Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Small Readers: Secrets of American History by Patricia Lakin and Laurie Calkhoven; illustrated by Valerio Fabbretti

These three titles are part of a new series on American history for young readers. Each title explores some little-known aspects of history in simple language with some mild humor.

The Founding Fathers were spies! has four chapters focused on intelligence work during the American Revolution. The introductory chapter talks about George Washington's use of spies and how they helped in the American Revolution, ending with the story of spy Lydia Darragh. The second chapter talks about codes and secret messages, focusing on George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The third chapter tells a story about Hercules Mulligan and his friend, Alexander Hamilton and their use of secret ink. The fourth chapter is an overview of the Culper Spy Ring.

The book is illustrated with humorous cartoons, including one African-American (noted as "a man he trusted" whom Hercules Mulligan uses to pass a message). The people are pictured in trench coats and sunglasses, with mischievous smiles on their faces. Back matter includes a mask letter, used by the British, including an explanation of symmetry. There's also instructions for making invisible ink and a secret message to decode. The final page includes a quiz on the book.

The second title, Heroes who risked everything for freedom, focuses on the Civil War. Like the revolutionary war title, it focuses mainly on intelligence work. It includes a general chapter on spies, a chapter on Harriet Tubman, and a general chapter on "Secrets, disguises, and signals!" The final chapter covers an interesting event in history, which was new to me, about how slaves managed to commandeer a Confederate ship and took it to freedom in the North. Some named and unnamed people are included in the third chapter, with an explanation that not all names were recorded.

The cartoons have a more heroic mold, most of them featuring African-Americans, as most of the stories feature African-Americans fighting for their freedom. There is only one brief mention of Confederate spy methods. Unfortunately, there's a typo on page 23 "We don't alwhays know the full names..." which for me is a big problem in easy readers. Back matter includes stories of white women who fought in the Civil War for the Union and an explanation of the changes in the US flag through history and during the Civil War. There is also a secret message to decode and a quiz on the content.

The final title I looked at, Secret Agents! Sharks! Ghost Armies! presents secret stories of World War II. This title is prefaced by a note to parents, warning them that there may be some reference to "atrocities committed during that time period". The first chapter gives a general overview of World War II, briefly mentioning the persecution of Jewish people and the death of millions of people in the Holocaust. The first chapter talks about Julia Child's experiments in creating a shark repellent (which might or might not have worked). The second chapter discusses the activities of the "ghost army" which conducted secret warfare through disguise and delaying tactics. The third chapter tells about the life of Virginia Hall, who was one of the most wanted spies in World War II.

There are a few African-Americans and people with slightly darker skin color pictured. Virginia Hall is shown as a cute, young woman, whose wooden leg is hardly noticeable. There are several more contemporary pictures of kids playing a game with toy soldiers and tanks and a child talking to his grandfather about the war. Back matter includes an informative section on sharks and apex predators, a geometry problem for figuring out area, and brief biographies of celebrity spies Roald Dahl and Josephine Baker. There is also a final quiz.

It's pushing it a little to describe these as "easy readers." Simon Spotlight tends to have very high-level easy readers and these are no exception. The books include lengthy paragraphs of text with more complex vocabulary and, despite the cute cartoons, more complex concepts as well. They're definitely intermediate and would probably be in juvenile in my library, aimed at 3rd grade and up.

I have mixed feelings about the content. On the one hand, they've done a good job recognizing some of the lesser-known people, including women and minorities, involved in these historical events. On the other hand, I feel that the cartoons trivialize the experiences and real tragedies and struggles these people faced. I also find it very troubling that a note to parents is included in World War II but not in the Civil War title - as though slavery and the deaths of millions in the slave trade was less of an atrocity than the Holocaust. Still, it's not often that I find decent material for readers at an intermediate level which includes any diversity at all. The books are briskly written in a manner that will attract children's interest and the cartoons add humor to what might otherwise be a slow reading experience.

Verdict: Not perfect, but pretty good. I won't feel bad about adding these to my nonfiction collection and promoting them in book clubs. I will, however, skip the title with a typo until there's a new edition.

Revolutionary war: The founding fathers were spies!
ISBN: 9781481499705

Civil War: Heroes who risked everything for freedom
ISBN: 9781481499736

World War II: Secret agents! Sharks! Ghost armies!
ISBN: 9781481499491

Published 2017 by Simon Spotlight; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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