl with a family that loved her." But when Jamie tells her she looks beautiful, Ada realizes that she does have family that love her - her brother loves her.

As her view about herself changes, Ada's perspective on her life also changes. She begins to desire more for herself and for her life. Her struggles with teaching Butter to trot lead Ada to reach out to Mr. Grimes. "A month ago I'd been thrilled with Butter, and now I wanted something more." Ada tells Grimes about having a clubfoot and asks him if he can fix her. It's the first time there's a hint that Ada might want more than just to walk around on crutches. She also initially refuses Miss Smith's offer to teach her to read. But once she's tricked into learning, Ada works hard to learn to read and write.She works hard for Grimes and eventually masters riding Butter and even identifies the arrival of a spy on the English coast.

The realization that if her mother had her foot fixed she could have been like Jamie able to run and attend school leads Ada to desire much more for herself. Her disability is not her fault. She could be more. When Ada accepts the truth of her situation, she realizes that she wants to be a normal person. "...And I wanted my foot fixed badly. I was tired of it hurting. I wanted to be like a normal person. I wanted to walk without crutches, and I wanted to go to school, and I wanted to wear shoes on both feet. I never wanted to be locked up again."

The knowledge that her disability is not her fault, that her mother inexplicably did not seek treatment for her and the realization that Mam doesn't love her or Jamie makes Ada want to fight for the right to live a life where she is wanted, loved and cared for. To Ada this is her personal war and she now intends to win it.  

Brubaker Bradley has crafted an endearing character in Ada Smith. Readers will identify with Ada as she struggles to find a place to belong, to make sense of the world around her and to confront her intense emotions about her mother and her disability. Ada works her way through anger and sadness over the fact that her Mam doesn't love or want her. Miss Smith's unconditional love of Ada and her brother Jamie, help her to confront her mother and to escape. At the same time Ada begins to know joy and love, learned from the actions of Miss Smith.

Miss Smith is also a complex, well crafted character who has her own issues. She too has believed what others have said about her and constantly tells Ada that she is not a nice person, despite her actions proving otherwise. Miss Smith sees herself in Ada, different, judged for a characteristic she feels cannot be changed and therefore socially isolated.

The War That Saved My Life has a subtle message about tolerance towards anyone who is different. Although never directly stated, it is hinted that Miss Smith is a lesbian who lived with her friend Becky. She was rejected by her parents who considered her unredeemable. She tells Ada and Jamie, "In my case being redeemed means changing my evil ways and regaining my heavenly crown. It means my parents don't like me..." Miss Smith's situation is compared to that of Ada with her clubfoot and Jamie with his left handedness, all conditions the author considers people to be born with. Unfortunately, there is no concrete scientific proof that same-sex attraction is something your born with. Nevertheless, the author's message that all people be treated with dignity and are worthy of love,  is an important one. Becky's treatment by her parents was not charitable nor Christian. No wonder she no longer attends church service. The novel ends on a more positive note with Miss Smith no longer isolated from her village community as demonstrated by the villagers desperately searching through the ruins of Miss Smith's house after it was bombed.

A sequel, The War I Finally Won has just been recently published and details Ada's life after returning from London with Jamie and Miss Smith to Kent. 

Book Details:

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers        2015
316 pp.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ada's Ideas by Fiona Robinson

Ada's Ideas tells the remarkable story of Ada Lovelace whose father was the famous poet, Lord Byron. Byron was a flamboyant man who had many lovers including his half-sister, Augusta. In 1814, Lord Byron proposed to Anne Isabella Milbanke, an intelligent, proper young woman. Anne was well educated and interested in mathematics and astronomy. They were married in January 1815 and their daughter Augusta Ada was born in December. Fed up with Lord Byron's wild ways, Anne left her husband, taking baby Ada with her. Byron left England for the continent. He never returned and Anne and Ada never saw him again.

Lady Byron raised Ada strictly, teaching her music, mathematics and French. According to Robinson, Ada's mother was concerned she would be unstable like her wild father. However, Ada seems to have inherited her father's creative imagination. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, many wealthy families toured the new factories. These factories inspired Ada and her imagination was fired up.

