Book Review: Most Dangerous

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 8.27.56 PMMost Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War is another excellent history book for middle and high school readers by Steve Sheinkin, the author of Bomb. Blaine, Mark, and I all enjoyed it.

The book tells Ellsberg’s story from his first day of work at the Pentagon, coincidentally the day of the Tonkin Gulf incident, to his decision to leak the Pentagon Papers and his trial for violating the Espionage Act. At the same time, it recounts many events of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam, the anti-war protests at home, the Watergate break-in.

To an adult, this is recent history, but to a young person, it’s just history. Yet, it’s incredibly relevant to today’s news. For example, American military action overseas is often criticized as “another Vietnam.” Watergate spawned a long list of “-gate” scandals, including the recent “deflategate.” And in the epilogue, Sheinkin draws a parallel between Ellsberg and Edward Snowden.

Most Dangerous is a fast-paced, compelling read.

Book Review: One Crazy Summer

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-4-38-33-pmOne Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia is the story of three sisters who travel from their home in Brooklyn, New York to spend a month in Oakland, California with the mother who abandoned them seven years earlier. It’s set in the summer of 1968.

Blaine and I both enjoyed this book. It refers to some of the same historical events as The Rock and the River (such as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the imprisonment of Huey Newton), which led to some interesting discussions.

Most of all, we found the characters and their personal relationships compelling. (For more on that, see the craft review that I wrote for the Middle Grade Lunch Break blog.)

If you want to read more about the Gaither sisters, Rita Williams-Garcia has also written two sequels: P.S. Be Eleven (set in Brooklyn) and Gone Crazy in Alabama (set in rural Alabama).

Pixar Storytelling

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 1.11.25 PMLarrabee and I love Pixar movies. And we love writing stories. So we were very excited when Khan Academy released the first lesson in a course called “The Art of Storytelling” taught by Pixar directors and story artists.

It’s part of a series of courses called Pixar in a Box, and it consists of short videos and activities. Larrabee and I went through it in a single sitting, although we only did the exercises verbally.

One of our favorite activities was reframing movies in terms of a “what if” statement. For example, what if an overprotective father had to cross the ocean to save his son?

Another of our favorite activities was mixings characters and worlds from two different movies. Larrabee came up with an intriguing idea with a Death Star and a Terminator.

We’re looking forward to the next lesson on character. In the meantime, we’ll do some brainstorming. What if…?


Book Review: The Abracadabra Kid

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 10.00.53 PMThe Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life is the autobiography of Newbery Award-winning author Sid Fleischmann. In addition to writing dozens of books, Fleischman worked as a magician, a journalist, and a screenwriter in a long and eventful life.

The book has a colloquial tone. It’s like being told stories by an older relative who tells really good stories. Fleischman tells about taking his magic show on the road around Lake Tahoe during the Depression in a car bought for $35, avoiding floating mines in the Pacific while serving on a naval destroyer escort during World War II, and setting off the foghorns in the San Francisco Bay with fog machines while filming Blood Alley starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall.

He also shares a lot of stories about where he got the ideas for his novels. I was particularly interested his tales about his California Gold Rush novel, By the Great Horn Spoon!, which Blaine read and enjoyed in the 4th grade.

French dropI read The Abracadabra Kid aloud to Larrabee, hoping to encourage him to write. While he definitely took note of Fleischman’s writing tips, so far the book has mainly inspired him to pull out his book of coin tricks and practice his French drop. He’s not quite ready to take that show on the road, though.

We both liked the book. Thank you to Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators friend Kristi Wright for the recommendation!

Book Review: It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel

screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-1-40-13-pmIt Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas is a semi-autobiographical novel about an middle school-age Iranian girl living in Southern California during the late 1970s.

It’s not easy being from a place few Americans can find on a map. Her name (Zomorod Yousefzadeh) is hard to pronounce, her mother needs her to translate everything into Persian, her kitchen is stocked with different food than her friends’ houses, and her family doesn’t celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. Then, in 1979, the Iranian Revolution and the Iran hostage crisis make everything worse. Her father loses his job, her parents worry constantly for their relatives in Iran, and her family faces growing anti-Iran sentiment in the U.S.

It Aint’ So Awful, Falafel is a serious story told with a light touch. It’s full of astute observations about American and Iranian culture, and it made me laugh.

As a child of the 1970s myself, I also enjoyed the period details. For example, Zomorod’s neighbor has cats named Captain and Tennille, and her friends give her a banana-flavored Bonne Bell Lip Smacker on a rope for her twelfth birthday. She mentions the yellow ribbons tied around trees all over town during the hostage crisis and the long lines at gas stations during the oil crisis.

Dumas dedicates this book to “all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason.” On her website, she shares information about the Falafel Kindness Project that encourages kids to befriend kids who may feel like outsiders.