10 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I think I am a “hillbilly” from the flat, desert lands of West Texas, if that makes any sense at all. There were so many cultural and familial traits and traditions that I recognized and identified with in Mr. Vance’s family narrative: the fierce independence, the tendency to eccentricity, the strength, the commitment to faith and family, and even some of the dysfunction.

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. The call for community and community-building in Mr. Dreher’s book is a topic dear to my own heart, and I am glad to see it treated with the serious consideration and wide-ranging discusion that it deserves.

Ten Fingers for God: The Life and Work of Dr. Paul Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson. Dr. Brand is an inspiration, and reading about his life was both encouraging and challenging.

Different: The Story of an Outside-The-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him by Sally Clarkson. Don’t we all have “different” kids? And isn’t it a gift to be able to appreciate them for who they are, no matter how difficult and challenging the journey? This book and Cindy Rollins’ Mere Motherhood are the best homeschooling/parenting/Christian living books I’ve read in years.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer. Classic mountain-climbing adventure—and tragedy.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. By living with and among the poor, first in a run-down tailer park and then in a tenement building, Mr. Desmond is able to describe first-hand the plight of a few of these millions whose housing situation is unstable at best and tragic at its worst.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. I’ll read almost anything about Churchill, and Candice Millard is an excellent writer of narrative history.

The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan. I bought this book for my son for Christmas—so that I could read it. And Mr. Klavan’s conversion story did not disappoint. This story of a Jewish boy with father issues who became a writer and a conservative news commentator and also something of a comedian is fascinating and never dull or overtly pious. Full review to come soon.

Mere Motherhood: Morning times, nursery rhymes, and my journey toward sanctification by Cindy Rollins. Except for the fact that I have six daughters and two sons while she has eight sons and one daughter, I almost felt as if Cindy and were twins or doppelgängers or something. Cindy Rollins writes about homeschooling and Christian living and motherhood in this book in a way that spoke to my heart and my mind, and she is able to articulate many of the inchoate and unspoken thoughts that I would love to be able to communicate about these important parts of my life. Thanks, Cindy.

The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard by Kristin Schell. This book shows a way to the kind of hospitality and community I would like to foster in my own neighborhood, but I’m way too introverted and reserved to do it—so far. Here’s to “finding community and connection” in 2018.

The Jersey Brothers by Sally Mott Freeman

It’s raining; it’s pouring here in Houston, Texas. And Hurricane Harvey is headed for Corpus Christi and set to bring Houston a whole heck of a lot of more rain and possible/probable flooding. And my personal and family life is a bit of a mess, too.

However, if ever a book would cause me to pause and count my blessings, The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home is that book. I thought the scenes and descriptions in Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand were harrowing and violent and disturbing, but this book tops that one for sheer cruelty and horror, man’s inhumanity to man. It’s not gratuitous, either. As far as I can tell the scenes and events the author describes really happened and were the central truths of the experience of Barton Cross, an American Navy prisoner of war to the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II. YOu’ve heard of the “Bataan Death March”? Well, that’s described in this book in excruciating detail, even though Ensign Cross didn’t have to participate in that particular piece of history. (Many of his fellow prisoners did.) And the Battle of the Coral Sea and Iwo Jima and Tarawa—all described, again in horrific detail because one or the other of Barton’s two brothers were there. All three brothers were Navy officers, and the older two, Bill (the author’s father) and Benny, spent the war fighting on Navy ships or working in Washington, D.C. and trying all the time to find Barton, their baby brother.

Between the three of them the Jersey Brothers, called that because they were from New Jersey, had a sweeping view of the war in the Pacific, from FDR’s War Room in the White House to Pearl Harbor to the battles across the Pacific to the prisons and camps of Mindanao and Leyte and other Philippine islands. As I read about the experience each of the brothers and of their mother, Helen Cross, at home in New Jersey, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness both for their sacrifice and that of many, many others and for my relatively easy and uneventful life. We may have our problems, but not many of us since World War II have had to suffer or endure anything near what those “greatest generation” men and families did.

