Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Gene Lune Yang, the 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature picked the platform “Reading Without Walls”. As part of it, he challenges readers to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve started posting roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. This is my third post highlighting picture books about the immigration experience.

We Came to America, written by Faith Ringgold, is dedicated to all the children who have come to America. A refrain emphasize that the children were of different colors, races, and religions. The rest of the text tells readers that the children came by boat and by airplane, and were from every country in the world. Once they arrived in America, they brought their own songs, dances, art, stories, and fashion. A final scene depicts a gathering of diverse children paired with the moral: We are ALL Americans, Just the same.” The text is simple, reminding readers that United States has a multifaceted lineage. My favorite part is the illustrations. Places and faiths are never named in the text. Rather, Americans’ global origins are portrayed through the artwork. Each vibrant two-page spread has a vibrant backdrop, providing contrast for the parade of bold patterns and styles of various traditional attire from across the world.

Their Great Gift by John Coy, with photographs by Wing Young Huie, tells the story of immigrants whose courage and sacrifice provided hope in a new land to their children. The immigrants came from far away to land of plenty. Their journey was difficult. And when they arrived, they faced even more hardships. No one understand what it cost them to move to a new country, work long hours, and shift between languages and customs. There was much about this picture book that I liked. The text is easy to read. One line made me think of my step-mom who came from the Philippines. To this day, she sends from her earnings to her siblings and relatives in her home country. The switch in the narrative from talking about the parents to the children is particularly poignant. Now the young ones are in America, all with their own stories. One line made me think of how rich of a heritage I have from my dad. All of us, wherever our roots, would do well to do the best with the lives our parents gave to us. The end pages include “arrival stories” from the author and the photographer, which are just as touching as the book’s narrative.

Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen contains two parallel stories. The first is of a family who decides to move to America. The dad says that life will be better across the ocean. There will be no more burning of houses, killing of family livestock, and taking sons into the army without permission. But to have this better life, the family must give up their home, their names, their language, and everything familiar to them. They must also endure long train rides and filthy packed boats. The second story is of M. Edouard de Laboulaye, who lives in France, and wants to celebrate America’s birthday in a big way. He decides to build a memorial to their independence, a monument that we now know as the Statue of Liberty. The nonfiction text serves as both a lovely account of Yolen’s parents’ immigration experiences and of the origins of Liberty’s journey. I’d recommend it for older readers due to the demanding style. The narrative is presented as stanzas even though it does not read as poetry. In addition, the vocabulary is complex. The end pages provide a little more background to both stories, along with details about Yolen’s research.

Stick up for what you know is right. This land was made for you and me.—Woody Guthrie

This Land is Your Land is a picturesque version of the famous folk song by Woody Guthrie. Although I am Canadian, this song has long been a favorite of mine. It’s also of late become a protest song for those who support immigration, and so seemed appropriate to include in a round-up of books about immigration. The detailed paintings by Kathy Jakobsen burst with color and invite readers on a lively journey across the United States. In several multi-paneled spreads, Guthrie is shown carrying his guitar from landmark to landmark and coast to coast. Some of the spreads are also bordered with geometric corners that contain hand-lettered snippets of Guthrie lyrics and quotes. The end pages contain a tribute by Pete Seeger, who played with Guthrie, and an illustrated biography of Guthrie. The musical score and lyrics to the song are also provided. A real keepsake!

Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?

 

According to The Pew Research Center, over 75% of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians). Also, according to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ.—Open Doors

Persecution of Christians is a topic I don’t often hear about, but the above quote shows that it happens more than most of us probably realize. For that reason, I decided to read Hearts of Fire, which tells the story of “eight women in the underground church and their stories of costly faith”. The book is a publication of Voice of Martyrs, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting the persecuted church worldwide.

