Thursday, February 27, 2020

Life: The First Four Billion Years by Martin Jenkins

Life: The First Four Billion Years takes readers from the Big Bang to the beginning of the evolution of humans. Much of the detail  and the scenarios presented in this nonfiction book for young readers are speculative, as no humans were alive to witness past events in Earth's history.

Earth's story begins with the "Big Bang" which is described as, "Once upon a time along, long time ago, there was, as far as we know, nothing. And then - no one knows how or why -- something happened. A jumble of matter and energy and antimatter - the universe appeared!"

Nine billion years after the Big Bang our sun began to form from a molecular cloud. While most of the material in the molecular cloud went into the new star, some of it began revolving around that star and clumping together. The star became our sun, and the clumps of material revolving around the sun became the planets of our solar system.

From this starting point, author Margin Jenkins takes young readers through the First Ice Age (Early Proterozoic) explaining the Great Oxygenation Event. Other topics include (but are not limited to):
  • Boring Billion period in which there were few changes on Earth. The very earliest life-forms were tiny cells known as prkaryotes and eventually eukaryotes.
  • Second Ice Age (Cryogenian) which happened around 720 million years ago. This period saw the first fungi, animals, brown algae and red (or green) algae.
  • Edicaran period around 570 million years ago. Organisms that lived during this time "remain mysterious to this day."
  • Cambrian period which saw many new underwater life forms develop.
Martin discusses the development of burrowing organisms and predators as well as creatures with exoskeletons and the development of jaws and teeth.

Although by the Silurian period fish were the dominant animals underwater, life on land was expanding and evolving. Simple small plants producing spores now offered an escape from aquatic predators and facilitated the move onto land. In the Devonian, giant fungi dominated life on land, while "At some point during the Devonian, fish finally started venturing onto land."  Our only evidence is "...preserved footprints, made by creatures walking across mudflats about 395 million years ago."

Jenkins also offers pages that cover a range of interesting topics as he moves through time including
  • March of the Tetrapods
  • Continents on the Move which explains the rearrangement of Gondwana and Laurasia into the supercontinent, Pangea
  • Disaster explores the Permian extinction which coincided with massive worldwide volcanic activity
Jenkins chronicles the rise and fall of the dinosaurs with pages titled The Start of Something Big, The Age of Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs Take Flight, Life Under the Dinosaurs, and The End of The Giants which explores the demise of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, giant sea reptiles and ammonites. He writes,
"Whatever the exact causes, the extinctions seem to have taken place over a short period of time, geologically speaking - almost certainly no more than a few tens of thousands of years, perhaps much less."

In the Age of Mammals and The Continents Taking Shape, the rise of mammals and the evolution of various groups of mammals after the great extinction is presented. The Road To Us explores the beginnings of the primates, our ancestors and moves onto the beginnings of the evolution of man.


     Life The First Four Billion Years is an informative, large format picture book definitely geared to older readers interested in the history of life on Earth. Jenkins uses lots of technical terms that are explained in the text and also in a Glossary at the back of the book.

    Jenkins who is a conservation biologist in England, indicates that he "read hundreds of scientific papers in researching this book". and it certainly shows! His biology background is evident in the use of exact biological terms throughout the text. He also writes that the information  presented was the most current available but that new discoveries may change some of what he has written.

    Accompanying Jenkins' detailed text are the mixed media illustrations of Grahame Baker-Smith. There are detailed pencil drawings of the fantastical creatures that lived many eons ago as well as many full page, colour illustrations of significant events in Earth history. Some of these events include the Solar System's birth, the Permian volcanic eruptions and the approach of the asteroid that is believed to have been responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

    This picture book, rich in scientific detail, will appeal to those who with an interest in Earth history. Readers will get a good sense of how scientists today believe life evolved on Earth while at the same time understanding that there is much we don't know.

    Book Details:

    Life The First Four Billion Years by Martin Jenkins
    Somerville, Massachusetts:  Candlewick Studio     2019
    79 pp.

    Sunday, February 23, 2020

    Words On Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen

    Words On Fire explores the work of the book smugglers of 19th century Lithuania during the Russian occupation through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl.

    It is 1893, and twelve-year-old Audra Zikaris lives on a farm with her father Henrikas and her mother Lina. Audra's father has a travelling magic show that takes him from one village to the next.

    On the night of the summer solstice, when the midsummer festivities are being held, Audra's father is getting ready to travel to another village. He suggests to her mother that Audra accompany him but her mother refuses saying that Audra might get lost and it is dangerous.

    From the argument between her parents Audra begins to understand that her fathers' travels to other villages as a magician is actually a cover for something else, which at this time she doesn't quite understand.

    Her mother relents, agreeing to allow Audra to go but warning her that she must follow their rules. Audra is warned to avoid a particular Cossack, a policeman named Rusakova who strictly enforces the Russian laws. Audra is told she must speak Russian and not Lithuanian like they do at home.

    Later that evening, dressed in her finest clothes as Audra goes outside to hang out the laundry she sees Cossack soldiers making their way towards their farmhouse. Running inside the house, Audra sees her father and mother quickly stuffing wrapped packages inside his traveling sack. Her father orders Audra to flee into the forest with her mother while he attempts to stall the soldiers. As they cross their farmland, Audra hears the soldiers break down the front door. When her mother falls, her foot tangled in wire, Audra stops to help but her mother urges her to flee into the forest. She gives Audra her father's bag and tells her she must deliver a package in the bag to a woman in Venska, named Milda Sabiene. Audra's last glance homeward is of her mother being arrested and their farmhouse being burned.