I was also convinced again that maybe the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the best solution for an intractable problem—that of ending the war with the least possible loss of life for all concerned. The Japanese were employing suicide bombers (kamikaze) to a much greater extent than I ever remember reading about, and they were not willing to surrender. General MacArthur was intent on invading the Japanese islands, but the predictions of 600,000 American casualties—or more—convinced Truman that the threat of the atomic bomb would save many American and Japanese lives. The army was predicting Japanese casualties during an invasion to run over a million. The Japanese civilians and military were instructed to fight to the death, and many, many were willing to do so. Deaths from both atomic bomb blasts were much, much fewer than any of those estimates and many times fewer than the deaths already sustained by both the Allies and the Japanese in the battles across the Pacific. As horrific as the atomic bombs’ destruction and devastation were, they were not nearly as cruel as the terror and savage brutality that the Japanese visited upon the prisoners of war and the subject peoples that they conquered and ruled over in the Philippines and elsewhere. Take what you’ve read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps in Europe and transfer it to jungles of the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and you will have some idea of the absolute evil that was put to an end by the evil of two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, the atomic bombs were vicious and horrible, but maybe it was God’s mercy that allowed it to happen.

I recommend The Jersey Brothers, if you are able to read about the savagery and the suffering that went on during the war in the Pacific. It did make me thankful for the problems I have and the ones that I don’t.

The Mississippi Bubble by Thomas B. Costain

I’m on a mission to read all of the Landmark series of children’s history books, and Thomas B. Costain is one of my favorite authors, especially his series of books on the medieval history of England: The Conquering Family, The Last Plantaganets, The Magnificent Century, The Three Edwards. I love those books and have read through them more than once. So I was excited to read Costain’s Landmark history (#52) of the founding of Biloxi and New Orleans, The Mississippi Bubble.

It was an exciting story of intrepid explorers and land speculation and fortunes made and lost, with both heroes and villains, winners and losers, and a narrative thread of consistent and faithful service on the part of one man in particular with the goal of building a “New World” in America at the mouth of the Mississippi River. However, the book shows the strengths and weaknesses of its date of publication, 1955, as Mr. Costain loses his attention to historical detail and his concern to portray all of the parties to the situation fairly and accurately when it comes to Native Americans and enslaved Africans.

The story begins with a “group of Indians . . . busy fishing in the mud-colored waters of Mississippi.” These “savages” encounter Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and although at first they are wary, they “liked La Salle.” These Native Americans are then compared to the Iroquois of Canada and the north, with whom the French had already met and fought and allied and co-existed. According to Costain:

“And while the Indians of the delta country—the Bayougoulas, the Quinipissa, the Moctobys, the Tensas, the Pascagoulas—were not more fierce or brave than the tribes of the north, they were sly and treacherous and with a brand of savagery all their own.”

Readers are left to imagine what that “brand of savagery” looks like, but Costain does say many pages later in the story that “the savages worked swiftly and cunningly” to attack the French forts in various places, incited by the English or the Spanish. Then, a few pages later, we read that “many times the Indians had saved the lives of the colonists with supplies of food from their own stocks.” By treating the Indians as a monolithic group and by stereotyping them as savages, mostly, Costain gives a very confusing and contradictory picture of the Native Americans of the Louisiana and Mississippi regions and of their relationship with the French invaders. In other words, the Native peoples and individuals in this version of history are stereotyped and written off as foils to the conquering French European heroes who are the real story.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t write off this book because Mr. Costain has another story to tell: in addition to giving us his account of the exploration and settlement of the Mississippi River delta, Mr. Costain in his little book also tells of an economic bombshell back in France. So, in the meantime back in Paris, c.1719-1726, while Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville was literally holding down the fort in Louisiana, a Scotsman named John Law was busy taking over the financial system of France. I read about John Law’s financial plans, ideas, and schemes both in The Mississippi Bubble and on Wikipedia, but I can’t say either source successfully explained his theories and his financial dealings in a way that I could fully understand. But the history is exciting with kidnappings and violence and huge fortunes made and lost and gambles and success and disgrace all combined. It’s worth reading about, and Costain tells this story of financial chicanery, speculation, and panic with a great deal of drama and human interest.

