YA Nonfiction

BLACK HANDS, WHITE SAILS: THE STORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WHALERS by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L. McKissack

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A Coretta Scott King Award Honor book Black Hands, White Sails describes the nineteenth century whaling industry, focusing on African-Americans whalers.  Although the whaling industry began before slavery ended in the United States, many free African-Americans took jobs on whaling ships, since racial prejudice often precluded them from safer, higher paying land-bound jobs.  Patricia and Frederick McKissack explore all aspects of the whaling industry–from the technology, to the people involved, to some terrifying catastrophes and survival stories–while also putting the events in context with the American Revolution and the development and eventual abolition of slavery in the United States.  This book is fascinating, but dense enough to interest middle grade, teen, and adult readers more than young readers. 

If you liked Black Hands, White Sails and have the stomach for a more gruesome story, you should check out Revenge of the Whale by Nathaniel Philbrick–another nonfiction book about the whaling industry.  You may also enjoy The Longitude Prize by Joan Dash.

THE WORLD OF THE HUNGER GAMES by Kate Egan

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Created as a companion to the motion picture, The World of the Hunger Games discusses some of the characters and themes from the books coupled with abundant movie stills from the film.  In truth, the book is mostly pictures.  As someone who has both read the books and seen the films, the companion did not provide me with much additional information.  I had hoped to find some discussion of how the filmmakers transformed the world of Panem from page to screen, but the book did not approach that subject.  For someone who has not read the books, however, this guide could be incredibly valuable to help fill in any gaps that the film left in terms of plot and character development.

DUPED!: TRUE STORIES OF THE WORLD’S BEST SWINDLERS by Andreas Schroeder

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In a mixture of narrative prose and comics, Duped! shares several short stories of some of the world’s biggest and most infamous con artists.  Whether fabricating an alien invasion so believably that thousands of people fled their homes or convincing the world’s most prominent scientists and journalists to study a fake ancient tribe in the Phillipines for almost ten years–the men and women in this book were clever enough to fool even the most intelligent of people and in some cases, cheat them out of millions of dollars.  Personally, I found this book fascinating! It will likely appeal to kids and teens in grades 4 and up, particularly those who like stories about con artists and strange-but-true events.

If you liked Duped!, you might like The Giant and How He Humbugged America. 

PHINEAS GAGE: A GRUESOME BUT TRUE STORY ABOUT BRAIN SCIENCE by John Fleischman

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In 1848, a railroad worker named Phineas Gage was in a horrible explosion that drove a 3.5 foot long, thirteen pound, spear-like iron rod through his skull and brain–and he survived!  He never even lost consciousness. For eleven years after his accident, Phineas Gage was a marvel of human physiology and taught doctors an enormous amount about the brain.  John Fleischman’s book tells the story of Phineas Gage’s accident in all of its gory detail and then traces the scientific explanations of his survival and the personality changes that happened after his accident, as well as how his case influenced the history of neuroscience.  This book will be most interesting to middle and high-schoolers, especially those interested in science, but also has a strong “strange-but-true” and grossness factor.  Even upper elementary-schoolers who enjoy the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not books will enjoy the first chapter of this book (the story of the accident) and all of the cool photos and illustrations.  This book is fascinating!  I highly recommend it!

If you liked Phineas Gage, you might like Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland or Extreme Scientists. 

REVENGE OF THE WHALE by Nathaniel Philbrick

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In 1819, the whaleship Essex departed from Nantucket with a crew of twenty islanders.  A year later, the ship experienced a deliberate and fatal attack from a giant sperm whale, which sank the ship itself and left the entire crew stranded, thousands of miles from land, in small whaleboats.  Although they could have reached the Society Islands in about a month–during which their salvaged provisions would have sustained them–the first and second mates feared that the islands might be inhabited by cannibals, and persuaded the captain to sail for the coast of South America instead, a much longer journey that would require a considerable amount of luck.  In the end, this decision would cost the lives of over half the crew.  When the eight men who survived were rescued by another whaleship over 90 days later, they were starving, dehydrated, and muttering in madness–clutching the bones of their shipmates whose flesh they had been forced to eat.

Revenge of the Whale tells the harrowing story of the attack and the 93 day ordeal that followed–the horrifying tragedy that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick.  Revenge of the Whale is the teen-version of Philbrick’s National Book Award winning In the Heart of the Sea, which I am sure is equally if not more engaging.  Philbrick bases his narrative primarily on the written account of one survivor, the fourteen year old cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, with some additional detail from the account of the first mate, Owen Chase.  The only slightly frustrating thing about Revenge of the Whale is that Philbrick does not provide citations for his quotes, so it is impossible to trace his sources.  I would also not recommend reading this book during lunch, like I did.  It is a bit gruesome.

If you liked Revenge of the Whale, you might like Black Hands, White Sails, The Longitude Prizeor Titanic: Voices from the Disaster.