There are many aspects I appreciate about this riveting collection. The eight women featured come from different countries: Indonesia, Bhutan, Russia, Romania., Pakistan, China, India, and Vietnam. Each of them also comes from various religious backgrounds, with some starting out as atheists, others Christian, and a few converting from such faiths as Islam or Buddhism. The form of persecution takes many forms too: abuse, kidnapping, and/or imprisonment. Because Voice of Martyrs included a diversity of stories, its collection never felt as if any one country or group of people were being targeted. Instead the collection made clear that persecution of Christians is a worldwide issue that needs attention.

In contrast to some biographical collections, instead of providing snippets from several role models, each chapter in Hearts of Fire instead consists of a full-fledged story of about 40 pages. Some stories start by recounting the events in the childhood of a featured heroine that led to her decision to take a stand for Christ and how that decision put her life in constant jeopardy. Other stories began with a featured heroine already in her adulthood and daily having to choose whether to risk being arrested for sharing her faith. By the end of each chapter, I felt as if I knew the entire testimony of every featured heroine.

There are some aspects of this gritty collection that I disliked. The first is the book feels outdated. Although it’s been reprinted about ten years after an original publication date of 2003, there were no updates made to the original stories–some of which happened decades before. Consequently, the stories aren’t all that current. The second is how violent some stories were. I almost didn’t make it through the first story. It told of Christina being lifted in the air by her hair, tobacco leaves being set on fire and put in her mouth, her son being beaten with a machete, and other tortures. I understand that if change is to happen, there’s a need to depict the depth of atrocities that can happen. At the same time, the human mind will only accept hearing about so much horror before it becomes numb. In addition, the other natural response is to feel hatred for the persecutors, which lessens the impact of the heroism of the Christian women.

I found of special interest the story of the wife who became the founder of Voice of Martyrs. Sabina’s story began in Romania, 1945. The Russians had driven the Nazis out of Romania, but they were now themselves attempting to control how the state ran. The couple however refused to silent about their faith. February 1948, Sabina’s husband went missing, and was believed at times to have been arrested and other times to have been killed. Eventually, Sabina herself was also taken by authorities to jail. There, she was forced into slave labor, and risked being shot. Even when injured and sick, she was forced to work outside and in extreme weather. In 1965, the couple were reunited and eventually escaped to the United States. In this country, they began The Voice of Martyrs newsletter, a monthly publication that to this day is distributed across the world in many languages.

Years ago, I watched a true story of a missionary who died for her faith. In college, the missionary had searched for a reason to live, and found it in God. Hearts of Fire is filled with stories of women who similarly found their purpose. I’ll be looking for more books in the future that both challenge how I live and inspire my faith. If you have recommendations, please post in the comments.

When offered the opportunity to receive an Advanced Reader Copy of When Jackie Saved Grand Central, I jumped at the chance. I have a soft spot in my heart for stories about activists, especially female ones. I also felt intrigued to learn more about America’s former first lady and her role in the fight to preserve a New York landmark. Natasha Wing has written an inspiring story of a little-known part of American history, and the illustrations by Alexandra Boiger are just as delightful.

If Grand Central Station goes all of the landmarks in this country will go as well.—Jackie Kennedy

Even before Jackie Kennedy became the First Lady, she had a passion for historical icons and beauty. She demonstrated this love when she moved into the White House in 1961 by redesigning her new home to showcase not just art but also presidential history. Jackie also helped create the National Historical Preservation Act, which paved the wave for protecting national heritage treasures including that of Grand Central Station. But that’s not all! Jackie also fought to save other monuments too, such as St. Bartholomew’s church, which was at risk of being turned into an office building. Natasha Wing’s picture book focuses on Jackie’s battle, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, to save the famous New York train station.

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there is nothing left of her history and beauty to inspire our children? —Jackie Kennedy

As part of her battle, Jackie had a lot of work to do: joining city leaders and founding a committee to save the station, speaking at press conferences, inspiring citizens to save money, writing letters to the mayor, and running crusades to gain attention for the cause. One might consider it a negative that a former first lady is leader of this historical fight. After all, Jackie had the advantage of a presidential position to help her. But then if you think of all the steps that even she as the first lady had to take, I view her as a positive role model for all activists today. Saving anything that one considers worthwhile takes work, lots of it, and yet Jackie stuck with it until she accomplished her goal. Her actions should serve as an inspiration to anyone who has faced a challenge.

