Non-fiction Monday Book Review: Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts

This review was written for my children’s literature class, so it addresses some concerns from a more professional perspective than many of my earlier reviews have.

Colman, P. (1997). Corpses, coffins, and crypts: A history of burial. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts demystifies a process which many children encounter for the first time in late elementary school: what happens to the body after a person dies. Penny Colman is an award-winning author of children’s non-fiction; while she is not an expert on burial practices, she is an expert on researching and presenting information.

This book, which will have a natural pull for spooky kids such as myself, is very straightforward in its approach. Colman first defines death and explains what exactly happens upon death. She then discusses various possibilities for what happens to a corpse, including medical uses, embalming, and creation. Next she discusses different containment options: urns, coffins, crypts, and mausoleums. She goes on to describe burial sites and celebrations, finishing with a discussion of death as portrayed in the arts and everyday life.

The book’s intended audience is readers age 9 – 12, although School Library Journal recommends it for grades 6 and up. I think it would appeal to an advanced 4th or 5th grader. The text is very clear. Colman frames her discussions of history and science with stories of her own experiences with death and those of her friends and acquaintances. This keeps the subject from being sterile, but does not sentimentalize. Colman draws on many disciplines, including anthropology and archaeology. Her information comes from a variety of sources, some as old as the Roman historian Herodotus and others as current as her own interviews with morticians. Images include photographs of burial sites and reproductions of paintings and engravings dealing with death. All of the images are in black and white. In most non-fiction texts I would consider this a detractor, but here I think the monochrome images suit the book’s somber subject matter.

The text provides both finding aids and additional material. A table of contents, chronology of burial customs, glossary, bibliography, and index are provided. Colman also includes a gazetteer of burial sites of famous people, a collection of interesting epitaphs, and an explanation of the symbolism of images commonly carved on gravestones.

Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts illuminates the burial process and illustrates how it is a common part of every person’s life. It is an interesting, warm, and respectful examination of customs across time. It may not appeal to a broad audience of middle grade readers, but it will interest and entertain some and comfort others.

Book Review: Tales of the Cryptids

This review was written for my children’s literature class, so it addresses some concerns from a more professional perspective than many of my earlier reviews have.

Halls, K. M., Spears, R. & Young, R. (2006). Tales of the cryptids: Mysterious creatures that may or may not exist. Plain City, OH: Darby Creek Publishing.

This book caught my eye with its clever title. When I pulled it down from the shelf, its cover, cleverly designed to mimic a sideshow advertisement, drew me in even further. Despite its whimsical appearance, the text contains a good bit of information about how science is used to prove or disprove the existence of mysterious creatures.

The authors of Tales of the Cryptids have no special experience that qualifies them to write on this topic; it is an area of personal interest for each of them. To supplement their own knowledge from personal studies, they have interviewed cryptozoologists, primatologists, paleoanthropologists, and geneticists. Because cryptozoology inherently studies creatures whose existence is difficult to prove, it’s hard to evaluate the factual accuracy of the text. An important part of the book is that the authors emphasize this very dilemma; they go to great lengths to explain that some of these animals have been proven hoaxes, some may or may not be real, and a very few have actually been proven to exist. The authors focus on the importance of scientific inquiry, describing the need for DNA, blood, and bone evidence to prove the existence of many of these creatures.

The book is designed to inform, entertain, and teach critical thinking. It states, “We hope you’ll have moments of doubt and wonder as you read over this book, because that’s the reaction any smart reader should have to a book of unsolved mysteries” (5). It lists its audience as readers ages 11 and up, but I believe it is accessible to readers as young as 8 or 9. It covers several different types of cryptids, presenting reports from both believers and skeptics. The book may inspire readers to take on their own inquiry process while trying to solve mysteries.

Information in the book is presented clearly, divided by type of creature (Bigfoot, sea monster, prehistoric, mammal). Each type of creature is introduced by a brief narrative passage which invites the reader to imagine she has encountered the creature herself. Each section has several subsections. Content includes profiles of specific cryptids, explanations of possible evidence, and interviews with scientists and with artists who portray these creatures in various media. Illustrated maps indicate names of similar cryptids in different regions. Illustrations consist of photos, sketches, and maps. The book includes a table of contents, a “cryptidictionary” which describes different cryptids and provides a “reaity index” indicating whether they are more likely to be a hoax or real, a bibliography, specific citations for interviews including locations and dates, a list of related websites, and an index.

Tales of the Cryptids discusses a high interest subject while maintaining the importance of scientific inquiry. Its structure, illustrations, thoroughness, finding aids, and extensive proof of careful research make it an excellent nonfiction book for readers in the middle grades.

Book Review: Stan Lee

This review was written for my children’s literature class, so it addresses some concerns from a more professional perspective than many of my earlier reviews have.