    Pursued into the forest by the Cossack soldiers, Audra hides in the underbrush. As night falls, Audra hears the Midsummer's Eve celebrations by a group of young people who have come into the forest. The group is questioned by a Russian, Officer Rusakov who offers them a reward should they find Audra.However, the group ends up helping Audra after they discover her hiding in the ferns. THey form a protective circle around her so Rusakov and the soldiers can't see her and then give her a basket of cakes and directions to get to Venska.

    After resting overnight, Audra continues her journey but soon finds herself lost. While attempting to cross a stream, she encounters a strange boy, Lukas who agrees to take her to Venska, after losing at a card trick. It turns out that not only does Lukas know Milda Sabiene but when Audra meets Milda, she discovers they both know her parents.  In Milda's house, Audra sees that Milda is a woman in disguise. She learns that the package she has been carrying is a black leather bound book that requires a key to open the lock on the spine. Milda shows Audra the secret her of her home, two rooms beneath the house, one lined with shelves of books and the other a secret schoolroom. Milda offers Audra a place to stay which she initially refuses but then accepts when she learns that most likely her parents will be sent to Siberia. But in order for her to stay with Milda, she is asked to deliver a book her father was to supposed to. Audra refuses and tells her she will stay only until her ankle heals.

    In the week that she stays with Milda, Audra begins to understand what is really happening. People come to visit Milda supposedly to buy butter or honey but in fact are coming to get books. One day after being sent downstairs to retrieve a newspaper for Milda, the Cossacks come and search Milda's home. Hidden in the basement, Audra meets a young girl name Roze who has come into the basement by a secret passage that leads out of the house to the shed in the backyard. After this, Audra decides to deliver the book Milda asked her to, in honour of her parents.

    Expecting to be sent immediately to deliver the book, Audra finds instead that Milda is training her. And she explains why delivering the books is so important. After the most recent uprising against Russia, almost thirty years ago in which Milda's father was involved, the tsar wanted to ensure there would never be another uprising. To do that he decided to wipe out the Lithuanian culture by banning Lithuanian books. Audra now understands why delivering books to other homes is so important. But as she becomes increasingly drawn into the world of the book smugglers, Audra is faced with a difficult choice: betray her new friends and the work they are doing to save her parents or lose them forever.


    Words On Fire is set in the late 19th century Lithuania, a country situated on the Baltic Sea. Its history like that of many countries in Eastern Europe,  is complicated as it involves connections with Poland, Russia, Prussia and Germany. Throughout it's history, the people of Lithuania have struggled against Russian occupation. A loose commonwealth with Poland was created in the 1500's called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, in the late 1700's this commonwealth broke apart, with three partitions happening in 1772, 1793 and 1795. In the latter partition, much of the land was taken over by Russia.

    The Lithuanian people attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow the Russians in 1831 and again in 1863. Each rebellion was followed by a period of attempted Russification but the period after the 1863 uprising saw a determined effort to destroy the culture of the Lithuanian people. The Catholic church in particular was persecuted and all Lithuanian schools were closed.

    In 1863, Tsar Alexander II ordered that all instruction in schools be done in Russian instead of the native Lithuanian. In 1865, the use of the Latin alphabet was banned and replaced with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. In 1866, books printed in Lithuanian were banned, an order that was enforced up until 1904, schools and Catholic churches were closed.

    However the Russification of the Lithuanian people did not succeed in large part due to the "Kyngnesiai" or book smugglers. To preserve the Lithuanian language a network of books smugglers was developed by Jurgis Bielinis. Illegal Lithuanian-language schools were also secretly set up. The purpose of the book smugglers was to bring into the Russian occupied areas illegal Lithuanian language books which were printed in the Latin alphabet. The work of the smugglers was very dangerous because if caught they could be fined, exiled to Siberia or executed. Not surprisingly, the work of the book smugglers was not widely known until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Words On Fire is set within this historical context, something that should have been presented to the target audience of young readers, in the form of a prologue so as to set the stage for the events in the novel. Also helpful would have been a map showing the region as it's unlikely readers would know much about Lithuania or even where it is situated within Europe. However, Nielsen eventually gives her readers that backstory through the characters of Lukas and Milda. Lukas explains Lithuania's history to Audra while Milda tells her of the role of the book smugglers.

    The main character in the novel is twelve-year-old Audra whose parents are book smugglers who are arrested at the very beginning of the story. Audra stumbles onto the work her parents were involved in but is reluctant at first to get involved in book smuggling. Unable to read and having not attended school, Audra doesn't understand the importance of books. She argues, "The Cossacks are here to stay. A few words of protest in a book won't change that." But Lukas explains to her why saving Lithuania's language and books are so important to the survival of their culture.  "It's not just wishing, Audra. This is a book of ideas. Someone thought the idea and put it into words on paper. That became a seed, and every time someone reads those words, the seed is planted in their mind, too, and it grows and spreads and soon that tiny seed of an idea becomes belief, and belief becomes a plan, and those plans begin to change the world. Control the books and you will control the people."

    While Audra smuggles books she also begins to learn to read and to write stories. With this knowledge comes an understanding of the importance of books in the fight for Lithuanian culture. "The Russian Empire wasn't afraid of a country that spoke a different language. They were afraid of a country whose language denied Russia's right to control it. The words wouldn't lead to our independence --words themselves, their very existence, were our independence. If we surrendered our books to them, we'd surrender our minds, leaving us hollowed-out puppets, ready to be controlled."