After being seriously ill for several years, Ada recovered and re-enter society. When she was seventeen-years-old she met Mr. Babbage, an inventor interested in developing a machine that always solve mathematical questions correctly.  Eventually Ada married and had a family, but she was still interested in working with Mr. Babbage. He had a problem that needed solving and Ada was just the person who could help him!


Fiona Robinson is an award-winning author-illustrator. Her story about Ada Lovelace who was a mother to three children AND who continued to follow her dream of creating the algorithm for Mr. Babbage's Analytical Engine is inspiring. The illustrations for Ada's Ideas were created "with Japanese watercolors on Arches paper.  The paintings were then cut out using more than five hundred X-ACTO blades, assembled, and glued to different depths to achieve a 3-D final artwork. The images were then photographed." The result is a picture book with a very unique look for a very unique woman, considered to be the world's first computer programmer.

Ada's Ideas is one of many new picture books about remarkable women whose intellectual feats have been largely ignored and ultimately forgotten. Often the contributions by women scientists have been dismissed and never fully recognized. Sometimes their work was stolen and built upon by male scientists who then received world-wide recognition. These picture books aim to inspire young girls to continue to discover, explore and create and to remember those who went before.

Book Details:

Ada's Ideas by Fiona Robinson
New York: Abrahms Books for Young Readers 2016

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Shadow Warrior by Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Shadow Warrior, a book about a female ninja, is the latest offering by Canadian storyteller, Tanya Lloyd Kyi. Shadow Warrior began as a piece of nonfiction in a larger collection of stories about "behind-enemy-lines stories of spies and saboteurs". A chapter from that book was developed into this short work of historical fiction about Mochizuki Chiyome, most likely a fictional female ninja.

Lloyd Kyi mixes traditional Japanese ink drawings with the modern drawings of Canadian illustrator, Celia Krampien to tell Chiyome's story.

Chiyome lived in a small village in the rugged Koga region of Japan. In the 16th century, Japan was comprised of small states ruled over by  war lords called daimyos. The daimyos lived in castles and fought against one another with their armies of samurai warriors. The effect of this constant warfare on the villages and families was devastating. But the Koga region had a special kind of warrior - the ninja and Chiyome was determined to become one.

Chiyome begins studying under the direction of Sensei at a ninja school. Chiyome's family has a history in the ninja tradition; her great-grandfather helped establish Koga's ninja traditions. Her teacher Sensei teaches her in learning how to climb castle walls, disguising herself in the daylight, and how to make waterproof torches. After years of training and a final test of spending three days alone in the forest, Chiyome becomes a ninja. However, Chiyome's life is about to take a drastic turn.

When she arrives home she learns from her father that she will be traveling to Kofu, to be married to Mochizuki Moritoki, the nephew of daimyo Takeda Shingen. Shingen is one of the most powerful daimyos in all of Japan and his nephew is a samurai warrior. Although stunned by this sudden development, Chiyome knows she must accept this decision and do her duty. She wonders if perhaps she was not meant to be a ninja? Little does Chiyome know that fate will once again intervene!


Shadow Warrior is an intriguing read set in feudal Japan about a young girl's desire to be a ninja. Ninja's were specially trained covert warriors. The cult of the ninja arose from two clans, in the regions of Iga and Koga. Families in these regions trained members to be come ninjas, the training often beginning in childhood. Ninja's specialized in espionage, often travelling in disguise to their enemy, to discover weaknesses. They were trained in sabotage, assassination, survival techniques and how to move and observe in a stealthy manner.

Lloyd Kyi not only tells the story of how Chiyome came to set up a ninja school for young women but also includes locations and dates of the story and a map of Japan. The story is augmented by the many illustrations of Celia Krampien and the numerous reproductions of traditional Japanese paintings. There is no concrete evidence that Mochizuki Chiyome actually existed as her name does not appear before 1971. It is difficult to trace the actual history of a single ninja. In Shadow Warrior, Lloyd Kyi includes a Fact and Fiction section where she identifies those figures in her story who were historical figures, such as Takeda Shingen, Mochizuki Moritoki and Tokugawa Ieyasu. She does point out that Japanese literature contains many stories of a woman ninja trainer who may be Chiyome.