Here’s an animated short movie that deals with the economics of The Mississippi Bubble in France in as straightforward a way as I could find:

The Mississippi Bubble is not the best of the Landmark books I’ve read, but it’s a worthwhile introduction to the history of Louisiana and New Orleans and Biloxi with a lot of economic history throw in. John Law is the villain of the piece, and Bienville is the hero. And the Native Americans and the black slaves? Marginal and mostly disregarded or stereotyped.

Other books about the early history (antebellum) of Louisiana and the Mississippi delta region:
The French Explorers in America by Walter Buehr
The Explorations of Pere Marquette by Jim Kjelgaard.
LaSalle And The Grand Enterprise by Jeannette Covert Nolan.
The Louisiana Purchase by Robert Tallant.
The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans by Robert Tallant.

Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling.
Swift Rivers by Cornelia Meigs.

If you like Lauren Tarshis’s I Survived books . .

For the month of July, I’m planning a series of posts about readalikes: what to read (or what to suggest to your favorite child reader) when you’ve read all of your favorite author’s books or all of the books of a certain genre that you know of, and you don’t know what to read next.

Scholastic has published a series of books by Lauren Tarshis about boys who survived great disasters. Some of the books feature true stories of young survivors, and others are historical fiction. I haven’t read any of the books in this series, but they seem to be quite popular. So, if you’re a fan of the I Survived series, here are a few other books that you might like:

Real Kids, Real Adventures is a series of several volumes by Deborah Morris, published by Broadman and Holman. Each book gives short, true adventure stories about kids facing shark attacks, plane crashes, tornadoes, fires, blizzards, and more. I haven’t read any of these books, but they should be a good fit for fans of the I Survived series.

We Were There . . . series. The series consists of 36 titles, first released between 1955 and 1963 by Grosset & Dunlap. Each book tells the story of an historical event in American or world history told through the eyes of a child. Maybe not quite as exciting as the I Survived stories, these books are nevertheless well-written, for the most part, by well-known and skilled children’s writers of the time, and the stories are compelling and informative. Here’s a list of the 36 books in the series in approximate chronological order:

We Were There with Caesar’s Legions by Robert N. Webb
We Were There with Richard the Lionhearted in the Crusades, by Robert N. Webb
We Were There with Cortes and Montezuma, by Benjamin Appel
We Were There with the Mayflower Pilgrims, by Robert N. Webb
We Were There at the Boston Tea Party, by Robert N. Webb
We Were There at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, by Felix Sutton
We Were There with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, by Robert N. Webb
We Were There when Washington Won at Yorktown, by Earl Schenck Miers
We Were There on the Nautilus, by Robert N. Webb
We Were There with Lewis and Clark, by James Munves
We Were There with Jean Lafitte at New Orleans, by Iris Vinton
We Were There at the Opening of the Erie Canal, by Enid Lamonte Meadowcroft
We Were There with the California Rancheros, by Stephen Holt
We Were There with Charles Darwin on H.M.S. Beagle, by Philip Eisenberg
We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo, by Margaret Cousins
We Were There on the Oregon Trail, by William O. Steele
We Were There with the California Forty-Niners, by Stephen Holt
We Were There with Lincoln in the White House, by Earl Schenck Miers
We Were There at the Battle of Gettysburg, by Alida Sims Malkus
We Were There when Grant Met Lee at Appomattox, by Earl Schenck Miers
We Were There with the Pony Express, by William O. Steele
We Were There on the Chisholm Trail, by Ross McLaury Taylor
We Were There on the Santa Fe Trail, by Ross McLaury Taylor
We Were There at the Driving of the Golden Spike, by David Shepherd
We Were There with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, by Robert N. Webb
We Were There in the Klondike Gold Rush, by Benjamin Appel
We Were There at the Oklahoma Land Run, by Jim Kjelgaard
We Were There at the First Airplane Flight, by Felix Sutton
We Were There with the Lafayette Escadrille, by Clayton Knight and Katherine Sturges Knight
We Were There with Byrd at the South Pole, by Charles S. Strong
We Were There at the Battle of Britain, by Clayton Knight and Katherine Sturges Knight
We Were There at Pearl Harbor, by Felix Sutton
We Were There at the Battle for Bataan, by Benjamin Appel
We Were There at the Normandy Invasion, by Clayton Knight
We Were There at the Battle of the Bulge, by David Shepherd
We Were There at the Opening of the Atomic Era, by James Munves

