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Janet's Literature Reviews
Nonfiction

On this page I review the following books: TORNADOES, SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD: THE EXTRAORDINARY TRUE STORY OF SHACKLETON AND THE ENDURANCE, LINCOLN: A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY, and THERE'S A FROG IN MY THROAT: 440 ANIMAL SAYINGS A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME.

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Tornadoes
 
     By Seymour Simon

Simon, Seymour. 1999. TORNADOES. New York: Morrow Junior Books. ISBN: 0688146473.

TORNADOES, by Seymour Simon, is a book that immediately captures the attention of the reader with the dramatic full-page photographs of actual tornadoes and the destruction that they cause.  According to Patricia Manning in School Library Journal, "Simon's clear, well-organized text discusses the weather conditions necessary to spawn these violent storms; how they form; where they are most likely to occur; and how scientist predict, rate, and track them.  He also describes some of the major tornadoes recorded in the U.S. and includes weather maps and a diagram" (Manning 1999). 

 

Simon's book is organized simply, with a page of text followed by a full-page photograph or illustration.  The book does not contain reference aids such as a table of contents, index, or a glossary, but most of the difficult or technical words are defined within the text.  Two of the pictures, a map and a Doppler radar photograph, have captions and two pictures of tornadoes are explained in the text, but the rest of the pictures are of random tornadoes and damage.  I think adding captions or explanations of the photographs would make the book more powerful and informative.  Several of the darker photographs have text printed over them, but white letters are used so the text is not difficult to read.  Having these double-page photographs adds to the drama of the book. 

 

Seymour Simon, an author of over 150 science books and a former science teacher, is well qualified to write this book about tornadoes.  He begins his book with a simple explanation of what a tornado is and then progresses to a more technical explanation of how a tornado is formed.  Simon also carefully explains, in terms that students can understand, how tornadoes are ranked by their wind speed and damage they can cause.  Simon writes, "F3 tornadoes cause severe damage, since they have winds ranging from 158 to 206 miles per hour.  These tornadoes can flatten all the trees in a forest and collapse metal buildings.  They blow off roofs and tumble exterior walls made of concrete blocks.  Six out of every hundred tornadoes are classed as F3."  Mr. Simon includes one statement in his book that I disagree with.  He states, "If a tornado watch is issued for your area, it means a tornado is possible, because one has already been spotted either on the ground or on radar."  According to Steve McCauley a meteorologist with WFAA (Channel 8 Weather), "A WATCH means conditions are favorable for tornado formation, whereas a WARNING  indicates one has been sighted or is indicated by radar.  These terms have the same meaning across the country" (McCauley 2004).  Possibly during the editing process for this book, these two distinctions were combined into one statement that was not entirely correct. 

 

The author's style of writing uses little-known facts to create interest for the reader.  Simon tells of one tornado that "lifted a twenty-ton trailer truck … and bounced it up and down like a ball."  Another tornado "sucked up a pond full of frogs and rained them down on a nearby town."  He also uses similes to explain concepts to readers more effectively.  Simon writes, "A tornado's funnel looks like a huge elephant's trunk hanging down from a cloud.  The funnel acts like a giant vacuum cleaner - whenever the hose touches the ground, it sucks things up into the air."  TORNADOES is an interesting and informative book, but I do not think I would recommend this particular book because some of the information is incorrect.   I also think more photograph captions would greatly add to its quality and educational value.

 

  

Manning, Patricia. 1999. Tornadoes (book). SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL. Available from http://Amazon.com . Accessed 06 July 04.

 

McCauley, Steve. 09 July 04. RE: Meteorology question. Accessed 10 July 04.

 

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Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance 
 
     By Jennifer Armstrong

Armstrong, Jennifer. 1998. SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD: THE EXTRAORDINARY TRUE STORY OF SHACKLETON AND THE ENDURANCE. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN: 0375810498.

 

SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD: THE EXTRAORDINARY TRUE STORY OF SHACKLETON AND THE ENDURANCE is the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a British explorer, his 27 crewmen, and their harrowing story of survival in Antarctica.  In 1914 Shackleton and his crew set off from England on an expedition to be the first to cross the continent of Antarctica.  Jennifer Armstrong's narrative interspersed with primary source quotations, anecdotes, and photographs tells the story of what happened when the Endurance, Shackelton's boat, becomes hopelessly caught in the ice pack only 100 miles from the continent.