Shadow Warrior is an appealing short story for younger readers who may be looking for something a bit different.

Book Details:

Shadow Warrior by Tanya Lloyd Kyi
Annick Press                           2017
62 pp.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Planting The Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola

This exquisite picture book is about Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai was born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya, located in the foothills of Mount Kenya. She graduated in 1964 from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, was awarded a Master of Science in 1966  from the University of Pittsburgh and obtained her Ph.D in anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971. She was the first woman in central and east African to earn a doctorate.

Wangari Maathai become convinced that environmental conservation could help better the lives of Kenyans. When she returned home Maathai discovered that her beloved Kenya was being destroyed through deforestation. The region she grew up in had been devastated by war, its farms and villages abandoned. The trees were crucial to the Kenyan people whose lives were based in agriculture. Maathai felt there was a direct link between poverty and the destruction of the environment. So in 1976, to counter the problems of deforestation, Maathai organized Kenyan women to plant trees in their villages. She believed that little things that the ordinary person does are what are important. For her that was planting trees. Eventually this developed into a grassroots organization that led to the Green Belt Movement. The planting of trees helped stop erosion and provided firewood for homes and jobs for the women.

In recognition of her environmental conservancy, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was considered a "force of nature", strong, resilient and unafraid to speak up. So much so that her husband divorced her!  Maathai became an internationally known speaker on environmental conservation but her major concern was always for her beloved Kenya. She eventually became a member of parliament in 2002. Wangari Maathai passed away on September 25, 2011. She is survived by three daughters.

Claire A. Nivola is an author-illustrator whose book Planting The Trees of Kenya tells the remarkable story of  Wangari Maathai in an almost folktale manner. This is done through the beautiful watercolour paintings and the short text that accompanies each. These colourful illustrations show a delicate brush stroke that is reminiscent of the pointillism style. At the back, Nivola has included a detailed Author's Note about Maathai.This is a lovely picture book biography that is captivating and informative.

To learn more about the Green Belt Movement and its founder, Wangari Maathai check out their website

Book Details:

Planting The Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola
New York: Farrar, Straus and Firoux     2008

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Four-Four-Two by Dean Hughes

Four-Four-Two is a novel about the American 442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in World War II. The 442nd, the most decorated unit in American military history, was made up exclusively of young Japanese Americans, many of whom set out to prove their loyalty for a country that imprisoned their relatives, closed their businesses and sent them to desert internment camps. Racial prejudice against Asian Americans, Chinese and Japanese was especially prevalent in American society in the early 20th century. But Japanese Americans were singled out after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as potential traitors and collaborators and labelled as "enemy aliens". President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which ordered the removal of ALL Americans of Japanese ancestry (AJA) from the west coast. Second generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, were American citizens.

There were already  over a thousand Nisei who were members of the National Guard in Hawaii. The government, fearful that these soldiers would desert and fight with the Japanese if Hawaii was ever invaded, sent them to the mainland and segregated them into a separate military unit call the 100th Infantry Battalion. After significant training they were sent to the European theater to fight and distinguished themselves as valiant soldiers. By this time the 442nd Regimental Battalion Combat Team was formed from volunteers from Hawaii and the internment camps.

Hughes focuses on battles F Company (Fox Company) fought. In his preface he states that "the locations, names of military units, weather conditions, and dates are all accurate... Yukus 'Yuki' Nakahara and his friend Shigeo 'Shig' Omura are members of a four-man fire team, which is part of an eight-man squad, and their squad is part of a platoon of thirty-plus men."

The story opens December 1941 with two men paying a surprise visit to the Nakahara family farm. Mr and Mrs. Nakahara are Issei - first generation Japanese immigrants who lease their land to farm vegetables and fruit. Yuki is the oldest and has three younger siblings, a brother Mickeo and two sisters, Amaya and Kayo. The men, FBI agents, take Yuki's father into custody, despite his mothers protests. They are told that he is an "enemy alien" living in a war zone. Yuki's best friend, Shigeo Omura had warned him that those considered to be a "community leader" were being arrested. Since the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese a week earlier, the attitude of their classmates has changed from disinterest to cold stares.

