Review: Moonbird

Moonbird: A Year On the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Sibert Honor.

It’s About: B95 is a rufa red knot, first tagged in Argentina in 1995. Since then, B95 has been seen again and again, not just in Argentina, but along the varied places in the migratory cycle of a rufa red knot: Argentina, the Delaware Bay, Canada. Moonbird (a nickname for B95) uses the life and journey of one small bird to show the intricate life of this small shorebird, as well as bigger lessons about ecology, interdependence and extinction.

The Good: As you may remember from my review of Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, I am not an animal person. For readers who are animal people, Moonbird is an easy fit and recommendation. Nature lovers will love it. It also shows, from the many scientists and volunteers who appear in the book, the various career and vocational paths for those who love animals. I already know who I’ll be recommending this book to.

The good thing about being a non-animal lover reading a book like this is I don’t get swept away by the topic. See, in nonfiction, I have to be vigilant and aware to make sure that my liking a topic or subject matter doesn’t influence what I think about the actual book. What is it about Moonbird that made it a finalists for the YALSA Award of Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, an award to “recognize the best in the field of nonfiction books (at this time, only books will be considered for the award) materials for young adults,” and it must include “excellent writing, research, presentation and readability for young adults.”

Most of Moonbird is about the year-long migratory cycle that the rufa red knots make. Woven in is deeper information, from the process of banding birds (how the birds are captured, the color-coding different countries have used since 2003) to the relatively recent discovery that the Delaware Bay is one of the stops on that path. This is a part of New Jersey culture I didn’t know about, not at all! I love how Moonbird doesn’t just present facts and figures; it explains how that knowledge was gained. It’s not just the findings of scientists, it’s also the work of scientists, which is always ongoing.

The number of rufa red knots have dropped since B95 was first seen. Part of that has to do with their journey. The book starts with Argentina, where B95 was first tagged, and the food sources that the shorebirds pursue, moving on in a set pattern to best take advantage of the ideal food sources and temperature. If something happens to one part of that intricate chain, it affects all, which is why the threat of extinction now exists for a bird that was plentiful just a couple of decades ago. When I went looking for more information, I found A Red-Knot Celebrity Is Back in Town from The New York Times, dated this past May! B95 survives.

For how much longer, though? B95 is the perfect bird to use to illustrate the dangers of extinction, the intricacy of the earth’s resources and how different organisms and animals rely on each other and are interdependent.

I can easily see why Moonbird is a finalist. For “readability,” it combines narrative and information seamlessly. The research is explained in the Appendix and Source Notes, as well as the author’s own knowledge and experiences with rufa red knots. While this is about a shorebird, I also see it as inspiration — not just “what you can do” in terms of the rufa red knot as Moonbird spells out in the Appendix, but in what a teenager who loves science can do in terms of a career. Isn’t “best” about that type of inspiration? And while I personally am more a history nonfiction reader, I love that there are such terrific science nonfiction books for readers!

Other reviews: Bookends, a Booklist blog (this includes Common Core connections); SLJ Heavy Medal; LibrariYan.

Review: Written In Bone

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker. Carolrhoda Books. 2009. Personal copy.

It’s About: Skeletons from the colonial era reveal details of the past; not just how people died, but how they lived. Walker follows the excavation of several graves, along with the study and research that accompanies each discovery. “Who were these people? What were their lives like?”

The Good: Non fiction books like this are so easy to booktalk — dead bodies! Photographs of skeletons! Mysterious deaths! I love the mystery, the exploration, and the answers that come from science, study, research.

Walker uses a handful of bodies to not just show the science but also to explore the history and lives of those Europeans and Africans who lived in the Virginia and Maryland region in the 1600s and 1700s. The book is full of photographs of the bodies, at all stages of study. How the bones and remains are studied and tested are explained, often with photographs or illustrations. Walker explains in a note that she limited the subject of this book to Europeans and Africans, “not to diminish the importance of Native Americans in the history of the Chesapeake region, but rather to respect the desire of their descendants to see their remains treated in a manner that respects their cultural customs.”

