The Year in Books, 2015 II: YA and Non-fic

The Tiger by John Vaillant
A ridiculously well-rendered portrait of tigers, fear, Manchuria, Russia, survival all presented within a noir story, a gripping serial killer crime thriller. Author strikes a perfect balance, here are some choice bits:

On Yeltsin’s watch, the ignorance of many, combined with the cleverness of a few, allowed for the biggest, fastest, and most egregiously unjust relocation of wealth and resources in the history of the world. It was klepto-capitalism on a monumental scale, but it wasn’t the first time. The Bolsheviks had done something similar under Lenin. (74)

“The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation,” [Vasily Solkin] explained. “A human being is a very social creature, and ninety percent of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, with no witnesses, he starts to learn about himself--who is he really? Sometimes, this brings strange discoveries. (82)

...Mother Russia is not the nation, and She is certainly not the leadership; She is the land. The deep Russian bond to the earth--specifically, the soil--transcends all other affiliations with the exception, perhaps of family. (79)

For the sea otter, the moment occurred between 1790 and 1830; for the American bison, it happened between 1850 and 1880; for the Atlantic cod, it lasted for centuries, ending only in 1990. These mass slaughters have their analogue in the financial markets to which they are often tied, and they end the same way every time. (94)

[on the story of Henno Martin and Hermann Korn] At one point, Korn was moved to say “My paleolithic soul feels at home here.” (177)

Replacing [the feelings of strictly-controlled aspiration], along with crime, alcoholism, and despondency, were satellite dishes offering multiple channels that allowed you to see just how far behind you really were. Nowadays, in many parts of the world--not just Sobolonye--it is possible to starve while watching TV. (198)

Stoicism isn’t so much a virtue as it is a survival skill. (199)

[Vladimir Schetinin] rakes two tea bags in a four-ounce cup and he doesn’t mince words: when a pair of earnest British journalists once asked him how he thought the tigers could be saved, his answer, “AIDS,” caught them off guard. (222)

Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter
Fascinating history of China in World War II which traces the major characters and then zooms in to firsthand accounts of horrifying coastal bombings and the slow creeping invasion of the Japanese across the Sea of Japan and down from Manchuko during the 1930s and 40s. Afterword about post war world. US basically used the Chinese how they needed them instead of considering them a real ally, a “vinegar relationship” that continues until this day.

Olive’s Ocean
In the summers of my Massachusetts tweenhood my Woods Hole from this book was West Dennis. The feeling about driving to your favorite Cape Cod restaurant that Henkes captures on pg 138 actually exists, and it is just one of the many feelings he drops into the world of Martha. Through her actions and voice, he also includes meditations on death, love, family and life itself. And they’re all from the point of view of 12 year old, Henkes is older, but they work, and his book works, really, for any age where someone is tackling the human experience: “When (if!) the puzzle pieces fit together, everything would be okay, all her problems would be solved...If any of the pieces had been previously locked together, today’s events events had surely dislodged them.” (132). Surely it is written for kids, and it’s no wonder this thing won a Newbery, but it’s really a pitch-perfect novel, for readers of any age. The sooner people can read this, the better. For 5th graders and up. 

A Crayon’s Story
In Michael Hall’s Red art supplies come to life as students. Red isn’t able to color red, only blue, despite what his Crayola factory label says. The book is full of recognizable classroom supplies; Hall’s narrator is a Pencil, and Tape and Scissors attempt to help Red in one scene. Younger readers should easily pick up on the comparisons and qualities of the anthropomorphized objects, plus each crayon has color imagery. “He’s got to press harder,” says Army Green. “Give him time. He’ll catch on,” adds Sunshine. Red’s mother, Olive, and grandparents, Silver and Gray, are shorter (more worn) crayons. Despite the crayon community’s encouragement to try to be red, hearts, strawberries, a fire engine and Red’s self portrait are all blue, and so is Red. He’s sad, angry even, until he meets Berry, a classmate in need of water for her boat drawing. She asks for something blue, and, hesitant at first, he gets water just right. Red realizes he’s blue despite the wrapper and the drawing is a collaboration that he can actually contribute to— drawings of a sickly-looking orange and confusing traffic light are cause for anxiety earlier in the story. Red defies his label and goes his own way, and uniqueness, thinking outside the box, and being yourself, among others, are themes here as simple to grasp as they are illustrated. Hall uses paper cuts with digital Crayon drawings and pencil writing. Dialogue and Crayon labels are done in simple digital font. For grades K-3.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
The Greek root for the word thesaurus sums up this book perfectly, too: “treasure house”. Bryant and Melissa’s biography differs from Peter Roget’s book only in girth, they both are full of information and beautifully put together. The Right Word has an (perhaps unfair) advantage on the reference ubiquity in that it tells a great story. Paring down Roget’s life to focus on his peculiar, dedicated childhood, his dogged maturity and his place among one of the greatest ages of discovery known to man, the book gives the reader a lot in a little time. Bryant also gives the right amount of focus to the Thesaurus itself, showing its manifestations as an obsession, hobby, utility and success story as the book progresses.Page 18 features a watercolor collage of Roget’s childhood scrapbook and puts me in mind of the actual book I was reading. Sweet splashes each and every page with a percolating intellectual chaos that was the actual Thesaurus colorful foundation. The scribblings, list and layouts so dominated Roget’s life that even as his story globetrots to Edinburgh, Manchester, Paris and elsewhere, there is little in the way of depictions of the places— all of the story is scrapbooked in the Sweet’s mixed media scheme. Very cool. Let’s give it to Grades 2 - 5, but stick it next to the Thesauruses everywhere!

Breaking Stalin’s Nose
Orwell lite. This YA book is about living under Stalinism from to POV of a young boy, but his disillusionment creeps in very slowly despite the books day-an-a-half timeframe a short allegory of freedom and Stalinism taking place in a day and a half at a school. Sergei Ivanych, picture (pas 107-108) praises getting rid of that Jew, Four Eyes Finkelstein— drawing clear parallels to Adolph Hitler. At times the language seems stilted, but I was quickly used to it--Sasha Zaichik is only 10, but he is steeped in proud, political rhetoric. This is the review I wrote:

Russian-American Eugene Yelchin’s story about living under Stalinism is a short book about what it means to be free. A 2012 Newbery Honor, the book tells the story of 10-year-old Sasha Zaichik. He is a student, the son of a Cheka police officer (a Secret Police created by Lenin shortly after the October Revolution of 1917), and proud of his country. Slowly, however, Zaichik begins to realize things aren’t so great in freezing Moscow, with its ominous buildings and dark cars and mean-spirited neighbors. Yelchin is an artist (check out his work at and his book features dreary black and white illustrations of snowy landscapes, towering figures of politics, and one particularly heartbreaking rendition of Lubyanka Square, where the Cheka prison was located. The book moves quickly and is an important piece of writing for the world we live in. Yelchin is also Jewish and was born in St. Petersburg, the second-largest city in Russia. He wrote this book in Los Angeles, CA, where he still lives. The 1900s have been hard on both his fellow citizens and members of his religion as they’ve dealt with oppression in different forms. In Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a Jewish supporting character is given the mean nickname Four Eyes Finkelstein by his classmates and he is also the target of teacher berating. Yelchin uses these examples to discuss suffering from oppression in all it’s forms, and it’s no wonder this historical novel has been translated into Yelchin’s native language, plus Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Romanian and Turkish.