    Although she is bold, resourceful and intelligent, Audra seems much older and more emotionally mature than a twelve-year-old girl. She shows remarkable courage and integrity when she refuses to reveal the name of the book smuggler Office Rusakov is pursuing even though this means she will be sent to Siberia along with her parents. After she escapes, her determination to continue as a book carrier is even stronger. Audra transforms from the frightened young girl lost in the forest to a girl wanting to take on the Cossacks by the end of the story. Based on the qualities Nielsen assigns her and her actions in the novel, Audra would have been a more realistic character if she were much older.

    Nielsen captures the dangers and hardships the Lithuanian book smugglers endured, providing a testament to their determination to save their culture. Words On Fire focuses mainly on events in 1893 including the Kraziai massacre but reaches all the way to 1904 when the book ban was finally lifted. The Kraziai massacre occurred in November of 1893 in a the village of Kraziai. A Benedictine women's monastery, built in the 1600's was located in the village. The Benedictines had also built the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the late 1700's. In 1891, Tsar Alexander III ordered the monastery closed and the nuns transferred to another monastery in Kaunas. This was part of the Russification efforts to destroy the Catholic culture of Lithuania. Despite numerous petitions to save the monastery and the church, the tsar ordered both closed and demolished in June of 1893. When the Governor of Kaunas arrived in November of 1893 to enforce the tsar's orders, the Lithuanians had occupied the church and were successful in defeating the police. The next morning however, three hundred Cossack soldiers arrived and easily overran the Lithuanians. The conflict raged on for two weeks as Catholics were arrested, villages plundered, women raped and people drowned in the Krazante River.

    This real historical event portrayed in Words On Fire, forms the climax of the novel, with Audra, Lukas and Ben trapped in the church in the village of Kraziai. While Audra wants to stay and fight both Ben and Lukas tell her that is not their role in the fight for Lithuania. Nevertheless, they are caught in the fighting. Nielsen uses this event to have Lukas and his father confront one another. It is a conflict that is hinted at throughout the novel and eventually revealed later in the story.

    Overall, Words On Fire is in interesting piece of historical fiction about events little known outside of Eastern Europe. Fans of historical fiction will be motivated to learn more about Lithuania, its past and its vibrant culture which thankfully survives in an independent Lithuania today.

    Book Details:

    Words On Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen
    New York: Scholastic Press    2019
    322 pp.

    Wednesday, February 19, 2020

    Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

    Langston lives in Bronzeville, a part of Chicago also called the Black Ghetto or the Black Belt. Langston and his father moved from Alabama one week after the death of his mama. They live in a kitchenette apartment at 4501 Wabash Avenue. It's a room with two beds, a table and two chairs and walls covered with newspapers to hide the holes but it does have running water and an indoor toilet. Langston attends Haines Junior High School while his father works at    .
    A neighbour, Miss Fulton who teaches high school across town, lives above them and often asks Langson to help her bring groceries up the stairs.

    Langston is usually the first one to get to school and sits in the front desk closest to his teacher, Miss Robins. His rundown shoes, overalls and the way he speaks marks him as poor and from the South, with some students calling him "country boy." Every day after school, Langston finds himself confronted by three boys, Lymon, Erroll and Clem but it is Lymon who mostly bullies him. Langston tries to ignore them allowing Lymon to push him around until he gets bored and leaves.

    At home, Langston is sad, missing his mama's home cooking and life in Alabama.

    One day after school, after helping carry out a box for Miss Robins, Langston manages to sneak unseen through the fence away from school. By the time he stops to catch his breath, he realizes he is in a strange neighbourhood with neat homes and large trees. On the corner is a large building called the George Cleveland Hall Library. Remembering that his mama once told him a "library is a place you borrow books", Langston decides to find out what it's like.

    A lady who turns out to be one of the librarians,  leads him into the library, telling him he can borrow any book he wants. Langston, scanning the shelves, pulls a book with his first name on the cover. The words in the book resonate with Langston, and he stays until the library closes. When he returns home late Langston lies to his father about the library, telling him he was out playing with some boys.

    Langston returns to the library the very next day and asks the librarian, Mrs. Kimble about the photographs of colored people on the walls. She tells him that they are authors from a lecture series held at the library and that the library is named for a prominent Negro physician. Langston returns to the section of the library containing "the book with the words from my heart."  When it comes time to leave, Langston learns from Miss Cook, the children's librarian about taking out books using a library card. Langston is overwhelmed at this prospect and signs out the book of poetry by Langston Hughes.

    As Langston struggles to adapt to life in Chicago, the library and the poetry of Langston Hughes prove to be the lifeline he needs to move forward.


    Finding Langston is a wonderful short novel, set in 1946 Chicago, chronicling a young black boy's struggle to adapt to life without his beloved mama in a strange city.

    Langston misses just about everything that characterizes life in Alabama. In Alabama Langston had friends, and life was slower, the people more polite. Often Langston finds himself comparing Chicago to life at home in Alabama. "Streetlights shine through the window in the front of the room. In Alabama only lights I saw at night were the moon and stars. Sometimes so bright a curtain couldn't block them out...."

    He finds the crowded busy city of Chicago difficult to get used to.
    "Back home, we couldn't see a neighbor for miles. I'll never get used to people living on top of each other. I'll never get used to everybody knowing what time you get up in the morning and what you're cooking for breakfast. And everyone to busy to say a decent 'Mornin' when you see them on the street. Back home I had space to breathe. Had to walk down the road a ways to get to our nearest neighbor, but if somebody got sick, or was in need of a hand, folks were there to help 'fore you knew it. I knew I had to act right, because someone was always watching, waiting to get word back to my folks....."

    Langston misses his friends and the sense of belonging. "Back home I had friends. Not a lot, but enough to make me fell like I fit. At lunch, outside, we'd play marbles together, sometimes climb the tree in the back of the school. No one laughed when I talked, or pointed at my run-over shoes and overalls."