I adore this type of history and scientific study. For example, as a result of variations in diet, the carbon-13 found in bones can be measured and analyzed to determine where a person was born, raised, and how long that person had lived in North America. Often these graves are so old that there are no headstones or markers, so there is no direct way to know who the person was or when they died. Walker shows the process of how the historical record is used to try to pinpoint a person’s identity. Sometimes, a name is attached to a body; other times, not so much.

One section examined three lead coffins found in what would have been the area under St. Mary’s Chapel. Walker used this find to explain that the colony of Maryland was founded in 1634 as a safe haven for English Catholics. This is something that is often found in history books; Walker provides the “rest of the story” that isn’t often included, that religious freedom in Maryland ended in 1689. The lead coffins are a sign that those individuals were wealthy Catholics. Important people to get such an internment; yet, with the passage of time, the building disappeared and people forgot that bodies were even buried there. 

The second grave that fascinates me was a body found in the basement of a house, a hasty burial without coffin or respect. Did you know that sometimes people used their cellars not to store food but as a trash dump? An archaeologist explains, “people lived upstairs and dumped fish parts and pig parts and chamber pot contents and goodness knows what else down there.”

Imagine that. Imagine dumping that refuse in your cellar. Wouldn’t it smell? How healthy would that be? Why would you do that? And then I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the books where the Ingalls were snowed in for days and days and days. As a grown up rereading the series, I’d wondered, where did they put the trash? Go to the bathroom? Is that why a basement was used as a trash pit? And then… as the chapter reveals… a body was buried in the basement. Treated like garbage. Hidden. Unknown. For hundreds of years, until the secret was revealed. What was it like, to live in that house? To know that body was there?

Written in Bone was also an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Kelly at Stacked also geeks out over the science and history. Also check out fellow history lover Melissa Rabey’s review.

Review: Every Bone Tells a Story

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw, published by Charlesbridge (2010). Review copy from publishers.

About: The discoveries of Turkana Boy (Kenya, 1984), Lapedo Child (Portugal, 1998), Kennewick Man (Washington State, 1996) and the Iceman (Italy, 1991) are examined, from discovery to scientific analysis and debate.

The Good: One of the shortlisted books for the 2011 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.  

As the book explains, this isn’t the Indiana Jones version of archaeology; it is the scientific version, of analysis, of tests, of careful study. It does so by examining four different hominin discoveries, organizing it on a timeline of the oldest (Turkana Boy, 1.6 million years) to the Iceman (5,300 years). The discoveries themselves took place at different times, in different locations, and each was significant or unique.

Disclaimer: I find the subject matter of this book fascinating. Learning about the past, discovering what people ate, burial practices, all from bones? How amazing is that? The problem is, I have to be careful when I review or analyze because when I say “great book” is it a great book because of the topic matter or because of the writing?

Every Bone Tells a Story does a great job of using and explaining scientific terms without being confusing, over technical, or entering the technobabble area. Putting it in chronological order also assists the reader in seeing the development and evolution of hominins and scientific theory and what we know about the past.

The Kennewick Man was discovered in the United States on federal land. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act which prevents grave robbing and protects Native American people’s rights provides a process. When the remains of the Kennewick Man were dated at 9,000 years NAGPRA was invoked to stop additional testing and to bury his remains. Scientists argued against this for many reasons. As summed up by the authors, “many (but not all) archaeologists fought against reburial because they were alarmed by the number of pricelss bones reburied and destroyed by the earth — knowledge lost. Many (but not all) Native Americans fought for reburial because they were alarmed by the number of sacred bones unearthed and violated — loved ones lost.” Both arguments are compelling and, within the context of the Kennewick Man, additional issues were raised by the age of the remains, claims being made by several tribes, and the initial description of the bones as “Caucasian-like.”

