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.

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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.

St. Patrick’s Day books

I have several books for St. Patrick’s Day or about Saint Patrick and Ireland in my library:

Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of St. Patrick’s Day Symbols by Edna Barth is more than just a listing of St. Patrick’s Day symbols and customs. It’s a children’s introduction to the history and culture of Ireland, with chapters on Irish literature and poetry, the history of Irish Catholics and Protestants, Irish dress and food, and Irish folklore, as well as the story of St. Patrick himself threaded throughout the ninety-five page book. And there’s bibliography of “Stories for St. Patrick’s Day” at the back of the book which includes many of the books on this list.

St. Patrick, The Irish Saint by Ruth Roquitte, illustrated by Robert Kilbride. “There’s a day in the spring when people wear green. . . On that day almost all of us would like to be Irish.” This book tells the story of the life of Magonus Sucatus Patricius, the man we call Saint Patrick in forty-six page with illustrations. It would be a good read aloud book to introduce children to the man and the holiday named in his honor.

Shamrock and Spear: Tales and Legends from Ireland by F.M. Pilkington, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Tales of giants and beasts, princesses and dwarves, Cormac Mac Art and Fionn Mac Cool make up this well told collection of more than twenty Irish folktales.

St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Jan Brett. Young Jamie Donovan wants to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but his family says he’s much too small to make it all the way to the top of Acorn Hill. Read about how Jamie proves that he is big enough to march.

Pegeen by Hilda van Stockum. Pegeen is something of a wild thing who makes up stories and dances like a gypsy and gains the affection of the entire O’Sullivan family in spite of her irresponsible ways. Other books about the O’Sullivan family of Bantry Bay are Francie on the Run, which takes place before Pegeen and The Cottage at Bantry Bay, the third book in the series.

Count Your Way Through Ireland by James Haskins. A numerical introduction to the country of Ireland with numbers in Gaelic, counting such things as sports, symbols, foods, stripes in the Irish flag, and one and only one St. Patrick himself.

Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Ireland by Virginia Haviland. Five stories suitable for elementary aged children.

The King of Ireland’s Son by Padraic Colum, illustrated by Willy Pogany. Mr. Colum was a poet and a playwright and a friend of James Joyce, but his retelling of myths, legends, and folklore for children came to be his most enduring work. The King of Ireland’s Son is a novel based on an old Irish tale about a prince who wins his bride, Fedelma the Enchanter’s Daughter, but must reclaim her after a long and adventurous journey of searching for the kidnapped Fedelma.

Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato by Tomie dePoala.
Jamie O’Rourke and the Pooka by Tomie dePaola.
These two picture books tell about Jamie O’Rourke, the laziest man in all of Ireland and his adventures with first, a leprechaun and then, a pooka. Jamie’s lazy ways get him into troubles, but for the most part all ends well for the lazy Jamie.

Do you know of any other Irish and St. Paddy’s Day books for children that are must-haves for my library?

Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst

I’ve seen this picture book biography recommended on several lists of “living books”, particularly living science books, and I agree that it’s a beautiful and inspiring story. The author’s father, who is never actually named in the text, was a collector of rocks. But more than a collector, he was a student and archivist who carefully curated and labeled his collection of rocks from all over the country.

Since Ms. Hurst’s father and his family were living through the Great Depression, her father’s day job was minding his gas station. When the gas station went broke, he took other jobs to support his family. Because he had never been to college or formally studied geology, most people thought Carol Hurst’s father’s passion for rocks was simply an amusing hobby. However, he eventually met someone who appreciated the informal study he had done and the depth of knowledge he had acquired.

Rocks in his Head is the kind of story our children need. They need to see that if they pursue an interest with persistence and passion, they can become experts. And they can do that whether or not this interest or passion becomes their job. I have an adult daughter who is teaching herself Polish because she is interested in all things Polish at the moment. I have a son who is becoming a talented and expert musician, in his spare time. I am an amateur, part-time librarian. So far, none of my children has “rocks in his head”, but if that were to be someone’s passion, I would encourage them to study and collect and learn with all the resources available to them. Because our economy is generally much better than that of the time during the Great Depression when Ms. Hurst’s father was living, we have much greater opportunities to both make a living for our families and pursue our own interests. Encourage your children and yourself to take advantage of every opportunity.

The Language of Angels by Richard Michelson

The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Karla Gudeon.