    But what Langston misses most is his mama. "But Mama made it seem like I was all she ever wanted. Like I filled her up. Like any more would have been too much. ...She loved me hard as she could till she left this world." Langston feels the loss of his mama keenly. "I close my eyes and try to picture Mama. I can still see her smile with the space between her teeth. Smooth brown skin and eyes that laughed along with her. Before I know it, the tears start and won't stop."

    In an effort to avoid being bullied, Langston discovers a nearby public library that is open to all people regardless of the colour of their skin. And it is there that he discovers a book by a poet, Langston Hughes who has the same first name. At first, the coincidence of their same first names seems unimportant to Langston, who has no idea why his parents chose his name.

    When he reads some of his mama's letters to his father, he comes across several lines of poetry,
    Langston Hughes 1942
    "My black one,
    Thou are not beautiful
    Yet thou hast
    A loveliness
    Surpassing beauty."
    Langston is moved by these lines but is certain they were not written by his mama who had no time to read, something she did before she was married, and definitely even less time to write poetry. When he signs out a book, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, he finds a poem, "Poem 4: To The Black Beloved" that has the words he saw in his mama's letter. Langston begins to understand that his mama also loved the poetry of Langston Hughes. He knows his father doesn't know the words in her letter were from a Langston Hughes poem, a secret he decides not to reveal.
    "She never told him that Langston Hughes made her heart sing the way he does mine. That she wanted to name her baby boy after the poet she copied in her letters."

    Langston believes that his mama, in naming him after Langston Hughes whose poetry she loved, gave him a way to deal with the pain of her death and the loneliness of a strange city and ultimately to find a place to belong.

    The library and poetry books also bring together Langston and his first friend in Chicago. When the boy who has been bullying Langston rips pages out of The Weary Blues, Clem retrieves all the pages and helps Langston explain to the librarian what happened.

    Langston is an endearing character, whose struggles are portrayed in a genuine and affecting way to all readers by Cline-Ransome. In spite of his loneliness, his sadness over the death of his mama and the difficulties of fitting in, Langston stays true to his southern values of honesty, kindness and helping others. But he also begins to find those same values in people like Clem who has also suffered the loss of someone he loves and his neighbour Miss Fulton who shares his love of poetry.

    Finding Langston is a truly beautiful story about loss, hope, starting over and belonging. It is about the power of libraries, and the written word and how books help us deal with life. It is as Clem says, after Langston explains why he likes poetry, " So the poetry you read is a way of putting all the things you feel inside on the outside."  Poetry and stories will always be a help to understanding both the joys and troubles of life.

    Author Lesa Cline-Ransome offers some historical context in her Author's Note at the back, explaining the migration of hundreds of thousands of blacks from the South to cities in the North. The result for Chicago was the development of a rich cultural scene that included people like Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Gwendolyn Brooks and many others including the poet Langston Hughes. The library in Finding Langston is real. The George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library was built due to the efforts of Dr. George Cleveland Hall who wanted a library for the constituents of Bronzeville. Unlike libraries in Alabama in 1946, everyone was welcome.

    Langston Hall image:

    Book Details:

    Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome
    New York: Holiday House    2018
    107 pp.

    Friday, February 14, 2020

    It Began With A Page by Kyo Maclear

    Even as a small child, Gyo Fujikawa loved to draw. At the young age of five, she may not have yet known what she wanted to be but she knew she loved colours, line and "the feel of the pencil in her hand."

    Gyo didn't have many friends when she was young and she didn't seem to be much noticed either. When her parents moved to a small fishing village near San Pedro, California, Gyo began to thrive. Although she still struggled socially at school, her beautiful drawings were noticed by two of her teachers, Miss Cole and Miss Blum.

    Because Gyo's family was not well off, continuing school was not an option but Miss Cole found money to pay for her schooling. So Gyo attended art school in Los Angeles. It was unusual in 1925 for a woman and an Asian American to attend college but Gyo was determined.

    She decided to continue her studies in Japan. When she returned to America, Gyo created murals and art for magazine. In 1942, with America at war with Japan, Gyo was forced to stay on the East Coast while her family were forced to leave their home on the West Coast and sent to a prison camp. All Japanese were considered enemies, even if they were born in America as Gyo was. This time was a period of great sadness for Gyo and she found it difficult to create art.

    When the war was over, Gyo began drawing in earnest again, this time with the intention of having books send a message. A book featuring babies from different races was initially rejected by the publishers but Gyo insisted that they needed to break the rules. She remembered all the times she felt unwelcome as a Japanese American. Her book was published and the stage was set for Gyo to make more art like this.


    Gyo's are on her book Fairy Tales and Fables
    Few people know about Gyo Fujikawa, a ground-breaking Asian American woman artist. Gyo  was born in 1908 to Hizoko and Yu Fujikawa. Interested in art at an early age, Gyo received a scholarship to study at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. She became part of the Nisei artist community in that city, that is young people of Japanese ancestry who were born in America to Japanese citizens who had come to the country. After completing her studies at Chouinard, Gyo spent a year travelling in Japan studying traditional art making techniques. She returned  to America to work at Chouinard in 1933, staying until 1937.  Gyo also began working at Walt Disney Studios in 1933, eventually moving in 1941 to New York City to work in the studio there.

    With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America declared war against Japan and all Japanese living in America were considered enemy aliens. Gyo's family did not escape the consequences of war, nor the government policies regarding Americans of Japanese heritage and were sent to a prison camp. Yu, Hikozo and Fred were first sent to Santa Anita Park racetrack and then onto a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Gyo was restricted to living on the East Coast. Like most Japanese Americans, Gyo's family lost everything.