A few other individual fiction titles about children who survive natural and man-made disasters:
The Terrible Wave by Marden Dahlstadt. The Johnstown flood of 1889.
Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman.
Galveston’s Summer of the Storm by Julie Lake.
Earthquake at Dawn by Kristana Gregory.
The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 by Laurence Yep.
SOS Titanic by Eve Bunting.
Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Survival after a plane crash.
Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry.
Night of the Howling Dogs by Graham Salisbury. Tsunami.
Ash Road by Ivan Southall. Wildfire in the Australian outback.
Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Then, there’s also nonfiction about great disasters and escapes:
The Great Fire by Jim Murphy.
Blizzard! by Jim Murphy.
Disaster at Johnstown: The Great Flood by Hildegard Dolson. (Landmark history)
The Battle for Iwo Jima by Robert Leckie. (Landmark history)

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

So, I’m usually a day late and a dollar short when it comes to talking and writing about the “buzz books”—the ones everyone seems to be discussing at any given time. And since I was on a blog break for Lent, that makes me even later in my entry to the discussion. Nevertheless, I did read both The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance while I was “lenting”, and both are books which shed some light on current events and trends and decisions yet to be made.

I agree with many other writers about Mr. Dreher’s book. Holly Ordway writes, “I would say that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has some strengths and a number of weaknesses, but one thing I am sure of: it’s great that it’s prompting discussion about Christian cultural engagement!” Her contribution to the discussion is worth the read, even though she seems to say (rather oddly) that the real Benedict Option should not reference Benedict so much nor is it possible for anyone other than Catholics and maybe Orthodox believers. I say oddly because Ms. Ordway teaches in the apologetics program at Houston Baptist University. Maybe she has learned more about evangelicals and their ability to create sustainable communities in her interactions with HBU and all those Baptists than I know from my fifty plus years of being an evangelical Christian. But I really think it is possible to have the Holy Spirit work in us and through us to create Christian community without Catholic liturgy and without believing in the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I’ve seen it done, albeit imperfectly, in many churches and para-church groups.

That detour aside, the call for community and community-building in Mr. Dreher’s book is a topic dear to my own heart, and I am glad to see it treated with the serious consideration and wide-ranging discusion that it deserves. I wish Mr. Dreher’s book could have been longer and more specific about exactly how to build, maintain, and repair communities, but he spends most of his 272 pages writing about the need for Christian community and writing about some examples of burgeoning attempts at community both in the United States and in Europe, Italy in particular. Some of the communities Mr. Dreher references are monastic, but most are loosely organized communities, either ecumenical in nature or built around a specific church or denominational entity. Most include families and singles and people of all ages.

I think most helpful in Mr. Dreher’s book is a call to build, not monastic or cultic communities, but rather institutions that encourage and sustain Christian faith and community in the face of a secular onslaught of God-denial. He writes about home schooling and private schools as community building institutions. He also writes about discussion groups and communities built around daily worship and activities at a nearby, local church. And about hospitality and the wise use of technology and social media.

Dreher’s book has been widely lauded, but also widely criticized for what it leaves out. He doesn’t write about how the black church has preserved the faith and its own existence through community building. He doesn’t write about Anabaptist traditions and communities. Nor does he interview or write about Christians who have lived through real persecution under Communism or other non-Christian governments and cultures. How did these and other Christian communities survive cultural marginalization and political powerlessness? Dreher also doesn’t really speak to or about poor people or non-Westerners or Hispanics or you name it. He’s writing from a white, middle class, Western perspective, and that’s OK by me, partly because he makes an effort to include Catholics and Protestants as well as Christians from his own (Eastern Orthodox) tradition and partly because many of those other categories include me. If you want the “Benedict Option” (or whatever you want to call serious Christian commitment to community and faith preservation and evangelization) to be applied to people in poverty or African Americans or Native Americans or Cambodians or Pacific Islanders, write your own book and show how and why it should be done.