 

Shackelton and his men are forced to abandon their expedition plans and struggle to endure an Antarctica winter. Just as spring is approaching, and their release from the ice is imminent, the ice pack presses against the ship with such intensity that the ship is crushed and the men are forced to abandon ship.  Shackleton writes in his diary the next day, "Though we have been compelled to abandon the ship, … we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us.  The task is to reach land with all the members of the expedition" (p. 50-1).  Through the rest of the book, this was indeed Shackleton's main goal.  As the ice begins to melt, the men eventually make their way to Elephant Island in the three lifeboats.  Shackleton and five other men soon take the largest lifeboat and begin an 800 mile journey in open ocean for help. The remaining men are forced to endure another winter in Antarctica as they wait for Shackleton's return.  His return indeed comes four months later on August 30, 1916, and the adventure that had started 20 months before was finally over with all the men surviving.

 

The author includes typical reference aids such as a table of contents and an index, but she also includes an actual photograph of the crew and blueprints of the Endurance.  Two items that are indispensable to the understanding of the story are also included;  a list of the crewmembers and their duties on the boat as well as maps that detail the two year journey.  The author used books written by Shackleton and Worsley, the captain of Endurance, as well as archival material from the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, to conduct her research on this book.  Through the author's detailed narrative and the anecdotes that were acquired from these sources, the reader can fully imagine the misery and suffering the men had to endure.  Armstrong writes, "They were cold, frostbitten, and covered with salt-water blisters … Conditions below were almost unbearable: The stinking, rotting sleeping bags made the air putrid, and the molting hairs choked the men as they tried to gasp for breath" (p. 100).

 

The author also includes incredibly descriptive characterizations of the men especially Shackleton.  She shows his determination to hold the men together with his cheerful and calm demeanor despite the fact that he was tortured with worry about their situation.  Armstrong writes, "Almost every night, he shouted himself awake from nightmares in which he pictured one disaster or emergency after another… Then, in the remaining hours of the night, he would form plans for meeting the crises he had dreamed of … In spite of his anxiety, he tried to keep up the appearance of calm in order to maintain morale" (p. 69-70).

 

Armstrong's use of the actual black-and-white photographs by the expeditions' photographer, Frank Hurley, add to the drama and the reality of the men's situation.  The photographs show many aspects of their situation including the desolation of Antarctica, the men's attempts at normalcy, and the dramatic emotion of their imminent rescue.  All the photographs are expertly explained with captions that add details and realism of the story.  Karen Snelson, writing for Amazon.com says about the book, "The true-to-life story is as thrilling as they come, and Armstrong's lively, crystal-clear writing style is just as compelling.  More than 40 photographs of the expedition populate this inspiring nonfiction adventure story that young readers will devour from cover to cover."  I agree with the review completely, but there were two areas of the book that distracted me from the story.  The author takes the time to explain with great detail the different kinds of ice (p. 48) and how to navigate (p. 72).  I felt that these two pages were used as filler and didn't fit the purpose of the book, which was to tell the story of Shackleton and his crew.  I actually found myself skimming these sections so I could continue the story.  Other than these two areas, I found the book to be extremely exciting, interesting, and informative.

 

Snelson, Karin. n.d. Shipwreck at the bottom of the world: The extraordinary true story of Shackleton and the Endurance (book). Available from http://Amazon.com . Accessed 06 July 04.

 

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Lincoln: A Photobiography 
 
     By Russell Freedman

Freedman, Russell. 1987. LINCOLN: A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN: 0899193803.

Russell Freedman's biography, LINCOLN: A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY, is an informative and easy to read book about the life of Abraham Lincoln.  This 1988 Newbery Medal winner contains many photographs, drawings, and posters from Lincoln's era as well as a copy of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's own handwriting. 

 

Mr. Freedman's book is well organized with the first chapter giving a general overview of President Lincoln's character and political views.  The following chapters address in more detail his childhood, education, law career, family life, political career, and assassination.  Each chapter begins with a photograph or some other primary source document followed by an actual quote by Lincoln that explains his feeling about that chapter's subject.  Mr. Freedman has included a table of contents and an extensive index to help organize the book.  He has also included a section that includes samples of Lincoln's speeches and letters as well as a detailed list of Lincoln historical sites.

 

Jacobs and Tunnell emphasize that a good biography shows a balanced view of the character.  "Freedman's biography of Lincoln provides a nice blend of blemishes and strong points.  We see a Lincoln who was self-effacing, who stood bravely to sign the Emancipation Proclamation…, and who wrote the Gettysburg Address.  But we also see the Lincoln whose law office was a colossal mess, who argued with his wife … , and who suffered from severe depression much of his life" (Jacobs 2004, 136). These details and insights give the reader a real sense to who Lincoln really was.

 

Freedman's writing is lively, interesting, and full of details.  He shows the reader that Lincoln was conscientious and showed great attention to details by describing Mr. Lincoln as an attorney that "mastered every detail of the case before going to court".  In a trial involving patent rights for farm machinery, Lincoln spoke with such conviction and technical knowledge of the machinery in front of him that "the jurors left their seats, came over, and got down on their knees beside him" (p. 37).  Freedman has a gift for presenting information in a clear and understandable way.  I learned from reading Freedman's biography that all of Lincoln's presidency was spent dealing with the Civil War and that the war had been over only five days when he was assassinated.  Freedman explains Lincoln's political views about the war, slavery, and the preservation of the Union so students can easily understand. 

