The President Has Been Shot: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson

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Swanson presents this in-depth look at the Kennedy assassination, complete with detailed diagrams of the book depository, the motorcade route, and Kennedy’s wounds. Aside from the assassination itself, the author also delves into Lee Harvey Oswald’s personal life, his affiliation with the communist party, and his suspected mental illness. Swanson makes good use of historical photographs (including stills from film reels) and organizes the piece so that it reads more like fiction than a historical work. This is a worthwhile piece to incorporate into lessons involving or related to the event.

I have to admit, I’m fascinated with the Kennedy assassination. I don’t know if it’s the tragedy of the situation, the national grief, the conspiracy theories, or just Jackie, but I’m always interested in learning more. This book is focused only on the assassination, so it goes into a good amount of detail about the event. There’s a lot of pictures, diagrams, and maps which are especially helpful in trying to figure out exactly what happened the day of the shooting. My only criticism of this book is that it takes a pretty rosy view of JFK and his administration. I’m not saying that JFK wasn’t a good president, but I am saying that the author intentionally ignored some of the shadier aspects of his history, family life, and presidency. If you’re interested in those juicier bits, I would recommend doing a little research — there’s some good stuff out there.

Rating: 4/5

*YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Finalist, 2014

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

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The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery by Steve Sheinkin

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Though remembered by American history as the most notorious traitor of the American Revolution, Sheinkin’s work illustrates that Benedict Arnold was once a hero. Daring in battle and with an unbreakable will, the general won key battles for the Americans, but felt his achievements were ignored. Interestingly, the same impulsiveness and combative nature that made Arnold a military hero ultimately led him to betray his country. Sheinkin’s work is a well-researched, non-traditional look at Benedict Arnold which demonstrates to students that there are two sides to every story.

What I loved about this book was getting to see Arnold’s side of the story. So often, people are remembered only for the terrible things they do — no one thinks about why they did them. In a way, I could understand Arnold’s frustration with feeling unappreciated and ignored. The treachery, however, is the only thing he will be remembered for. While I loved the “other side of the story” aspect, this book was still boring. Some parts are action-packed and read like a novel, but there are plenty of parts that don’t. I’m actually surprised this won the YALSA nonfiction award. Then again, so did Charles and Emma. I recommend this book if you’re already a fan of the American Revolution, or interested in Benedict Arnold. It’s not as good as Sheinkin’s more recent work, though.

Rating: 3/5 

*YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, winner, 2012

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Brag; Illustrated by Kevin O’Malley

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Focusing only on their untimely and often graphic ends, Bragg presents this compilation of mini “death” biographies of prominent historical figures. Arranged chronologically (by death date) and including plenty of extra historical facts and infographics, this piece is sure to interest readers of levels. As many young adults are fascinated by the demise of others, this would be an excellent book to use when planning history lessons. Sections are short, illustrated,  and leave many opportunities for reader discussion, debate, and further research.

This book was great! It’s a little on the gory, side, but it’s hilarious and definitely paints a different picture of historical people. I learned a lot of little facts that I didn’t know before, and it was SO much better than reading a history textbook. Of course, the author skips over much of each person’s life, and it’s not in-depth coverage at all. So if you’re doing a report, you’ll want to use more than just this book as a source However, it’s a great place to start — really entertaining and fun to read! Pick this one up if you’d like to know more about historical figures or if you just love history/biography.

Rating: 4.5/5

*Lone Star Book, 2013

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

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Though much is known about Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution, less is known about his courtship and marriage to Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin. A man ruled by logic and order, Charles took a measured approach to his marriage, and was worried that his wife would not support his scientific ideas (including his doubts about the existence of God). Emma, a highly religious person, worried about these doubts, and the two spent much of their lives discussing their ideas and opinions. Heiligman’s biography of Charles and Emma sheds light on the famous scientist’s personal life, allowing readers to see the Darwins as a couple in love, despite their fundamental ideological differences.

I thought this book was interesting, but I don’t know how interesting it will be to young adult readers today. It won the first YALSA nonfiction award in 2010, but it seems YA nonfiction has grown in leaps and bounds since that time. This book has no pictures and is organized like a novel (with chapters), but it doesn’t have the same fast pace a novel would have. Don’t get me wrong — the information and subjects are certainly interesting, but the presentation and delivery are off. I liked seeing a biography of Charles and Emma that focused on their love story (a great one, by the way), but I wanted a faster pace to the work.