Which brings me to the second book that I was going to write about in this post, Hillbilly Elegy. However, I think I’ll finish up with some links to other thoughts about The Benedict Option and write about Hillbilly Elegy another day.

Top Christian Thinkers Reflect on The Benedict Option.

If Politics Can’t Save Us, What Will by Collin Hansen.

Sparking Renewal by Gerald Russell.

What Would Jeremiah Do? by Samuel Goldman.

Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard.

“I don’t like this fellow, but he’ll be Prime Minister of England one day.” ~Sir George White in reference to young Winston Churchill.

“Winston has spent the best years of his life composing his impromptu speeches.” ~ F.E. Smith.

“Winston is like a strong wire that, stretched, always springs back. He prospers under attack, enmity and disparagement . . . He lives on excitement.The more he scents frustration the more he has to fight for; the greater the obstacles, the greater the triumph.” ~John Black Atkins.

“I said to myself, ‘Toujours de l’audace!'” (Always more audacity). ~ Winston Churchill.

Audacious indeed, Churchill, like Teddy Roosevelt, the subject of another of Candice Millard’s narrative nonfiction histories, would have been a difficult man to befriend or to live with or to be married to. Although I have great deal of respect for both Churchill and Roosevelt, I like the distance that history and books give me. I suspect a close encounter with either man would have left me speechless or even angry or completely dumbfounded. Churchill may have gained some perspective and selflessness as he aged, but as a youth he seems to have been supremely self-centered and cocky.

But he was definitely a leader, even in his twenties during the Boer War in South Africa. Supposedly sent to the war zone as a journalist, Churchill almost immediately became entangled in combat, trying to find opportunities for heroism and acclaim. He did audacious and reckless things, and he got away without getting himself killed in the process. And he got the acclaim he wanted after he escaped from a Boer prisoner of war camp, almost by accident, but sustained by sheer persistence and “good luck”.

“The practice [of prayer] was comforting and the reasoning led nowhere. I therefore acted in accordance with my feelings without troubling to square such conduct with the conclusions of thought.” ~Winston Churchill, from South Africa during the Boer War.

According to the author, Churchill didn’t have much faith in God or religion or Christianity in particular, but when he was at the worst, darkest hour of his harrowing escape across South Africa, he could think of nothing to do except pray. It’s a sort of a foxhole religious awakening, and one doesn’t get the sense that Churchill took much spiritual growth or humility with him into the rest of his escape and subsequent life. But in the depths of the darkness of the 1930’s when no one would listen to him as he trumpeted the dangers of Nazism or in the darkest hours of World War II when none of the countries of the world were really standing alongside Britain against Hitler, maybe he remembered to pray, remembered that God was the one who rescued him during his South Africa escape journey. No one really knows. (I don’t believe in luck.)

After his escape from the Boers, Churchill could have sat on his laurels and drunk copious amounts of champagne, a drink of which he was extremely fond. However, he returned to to South Africa to fight and write about the war. After the Boer War was over, Churchill published two memoirs of the war, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton’s March. His heroism and notoriety gained him a seat in Parliament, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This article gives a good overview of Churchill’s relationship and attitude to Christianity and God.
And here’s an interview at Bible Gateway with the joint authors of a book called God and Churchill.

Other books by Candice Millard:
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.
River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.

Summer Reading: Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Grades

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. Originally published in 1930, this book is the first in a series of books about a group of adventurous children and a sailboat. Swallows and Amazons introduces the Walker children—John, Susan, Titty, and Roger—their camp on Wild Cat island, the able-bodied catboat Swallow, and their frenemies the two intrepid Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett. The children are living the free range kids’ dream as they camp all by themselves on a small island, cook their own meals, sail their boat up and down the lake, and engage in all sorts of mock-battles and adventures. Sailing, fishing, swimming, camping and piracy form the subject matter, and free-spirited, fun-loving, independent children are the characters.

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. Twelve year old Henry York is sleeping in his room in his cousins’ house in Kansaswhen he hears a bump on the attic wall above his head. He tries to ignore the sound in this strange-to-him house, but the next night he can’t ignore the two knobs that protrude through the ceiling: one of them is slowly turning . . . It may looks like a cupboard, in an odd place, but Henry and his cousin Henrietta soon learn that the “cupboards” are really doors to another world. This book is the first in a trilogy of fantasy adventures with lots of cupboard doors to explore.