    In the postwar years, Gyo worked as a freelancer, creating art for a variety of projects. In 1957 her illustrations appeared in a new edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. In 1963, she wrote and illustrated Babies which portrayed babies with different skin colours. With the success of this first book and second companion titled, Animal Babies, Gyo decided to focus on creating children's books.

    Gyo's books were created with the idea that books could be so much more than just stories, that they could uplift and comfort people. Her focus on multiracial children in her books, aimed to send the message that people of different races are all part of the human family.  Although the civil rights movement was blossoming during this time, this was a very unique perspective for children's books and one which publishers were reluctant to tackle. Because of  Gyo and her family's experiences of racism during the Second World War, Gyo must have seen a need for children to be exposed to the idea that people of all skin colours should be treated equally.

    Kyo Maclear tells Gyo's story with using simple text accompanied by the artwork of Julie Morstad. Morstad's illustrations rendered in liquid watercolour, gouache and pencil crayon, are stylistically reminiscent of Gyo's drawings.As both the author and illustrator mention in a note at the back, Gyo's art had a sense of delicacy about it. It is Gyo's use of fine lines to create her characters and her use of colour that give this quality to her art.

    Maclear includes numerous photographs of Gyo courtesy of her family in the back matter of the book, but no pictures of her artwork. There is a detailed timeline of Gyo's life as well as a Selected Bibliography and a list of Sources. It Began With A Page is recommended as a read-aloud book and for anyone interested in art history.

    Book Details:

    It Began With A Page by Kyo Maclear
    Tundra Books      2019

    Monday, February 10, 2020

    DVD: Harriet

    Harriet is the cinematic dramatization of the amazing story of Harriet Tubman, a black slave who fled from Maryland, making an almost one hundred mile journey to freedom in Pennsylvania. Not content to be free, Harriet risked her life helping other slaves to freedom and working to end the evil of slavery in America.

    In 1840, Araminty "Minty" Ross, a slave on the farm of Edward Brodess, has married a freedman named John Tubman. John arrives on the Brodess farm with a letter from a lawyer that he and Minty hired. Brodess's grandfather had willed that Minty mother be freed when she turned forty-five along with Minty and her sisters. But Minty's mother is now fifty-six and Brodess has recently sold her two older sisters to another farm. They give Edward Brodess the letter, requesting that he free Minty and her mother. Brodess is infuriated and orders John off his farm and Minty and her mother back to work in the fields.

    Devastated, Minty runs into the nearby forest, and prays to God that he take Brodess because he is an evil man. Minty is followed into the forest by Brodess's son, Gideon who overhears her prayer.  Minty and Gideon played together as children on the farm, but now Gideon tells her that his father warned him about having a favourite slave. "Boy, having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. You can feed it, play with it, give it a name, but one day you might have to eat it or sell it."

    Shortly after this Edward Brodess dies and Gideon takes over the Brodess farm. He promptly puts Minty up for sale. While chopping wood, Minty has a vision of  herself fleeing the Brodess farm to freedom. She has had this vision before but decides to act on it as her desire to be free has become so overwhelming. She meets John who shows her the flyer advertising her sale but he also tries to talk her out of running away.  Minty however is determined. She races to the field and sings goodbye to her mother and flees to her father's house. He tells her to go to the Reverend Green's home.

    The Reverend Green tries to talk Minty out of running away but when he sees how determined she is he tells her she must be miles away from the Brodess farm by morning. He tells her to follow the North Star and when she can't see the star to follow the river. Minty is to follow the Delaware River and travel to Wilmington where she is to seek out a blacksmith named Thomas Garret.

    Minty is pursued by Gideon,  his men and hounds until they finally meet at a bridge on the Delaware river. Gideon promises to not to sell her but Minty tells him  "I'm gonna be free or die." and she jumps. Gideon searches along the river but when he doesn't find Minty, he believes she has died. In fact, Minty survives the jump and is helped by a Quaker farmer in whose wagon she hides. Minty reaches  Wilmington, Delaware where she locates Thomas Garret who takes her in. After resting and recovering, Minty is driven by Garret, also a Quaker, to the Pennsylvania border and freedom. He tells her that Philadelphia is twenty-five miles north and to ask for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society led by William Still. Garret gives Minty a card with Still's likeness so she will recognize him.

    In Philadelphia, Still records Minty's name and asks her to take a new name in honour of her new-found freedom. She chooses Harriet Tubman. Still takes Harriet to a boarding house run by Marie Buchanon, who was born and raised free. Harriet is given a paid job as a maid but she finds herself lonely and deeply unhappy.

    Harriet goes to see Still asking him to have his "angels" bring her husband and family out of slavery, however he tells her that this is too dangerous with so many runaways. Slave owners are frustrated, judges are working to help them and Congress is considering passing laws to help the South. Still is concerned that if Harriet returns to Maryland and is captured she will betray his network. However Harriet is determined and with the help of Marie who teaches her some basic etiquette and loans her a dress and a suit for John, she sets out. Harriet takes the train to Dover, Delaware using false papers identifying her as Dessa Dixon.

    Meanwhile at the Brodess farm, Gideon wants to sell Harriet's brothers as the plantation is deeply in debt. Harriet returns to find her husband John, believing her drowned, has taken another wife who is now expecting their child. Devastated, Harriet questions God's purpose in all of this but soon discovers other slaves who do want to leave. Her father Ben takes her to house where her brothers Henry and Junyah as well as Henry's fiance, Jane and a young widow named Pheobe along with her baby are hiding. Robert joins them as well, leaving behind his wife and newborn daughter.