Miller, R. H. (2006). Stan Lee: Creator of Spider-Man. Farmington Hills, MI: KidHaven Press.

Stan Lee: Creator of Spider-Man is part of the KidHaven Press Inventors and Creators series, a series which introduces the lives of famous people to middle grade readers (Grades 4 – 8). The author, Raymond H. Miller, has written over 50 children’s nonfiction titles on various topics. While he is not an accredited Stan Lee expert, his experience in writing this type of book lends him some authority. The text, published in 2006, covers Stan Lee’s life from his birth until the 2000s, with up-to-date information about his current work. It focuses primarily on his career; sections about his childhood slant heavily towards how his childhood experiences influenced that career.

The book is clearly designed to provide an introduction to the life of one of the most famous writers in the history of comic books. The text is not overly complex, but it is not so simplistic as to bore or insult the intelligence of its intended audience. It does not present differing perspectives on Stan Lee’s life; it does, however, report conflicts objectively, simply stating the facts of situations like Lee’s lawsuit against Marvel rather than taking one side or the other in these matters.

The structure of the book is chronological; chapter titles and subtitles break up the text but do not reveal a great deal about the content that follows them. The book includes extensive reference aids, including a table of contents, a glossary, an index, endnotes which provide citations for quotes used in the text, a page of “For Further Exploration” recommendations, and photo credits. These serve as excellent examples for readers if they need to write biographical texts themselves.

Illustrations include photographs of Stan Lee in various situations, images of his influences (such as William Shakespeare) and experiences (such as chess, ping pong, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor), and scenes from movies based on his films. These are colorful with clear captions which add to the text’s meaning. There is one confusing illustration, a combined map of Manhattan Island and timeline which features characters from Stan Lee’s comic books. The text on this image, in comic-style bursts, is arranged in no discernible order.

Overall, this book is well-suited to its audience and purpose. The text is clear, the presentation is attractive, and it is a fine example of well-researched non-fiction.

Book Review: Black Cat

This is another of the evaluations I wrote for my children’s literature class.

Myers, C. (1999). Black cat. New York: Scholastic Press.

Christopher Myers’s Black Cat is a poetry picture book about a cat who roams the streets of New York. This book is appropriate for students throughout the elementary grades. Its rhythmic language and collage artwork appeal to a wide variety of ages. It introduces readers to poetic devices such as simile – “sauntering like rainwater down storm drains.” Its theme is the search for a home in a big city. The text has predictable elements. The invisible narrator often addresses the cat directly and rhythmically, with questions like “black cat, black cat, we want to know/where’s your home, where do you go?” This particular stanza is repeated throughout the book, providing a measure of predictability. While the vocabulary is simple enough for younger readers, the poetic language will engage readers who are beginning to develop metalinguistic awareness.

The collaged illustrations feature a black cat painted on photographs of areas in Harlem and Brooklyn. The cat is usually shown in the middle of motion. Each page or spread relates directly to the text on the page. The images juxtapose photographic realism, which matches the theme of finding a home in the streets of New York, with the more fantastical painted postures of the cat – including dunking itself through a basketball hoop – which suit the poetic language. 

The book is a large vertically-oriented hardcover with high quality pages. Endpapers feature photographs of parts of New York where the black cat might roam. Type is a bold sans-serif font, easy to read, in bright colors which vary to contrast with the colors in the illustrations. Sometimes the text is set directly on the picture and other times it is set on a black background. The pages are sturdily sewn into the book.

The colorful collages and text, as well as the poetic language, capture the energy of a lively city. This picture book’s rhythmic language and distinctive style of illustration might capture the interest of a variety of elementary-aged readers.

Book Review: Going North

For my children’s literature class, we write evaluations of the books we read.  I thought I’d share mine here.  These will illustrate some teacherly/librarian concerns which don’t come out as much in my reviews of YA lit.

Harrington, J. N. (2004). Going north. New York: Melanie Kroupa Books.

Going North is the semi-autobiographical story of an African American family’s move from Alabama to Nebraska in the early 1960s. The story is told from the perspective of Jessie, a young girl who is reluctant to leave the home she loves. She is both anxious and optimistic about the prospect of a new life in the North.

This book is appropriate for readers in grades 3 – 5, who are beginning to move away from egocentrism and beginning to be able to see things from others’ perspectives. It is set in the segregated South of the 1960s. This is conveyed both in text, with statements like, “Can’t stop just anywhere./Only the Negro stations,/only the Negro stores,” and with images of the African American family staying in their car at a gas station while a white family’s car is serviced by a white attendant. Jessie, the narrator, is the only character who is very well developed. Because she is telling the story, we get a sense of her own fears and hopes. Despite its focus on racial tensions, the book manages to avoid stereotypical portrayals. 