The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars. Fourteen Sara Godfrey feels responsible for her younger brother, Charlie, since Charlie is mentally handicapped and sometimes the victim of bullies who make fun of his disability. When Charlie gets lost, it is Sara who must find him and bring him home. But she needs help. Can the boy whom she despises because he stole Charlie’s watch be the one who helps her find her brother in the end?

Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walter Morey. “When Andy Evans stumbles upon the snow-covered wreckage of a small plane, he’s shocked to find a survivor. Should he put the gravely injured dog out of his misery? The look in the animal’s eyes says he’s not ready to die. It turns out that Kävik’s a champion sled dog, and soon he makes a full recovery. When his rightful owner finds out Kävik is alive, he wants the dog back. But Kävik has other ideas.”

Holes by Louis Sachar. Stanley Yelnats is sent to a juvenile delinquent camp for a crime he didn’t commit. Call it bad luck. The curse of the Yelnats family. Every day the boys are sent into the hot Texas sun to dig holes. It’s supposed to build character, but Stanley soon discovers that there’s more than character development going on at Camp Green Lake.

Ash Road by Ivan Southall. This one takes place in January, summertime in Australia. A small group of children are cut off by a raging wildfire in the wilds of the Australian outback. They have only two elderly adults to help them, or perhaps it is the children who must help each other to get them all out of danger.

Summer is also an excellent season for nonfiction readers to find just the right books for encouraging their particular hobby or interest. Here are a few nonfiction suggestions, but really, nonfiction covers the world and everything in it. If my library patrons will let me know what they’re interested in exploring this summer, chances are I’ve got a book for that!

The Swamp Fox of the Revolution by Stewart H. Holbrook. In summertime, thoughts in the United States turn to freedom, and the Declaration of Independence, and the American fight for independence. We often think first of George Washington and thomas Jefferson and the other “founding fathers”, and I have a quite an array of good books about those men and events. However, Frances Marion, The Swamp Fox, is a lesser known hero of the Revolution, but one who should appeal to kids who like to read about war and dashing exploits. “With little assistance, he organized a group of backwoodsmen into a fighting brigade that carried on an almost private war against the redcoats and Tories during the American Revolution. Marion’s daring raids on their outposts and supply trains so troubled the British, who could never catch him, that in time they called him The Swamp Fox.”

Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis. Journalist Richard Tregaskis was with the U.S. Marines when they landed on the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal in August, 1942. He was “embedded” with the troops before that was a thing. Mr. Tregaskis spent seven weeks dodging enemy snipers and sharpshooters, eating military rations, sleeping in tents, and chronicling in his diary the island’s takeover by American forces. Guadalcanal Diary is a classic in World War II nonfiction and just the book for challenging your World War II-obsessed child to read over the summer.

Light Action! Amazing Experiments With Optics by Vicki and Josh Cobb. Maybe your middle grade nonfiction reader is more interested in science than in war and revolution. Light Action will give the reader lots of ideas for summer science fun. The young scientist can learn about and experiment with blocking light, bending light, bouncing light, prisms and color, making light waves, polarized light and light waves. These experiments might keep a middle schooler busy for a good part of the summer, using only a few simple materials and pieces of equipment: aluminum foil, paper, glass jars and bowls, a magnifying glass, a light source, sunshine, etc.

Experimenting With Time by Robert Gardner. Or if experiments in light and optics are not your thing, then maybe time and time-keeping devices would be of interest. Investigate body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate and how they relate to time and time measurement. Build an analemma, a water clock, or a sundial. Measure velocity or reaction time. Some of these experiments and demonstrations are a little complicated and require more specialized equipment, but for kids who are interested in the way time works, this book is a treasure trove.

Steven Caney’s Kids’ America. Maybe you just need an all-purpose, stave off boredom, project and information book full of activities, tales, legends, and adventures—enough for the entire summer and more. Tap dancing, magic weather forecasting, panning for gold, hobo sign language, genealogy, frog jumping, jug bands, gardening, whittling, game night and as I said, more. I love exploring this book. It’s sort of like Pinterest, but much more manageable, written for kids, and computer-free.