By April 1943, Yuki and Shig along with their families are now living in the Central Utah Relocation Center, a camp called Topaz. Yuki and Shig are now both eighteen years old and Yuki is determined to enlist. He believes this is the only way they, as Japanese Americans will be respected. Shigeo is not so eager because he's not sure he wants to die for people who don't like him. Yuki tells him they won't die but will come home as war heroes. Shig points out that because the white soldiers won't fight alongside the Japanese Americans, the Nisei soldiers are being segregated into separate units. Yuki counters this by telling Shig that Hitler is a problem that will not go away. Shig decides that he needs to speak one more time with his parents.

A Japanese American family at dinner in an internment camp.
Yuki tells his mother after church on Sunday about his intention to enlist and she insists that he obey his father's directive not to. But Yuki tells her that enlisting is something he must do because in this way he can bring back honor to their family. If they are really American, he cannot stay out of the war when other white families have sons who are enlisting. Yuki encourages his mother to give sixteen-year-old Mikeo more responsibility while he's gone.

Both Yuki and Shig enlist and are bused to Salt Lake City to be entered into the United States Army after passing their physicals. They are then sent to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Mississippi for basic training. Basic training proves to be a challenge. The uniforms are too big, the training gruelling and they have to get used to the Hawaiian Japanese who don't much like them. Yuki and Shig are assigned to "Second Platoon of Company F of Second Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team." Yuki's fire team includes Shig, Billy Yamada, an outstanding athlete and Makota Okida who is a Hawaiian soldier.

Yuki and Shig along with the other members of the 442nd train into the spring of 1944. By this time the 100th Infantry Battalion (made up of exclusively Nisei soldiers from Hawaii) is a significant fighting force in Italy. In March, Yuki and Shig's Second Battalion, along with the Third Battalion of the 442nd is shipped across the ocean to Naples, Italy. There they are attached to the Thirty-Fourth Infantry Division which they will support and fight with, though not as an integrated force. As Yuki and Shig get set to fight their first of many battles, they must find the courage and strength to cope with the unimaginable horrors of war. War is not what they expected and for Yuki it becomes a life-altering experience.


Dean Hughes has written a heartbreaking story that realistically portrays war as it was experienced by Japanese American soldiers during the Second World War.  In an effort to prove they were patriotic Americans and in the hopes that their fellow Americans would accept them, many Japanese Americans enlisted. The went to fight for a country whose citizens treated them and their families shamefully, imprisoning them and placing most AJA's in what were essentially prison camps set in the desert surrounded by barbed wire.

Yuki Nakahara enters the war with the belief that serving in the army will be a way to restore honor to his family and that the American people will have to respect him when he returns a war hero. However, war is anything but what Yuki imagined. During his first attack, he is paralyzed with fear. After he kills a man during an attack on German machine-gun emplacement, Yuki is confronted with the reality that he has killed a boy, who looks to be only fourteen or fifteen. "But the soldier didn't look like a Nazi, like the brutal Krauts he had always imagined. He was a kid. He should have been home playing soccer with his friends, or sitting in a schoolroom. And he was not just young; he was...a person."

Later on as Yuki is trying to come to terms with the men killed in his Platoon by the Germans and his sergeant's desire to get revenge, his thoughts return to the boy he killed. "A picture was back in his head: the German boy at the gun emplacement, one arm bent at the elbow, his hand almost touching his cheek -- as though his last act had been to reach for the place where the bullet struck. His cheek had been smooth, like a baby's, the boy still too young to shave." 

In their next battle, Yuki saves the life of Sergeant Mat Matsumoto by running through a barrage of shelling. Billy Yamada loses his life and Yuki can't help but think what he lost, "a chance to go to college, to be a star football player." Later on when he and Shig talk about what happened, Yuki realizes that they have fought over a hill "just a bump on the planet -- and hundreds of men had died or been mutilated fighting over it. He hadn't known about any of this before entering the army, hadn't understood what it would be like." 