The rich language conveys powerful images such as “I wish my toes were roots./I’d grow into a pin oak and never go away.” The language uses literal descriptions, onomatopoeia, and metaphor. Phrases such as “good luck,” with the first word in the phrase in larger print than the second, imitate the sounds of tires on a road. The themes of memory and movement are conveyed through the misty quality of the oil painting illustrations and the multiple perspectives of the yellow station wagon as it heads north. Jessie’s concerns, such as whether she will like her new home and if she will have much in common with the children there, are common to many children as they move to a new city.

The book is large and horizontal, so readers who are still struggling with fine motor skills can handle it quite readily. Endpapers with maps of the region the characters travel add to the sense of place in the story. The jacket design shows the family in its yellow station wagon. The title text and author attribution are in fonts which follow a curving line, adding to the book’s sense of movement. Inside, the text is printed with plenty of space around it so that the eye is easily drawn to it. The paper is high quality, glossy, and the binding is sewn together sturdily. At the end of the book, Ms. Harrington provides an author’s note explaining how the story reflects her own experience as a child moving from Alabama to Nebraska.

Going North is an excellent book to introduce middle grade children to issues of segregation and to provide them with a connection to the lives of children from earlier time periods as they learn that some experiences, such as anxiety about going to a new place, are universal across time.

The Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriott

After Princess Alexandra’s mother is killed, her father marries a woman who charms the kingdom. Alexandra and her brothers, however, believe that this woman is a shape-shifter, the beast who killed their mother in human form. After an ill-fated attempt to prove this goes awry, Alexandra is banished and her brothers disappear. As she lives with her aunt, Alexandra begins to understand the nature of her own magical power.

I can’t say much more without giving away details of the plot that I think readers will enjoy discovering for themselves. It is my policy to give a book fifty pages before I abandon it. This book, while well-written, just wasn’t for me, all the way up to page forty-nine. But on page fifty, everything changed, and I found myself eager to know what happened next. The Swan Kingdom is a fantasy, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Wild Swans. In this story, Zoe Marriott has created a rich world. Alexandra is a strong female protagonist, but she draws her strength from emotion and magic rather than physical power. While she does spend more time than many of us would probably like waiting for her brothers to find her, she does take action and work to change the fate of her nation’s people. The Swan Kingdom‘s greatest strengths lie in its world-building and unique magic system.

I would recommend this to anyone interested in adaptations of traditional fairy tales or looking for a female protagonist who has strength but doesn’t fight, who is able to use that strength without giving up her femininity.

Book: The Swan Kingdom
Author: Zoe Marriott
Publisher: Candlewick
Original Publication Date: March 2008
Pages: 272
Age Range: Young Adult
Source of Book: ARC requested from publisher
Buy it: IndieBoundPowell’s [Affiliate Links]

Non-Fiction Monday: You Don’t Look Like a Librarian by Ruth Kneale

One of my recurring obsessions (that is to say, I get crazy about it for a few weeks and then forget it for a while only to come back to it later) is fashion. I recently decided that I would start a blog to chronicle my attempts to express myself through my appearance. One thing I wanted to address was the librarian stereotype; so I thought I’d explore the place where fashion and librarianship intersect, if it exists. Any time I decide on a new project, research is the first (and often only) phase. So I set out to find information about stereotypes about librarians, and happened upon Ruth Kneale’s You Don’t Look Like a Librarian.

In this book, Kneale chronicles librarians’ own obsession with their image and makes suggestions for how to deal with people who say “But you don’t look like a librarian!” (Why don’t you look like a librarian? My problem is my lack of glasses.) She also provides a vast survey of the resources available for exploring this topic further.

This is a fun little book (and Liz B. of Tea Cozy wrote the forward!) but its companion website is even better than the book itself, because it offers links to all the different resources mentioned in the book.

I recommend this for anybody who wants an overview of stereotypes of librarians and how actual librarians respond to them.

My favorite part, of course, was when the book addressed the topic of Rupert Giles, who is my librarian role model. (I like to imagine if Giles and Jenny Calendar traveled back in time to 1981 and had a kid together, she’d be me.)

Book: You Don’t Look Like a Librarian
Author: Ruth Kneale
Publisher: Information Today, Inc.
Original Publication Date: March 2009
Pages: 216
Source of Book: Borrowed from library
Buy it (affiliate links): IndieBoundPowell’s

Photograph by L. Marie

How to Build a House by Dana Reinhardt

Harper needs to get away from home for a while, to escape her heartbreak over her father’s divorce from her stepmother and her confusion about her relationship with Gabriel, who is not her boyfriend but is definitely more than her friend.  She signs up for the Homes from the Heart Summer Program for Teens and leaves her native California behind to help build a home for a Tennessee family who lost theirs in a tornado.