Summer Reading: Fourth and Fifth Grades

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. The link goes to an interview with my then-eight year old daughter about her impressions of this award-winning book about India Opal Buloni, her smiling dog, and her preacher daddy. First line: “My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”

Some Summer by Jean Vandevenne. Charlie Scott and his friends decide to use their summer vacation and some scrap lumber, nails, and some old tools to build a clubhouse. But Aunt Essie comes to visit from Florida, and she has other plans for Charlie’s time and energies. It’s going to be “some summer” if all Charlie gets to do is mow grass and pull weeds for Aunt Essie!

Half Magic by Edward Eager. What if you found a magic coin that gave you only half of what you wished for—half invisibility, half of a rescue, halfway to wherever you wished to go? Four siblings—Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha— do find such a coin, and it propels them into a summer full of adventure and imagination and humor and plain fun.

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright. Summer has a magic all its own, but this summer is different in many ways. Portia Blake and her younger brother Foster are going to the same place they always go in the summer, to visit their cousin Julian. However, this summer they’re going all by themselves while their parents spend the summer in Europe. And this summer Portia and Julian discover a deserted resort town next to a nearly dried up lake. And this summer the children also become friends with the eccentric Minnehaha Cheever and Pindar Payton, elderly sister and brother who are the only inhabitants of the ghost town across the lake. What other “magic” will the children conjure up as they listen to tales of long ago and explore the remains of Gone-Away Lake?

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson. My then-ten year old son’s review of this Tom Sawyer-like tale. This take-off on Tom Sawyer, Robinson Crusoe, and The Odyssey should appeal to boys especially. It has caves, tunnels, hidden treasure, wild water rafting, and wilderness (sort of) survival. There are bad guys, good guys, dead guys, blood, raw food, and near-dismemberment. What more could a boy want in a book? (Girls, too)

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit. “The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” So begins the timeless (really, timeless) tale of Winne Foster who stumbles up on a family, the Tucks, who have discovered the secret of eternal life. Would you want to live forever? Would it be a blessing or a curse to never grow old, never die?

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall. The Penderwick sisters—Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty–along with their absent-minded professor father, are spending their vacation in a cottage called Arundel in the Berkshire Mountains. When they meet the boy next door, Jeffrey, they think they have found a a great new summer friend, but Jeffrey’s mother almost spoils both the friendship and the summer with her arrogant and overbearing ways. The Penderwicks are a delightful family, and Jeffrey does become a good friend, but it takes patience, joy, perseverance, and forgiveness to make the summer both memorable and exciting.

Rules by Cynthia Lord. Twelve year old Catherine just wants a few rules to be followed–for herself, but especially for her younger brother, David, who is autistic. Catherine wants her life to be normal. She also wants a friend, but “normal” and friendship and David may not fit together, may not follow the rules that Catherine has written in her little notebook. Then, she meets Jason, a paraplegic, who does therapy at the same clinic as David and Kristi, the girl next door. Can one or both of them be the friends she has been looking for?

Some kids just prefer nonfiction reading. Don’t make them read all fiction when they are more enamored of the true stories that surround us.

In Woods and Fields by Margaret Waring Buck. This book takes the reader on a walk through the woods and fields in each of the four seasons “to look for wild flowers and to watch the birds and other mammals.” Nature exploration at its best.
In Yards and Gardens by Margaret Waring Buck. Ms. Buck describes all of the most common birds, trees, flowers, vegetables, insects, and mammals that are found in typical yards and gardens. This book is a treasure for the budding naturalist.

Sketching Outdoors in Summer by Jim Arnosky. Nature lovers and artists will enjoy the encouragement and illustration that this book by prolific nature artist Jim Arnosky has to offer. “These summer sketches are about things I love doing, as well as things I enjoy drawing,” says Mr. Arnosky, as he shares pencil sketches of garden, pastures, woods and pond.