The style and illustrations of When Jackie Saved Grand Central equal in quality to the story. I appreciate how the vocabulary is both appropriate to younger readers, but also contains challenging words such as conferences, magnificent, demonstrate, and influential. As for the ink and watercolor illustrations, the colors have been carefully chosen. A flaming red highlights moments of struggle, while dark grey emphasizes moments of sadness, and soft yellow shows happier moments. When Jackie Saved Grand Central will educate and motivate readers of all ages.

Natasha Wing grew up in Connecticut, not far from New York City. After graduating from Arizona State University, she worked in advertising for a number of years. In 1991, she decided to write children’s books, and sold her first book within six months. Now she’s the author of many picture books, including the best-selling Night Before Series. Below is an interview with Natasha Wing, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. Please return tomorrow for my review of her latest picture book, When Jackie Saved Grand Central, which I received as an Advanced Reader Copy.

Q. If you weren’t an author or illustrator what would you do for a living?

I’d flip houses. I love resurrecting neglected things and making them beautiful. Hey! That’s like polishing up old manuscripts!

Q. What is the first book you remember loving as a child?

The Cat in the Hat.

Q. What’s your favorite word?

pickle

Q. If you could have any super power what would it be?

Erasing fear.

Q. An ice cream sundae is not complete without _____

Warm chocolate sauce!

Q. The best thing about my job is______

The freedom to explore any topic.

Q. What’s the best snack to eat while reading a good book?

Cheese and crackers with a glass of wine. I eat potato chips when I’m editing since the crunch seems to address my frustration.

Q. Picture books are important because _____

They are portals into other worlds.

This photo of Jackie on the train helped the illustrator see what Jackie was wearing during her Landmark Express train ride to Washington, D.C.

What Natasha thinks is the most beautiful part of the terminal and one of the reasons why she’s glad this building was saved–the ceiling!

 

And here Natasha is at the renovated train station in Denver near where she lives in Colorado.

In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, author Frans de Waal discusses animal intelligence. In the prologue, he stresses that he won’t provide a comprehensive overview of evolutionary cognition, but rather he’ll pick and choose from discoveries in the field over the recent decades. His specialty is primates and as such so his focus, but de Waal also refers to studies of birds, dogs, whales, and other mammals. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, was the February selection of the online Companion Animal Psychology Book Club, formed in the fall of 2016 by Zazie Todd. For this review, I’m taking a different approach by sharing highlights of the discussion by some of the three-hundred members.

Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular pastime to cognitive science, but I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded. All it has done is make us measure animals by human standards. It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to ten if that’s not what a squirrel’s life is about…. We don’t need echolocation to orient ourselves in the dark; nor do we need to correct for the refraction of light between air and water as archerfish do when shooting droplets at insects above the surface. There are lots of wonderful cognitive adaptations out there that we don’t have or need. That’s why ranking cognition on a singular dimension is a pointless exercise.

To start the discussion of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Todd asked, “How did you find the first couple of chapters? Which animal stories or anecdotes particularly got your attention, and why?” In general, everyone agreed that there were so many fascinating tales, it was difficult to pick just one example. A few favorites were:

  • Elephants and mirrors: Researchers conducted tests to evaluate whether an animal recognizes its own reflection. Some elephants did!
  • Chimps and distinguishing faces: At one time, scientists declared humans unique since we were better at recognizing faces than primates were. A later study proved the opposite when it used not human faces but primate faces.
  • Cats and cages: One experiment concluded that cats rubbed against a cage latch to escape and obtain a fish as a reward. A later experiment concluded instead that the cats only needed the presence of friendly people to encourage them to rub, which is a way of greeting among cats.
  • Wasps and moved pinecones: Before wasps go out to hunt for a bee they’ve buried, they make a brief orientation flight to memorize the location of their burrows. One researcher put objects around their nest to see what information they used, as well as to trick them into looking at the wrong spots.

