Monday, February 2, 2015

Nonfiction Monday: Guys Read True Stories edited by Jon Scieszka

The Guys Read anthologies don't check out super well at my library, but I purchase them anyways because sooner or later someone is going to come in with a short story assignment and then there they are, right at hand. However, I purchased this volume specifically for myself because it features a short comic by Nathan Hale with one of my favorite American frontier stories, the Guy Who Survived a Bear Attack (I didn't say I could remember his name, just his story).

Scieszka's introduction hints at the delights to come, mentioning hooks for the different stories from hunting for tarantulas in the Amazon to the amazing story of Jumbo the elephant. The book is illustrated throughout with black and white watercolor sketches by Brian Floca.

The first story, "Sahara Shipwreck" by Steve Sheinkin, is appropriately awesome. It features a shipwreck, desert survival, tons of gruesome details, and some thoughtful discussion of slavery, different cultures, and how life or death experiences change a person. I can sell that, no problem. "They drank their own pee." That's all you need.

"Tarantula Heaven" by Sy Montgomery is a fine piece of science writing, with the added "ick" factor of spiders. No matter how annoyed I get when people teach their kids to be afraid of spiders, they're always going to add an "ick" factor. The only part that really threw me was a paragraph near the end, that was...weird. It started comparing tarantulas to Christmas stars and talking about how they made the horror and sorrow in the author's life worth it for that moment. That seems a bit over the top to me. However, the rest of the story is quite compelling.

Then, of course, there's Nathan Hale's story of Hugh Glass. Shot by the Arikara, attacked by bears, left to die in the wilderness...he survived. It's an awesome story. I was at first skeptical of the way Hale skips around in the story, interspersing the survival tale with historical context and different legends around Hugh Glass. However, as I finished the story I realized that it really works; it makes you really see the difference between the legend and what might have happened and the historical context of what we know for certain. Hale's art is in black and white, but it's got his trademark humor and characters, including an ironic look at how the white settlers interacted with the Arikara and what set off the whole mess in the beginning.

Candace Fleming, who wrote a biography on Barnum, contributes "A Jumbo Story" the tale of the world's largest elephant. From his popularity in London to his sale to Barnum, star status, tragic death, and commercial value, she covers his story in all its weird, giant glory.

"Uni-Verses" by Douglas Florian is a series of science-based poems. Each poem is accompanied with a brief paragraph explaining the science behind the verse. I didn't care much for these poems, not being a big fan of Douglas Florian anyways, and I have a hard time picturing any kids not skipping over this section. Which is what I did after skimming the first couple poems.

"This won't hurt a bit: The painfully true story of dental care" by Jim Murphy is interesting - historical medicine is always good for a gross wince or two - but it's not really a story, more an informational narrative.

"A pack of brothers" by Thanhha Lai did not, in my opinion, fit into this anthology well at all. It's a very personal memoir talking about Lai's experience growing up with six older brothers in Vietnam. Although it does give some cultural context, it's mostly personal recollections of her childhood. I have a hard time seeing a tween boy, the audience for this anthology, having interest in this. Although it's technically a true story, it sticks out like a sore thumb amid the survival/historical narratives. I think it would have done much better in another context, as it was well-written.

"Mojo, Moonshine, and the Blues" by Elizabeth Partridge is a brief biography of the life of Muddy Waters, a pioneering blues singer. Partridge doesn't shy away from the more difficult aspects of his life and her writing is almost lyrical, but I can't think of any kids, boys or girls, who would be interested in historical blues musicians.

"A Cartoonist's Course" by James Sturm is another personal memoir, talking about his childhood interest in cartooning and how he arrived at his current career. I do have kids ask for drawing books, but none that are super into drawing comics and Sturm's cartooning books don't circulate much, if at all, so I don't see much interest in this story. I personally found it rather boring and pretty much like every "this is how I became an artist/writer" narrative I've read before.

The final story, "The River's Run" is by T. Edward Nickens, an editor for Field & Stream and Audubon. I'm really not an outdoors person, so I couldn't relate to the desire to fly to remote places and nearly get killed canoeing down dangerous rivers just to fish (I don't like fish either) but we have a lot of kids around here who are interested in hunting and fishing and they'd probably not only enjoy the story but would probably be familiar with Nickens name as well.

Verdict: Short stories are a hard sell for most libraries and this collection was, I felt, weak in spots. However, it does have some really stellar contributions that will attract readers from Steve Sheinkin and Sy Montgomery to Nathan Hale, Candace Fleming, and T. Edward Nickens. I'm comfortable with my decision to house this collection in the fiction section with the rest of the Guys Read anthologies and I'm not sorry I purchased it (although I did wait to get it in paperback). Recommended if you have fans of the anthologies, kids who get short story assignments, or kids who like true survival/adventure stories.

ISBN: 9780061963810; Published 2014 by Walden Pond/HarperCollins; Purchased for the library

1 comment:

Annette said...

I had assumed that these books were not only FOR boys but also all written BY men. Happy to have that misconception cleared up.