    When Gideon learns that he has lost five slaves he is furious and threatens Harriet's sister, Rachel into revealing that it is "Minty" who is stealing his slaves. Gideon hires Bigger John to help him track and capture Minty and the slaves. But Harriet prevails, managing to lead all safely to freedom. Still is astonished at Harriet's success and decides to take her to meet the Committee, the officers and organizers of the Underground Railway.

    Harriet soon becomes known as Moses in Maryland, although the slave owners have no idea who the slave stealer really is. She attempts to convince her sister Rachel to runaway but she refuses to leave because Brodess has sold her children. In Baltimore, Maryland Gideon learns from Bigger Lohn that Moses is actually is former slave, Minty Ross, now known as Harriet Tubman.

    When Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act, allowing slave owners to track slaves in any state in the Union, Gideon and Bigger Lohn pursue Harriet to Philadelphia. With escaped slaves now in danger of being hunted down and brought back south, panic ensues. William Still insists that Harriet must go to Canada for her own safety. Before leaving, Harriet races to say goodbye to Marie, only to find her dying from a beating by Bigger Lohn. Harriet escapes to St. Catherines in Ontario, Canada.

    With the death of her sister Rachel, Harriet returns to the United States to the home of Senator William Seward where the members of the Underground Railway are debating whether or not to continue the railway. Instead of helping slaves into free states they must now send them on a 500 mile journey north to Canada. But Harriet insists that they must continue and that likely only a war will end slavery now.

    In 1858, Harriet returns to Dorchester County to free her parents and her sister Rachel's children. The group barely escapes with Gideon and Bigger John tracking them. Harriet stays behind to give her family a chance to escape and ends up confronting Gideon. She wounds him and fortells the future, that he and other young men will die in a war over slavery.  "The moans of a generation of young men dying around you in agony for a lost cause. For a vile and wicked idea. For the sin of slavery."

    Epilogue: When the Civil War breaks out, Harriet becomes a spy for the Union and leads one hundred and fifty black soldiers in the Combabee River Raid, freeing over 750 slaves. Harriet did eventually remarry. She died in 1913 at the age of 91 years of age.


    Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman, an African American woman who escaped slavery and who worked to save her family and others from slavery and end the evil of slavery.

    The exact date of Harriet Tubman's birth is not known with a wide range of birth years being given. It is believed she was born sometime around 1822, in Dorchester County, Maryland,  to Harriet "Rit" Green and Ben Ross both of whom were slaves. Rit, whose mother Modesty came to America on a slave ship from Africa,  worked as a cook for Mary Pattison Brodess while Ben worked nearby on Anthony Thompson's plantation. Rit and Ben had nine children, Linah, Mariah Ritty, Soph, Robert, Minty, Ben, Rachel, Henry and Moses. Edward Brodess who was Anthony Thompson's stepson sold the three older girls, Linah, Mariah Ritty and Soph but when he attempted to sell Moses as a baby, Rit threatened to kill him.

    Harriet was often loaned out to other plantations working in the fields. When she was thirteen she received a serious head wound that would affect her for the rest of her life. The injury resulted in her having headaches and seizures during which she seemed to experience vivid dreams or visions. Harriet believed these were from God and her faith in God became very strong.

    Harriet's father Ben Ross was made a free man ins 1840 by Anthony Thompson's son who honored his father's wishes to free Ben at the age of forty-five. A lawyer hired by Ben discovered that Rit's former owner had stipulated that she would be manumitted at the age of forty-five, along with her children. However, the Brodess family refused to honour this and Rit and her children, including Harriet remained enslaved.

    In 1844, Harriet still a slave, married John Tubman who was a free man. This meant that any children born to them would be slaves because the mother's status determined that of her children. When Harriet became ill in 1849, Brodess attempted unsuccessfully to sell her. After praying for Brodess to change his ways, and then changing her prayer that he be taken if he would not, Edward Brodess died suddenly. His death meant that many of the Brodess estate's slaves would be sold. This would break up Harriet's family forever and it was at this point that she decided to escape slavery.

    Harriet Tubman ~ 1868 or 1869
    Harriet's initial escape was in 1849, with two of her brothers, Ben and Henry but the three returned after her brothers expressed reservations about leaving. However, Harriet was not to be deterred and she escaped a second time. She was aided by the Underground Railroad, a network of "conductors" who were abolitionists helping slaves find safe houses enroute north to free states or to Canada. Harriet's journey from Maryland to Delaware and into Pennsylvania was about ninety to one hundred miles.

    Once free, Harriet Tubman was not content to stay in Pennsylvania while the rest of her family including her husband were still slaves. Harriet made many journeys back to Maryland to rescue members of her family and other slaves, guiding them to freedom along the Underground Railway. Her work was made especially dangerous with the passing in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act which permitted owners to pursue runaway slaves even into free states and forced law enforcement in free states to arrest runaways.

    The film Harriet is not entirely factually accurate in its portrayal of Harriet's life. For example, Harriet's main adversary, Gideon Brodess is entirely fictional. Edward and Eliza did not have a son named Gideon. Instead, the character of Gideon embodies all the evil of the white slave owners, their belief that they could own people and that black people were simply not human. Also fictional is the character of Marie Buchanon, although for the telling of the story, it's quite likely that someone like Marie would have helped Harriet adjust to life as a free woman in Philadelphia.