Dana Reinhardt does so many things right in this book that it would take a very long time to list them all, so I’ll just hit the highlights.  As always, her teen voice is spot-on: Harper sounds like a real teen, not a grown-up’s idea of how a teen sounds.  Her characterizations, as always, are excellent, too; the family for whom Harper is building a house, all of the other kids who work with her to build the house, and Harper’s own family are fully realized.  This is a remarkable feat, especially considering that the book comes in at only 227 pages.  The most unique thing about How to Build a House, however, is its structure.

Reinhardt has named each chapter after one of the steps in building a house, and within each chapter we get glimpses of how Harper’s life was at “Home” and how things are different “Here.”  Throughout the story, the step in home-building correlates with Harper’s experiences and memories.  It could come across as contrived, but it doesn’t.  It is, instead, just right.

I would recommend this book to just about anyone.  Dana Reinhardt is one of my favorite authors for young adults today, and How to Build a House follows in the tradition of excellence she began with A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life and continued with Harmless.

Book: How to Build a House
Author: Dana Reinhardt
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Original Publication Date: May 2008
Pages: 227
Age Range: Young Adult
Source of Book: ARC sent by author
Related Posts: My Interview with Dana Reinhardt, My Review of A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, My Review of Harmless
Buy it: IndieBoundPowell’s

Two Mini Reviews: Lessons from a Dead Girl and Goy Crazy

Today I have reviews of two books for you.

Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles

When Laine’s mother tells her that Leah Greene is dead, she can’t help but feel that it’s a little bit her fault. After all, she did wish for it. Each time Laine’s mother says Leah’s name, Leah is pulled back to a memory of an earlier time with Leah, of "Lessons" Leah gave her in what friendship is about. This first novel by freelance non-fiction writer Jo Knowles tells a tale about childhood loneliness and the abuse one child can perpetuate on another. I read it in two sittings, and I would’ve read it in one but I started it late at night and was just too sleepy to pay attention – and I didn’t want to miss anything.

What I appreciate most about Lessons from a Dead Girl is that it gives us real people in all of the characters. Leah Greene is a popular girl, and it would be easy for an author to let her be one-dimensional. Jo Knowles gives us another perspective, demonstrating what I think can be one of life’s greatest lessons, especially for adolescents: that everyone has problems, and no one acts entirely without reason.

With Lessons, Jo Knowles makes a strong debut. I look forward to her next book, Jumping Off Swings, to be released on August 11 of this year.

Book: Lessons from a Dead Girl
Author: Jo Knowles
Publisher: Candlewick
Original Publication Date: October 9, 2007
Pages: 224
Age Range:  Young Adult
Source of Book: Publisher
Related Links: My Interview with Jo Knowles
Buy it [Affiliate Links]: IndieBoundPowell’s

Goy Crazy by Melissa Schorr

It’s lust at first sight when Rachel Lowenstein meets Luke Christiansen, a waiter at her brother’s bar mitzvah.  Luke is tall, blond, and decidedly not Jewish.  She desperately wants to date him, but she knows her parents won’t approve.  Can she turn her back on her faith and her culture for a cute boy?

Goy Crazy is a charming romantic comedy that addresses coming of age issues common to all teens.  Rachel feels constantly in conflict with her parents.  She’s been a good girl her whole life and she’s sick of it.  So she decides that her sophomore year of high school, she will be a bit naughty, and she’ll start by pursuing a boy from the wrong religion.

 I would recommend Goy Crazy to anyone looking for a fun read that is not so light as to be mindless, but is very clever and uplifting.  It does rom-com right: there’s the wrong boy who seems so right, the boy her parents prefer who is not at all what she wants, and the realization Rachel makes that the people she knows aren’t necessarily the people they seem to be.  It’s a good time, and summer would be a great time to pick it up and take it to the beach with you, but it’ll hold up any time of year.

Book: Goy Crazy
Author: Melissa Schorr
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children
Original Publication Date: August 22, 2006
Pages: 352
Age Range: Young Adult
Source of Book: Author
Buy it [Affiliate Links]: IndieBound Powell’s

#48HBC Update: 9 hours, 14 minutes

Accidental LoveBook: Accidental Love by Gary Soto
Time Spent Reading It: 1 hr 31 min

Another cute, fun read.  (Aside from Stop Pretending, which had me sniffling a good bit, that’s what I was really going for this weekend.)  Marisa, a girl with a penchant for fighting, accidentally switches cell phones with Rene, a nerdy boy from another school.  When they meet to switch back, she realizes she kinda likes him.  This was a very sweet book.  I kind of like this type of romance better than French Kiss – sweet, youngish, with all of the problems externally generated.  (I’d much rather have parental disapproval be an obstacle in a romance than the fact that both of the love interests are incredibly moody, for example.) 

Total Time Spent Reading: 9 hrs 14 min

Even though I technically have another hour and a half in my 48 hours, that’s probably going to do it for me.  I’ll be back with an official summary later this evening.