These examples and others led to a discussion of the concept of unwelt, or looking at the world from an animal’s point of view. One reader pointed out that we “tend to compare other animals with us and then describe their abilities in terms of lack, as in ‘dogs have the cognitive abilities of human toddlers but nothing more’, which doesn’t tell us an awful lot about dogs’ unique abilities, some of which we don’t share.” Another reader noted that it’s easier to “assume an animal lacks skill rather than asking, ‘Are our methods valid?’.” Many readers felt the first couple of chapters were more of a human story than one about animal cognition.

The next two chapters focused on specific aspects of animal intelligence. For chapter three, Todd asked: “What did you think of the studies of tool use? Did it affect how you think about animals, especially primates?” One reader expressed fascination with the expectation that most species would be incapable of using tools, even though the more studies scientists conduct the more it seems other species can and do use tools. De Waal wrote about crows in the Southwest Pacific that will spontaneously alter branches until they have a little wooden hook to fish grubs out of crevices. He also described real-life rooks that, akin to the crow in Aesop’s fable, successfully solved a floating worm puzzle by using pebbles to raise the water level in the tube. This chapter wasn’t without its controversy, with some readers debating the “risk to animal welfare if we assume cognitive abilities which are comparable to that of humans”.

For chapter four, Todd referred to a quote from de Waal and asked what ones thought about it: “You won’t often hear me say something like this, but I consider us the only linguistic species.” Initially, responses focused on the concept of language. Answers ranged from “If we mean the ability to communicate in symbolic language, then we are likely to be the only linguistic species” to “there are so many others forms of communication”. More than one reader recognized that animals do well at interpreting body language. There was also an acknowledgement that there are unknowns in communication, such as how elephants use rumbles to speak to one another, and so many animals may very well indeed have some sort of language. Then there were the more flippant remarks such as, “No doubt language is important to humans, which must be the reason we so doggedly try to teach other animals to “speak” and use this as a sign of intelligence” or “All we’ve shown (when we proof animals to ‘speak” is that other animals can pick up foreign languages.”

Todd followed-up with another question, ”What did you think when he said it caused an incident when he told people he doesn’t have a voice telling him right from wrong? Do you have such a voice?” This led to a brief discussion about morality, but mostly to a comparison of how that inner voice appears to individuals. For some it’s a feeling, while for others it’s words or pictures or a combination of both.

If cognition’s basic features derive from gradual descent with modification, then notions of leaps, bounds, and sparks are out of order. Instead of a gap, we face a gently sloping beach created by the steady pounding of millions of waves. Even if human intellect is higher up on the beach, it was shaped by the same forces battering the same shore.

In the remaining chapters, de Waal goes back and forth between discussing specific aspects of animal intelligence and the generalities of cognitive evolution. Todd posed three more questions, one about the social life of animals, one about whether there is a cognitive gap between animals and humans, and the last a catch-all question. By now though, the discussion had started to dwindle. Not everyone agreed with de Wall, and one reader contended, “As an archaeologist, I found his blanket statements about what other disciplines think about humans to be a bit … well, wrong? Archaeology and anthropology are social sciences, and I’m sure when I was in school there wasn’t a wall around human thinking or biology….” As this quote shows, some involved in the discussion had studied extensively studied social sciences of some form. As such, they were familiar with at least a few of the ideas presented. They also had the ability to discern some of what was truth and what wasn’t. Neither was the case for me, and I suspect several of the other readers, and this may have also led to the drop in conversation.

Do check Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? out from the library. While the content proved heavy reading for an unscientific person like myself, de Waal did give me renewed respect for animals. It also inspired several conversations between my husband and me. We debated what might happen if society were to view animals as smart as humans, but just in different ways. Would we so casually destroy the homes of wild animals? Would we so inhumanely treat farm animals? Would we so easily view domesticated animals as disposable? The implications are endless, making de Waal’s book an important read.


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Spring Reviews

Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado by Janice Dean
  • The Distance Between Us by Reya Grande
  • Hearts of Fire from The Voice of Matyrs

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Artists Helping Animals

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