    Harriet does capture the most important aspects of the character and life of Harriet Tubman, focusing on her work against slavery and the traits that made her so successful. Initially Harriet wanted to be free but once she escaped slavery, being free was not enough. She wanted other slaves, beginning with her husband and her family to also be free and this evolved into the overriding purpose of her life. She was so effective in rescuing slaves that she became known as "Moses", although initially her identity was unknown to the slave owners, who believed "Moses" to be a white abolitionist. Harriet would rescue at least seventy slaves over the period of thirteen years.

    The portrayal of Harriet Tubman's efforts to help slaves in the film provides viewers with much insight into the character of this remarkable woman. She is shown as determined, courageous in the face of grave danger and with an intense faith that God would guide her every step. Thankfully director Kasi Lemmons did not play down the role Tubman's Christian faith played in her life. Harriet frequently explains to others the role of God in her life when confronted with what seems to be the impossible. When William Still asks, "Who'd you make the journey with?" Harriet tells him, "I left my husband and family. It was just me and the Lord."  Harriet explains to Still that the head injury she incurred from an overseer, "...just made God's voice more clear."

    Later when Still refuses to help Harriet bring back her husband, she warns him not to tell her what she can and cannot do. "God was watching but my feet was my own."  Marie Buchanon, curious about what it is like to hear God, questions Harriet about hearing God's voice. "Sometime it sting. Like a smack in the face. Other time it's soft. Like a dream...."

    Cynthia Erivo gives a passionate and believable performance as Harriet Tubman. Joe Alwyn portrays the cold-hearted, relentlessly wicked Gideon Brodess who pursues Hattie, while Janelle Monae is an elegant, demure Marie Buchanon who believes in Harriet to the very end, even sacrificing her life for her. The film has some exquisite cinematic moments such as the glorious sunrise when Harriet arrives at the Pennsylvania border and is no longer a slave, and the dark, mysterious night shots as Harriet leads her groups of frightened slaves through darkened forests to freedom.

    Harriet is a film worth watching and will encourage younger viewers to learn more about this remarkable African American heroine. Rated PG-13 with only a few instances of violence.

    Harriet Tubman photograph from the Library of Congress:

    Wednesday, February 5, 2020

    Light A Candle by Godfrey Nkongolo and Eric Walters

    Ngama's village sits at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. One day he sees a car leaving his village. This is so unusual that Ngama races home to find out who the visitor is and why he came. He arrives to find everyone in the clearing at the center of the village. In the center is Ngama's father who is chief of their tribe. Someday, Ngama will take his father's place. Surrounding his father are the men with the women and children on the outside. Between the men and women are the older boys who are not yet grown. This is where Ngama stands. His friends tell him the men are discussing the mountain, which Ngama's people, the Chagga, consider to be sacred.

    From his father Ngama learns that the visitor was the leader of their country. This leader has requested that they climb the mountain to mark their people's independence from rule by white men. Ngama's father tells him only the men of their tribe will climb the mountain to mark this historic event.

    The next morning Ngama's father leads the Chagga men up the mountain. Each man carries food, water, a blanket and wood for the three day journey. Ngama, unhappy about being refused permission to join the men, decides to follow them at a distance.

    Many of the men were veterans at climbing the mountain as they had often served as guides. When some of the men saw that Ngama was following, they advised him to return home but Ngama refused. As the men climbed higher it grew colder and the air thinner making it harder to breathe. But Ngama persisted. Soon all the men knew he was following them. Ngama's father refused to believe the boy following them was his son because he had told his son not to do this.

    When the men reached the Uhuru Peak, the highest elevation in Africa, they set up a huge pyre. As Ngama's father was about to light it, he called to his son and had him light the fire because Ngama represented the future. The fire was bright as a candle and could be seen for miles. It represented freedom and the future.


    Light A Candle tells the story of  young Tanzanian boy celebrating the independence of United Republic of Tanzania in 1961, located in East Africa. It gained independence from British rule in December of 1961. The peaceful transition from colonialism to independence was achieved through the efforts of Julius Nyerere who became Tanzania's first president.

    Nyerere was born at Butiama, located on Lake Victoria. His intelligence and abilities were recognized by the Catholic priests who educated him despite his formal schooling not beginning until he was twelve years old. He was sent to study at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Educated at Edinburg University in Scotland, Nyerere returned to the British colony of Tanganyika to work as a teacher. He soon left teaching, founded the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) party in 1954 and began working towards independence through the use of peaceful protests. Nyerere was first elected in 1958, representing East Province. He was successful in winning the 1960 general election and gaining independence for  his country the following year. Tanazania eventually was formed out of the amalgamation of two territories, the mainland of Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar.

    Unlike Uganda and Idi Amin a decade later, Nyerere worked to establish a peaceful "Africanization" of his country while still respecting the European and Asian citizens in the country. He did this through socialist policies which ultimately were not successful economically and which made Tanzania dependent on foreign aid. Nevertheless, Nyerere unified his country and helped indigenous Africans begin the march towards self government.

    The book's title, Light A Candle, comes from Nyerere's words before he became Tanzania's president. In Nkongolo's Afterword he writes that Nyerere, in words reminiscent of St. Francis, stated "The people of Tanganyika would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders, giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where before there was only humiliation."

    Unlike the story in this book, the Uhuru Torch was actually lit by Lt. Alex Nyirenda. However, in Light A Candle the focus is on the journey towards independence as experienced by a young boy. Ngama, who represents the future of the the people of Tanzania, makes the hard climb up Africa's tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro with determination. The climb represents the country's journey towards independence. Despite all the hardships Ngama encounters, being poorly outfitted for the journey, the length of the journey, the cold, loneliness, lack of air, and being hungry, he succeeds. It is Ngama who lights the beacon representing freedom and peace, to be seen all over Africa. Independence, achieved peacefully is the message for the continent beginning to throw off the shackles of colonialism. Accompanying Nkongolo's simple text are the vibrant illustrations of Eva Campbell  rendered in oil paint and oil pastel on canvas. 