 

Freedman also uses details and fascinating comparisons in his text to add interest and make the topic more understandable.  One example is that at the beginning of the Civil War many Washington politicians did not think the war would last long or be difficult to win.  Freedman emphasizes this when he tells of the Battle of Bull Run where the Washington politicians and other spectators took picnic lunches and champagne and settled in "to watch their army defeat the rebels" (p. 73-4).  The spectators fled in panic before the retreating Union troops.  Freedman also compares the number of soldiers killed during the Civil War, more than 600,000 men, to being "about equal to the death toll in all other U.S. wars combined, before and since" (p. 115).  This number may be outdated now because the book was published in 1987, but the comparison is surprising.

 

Elaine Weischedel, a reviewer in School Library Journal says about the photos included in Freedman's book, "More than 80 photographs and prints illustrate the crisp and informative text.  The pictures have been well-placed to coordinate with the text; captions have been written with care as well.  While many of the photographs are well-known, many less familiar pictures are also included."  I think students will especially enjoy the set of photographs that show Lincoln progressing from clean shaven to full beard just before he was inaugurated as president (p.64-5).  Another interesting set of photographs show how Lincoln aged during his presidency with the last photograph taken just four days before his assassination (p. 116-7).

 

Weischedel also says about Freedman's book, "Well-organized and well-written, this is an outstanding example of what (juvenile) biography can be.  Like Lincoln himself, it stands head and shoulders above its competition."

 

Jacobs, James S., and Michael O. Tunnell. 2004. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, BRIEFLY. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson.

 

Weischedel, Elaine Fort. 1987. Lincoln: A photobiography (book). SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL. Available from http://Amazon.com . Accessed 06 July 04.

 
 

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There's a Frog in  My Throat!: 440 Animal Sayings a Little Bird Told Me 
 
     By Loreen Leedy and Pat Street

Leedy, Loreen., and Pat Street. 2003. THERE'S A FROG IN MY THROAT!: 440 ANIMAL SAYINGS A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME. New York: Holiday House. ISBN: 0823417743.

THERE'S A FROG IN MY THROAT!: 404 ANIMAL SAYINGS A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME is a delightful book of animal sayings or expressions that are common in the English language.  These sayings are comprised of similes, metaphors, idioms, and proverbs.  The author includes a "Dear Reader" page where she explains the difference between these literary term and also offers examples of each.  A table of contents page organizes the animals into general categories such as house pets, farm animals, flying animals, and more.  The author also includes an index that lists the animals instead of the saying.

 

The design of the book is such that the reader can pick the book up and browse through the random sayings or read the book from cover to cover.  The animal saying along with the small brightly colored illustrations by Loreen Leedy are scattered randomly on each two-page spread.  Each boldface animal saying is followed by a simple explanation that students can understand.  Some examples of animal sayings included in the book are: Watch it like a hawk/ Guard it carefully, A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush/ Don’t lose what you have by trying to get even more, and You eat like a bird/ You eat very little (p 35).

 

Ellen Mandel, in a BOOKLIST starred review says, "This book is just ducky!  It's the cat's pajamas!  In fact, it's more fun than a barrel of monkeys!  These enthusiastic endorsements are among the many animal expressions defined in this unusual collection that maximizes the humor of sayings that are common to English usage but nonsensical if taken literally.  And take them literally Leedy does in her hilarious art" (Mandel).  For the expression, Sitting duck, Leedy illustrates the concept by showing a duck sitting on the ground with a target painted on its stomach.  An Odd duck is illustrated as a purple and green polka dot duck and Multiplying like rabbits shows many rabbits working multiplication problems. 

 

This book focuses on such an unusual subject, that it is sure to interest children and adults alike.  I picked this book up at my local public library and expected it to have been published 15 to 20 years before because many of these sayings are not expressions that we commonly use today.  I was pleased to see that this book was originally published in 2003 and that the authors have even added some new animal sayings that are indicative of our time, such as Mouse potato/ Frequent computer user.  I think this book would be a wonderful addition to any library because it shows how rich and colorful the English language can be and I think students and adults would just enjoy browsing through the sayings.  I know we enjoyed this book at my house.

 

Mandel, Ellen. n.d. There’s a frog in my throat: 440 animal sayings a little bird told me (book). BOOKLIST. Available from http://Amazon.com . Accessed 06 July 04. 

 
 


These reviews were prepared in fulfillment of requirements for "Literature for Children and Young Adults", LS5603, Texas Woman's University, Summer 2004.