Saturday, September 25, 2010

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

At any given time, I am usually reading a combination of new and old materials.  I get books from a variety of sources, and that means I sometimes go back to things I didn't read when they were first published.  Shipwreck was published in 1998, and it is from my personal To Be Read pile.

I am newly interested in well-written nonfiction for middle school and teen readers.  After the past couple of years of amazing nonfiction and the creation of the Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults award, I am indulging in more nonfiction this year than I have ever read in my life.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World is about Shackleton's third exploratory trip to Antarctica in 1915.  He intended to be the first explorer to ever cross the continent successfully.  What actually happened to the expedition makes for one of the most dramatic, incredible survival stories ever written.

Once Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, began to approach the continent, the ship was trapped in ice for more than 9 months and the Endurance was eventually crushed by the ice pack.  When the expedition abandoned the ship, they had no choice but to cross the ice in search of open water to launch their boats.  The men painstakingly dragged the boats (barely big enough to carry themselves and a few crucial stores) a quarter mile at a time across miles and miles of ice.  The men found a tiny island on which to shelter using compass and chronometer, and most of the crew stayed there on the ice while Shackleton embarked on a desperate rescue mission across 800 miles of open ocean.  The most amazing thing about this expedition is that every man aboard the ship survived.

Armstrong's method of telling this story is factual without going overboard.  She allows the dramatic facts to speak for themselves.  Armstrong uses great descriptive phrases to bring the realities of this expedition to life.  Speaking of the ice the men were beginning to cross, she describes it as if a "giant hand had smashed down onto the frozen face of the deep and broken it into a million shards" (p. 52).  This really connects readers to something they may not be able to visualize on their own.

The photographs that Armstrong chose for this book are as striking as the facts she relays.  Armstrong includes information in her narrative about how these amazing photographs survived the expedition.  Many of those photographs were taken on glass plates, and Hurley, the ship's photographer, had to leave many of the glass plates behind when they abandoned the Endurance.  It is amazing, considering the hardship that these photos depict, that the images survived at all.  The images also help underscore the extreme agony these men endured.

Finally, I'd like to consider this book as a work of nonfiction.  Armstrong tells the story in a narrative style that flows well.  She uses the men's journals of the trip to bring a first person perspective to the expedition, and there is dialogue incorporated into the narrative which must be taken from historical sources.  However, there are no footnotes to indicate which sources are used, which is a drawback when using the book for assignments or research papers.  There is a strong bibliography for readers to follow, including research journals, at the end of the book.  The story itself is so compelling that readers will return to its details.
While this book is not for the faint of heart, it is an exciting adventure story.  In 1915, many of the methods and equipment were much more primitive, so it is truly incredible these men lived to tell the tale.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, Jennifer Armstrong.  Scholastic, 1998.  Personal collection.


Hi everyone!! Sorry for the lack of blog posts, but we have just moved from Phoenix to Helena, MT.  We're staying with a friend out in the country who does not have Internet, so blogging will be intermittent for the next 2-3 weeks.  However, a new post is coming right up!

Sunday, September 5, 2010


So, I'm finished reading it.  And whatever I would say about it might reveal spoilers, and for now I'd like to avoid that.  So here's what I will say instead.  I think Collins has done a terrific job outlining a political situation for teens, and I hope that it will lead teens to ask questions about politics and the political process around the world.  I hope it will lead them to become more savvy instead of more accepting.  And even though the Katniss-Gale-Peeta situation didn't turn out the way I thought it might (I'm not saying how... ;)), I appreciated that Collins made it understandable, and the choice was obvious at the end.  It was definitely an adrenaline rush!

The Humblebee Hunter

Some years it happens that I read multiple books on a given subject.  It's not always purposeful - sometimes the blogosphere is talking about a book, or my library's Mock Awards list includes a particular book, and then suddenly I've accumulated several books on a topic.  Last year there were two topics that I read fairly widely on - civil rights and Charles Darwin.  So, having already read Charles and Emma (Deborah Heiligman) and Kathryn Lasky's One Beetle Too Many under my belt, I was ready to start The Humblebee Hunter.
The story is told from Charles' daughter's point of view.  Henrietta is stuck in the kitchen learning to bake at the beginning of the story, but she really longs to be outside with her father.  Etty tells readers little snippets about Darwin, his questioning nature and his methods, giving children a vague understanding of his life.  What readers will take away from this story is his enthusiasm for children and those children's involvement in what looks like a fun research project. Darwin's children each identify a bumblebee and observe it buzzing from flower to flower for one minute to count the number of flowers it visits.  The book ends with an arresting full-page illustration which completes the book in a strong manner.  

Deborah Hopkinson is known for writing fictionalized picture-book-style biographies of historical figures, including my favorite of her books, Maria's Comet (I lived on Nantucket for two years).  This book follows in the same style - the subtitle clearly states "inspired by the life and experiments of Charles Darwin and his children".  There are notes at the end to give additional information on Darwin and his family, which I always appreciate.  However, I find it confusing that there is no explanation of why Darwin and his children call the bees "humblebees" until the very end of the note on the Darwin family.  And that mention does not identify whether that is a nickname the family created or a British word for bee.  To be fair, there doesn't seem to be another likely place to put this information - but while reading I spent a lot of time distracted by the name.  I do think this would be a great introduction to Charles Darwin to begin a unit of study - it humanizes him and includes his family in his scientific work.

While I really liked the plot of The Humblebee Hunter, I loved the illustrations.  Jen Corace has also illustrated for Amy Krouse Rosenthal and the newer Disney picture book version of Hansel and Gretel, but I think her illustrations are a perfect match for the text.  I believe the illustrations are done in watercolor and ink (as a reviewer, I really miss the description of the artistic process when it is omitted from the front matter), and the colors are terrific.  Etty wears a distinctive teal color which makes her really pop from the pages.  The colors and faces are reminiscent of 1950's art, but in a lovely, moody way.  There are a variety of illustrations - spot, single page and double-page spreads to catch children's eyes.

Except for the quibble of the Humblebee's name, this book really added to my understanding of Charles Darwin and his family.  I'd recommend it for reading to children ages 6 through 9, but it could be used as supplementary material in almost any grade's study of Darwin.  Well done.