Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

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This nonfiction account of the Titanic disaster focuses on a handful of passengers and their testimony of events. Passengers range in age from young children to older adults, as well as from all class levels. Coupled with these first-hand accounts, the author includes a narration of the history of the ship, guiding readers from her inception to tragic end. Also provided are timelines (including a minute-by-minute record of the sinking), historical documents, and further resources for students who would like to pursue the subject further.

I LOVE books about the Titanic. I’m totally biased. That said, this book was still really good. Though it’s still a historical nonfiction, the author uses a brisk pace and the subject matter is anything but boring. Because the book is told using first-person narrative, you get to “experience” the sinking through the eyes of passengers. It will not be hard to image what the night of April 14, 1912 was like.

Rating: 4.5/5

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

Conversion by Katherine Howe

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When a group of girls falls mysteriously ill at a private school, many believe some kind of poison or side effect is to blame. Colleen, however, doubts the opinions of the media. Guided by anonymous texts, Colleen is drawn to the history of her town, the town once-named Salem, Massachusetts, where nineteen women were hanged for witchcraft in 1692. Is the mystery illness a coincidence? Or is the bloody history of the town repeating itself in the afflicted girls? Told using flashbacks to the confessions of an afflicted girl in the 1700’s, Conversion is the story of paranoia, media frenzy, and a history of violence.

The Salem Witch Trials fascinate me, so I was looking forward to this book. It was extremely disappointing. Though I very much enjoyed the historical flashbacks, the modern part of the book was messy, unconnected, and difficult to read. The author has an interesting theory about what “ailed” the afflicted girls, but the execution of that theory was incredibly confused and lackluster.

Rating: 2.5/5

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

Revolution by Deborah Wiles

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Told from contrasting viewpoints, Revolution follows Sunny, a twelve-year-old white girl living in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Raymond, a black teenage boy also living in Greenwood in the 1960’s. Though they are roughly the same age and live in the same city, Sunny and Raymond’s experiences are vastly different. Sunny gets to go to the air-conditioned movie theater, swim in the city pool, and live in a nice house. Raymond is not allowed anywhere that white people go, and is not even able to play baseball on a field with lights. Amid this disparate setting, Freedom Riders arrive in Greenwood. With the mission of supporting integration and the newest Civil Rights act, these young people bring a storm of trouble to Mississippi. Sunny and Raymond are witness to this storm, and, over the course of the summer, their lives change forever.

So, this book is LONG. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, but it was long even for me. It’s split up so that it has two narrators (and sometimes a third, omniscient, storyteller) and non-fiction pieces are interspersed throughout the book. While I thought the non-fiction parts were pretty cool for the most part, I did feel like some of them were too long. For example, I don’t need an eight page biography on Lyndon Johnson when he’s not even in the book that much. I did like some of the testimonials from real Greenwood citizens, but some of those sections could have been cut out or shortened. Aside from its length and occasional boringness, this was a solid piece if you’re into the 1960’s and/or Civil Rights. Have patience with it (or just skip the non-fiction if you’re bored with it).

Rating: 3.5/5 

*National Book Award Finalist for Young Adult Literature, 2014

*YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2015

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

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.

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.

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

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Using plenty of visuals, including historical photographs, log entries, official reports, and telegraph transcripts, Hopkinson presents this chronological telling of Titanic’s sinking. Rather than presenting a summary of events, the author focuses in on a few of the ship’s passengers, individuals ranging from 1st class to crew members, and imagines what their voyage was like through transcripts and personal accounts. The human-centered approach of this piece, along with the action surrounding the sinking, make this book a good recommendation for readers interested in the event or who are branching out to nonfiction.

I can’t lie — I love Titanic stuff. Way before it was even a big thing because of the movie, I was pretty obsessed. I’m still fascinated, so I was really looking forward to this piece. Unfortunately, it’s good, not great. I loved the subject matter, and loved how the author included viewpoints from all types of passengers (from crew to first class), but the writing itself was sometimes boring. The pictures were really cool, but just didn’t make up for the so-so writing. This is great book if you’re already interested in Titanic, or in history, but I don’t know if I would recommend it to someone just starting out in the genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

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

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

Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China during the Cultural Revolution by Moying Li

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During the late 1960’s, the government of China attempted to propel its society into the modern century. Following this push to overtake “Westerners” was an uprising that called for Chinese to learn from its peasants, thus adopting a simpler way of life free from western ideas. During this time of political and cultural turmoil, Moying Li struggled to find an identity and secure herself an education. This memoir is an account of that turbulent time, as well as her never-ending fight to achieve her academic and intellectual potential.

Much like some of the other government-upheaval memoirs I’ve read, this one was pretty heavy. It’s heartbreaking to read about how Moying loses everything she loves during the Cultural Revolution, as well as her struggle to obtain basic rights such as freedom of speech and the right to read. If nothing else, Moying’s memoir shows us how lucky we are to live in such a different society (whether or not we always feel that way). If you’re a fan of memoir or are studying Chinese history, give this book a try.

Rating: 3.5/5

*IRA Young Adult Nonfiction Award, 2009

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