While Kelly has been busily plugging away at her Cybils nonfiction reading, I’ve also been delving a bit into the YA nonfiction world via my workplace’s Mock Printz committee. We had three nonfiction titles we were considering, all I highly recommend.
In Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse, Catherine Reef takes her readers on a journey through the life of perhaps the most famous nurse in the Western world. Florence Nightingale is best known for her work in the Crimean War where she selflessly and tirelessly cared for the wounded English soldiers, but in truth, that’s only a small part of her long and extensive career. That career involved numerous reforms in how medicine was practiced and applied and the transformation of nursing into a vocation – a socially acceptable one for women of her time. She started the first secular nursing school and published many papers on her findings, which included graphs of statistical data, something not much done at the time.
Reef also gives her readers peeks into Nightingale’s personality. She had a prickly temperament and was a bit of a domineering manager. She considered marrying a man whom she cared deeply for, but ultimately decided her dedication to nursing, something she felt called to by God, was more important. Personal insights like these interspersed among her professional accomplishments give readers a well-rounded and fascinating overview of an important woman. This is a smoothly-written biography appropriate for older middle grade and YA collections.
Patricia McCormick delivers a biography of a very different but equally fascinating person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero. I had heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer before, and knew he died due to his involvement in assassination attempts against Hitler, but beyond that, I knew very little. I’m not alone in this: of the many adults I asked about Bonhoeffer, I don’t think any even knew who he was. This book should change that. It’s written for a younger audience than Reef’s, solidly middle grade (maybe on the young side of middle grade, even), with short chapters and an intrusive (though not annoying) authorial voice on the part of McCormick.
McCormick traces Bonhoeffer’s life from a young, sensitive German boy who loved music to his decision to become a pastor to his vow to resist peacefully (Gandhi was his example) and ultimately to his decision to bring down Hitler by any means necessary – even violently. Bonhoeffer and his cohorts’ attempts all failed, and he and most of the others involved – including his brothers – were executed as a result. But McCormick asks her young readers to consider the question: “Does the fact that he didn’t succeed in his aims make him any less of a hero?” While the book itself is short and can feel slight to adult readers, this is weighty stuff for kids, and it’s incredibly moving for readers of any age.
Albert Marrin tackles the same time period from a different perspective in Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II. Marrin covers the Japanese-American imprisonment in American concentration camps (with an excellent explanation for why these were concentration camps, not internment camps, both legally and practically speaking). He also delves into Japanese-American participation as soldiers in both the Pacific and the European warfronts. He begins with a brief historical overview of the conflicts between Japan and the West and Japan and China, both vital to understanding the Japanese-Americans’ situation during World War II.
Marrin accurately uses the words “white supremacy” and “racism” when describing how Japanese-Americans were treated during this time period. He quotes people like FDR and other lawmakers repeatedly, using their own words to demonstrate how their own racism fueled the country’s racism and led to egregious human rights violations. Importantly, he also discusses how people can change, most notably Earl Warren, who strongly supported the uprooting of Japanese-Americans during World War II as Attorney General of California, but later deeply regretted his actions and went on to help usher in some of the most vital civil rights decisions as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright, Miranda v. Arizona, and Loving v. Virginia. Most importantly, Marrin highlights the lives of those Japanese-Americans who fought for or were imprisoned by their country, including Senator Daniel Inouye and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of Farewell to Manzanar.
Marrin’s book is not only an important tool for teaching us about our history; unfortunately now, it is also a call to action. In the last part his book, he draws clear parallels between how Japanese-Americans were treated after Pearl Harbor (until a few weeks ago, universally recognized as appalling) and how Muslim-Americans were and are treated in a post-9/11 America. Uprooted will only grow more important as the months go on. Marrin’s account is well-written, detailed, important, and should be required reading for all Americans.