Reading nonfiction can sometimes feel like eating your vegetables. You know it is good for you, but finding just the right preparation can be a challenge. This year, we are lucky to have had a wealth of great, true stories out to choose from. Here are just a few of the year’s best offerings.
Aronson, Marc. Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies. Candlewick. 2012. 230p. ISBN 9780763650254. $25.99.
It is clear from the opening of Aronson’s chronicle of the life, career, and death of first FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that he considers the director’s 48-year reign to be a dark time for American civil liberties. Part 1 of the book begins, “Nothing in this book matters until you care about Communism,” offering some background for the modern (teen) reader who may require a refresher as to the whys behind the man’s rise to power. Aronson does not refrain from digging at Hoover’s secrets, sharing photographic evidence to support speculation about his sexuality and racial heritage. For readers (like myself) who agree with the author’s editorial position, the story serves as a cautionary tale about the evils that can be done to U.S. citizens by individuals whose mission it is to protect us. A fascinating portrait of a flawed and not altogether likable historical figure.
Freedman, Russell. Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship. Clarion Books. 2012. 128p. ISBN 9780547385624. $18.99.
Russell Freedman—arguably the best biographer for young people—offers another look at one of his favorite subjects, Abraham Lincoln. Here Freedman chronicles Lincoln’s friendship with another great man of the Civil War era, Frederick Douglass. Although they only met three times, Lincoln considered Douglass enough of a friend that, after the assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln sent Douglass the gift of Lincoln’s favorite walking stick. Their first meeting, on August 10, 1863, frames the first half of Freedman’s story, describing the parallels between the growing-up years of the two great men: both rose to success after having been born in reduced circumstances, and both had an affinity for the Columbian Orator. The second half examines how the men’s friendship changed the course of history by paving the way for the Emancipation Proclamation. As has come to be expected with this prolific and always excellent historian, the bookmaking is exquisite, featuring rare period photographs and source material. Freedman has done it again.
Hoose, Phillip. Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. Farrar. 2012. 160p. ISBN 9780374304683. $21.99.
Before devouring Phillip Hoose’s The Race To Save the Lord God Bird in 2004, this reader had no idea how compelling a book about a bird could be. In Race To Save, the author described the tragedy of a species’ extinction. In this year’s Moonbird, Hoose again tells a riveting story of avian survival, this time through the lens of a single bird, tagged B95, who has flown enough miles in its 20 year lifetime to have gone to the moon, and halfway back. B95 is a rufa, a shorebird, who migrates from South America to the Canadian Arctic. His survival is all the more amazing because during his lifetime, his species’ numbers have been reduced by 80 percent owing to human activity. A beautiful and engaging story of a bird that is so much more than meets the eye.
Hunter-Gault, Charlayne. To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement. Flash Point, 2012. 208p. ISBN 9781596436053. $22.99.
The first African American woman to write for The New Yorker describes her experiences as one of two black students to desegregate the University of Georgia in 1961. Hunter-Gault has reported for the New York Times, NPR, and CNN, but her college years were a fight from the first, with mobs of white students chanting outside her dorm every night, “Two, four, six, eight. We don’t want to integrate.” Her story serves as a frame to talk about the broader school desegregation movement in the South, contrasting her own journey to that of President Barack Obama, who was born the year she entered college. This very personal account (shorter than her 1992 memoir about the same period, In My Place) offers a unique witness to the events of the Civil Rights Era, as an accomplished woman looks back on her younger self, making history.
Murphy, Jim & Alison Blank. Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure. Clarion Books, 2012. 149p. ISBN 9780618535743. $18.99.
The earliest known evidence of the tuberculosis virus can be found in fossils over 500,000 years old, and while the disease no longer ravages the human population (since the advent of antibiotics), it still presents a deadly threat. Murphy is on familiar ground, his Newbery Honor winning An American Plague (2003) having brought to life the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. Here he describes the impact of “the greatest killer of humans in the history of the world”—the literary figures who fell victim to it (John Keats, the Brontë sisters), the sometimes barbaric methods used to fight it, and its resurgence as a superbug. Chilling statistics (such as “a recent study estimated that nearly 90 percent of [people released from Russian prisons] have dormant tuberculosis”) demonstrate that that this killer is far from tamed. An engrossing volume of topical medical history.
Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux (text) & R. Gregory Christie (illus.). No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. Carolrhoda Lab. 2012. 188p. ISBN 9780761361695. $17.95.
It was no easy path, no “crystal stair,” for Lewis Michaux. As one of 11 children of a prominent African American businessman and a nervous mother, in his younger years, he did not always stay on the right side of the law. His brother, Lightfoot, founded the Church of God, and Lewis was a deacon there for a few years, but his real passion was for selling books. In the early thirties, he started with five books and opened a bookstore that became one of the premiere destinations in Harlem: the National Memorial African Bookstore. Nelson has a reason to be interested in the history of this man and this place; Lewis (“Uncle Lonnie”) was her great uncle (notwithstanding a slight spelling difference in their names). Here she tells his true story with a light coat of fiction, giving voice to his friends and family and to some of the bookstore’s patrons. Art by Coretta Scott King–honored Christie and period photographs complete this loving, honest tribute to a literary figure. A booklover’s delight.
Osborne, Linda Barrett. Miles To Go for Freedom: Segregation & Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years. Abrams Books for Young Readers. 2012. 118p. ISBN 9781419700200. $24.95.
As a native Pacific Northwesterner, I felt some geographic and historical distance from the more egregious offenses of the Jim Crow laws—that is, until I read this well-researched and beautifully presented account of the history and impact of segregation. For herein, I learned that even what is now a progressive Seattle neighborhood issued a covenant in 1927 agreeing that property owners would not allow “Negroes or any person of negro blood” to occupy, buy, lease, or rent a home. Beginning with the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson, laws like this one were common throughout the South, the North, and on a national scale (as in the military). It took another Supreme Court ruling, 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, to open access for all and make stories like Charlayne Hunter Gault’s (above) possible. Published in association with the Library of Congress, Osborne’s book is a beautiful addition in a year rich with Civil Rights era offerings.
Sheinkin, Steve. Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. Flash Point/Roaring Brook. 2012. 266p. ISBN 9781596434875. $19.99.
Real-life spy stories can read like the best fiction, and Sheinkin (The Notorious Benedict Arnold, 2009) knows exactly how to write them. In Bomb, he interweaves three stories of high espionage, starting with Harry Gold, the spy who fed the Soviets the secrets of Los Alamos. Then there is Knut Haukelid, a Norwegian resistance fighter whose derring-do prevented the Germans from attaining the bomb toward the end of World War II. Finally, there are the scientists of the Manhattan project, led by Robert Oppenheimer, who understood better than anyone how this weapon would change the course of the future (“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world…then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima”). With history is this edge-of-your-seat riveting, it is easy to see why Sheinkin’s latest landed among the National Book Awards nominees this year.