I love nonfiction picture books about overlooked and under-reported events and people in history. The Language of Angels is just such a picture book, about Itamar Ben-Avi (Ben-Zion) and his father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who were instrumental in the revival and implementation of Hebrew as the official and modern language of the state of Israel.

I knew that when Israel became a nation, that new/old nation adopted Hebrew as their official language. But I had no knowledge at all of the people behind the revival of the modern Hebrew language. When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew as their main, or native language. Today more than three million people speak Hebrew in daily life.

How did Eliezer and Devorah Ben-Yehuda and their son, Ben-Zion, manage to reinvent a language that had been dead as a daily spoken language for over 1500 years? Well, Eliezer started schools where the primary instruction was in Hebrew. And he decided that his children would speak and be spoken to only in Hebrew—a decision which made for a lonely childhood for Ben-Zion, since no one else spoke Hebrew when he was a child. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda also wrote a Hebrew dictionary and enlisted his pupils to help him make up words for modern things such as ice cream cones and bicycles. (Read the book to find out how to add new words to an old language.)

Even with the afterword that has more information about these people and their language-making, I still had unanswered questions. How did Ben-Yehuda get people to agree to have their children educated in Hebrew, an antiquated and unused language at the time? How did someone talk the fledgling government of Israel into adopting Hebrew as the national language? What happened to Ben-Zion during World War II and after? (His father died in 1922.) Of course a picture book can’t answer all the questions one might have about a particular subject, but the fact that this one sparked so many questions is a good recommendation for it.

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All Upon a Sidewalk by Jean Craighead George

All Upon a Sidewalk by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Don Bolognese.

Jean Craighead George, one of the great naturalist writers for children of the twentieth century, died in 2012. She left behind over 100 books, including the Newbery Medal-winning Julie of the Wolves and Newbery runner-up My Side of the Mountain. Although known for her fiction, Ms. George’s nonfiction narratives about various plants and animals and nature habitats are just as good as if not better than her novels.

In fact, All Upon a Sidewalk is something of a cross between fiction and nonfiction. It’s what many in the Charlotte Mason world would call a “living book” in that it tells a story that draws children in and encourages them to use their imagination to picture what life must be like for a tiny ant upon a large sidewalk. Lasius flavus is a small yellow ant who lives under the sidewalk on 19th Street in an unnamed city. “She was a yellow ant with big eyes, arrow waist, and a glittering assortment of six spindly legs.”

Lasius flavus is a worker ant, a natural chemist who serves the queen ant and follows the chemical instructions she receives from the queen. Whether it’s sugar or pollen or something else, Lasius flavus hurries to find what the queen wants. Today, Lasius flavus has a special mission: “the queen had asked for a wondrous treasure called Euplectus confluens. It was terribly appealing and hidden somewhere in the city.”

Both the reader and Lasius flavus remain in the dark as to the identity and whereabouts of Euplectus confluens until the end of the book. Lasius flavus walks about on the sidewalk, looking for this appealing substance, and on her way she encounters the dangers of spiders and bees and rainstorms and birds as she searches for the queen’s desire.

What a wonderful contrast to the flat prose of another popular children’s book about ants which says, “Do you know how many ants live in the world? More than 10,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a lot of ants. Ants live in fields and forests. They live under sidewalks, too. Ants are everywhere!”

And, instead of photographs, you get Mr. Bolognese’s painting, done from life. “He got down on his hands and knees and carefully inspected the sidewalk world through a magnifying glass.” Mightn’t your own children be inspired to do the same after reading this book?

All Upon a Sidewalk is out of print, but you can find used copies quite easily on Amazon or other used book sites.

Two Books about Appreciating Differences

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood.
Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him by Nathan and Sally Clarkson.

First I picked up The One-in-a-Million Boy, as recommended by Lisa Spence and by Shelia at Dodging Raindrops. It was a good read about a boy who befriends a centenarian, 104 years old, and entices her to dream of and work toward becoming a Guinness World Record holder. It’s also about how the boy’s musician father, Quinn Porter, becomes friends with Miss Ona Vitkus, and how families bond and how they fail one another.

