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Nonfiction Reviews of 2014 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Winner and Honor Books

Nonfiction Winner

sheinkin_port chicago 50

The Port Chicago 50:
Disaster, Mutiny, and the
Fight for Civil Rights

by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School    Roaring Brook    190 pp.
1/14    978-1-59643-796-8    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-59643-983-2    $9.99

Sheinkin follows Bomb (rev. 11/12) with an account of another aspect of the Second World War, stemming from an incident that seems small in scope but whose ramifications would go on to profoundly change the armed forces and the freedom of African Americans to serve their country. The Port Chicago 50 was a group of navy recruits at Port Chicago in California doing one of the few service jobs available to black sailors at the beginning of the war: loading bombs and ammunition onto battleships. “All the officers standing on the pier and giving orders were white. All the sailors handling explosives were black.” When, as seems inevitable given the shoddy safety practices, there was an explosion that left more than three hundred dead, fifty men refused to go back to work, occasioning a trial for mutiny. Sheinkin focuses the events through the experience of Joe Small, who led the protest against the dangerous and unequal working conditions, but the narrative loses momentum as it tries to move between Small’s experience and its larger causes and effects. Still, this is an unusual entry point for the study of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement. Photographs are helpful, and documentation is thorough. Picture credits and index not seen. ROGER SUTTON


Honor Books

animal book

star2 The Animal Book:
A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth

by Steve Jenkins; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate, Middle School    Houghton    
208 pp.
10/13    978-0-547-55799-1    $21.99

While this might look like yet another animal encyclopedia (albeit handsomer than most), chock-full of “fun facts” and better browsed than read, Jenkins has given us something much more thoughtful and coherent. Beginning with a section defining the word animal and surveying the animal kingdom as a whole (97% invertebrates — who knew?), the book then covers “Family,” “Senses,” “Predators,” and “Defenses, a logical and comprehensive structure to give a shape to such a large topic. A section on “Animal Extremes” does provide the kind of Guinness Book facts kids love to hoard, but even here science, not trivia, is paramount: “Being small can offer real advantages to an animal. It doesn’t need as much food as a big animal, and it’s easier to hide from predators.” The concluding section, “The Story of Life,” explores the single fact that underlies the entire book: “All life on earth — past and present — is descended from a microscopic single-celled organism, similar to modern bacteria, that lived more than 3 1/2 billion years ago.” The paper-collage art throughout is distilled from Jenkins’s many previous books, but this is no clip job: each image — from a red-eyed tree frog jauntily balanced on a vine dog-earing a crisp white page to a full-bleed spread of a Siberian tiger’s face — serves the book’s purpose. (In that old Dorling Kindersley problem, however, scale is inconsistent.) Charts and graphs throughout are as intriguing as the animals themselves; an index of the featured animals is pretty much brilliant, including not just page numbers but size, habitat, and diet; also appended are a glossary, bibliography, and a wonderfully illustrated and diagrammed outline of how Jenkins makes his art and books. ROGER SUTTON

powell_josephinestar2 Josephine:
The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
by Patricia Hruby Powell; 
illus. by Christian Robinson
Intermediate, Middle School     Chronicle    104 pp.
2/14     978-1-4521-0314-3     $17.99

To describe Josephine Baker’s life as “dazzling” is not an exaggeration. In this incomparable biography both Powell and Robinson convey the passion, exuberance, dignity, and eccentricity of their subject through words and pictures that nearly jump off the page. There is a surprise at every turn as we learn how Baker, at fifteen, hid inside a costume trunk to stow away with a dance troupe. We see how she managed to stand out in a chorus line by crossing her eyes and acting goofy to win over audiences. We find her walking down the Champs-Élysées with her pet leopard, Chiquita, who wore a diamond choker. You think her life couldn’t get any more interesting? Wait until you hear about her years as a spy for the French Resistance. Or about the twelve children she adopted from all over the world (her “rainbow tribe”), to prove that people of different races could live together. Matter-of-factly introducing the racism her subject encountered throughout her life, Powell doesn’t shy away from the challenges Baker faced, but she makes clear that Baker never let them overwhelm the joy she got from performing and living life to its fullest. Robinson’s highly stylized illustrations, using bold colors and a flat perspective, are at once sophisticated and inviting to young readers. Even the few pages without pictures are made visually interesting by the broad strokes of acrylic paint in the background and by the clean typeface that judiciously uses uppercase to accentuate important words or lines in the text. Direct quotes from Baker — translated from the French, of course — are interspersed throughout. C’est magnifique! KATHLEEN T. HORNING

The 2014 Boston Globe—Horn Book Award winners and honors were announced on May 31st, 2014. Don’t miss the Horn Book’s reviews of the fiction and picture book winners.

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