Rating: 3/5

*YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Winner, 2010

*National Book Award Finalist
*Printz Honor Book

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

In 19th and 20th century Russia, eighty-five percent of the population lived in poverty while 1.5 percent of the population held all wealth and lands. The tsar and his family, the Romanovs, were part of this minute percentile. Though the Romanov family had held the Russian throne for nearly 300 years, Nicholas II was a weak leader, ruled by superstition and, some say, his headstrong wife. Fed up with life in squalor, tensions between the lower and upper classes continued to rise, ultimately resulting in a bloody revolution. Fleming presents this story of the last Russian tsar chronologically, allowing readers to be fully swept up in the drama, intrigue, betrayal, and utter failure of the Romanovs.

I LOVED this book! I have to admit some bias because I already was fascinated by the Romanovs, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to give this piece a try. But it was still better than I expected. The story of the fall of the Romanovs has it all: murder, betrayal, wealth, poverty, a creepy guy — everything. It was especially interesting to see the wealthy nobility contrasted against the poverty of the peasants. The contrast illustrated perfectly the disconnect between the two countries that eventually led to the downfall of the emperor (tsar). The book itself looks long and text-heavy, but don’t be fooled. It reads just like a novel once you get going. I do wish the pictures had been set into the text instead put on plate pages in two sections of the book, but other than that, the book is really great. Try it for yourself if you are a fan of history and/or insane family stories. Seriously.

Rating: 4.5/5

*YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Finalist, 2015

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal

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Blumenthal presents this biography of the man who is perhaps the most recognizable face in technology in the 21st century, Steve Jobs. A college dropout who notoriously did not play well with others, Jobs nonetheless founded and grew his company, Apple, from a startup based in his parents’ garage to the multi-billion dollar company it is today. Readers, who are most likely familiar with Apple’s products, will appreciate the inside look at the company’s founder, noting his success against countless obstacles.

Ugh. It’s difficult for me to review this title without reviewing the subject, Steve Jobs. Blumenthal does a decent job of presenting his life. It’s easy to read, doesn’t feel like a textbook, and has a lot of pictures to go with the text. But Jobs himself is just AWFUL. He steals ideas, throws temper tantrums, refuses to acknowledge paternity of his daughter, and is, ultimately, one of the biggest hypocrites I’ve read about. For example, Jobs was famously “unattached” to material items — but his main goal for Apple was that products “looked good”. Also, his kids couldn’t watch T.V. — but I guess they could have an iPod? Come on. In addition to these personality flaws, the author pointed out the tech side of Apple, which was very interesting to read and not too difficult to understand. In fact, after reading the book, I get the idea that the only reason Apple is perceived as a better product is because the company spends so much money on advertisements that make fun of other products. Apple is not technologically superior. Steve Jobs made such a fuss about making technology “for the individual” when really he is pushing a product that’s not better than any others on the inside (i.e. Microsoft) — it just looks better. To that end, he made all his money fooling people. As you can see, I have a pretty strong opinion about this book. You may love Apple and love Jobs, that’s great! Love or hate, this book will probably make you see Apple in a whole new light!

Rating: 3/5

*YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Finalist, 2013

For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kulkin

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Using beautiful photography and interviews from transgender teens, Kulkin offers this unique look into what it’s like to struggle with gender identity. All teens featured in the book have begun the process of expressing their true gender, each has faced a differing level of opposition and intolerance. As stories are presented using first-person narratives readers get a direct look at an issue which is becoming more prevalent in today’s society: pink and blue do not accurately reflect all gender identification. Gender is a spectrum and each individual must find his or her (or their) own place on it.

While I think the message of this book is very important, the presentation is a little off. The photography is truly gorgeous and definitely carries the message well, but the prose is choppy and doesn’t flow quite right. I believe the author wrote the sections based off interviews she conducted with her subjects, but the transfer from interview transcript to first-person narrative didn’t go as well as planned. I feel it would have been better for Kulkin to publish the transcripts or to have the subjects write their own sections. That said, I think it’s extremely valuable to hear from transgender teens, as this is a population that is often discriminated against and/or ignored. You don’t have to be transgender to appreciate this book; its unique insight offers much for all readers.

*Rating: 3/5

*TAYSHA, 2014

*For full analysis (including flags and SPOILERS) click here.