The boy is just referred to as “the boy” throughout the book. He never gets a name. Maybe that omission emphasizes the difference inherent in the boy. He is a one-in-a-million boy, maybe autistic, maybe just quirky. He makes lists, counts items a lot, memorizes records from the Guinness Book. The story about the boy, Miss Vitkus, and Quinn has some memorable minor characters, too: Ted Ledbetter, a well-intentioned but unimaginative scoutmaster; the members of an up-and-coming Christian band; and the boy’s mother, Belle, who spends most of the book in the throes of grief and what I would diagnose as PTSD. It’s an excellent story about appreciating others for their differences and yet expecting them to grow and learn from their mistakes.

And that’s just the theme of Nathan and Sally Clarkson’s memoir, Different. Nathan Clarkson started out different as a baby, not sleeping, screaming for no apparent reason, fussy, difficult. And as he grew, the differences grew, too. He was eventually diagnosed with a whole alphabet soup of “differences”—ADHD, OCD, ODD—plus some learning differences, personality quirks, and a strong will. Put it all together, and you’ve got an array of problems and diagnoses, but Sally Clarkson, Nathan’s mother, had to learn to appreciate the person inside Nathan, help him deal with the issues that his differences caused, and also show him that God made Nathan Clarkson for a purpose, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, even with his many differences.

Told in alternating voices from Sally’s point of view and then from Nathan’s as a 28 year old man looking back on his childhood, teen years, and young adulthood, the book is insightful and inspiring.

Sally: “Being Nathan’s mother taught me so much about what really matters in life. It taught me how to see people through a different lens, to appreciate and validate the variety and differences of people without casting judgment on the ways they differ from me. I grew to become a healthier person as I came to understand and practice living well with the miraculous gift of Nathan in my life.”

Nathan: “In my soul I knew I wanted to be the hero of the story I was in. But so often, like the knight in my picture book, I felt tiny in comparison to the looming dragons of anxiety, learning disabilities, obsessions, and self-doubt. So often I wondered how I could ever win. But still I marched to battle, trusting that in the end the heroes always win, even if they’re beaten, tried, and worn. That while the battle is hard, good will always defeat evil and light will always win out over dark.”

I recommend both of these books for every parent who has a “different” child, one who at his or her best is amazing and beautiful, but at his or her worst is frustrating, oppositional, and enigmatic. Also these are good books for those of us who deal every day with being “different” in some way ourselves, or who know someone who is just a little—or a lot–strange and unusual and in need of understanding and affirmation. And that’s all us, isn’t it?

Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education by Raphaele Frier

I would like to read I Am Malala, the book that Malala Yousafzai wrote about her own life and her activism on behalf of the education of girls around the world. Until I get around to reading that book, however, this picture book biography, translated into English from the French, gives a basic overview of Malala’s efforts and of her sacrifice for the cause of girls’ education and women’s rights.

I learned that Malala’s father is an educator himself and that he supports Malala’s efforts to protect and extend the rights of girls to have an education.

I learned that Malala was only fifteen years old in 2012 when Taliban extremists boarded her school bus and shot her three times. She was able to travel to England for medical treatment at a hospital in Birmingham where she was able to make a full recovery.

I learned that in 2014, when she was seventeen years old, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

And the book also includes some quotes from Malala herself:

“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”

“Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when were in Swat, the nor of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.”

“The extremists are afraid of books and pens.”

“It does not matter the color of your skin, what language do you speak, what religion you believe in. It is that we should all consider each other as human beings and we should respect each other.”

This beautiful book is wonderful tribute to Malala Yousafzai, and it’s a good introduction to her life and work for elementary age children.

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New Nonfiction in the Library: 2017

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know, I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past few months:

They Lived Like This in Ancient Mexico by Marie Neurath and John Ellis. I have others in this series (Ancient Rome, Ancient China), and I have found them to be a great and simple introduction to ancient people groups and their history. Of the series, I have They Lived Like This in Ancient Rome, They Lived Like This: the Vikings, They Lived Like This in Ancient China, They Lived Like This in Ancient Britain, and now this one.

How to Know the Minerals and Rocks by Richard M. Pearl. (Signet Science Library) I like to imagine some boy or girl in 1955 carrying around this field guide and busily identifying the rocks and minerals in their backyard or country vacation place. “Written for students, collectors, and hobbyists, this book offers a practical basic field guide to more than 125 of the most important minerals and rocks.”

A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary. At 344 pages, this memoir is for older fans of Ms. Cleary’s prolific output of children’s fiction. I also have the sequel, My Own Two Feet, which tells about Ms. Cleary’s young adult years.