Both Turkana Boy’s and Lapedo Child’s discovery and scientific analysis are shown to be done with respect to scientific principles. While separated in time for when they were discovered, both were discovered and so excavated by scientists who, even if they did not look at the bones as “loved ones,” did look at them with respect and followed scientific procedures that included proper handling of the bones and remains.

The Kennewick Man and the Iceman were both initially discovered by, well, regular people. Ironically for the Kennewick Man, the treatment of his remains that caused me the most unease in terms of mishandling occurred after NAGPRA was invoked. In the case of the Iceman, the treatment of the body (especially when it was initially thought to be “just” another dead body) made me cringe. I appreciated that the authors made their point about treatment of the various bones and remains by showing the readers how these bones were excavated, treated, and used.

Every Bone Tells a Story has plenty of photographs and illustrations, as well as plenty of notes and resources for more reading. This book has plenty of great content and invites the reader to think about scientific and political debates. It’s chock-full of science and is a great example of the types of books so-called “non readers” love to read.

Review: Invisible Things

Invisible Things by Jenny Davidson. HarperCollins. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to The Explosionist.

The Plot: 1938. Sophie Hunter, sixteen, has fled Scotland for Denmark. Had she stayed in Scotland, she would have been forcibly brainwashed to become a perfect secretary for the “good of the country.” Denmark appears to be a safe harbor. She lives with her friend Mikael and his mother, assistant to Neils Bohr. Sophie waits to hear from the mysterious Alfred Nobel, who says he knows things about Sophie’s long dead parents. War is on the horizon, but the world Sophie finds herself in is not one of politics but that of science and the weapons that scientists make.

The Good: In case the “Alfred Nobel is alive in 1938” doesn’t give it away, (well, that and Scotland using brainwashed secretaries) this is an alternate world. Briefly, in this world, at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Napoleon defeated Wellington and consequences include a European Foundation that invades England while Scotland joins the New Hanseatic League, which is made up of Scandinavian countries. Some history remains similar – a war is threatened. Germany has instituted racial laws. Science is similar, and with Bohr and other scientists around it is treated very seriously. Spiritualism is real, or at least, real for some. The “invisible things” are the stuff of both science (atoms and radiation) and spiritualism.

From dynamite to nitroglycerin to nuclear physicists – it’s real, with slightly altered timeframes. Real enough for those who are into science to get a thrill by the names that are dropped (Lise Meitner). Sophie, in conversations and internal musings, thinks about science, weapons, war, peace.

Sophie’s parents died in an explosion when she was a child, an event she barely survived and hardly remembers. She is about to find out secrets about them, about their past, about their work, about their connections to people Sophie is meeting for the first time. Meanwhile, her friendship with Mikael is slowly turning into something more.

Sophie’s new home and her safety is changed dramatically when war comes to Denmark. An attack leaves Mikael injured and his personality changed; the European Foundation invades Denmark; and a new character is introduced, Elsa Blix. For a second time, Sophie flees her home.

At this point, Invisible Things turns from a story of science, war, and peace to a retelling of The Snow Queen. Mikael is Kai, his injuries turning him cold and enthralling him to the Snow Queen/Elsa Blix; Sophie is Gerda, out to save her best friend.

Every time Sophie turns around, it seems, the world and her place in it is not what it seems. It’s not just being a refugee, first from Scotland, then from Denmark. It is realizing that everything she believed, about herself and her family, is not what it seems. Her world is full of invisible things, slowly being made visible.

Do you have to read The Explosionist to read Invisible Things? No. The Explosionist features the spiritualism that is (sometime) real in this world, so that part is mainly in Sophie’s past, when she refers to experiences in Scotland. But you know what I’m going to say — you’re going to WANT to read The Explosionist. You’re going to want to find out more about this alternate history. You’re going to enjoy Sophie and her adventures and want more.