Letters from his family at Topaz make Yuki realize "that war was only  an idea to all of them. It was just 'the war'; there was no perception that wars were made of battles and bullets and one day following another." As he sees men he knows and whom he worked with in Utah die, others like Oki seriously wounded, and takes Germans who just want to eat and survive prisoner, Yuki's perception of war changes. He feels fighting a war is not something to be proud of.

His perception of himself also changes; Yuki also believes because of what he's done in the war, he's not worthy of Shig's sister Keiko whom he loves and hopes to marry some day. Yuki believes what he and Shig do every day, killing is brutal and disgusting. "Yuki knew he would have to spend his life trying to remove all this ugliness from his head and hands." 

The actions of the Japanese American soldiers also begin to change the way the white soldiers view them. When Mat Matsumoto is killed in action, Yuki and Shig go against army policy to find his body at the aid station. Confronted by the white staff sergeant, Yuki tells him that the only reason Mat enlisted was because no one in the U.S. would hire him as an engineer, "...he was a Jap in America, so no one wanted to work with him." The sergeant tells Yuki that working with the AJA soldiers has changed his view of Japanese Americans. He didn't care about the AJA's being placed in camps and he felt they had "no business coming over here to fight." But now he recognizes that they are a superior fighting force and he tells Yuki and Shig  they are "respected by those who know what really goes on over here...And you're not just good soldiers; you're good men."

As Yuki becomes battle hardened he discovers several things about himself and about war. First he finds that the killing makes him want to kill for revenge when friends like Mat and Sergeant Koba die. He notes that although "nations" go to war it is actually men and boys who kill men and boys from other nations "...boys he actually had nothing against." Yuki's perception of the German Nazi soldiers has also changed. "Back in training, he had imagined the Germans he would fight -- and they were all brutal Nazis. He had assumed they all hated Jews, hated people of every race but their own...But the German soldiers he had seen looked about like the boys he had gone to high school with: young, not angry, guys who probably missed their families and wanted to get home just like he did. "

Yuki also begins to realize that the war has not brought about a change in attitude towards the Japanese Americans. Instead they remain segregated from the white American troops and the army behaves as if they are expendable, throwing the 422nd into the most difficult battles, including being sent to rescue the First Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment, trapped in the Vosges Forest. Through the character of Sergeant Oshira who visits Yuki in the hospital, Hughes doesn't mince words about the battle in the Vosges Forest. The 442nd lost eight hundred to save two hundred men, so many that the 422nd could no longer function as a regiment. Sergeant Oshira tells Yuki that the Stars and Stripes tells the story of the rescue of the "Lost Battalion" but no credit is given to the 442nd and a picture of a white soldier is used in the story.

Although awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star, Yuki returns home, forever changed by his experience in the war. He experiences overwhelming guilt and regret at pressuring Shigeo to enlist and then not being able to protect him, and in surviving the war. But it is Shig's parents who show him compassion, love and concern. When Yuki expresses the wish that he had died instead of Shig, Mrs. Omura states, "You must never say this again, never think it. These are things we do not understand. God decides, and in our family, we trust God. Shigeo was a noble boy, and he will be precious in our hearts forever, but we have no regrets about his service. He sacrificed his life for the good of our world." This heart-rending encounter serves to demonstrate that the Japanese Americans were no different than other Americans; their sons died just as horribly, their families grieved just as deeply.
Four-Four-Two is by far the best of Hughes' novels. The development of the main and secondary characters is excellent while the intense descriptions of the battles make the reader feel they are part of the action and capture the true terror and gore of battle. Many parts of the book are truly heartbreaking; the death of Shig, the confrontation in the barbershop in Denver, Yuki's tender reunion with his mother, and the meeting with Shig's family.

Hughes has included both a Preface which explains some of the background information on the formation of the 442nd and an Author's Note which details the accomplishments of the regiment and asks readers to be more tolerant of others who are different. A wonderfully written and moving account of a difficult episode in American history.

Book Details:

Four-Four-Two by Dean Hughes
New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers   2016
268 pp.