Out of Darkness: The Story of Louis Braille by Russell Freedman. A brief biography of the blind Frenchman who developed a system of raised dots on paper that enables blind people to read. This system was later named “Braille” in honor of its inventor.

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins. Maria Merian, Anna Botsford Comstock, Frances Hamerstrom, Rachel Carson, Miriam Rothschild, and Jane Goodall.

Fireflies in the Night (Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science 1) by Judy Hawes. A great story with lots of good information about fireflies. A young girl who loves fireflies goes out to grandfather’s house to watch them, and her grandfather helps her to study the fireflies and their habits.

Sketching Outdoors in Spring by Jim Arnosky. Part of a series, one book for sketching outdoors in each season. Mr. Arnosky makes it seem simple to just observe and draw the natural world.

A Drop Of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder by Walter Wick. All about water with beautiful photographs and simple experiments.

Jonathan Edwards (Christian Biographies for Young Readers) by Simonetta Carr. This picture book biography is also part of a series, and I would love to have the rest of the books in the series. The illustrations are stunning. To date, the series includes volumes on John Calvin, John Owen, Augustine of Hippo, Athanasius, Anselm of Canterbury, Lady Jane Grey, and John Knox.

The Texas Rangers by Will Henry. A Landmark history book.

Up the Trail from Texas by J. Frank Dobie. Another Landmark history book.

Chipmunks on the Doorstep by Edwin Tunis. The famous author/illustrator tells about his observations of the chipmunks who took up residence near his his porch and in his yard. He gives them names related to their individual personalities and writes about their habits and their relationship to the humans who live nearby.

It’s so much fun, and I am so blessed, to be able to collect these books and have them available for children and families to borrow and enjoy.

Jonathan Edwards by Simonetta Carr

I’m spending my Thursdays here on the blog in the eighteenth century, 1700’s.

This picture book biography of the great preacher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (b.1703, d.1758), is just beautiful. The book is hardcover, printed on lovely paper, large print, with both color illustrations and photographs of important documents and places in Edwards’ life. I want all of the books in this series.

The information about Jonathan Edwards is well-written and organized, and the presentation is, again, just lovely. Mrs. Carr, a homeschool mom and former teacher, tells students about Edwards’ scientific explorations of spiders and Newtonian physics. She explains the ins and outs of the First Great Awakening revivals, and the theological controversies that accompanied those revivals in terms that a tenor eleven year old could understand. She writes about Edwards’ youth and his courtship and marriage to Sarah Pierpont and his friendship and partnership with George Whitefield. The biography is thorough enough, but also with only 60 pages, it won’t exhaust the young readers it’s meant to engage.

At the end of the book Mrs. Carr includes a time line of Jonathan Edwards’ life, a list of interesting facts about Mr. Edwards and his lifetime that didn’t fit into the main narrative of the book, and a facsimile of an actual letter from Edwards to his daughter Mary in 1749. The letter is inspiring, It made me want to copy it and send my handwritten (plagiarized) letter to my own grown children who are far away from home.

Here’s just the beginning of the letter:

My dear child,
You may well think it is natural for a parent to be concerned for a child at so great a distance away, so far out of view, and so far out of the reach of communication; where, if you should be stricken with any dangerous sickness, which should issue in death–you might probably be in your grave before we would hear of your danger. But yet, my greatest concern is not for your health, or temporal welfare–but for the good of your soul.

Though you are at so great a distance from us–yet God is everywhere. You are much out of the reach of our care–but you are in His hands every moment! We have not the comfort of seeing you–but He sees you! His eye is always upon you. And if you may but live sensibly near to God, and have His gracious presence, it is no great matter if you are far distant from us. I had rather you should remain hundreds of miles distant from us–and have God near to you–than to have you always with us, and live at a distance from God.

Isn’t that the most deeply loving letter you’ve read in a long time? Read the entire letter here.

Jonathan Edwards by Simonetta Carr is one biography in the series, Christian Biographies for Young Readers. Illustrated by Matt Abraxas. Published by Reformation Heritage Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Other books in the series, all authored by Mrs. Carr with the same stunning illustrations by Mr. Abraxas:

Augustine of Hippo.
Anselm of Canterbury.
Athanasius.
John Calvin.
John Knox.
Marie Durand.
Martin Luther.
John Owen.

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