    Light A Candle gives younger readers a simple version of a historic event that occurred almost sixty years ago. It reminds us that people everywhere have the right to their culture and traditions and to self government.

    Book Details:

    Light A Candle by Godfrey Nkongolo
    Orca Book Publishers     2019

    Sunday, February 2, 2020

    Prehistoric Dinosaurs, Megalodons, and Other Fascinating Creatures of the Deep Past by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld

    Prehistoric Dinosaurs takes readers on a journey backwards in time beginning with our own epoch, the Anthropocene.

    Readers start with the Holocene epoch which began approximately 10,000 years ago and is the most recent in the Cenozoic era. During this time, humans evolved, the Earth warmed resulting in the retreat of vast ice sheets. This allowed humans to migrate and settle in most parts of the world.

    The Pleistocene which began approximately 2.6 million years ago saw the most recent ice age. With climate cooling, ice caps formed at the North and South poles. There were interglacial periods when the climate warmed allowing forests and mammals to flourish. It was a time of saber tooth cats such as Smilodon. Prior to this, during the Neocene epoch (23 million to 2.6 million years ago), mammals began to dominate the Earth.

    The Neocene was preceded by the Paleocene which began 66 million years ago. The climate was warm allowing large rain forests to grow and  new types of mammals to evolve. Early primates began living in the trees during this time.

    Before the Paleocene, the Cretaceous Period saw the reign of the dinosaurs which were a very diverse group of animals. There were meat-eating dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurs, as well as plant-eating ones such as Spinops. Flowering plants or angiosperms also developed during the Cretaceous Period providing fruits as a food. In the sea, giant mosasaurs, turtles and ammonites flourished. Scientists have evidence that the Cretaceous experienced a mass extinction even that destroyed seventy percent of the life on Earth. The cause is believed to be an asteroid that crashed in what is now Mexico, resulting in the Earth being overwhelmed with dust and smoke, blotting out the sun. This catastrophic event is believed to be responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

    It was during the Jurassic, 201-145 million years ago, that the largest land animals developed. These were the sauropods. During this time, the super continent known as Pangea began to break up. This began with the break up of North America from Europe and Asia and later Africa from South America.

    About 252 million years ago, the ancestors of dinosaurs and other reptiles were evolving. At this time dinosaurs were small, inhabiting most areas of Pangea.

    The Permian period (299- 252 million years ago) saw the formation of the supercontinent called Pangea from the collision two great land masses. At this time there were amphibians, reptiles and pre-mammals. Most were predators who ate other predators.Although there were many plants, they were consumed mostly by insects. The end of the Permian is characterized by a great extinction resulting from an extended period of widespread volcanic activity. It is believed over ninety percent of life on Earth was destroyed.

    Before the Permian, the Carboniferous was a time of giant trees and towering ferns. These lush forests were filled with many different arthropods, amphibians and the first reptiles.From 419 to 359 million years ago, the Devonian period saw the development of the first trees and forests, the first insects and spiders and the first four-legged animals such as salamanders.  Prior to the Devonian, during the Silurian (443 to 419 million years ago), temperatures on Earth were slowly rising, allowing new life forms to develop. The first fish with jaws developed allowing predation to occur, as well as the evolution of eurypterids ("scorpion-like arthropods) which could grow to be very large.

    In the Ordovician (485 to 443 million years) most life existed in the oceans. Snails, clams, nautiloids, trilobites and conodonts as well the world's first fish lived in the water. This period was characterized by the expansion of coral reefs across the world. The period before the Ordovician is called the Cambrian and this era saw the explosion of life on Earth. This sudden increase in life forms is called the "Cambrian Explosion". Trilobites, a primitive arthropod, dominated the Cambrian period which is sometimes referred to as the "Age of Trilobites".

    Finally, the period before the Cambrian is known as the Ediacaran, some 4.6 billion to 541 million years ago. The amazing story of life on Earth began during this time and little is known about the creatures who lived during this phase.


    In Prehistoric Dinosaurs, Megalodons and Other Fascinating Creatures of the Deep Past, author Zoehfeld has chosen to tell the story of life on Earth beginning with the modern epoch of the Anthropocene (which we are now living in) and moving backwards through time to the very beginning. This makes it difficult to fully understand how life developed from simpler forms to more complex ones, how the climate and the land masses changed over time and how catastrophic events shaped life and the world afterwards. Therefore, it is recommended that readers start at the back of this book and read backwards to the front! Reading in this way works superbly, making the timeline of events more logical and understandable.

    Zoehfeld's simple text gives readers a good understanding of the changes that occurred through each period and there are detailed, full colour illustrations which provide a sense of what the Earth may have looked like during each time period as well as the creatures that could be found in the seas and on land. The author includes many interesting facts for each period, and sets aside small areas on each page to explain certain events or to provide more details. For example, there are short, simple explanations of how coal formed, supervolcanoes, how dinosaurs walked, mass extinctions, ice ages and many other topics.

    This book was produced in association with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A more concise title with a more engaging illustration on the cover is also recommended. Overall, an  interesting presentation of the development of life on Earth. However, the claim on the book's back cover, "What's the best way to see the past? From the present, of course!" didn't work for this reader!

    Book Details:

    Prehistoric Dinosaurs, Megalodons, and Other Fascinating Creatures of the Deep Past  by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
    Greenbelt, Maryland: What on Earth Publishing   2019
    45 pp.