Hobby Collections A-Z by Roslyn W. Salny. Summer is a great time to start a hobby or maybe a collection. This older book gives kids lots of ideas for starting a new collection from buttons to keys to leaves to playing cards. At the end of the book, there is an “A-Z List of Additional Things to Collect.” The book is pre-internet, and some of the suggestions about where to find items for your collection reflect that low-tech approach. But that’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned. Kids have plenty of time to get connected; why not give them a book with some non-internet, low technology things to do. Like collecting coins or postmarks or roadmaps?

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

I read The Zookeeper’s Wife back in 2008 and wrote about it on Semicolon. Since the book is set to become a movie at the end of March, here are my thoughts on the book at the time I read it.


Jan Zabinski was the Polish director of the Warsaw Zoo in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and subjugated Poland. His wife, Antonina, was his helpmate in runing the zoo and the mother of a young son. During the German occupation, she gave birth to a daughter as well.

This nonfiction book tells the story of how Jan and Antonina worked with the Polish Underground to hide Jews, stockpile arms and ammunition, eventually participate in the doomed Uprising of August 1944 when the Russians halted outside Warsaw and allowed the Germans to destroy the Polish Underground that had come out of hiding to support the Allies in re-taking Poland and driving the Nazis out. A lot of the story tells about the animals in the zoo and what happened to them and how Antonina survived pregnancy-related illnesses, inadequate rations, and providing secret hospitality for fifty to seventy people at any given time throughout the course of the war and the German occupation.

Something about the way the story was told made me admire these people, but not like them very much. I’m not sure what I didn’t like, but I felt uncomfortable in their company. Jan seemed very controlling, and Antonina like a wife making excuses for an authoritarian husband. Maybe that’s not the way it was at all since Ms. Ackerman derives her story from written accounts, Antonina’s diary mostly, and from interviews with people who knew the Zabinskis during the war. Both Jan and Antonina Zabinski died before this book was conceived. Their son, Rys, did contribute his memories of a childhood filled with animals and with war.

I don’t know. I’m ambivalent. If you like nonfiction about animals and and about World War II, you should try it out.

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Rajpur: Last of the Bengal Tigers by Robert McClung

New in the library, but published in 1982, Rajpur tells the story of a Bengal tiger, born in the forests of southern Nepal and later orphaned when hunters kill both his father and his mother. Rajpur’s sister, Rani, dies of weakness caused by an infection, and Rajpur must hunt and survive alone.

The hallmarks of a “living book” are its narrative power and its full use of language to engage and delight the reader. Mr. McClung, in all of his books, uses both story and descriptive language to make his readers care about animals, the Bengal tiger, in this particular book, and to pull them into the story of one special tiger, Rajpur.

Take these examples of fine descriptive language:

“Kumari growled softly to herself, then turned to the cubs and licked them. The smell of smoke made her uneasy. After a few moments, she left the den and peered across the sea of grass. In the distance, red tongues of flame flickered under billowing clouds of smoke, and the breeze carried the strong smell of the burning vegetation.”

“One mild evening in late February the cubs followed their father as he padded along the edge of a grassy meadow. Many of the trees and bushed around them were still bare of leaves. Others were beginning to unfurl tender new leaves or flower buds. Spring was on its way. Raja Khan was rumbling softly as he sauntered along.”

“Rajpur chased a half-grown wild pig one evening and finally succeeded in seizing it. Squealing with pain, the pig wriggled around and slashed at Rajpur with its sprouting tusks. The sharp weapons tore a bloody furrow in the young tiger’s side. Surprised that the pig was fighting back, Rajpur released his hold and let it go. The pig promptly scrambled to its feet and ran away through the underbrush.”

The story itself also sustains interest as Rajpur grows from a cub into adulthood and as he learns to live alone, after losing his mother, father, and sister. Can Rajpur find a territory of his own? Can he avoid the dangers of cobra, leopards, rogue tigers, and most of all, the deadly human hunters? Can he find a mate?

Mr. McClung was a naturalist and an artist as well as a writer. He worked for the Bronx Zoo for many years, and then as an editor for National Geographic magazine. He wrote more than fifty books for children with titles such as Luna, the Story of a Moth, and Redbird, the Story of a Cardinal, and Spike: The Story of a Whitetail Deer. I would love to have all of these animal stories in my library.