YA Nonfiction

THE ENDLESS STEPPE: GROWING UP IN SIBERIA by Esther Hautzig

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Esther had a beautiful childhood. She shared a large home with her parents and extended family in their Polish town of Vilna. They had beautiful garden that Esther tended with her grandfather, and she attended a wonderful school. But that all ended with the German invasion. As the Polish army fought valiantly against the Germans, the Soviets began to wage war against what they considered to be internal enemies. Labeled as capitalists, Esther, her parents, and her grandparents are shuttled into cattle cars and taken to labor camps in Siberia. From age ten to age fifteen, Esther learns to survive working in the harsh, barren landscape. But as she grows and builds friendships and a life for herself, it becomes difficult to imagine ever leaving.

Esther Hautzig tells her life story in beautiful and evocative prose. Her experiences of joys and hardships are both shocking and accessible; in many ways, childhood in Siberia is no different from childhood anywhere else.  There is sadness in this story, as you can imagine, but ultimately, Esther’s story is hopeful. I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers and teens who enjoy historical novels and memoirs and who are interested in hearing a less-often-told side of the Second World War.

FREEDOM’S CHILDREN: YOUNG CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS TELL THEIR OWN STORIES by Ellen Levine

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Ellen Levine compiled the stories of over a dozen African American civil rights activists, all of whom were children and teenagers during the Civil Rights Movement in the American South.  The stories these activists tell about their childhood struggles are at times shocking but always inspiring.  Readers will learn about some of the major events in the Civil Rights Movement (such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott), as well as small victories with hometown sit-ins and day-to-day struggles with segregation.  Intended for older school-age children and teens, this book includes frank and occasionally graphic discussions of the violence during that time period, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

I used this book as the basis for a library program for children ages 7 & up and their parents.  I discussed the violence selectively–as an introduction for the younger kids that would not be traumatizing.  I did share one picture of protesters being attacked with fire hoses when we talked about peaceful protests and talked about how African American students were bullied at first when integrating schools.  I focused on the children and how they had used peaceful means of protest to help change attitudes in their country.

This program was very well-received by students and their parents.  Students were surprised to learn that children their age (and sometimes younger than they) were arrested for peaceful protests–and shocked to learn that some “colored” schools didn’t even have bathrooms or outhouses!  After the presentation, we had time for students to write or draw a reflection on what they had learned.  I gave them the following prompts:

  • One story that inspired me today was . . .
  • One time I saw injustice when . . .
  • One time I stood up for someone else when . . .
  • One time I stood up for myself when . . .
  • One time I was brave when . . .
  • If I were alive in 1950, my life would have been different because . . .

I was so impressed with their observations about injustice and bullying in their own school environments and their insights into how segregation would have impacted their lives–no matter what their race.  While the children wrote and drew, parents began a conversation about racism they had witnessed or experienced in their lifetimes.  A parent from South Korea discussed her experience with injustice and protests during her childhood and how it compared to the American Civil Rights Movement.  It was a very thoughtful and productive conversation.

This was one of the best-received programs I have ever done, and I found it personally inspiring, as well.  I highly recommend the book, and if any librarians/educators would like more information about the program, just shoot me an email!  I would be more than happy to share my presentation.

BLIZZARD: THE STORM THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Jim Murphy

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The blizzard that hit the east coast of the United States in March 1888 took the country and the fledgling National Weather Service completely by surprise and claimed hundreds of lives.  Though it was not the most devastating natural disaster the United States has ever faced, it drastically changed the way our nation viewed disaster preparedness and meteorology.  Jim Murphy tells the story of the great blizzard through the eyes of the people who experienced it–some who survived to tell the tale, and others who perished–while weaving in the science behind the storm and the big picture of the political and social climate that affected the responses of individuals and the government.  Although it is targeted for middle grade and teen readers, this fascinating and fast-paced book may be of interest to adults, as well!

QUIZ WHIZ: 1000 SUPER FUN, MIND-BENDING, TOTALLY AWESOME TRIVIA QUESTIONS by the National Geographic Society

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Get your thinking caps ready because the quizzes in this book are far from easy!  Whether you’re a kid who is interested in strange-but-true facts or an adult preparing for trivia night at your local bar, you will learn a lot of interesting things from this book.  The quizzes cover a broad range of categories, including geography, science, animals, pop culture, statistics, and weird fads.  If you enjoy testing your knowledge or just want to learn something new, this is a great book to check out!

THE SCARY STATES OF AMERICA by Michael Teitelbaum

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Michael Teitelbaum has gathered urban legends from each of the 50 states and put them together in this creepy and intriguing book. In addition to some standard urban legend classics, Teitelbaum brings in some local legends that I had never heard before. Some of the stories are scary.  Others are just weird–and a few are kind of lame. But most of these legends will appeal to kids and teens who love ghost stories and “strange but true” tales.

FORTUNE’S BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM by Marilyn Nelson

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Commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum in Connecticut, The Manumission Requiem mourns the death and celebrates the life of a man named Fortune, a slave owned by Dr. Preserved Porter who—after Fortune’s death—dissected his body and hung his skeleton for display in his office.  Fortune’s bones passed through many hands, finally coming to rest in the Mattatuck Museum, and Fortune’s identity was only recently rediscovered.  The collection poems with which Marilyn Nelson remembers Fortune is short but powerful; it is a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book.  I would recommend Fortune’s Bones to teens and adults who are interested in reading stories about slavery or who enjoy thought-provoking poetry.

TITANIC: VOICES FROM THE DISASTER by Deborah Hopkinson

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On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths almost 1500 people (over 2/3 of those on board).  Deborah Hopkinson brings the Titanic’s tragic story to life by focusing on the stories of individual survivors.  Using their memories and words, she reconstructs the narrative of the Titanic from its initial departure to its sinking and the aftermath for the 700 survivors—most of them women and children whose husbands and fathers perished in the wreck.  Titanic: Voices From the Disaster is engaging, horrifying, and informative.  Although the book is marketed to upper-elementary school-aged children, I highly recommend it to anyone (children, teen, or adult) who is interested in learning more about the Titanic or who enjoys survival stories.   

If you liked Titanic: Voices From the Disaster, you might also like Revenge of the Whale.