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New non-fiction for kids

October 23, 2009 - Amy Phelps
Some new non-fiction stories and biographies have been released for young readers.

First is "Sweethearts of Rhythmn: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World" by Newberry Honor winner Marilyn Nelson and illustrated by Caldecott Honor winner Jerry Pinkney (Penguin, $21.99) that follows the story (through the remembrances of the instruments) of the International Sweethearts of Rhythmn, an all-female jazz band that toured America during the 1940s.

The poems are almost written like song lyrics, accompanied by titles of swing songs and pictures that relate to it - from their start as a church fund-raiser to traveling across the country playing at picnics and then at noted clubs, like the Cotton Club and the Apollo. The poems tells of the musicians giving the people what they wanted - a distraction from World War II through the music. It also tells of the cultural climate then - of segregation and how it was illegal in parts of the country for white and black musicians to play together. The band not only had white and black players (though the story tells of one of the white players darkening her skin with makeup to be able to play with the band in those segregated areas), it also featured Chinese, Hawaiian and Mexican players, which was part of how the band got its name.

The band later became the first black women to travel to Europe on a USO tour in 1945. There is an International Sweethearts of Rhythmn chronology in the back of the book with pictures and a note from the the author and illustrator, as well as a bibliography. The artwork in this is lovely and the story behind the poems is very interesting, especially to young girls and may spark more interest in research. It is for ages 10 and up.

*** Children can discover more about television in "The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth" by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Greg Couch (Random House, $16.99, Junior Library Guild Selection.) The book first starts out talking of life on a farm in 1906 before introducing the reader to Philo, who had an interest in all-things mechanical since he could talk. In particular, a hand-cranked phone and a phonograph and their inventors intrigued him. As he grew older and read more and more about electricity and the new inventions, he read about something called television that scientists were trying to work on. It wasn't until the 14-year-old Philo was plowing one day that he suddenly got an idea of how television could work. He eventually discussed his ideas with a teacher, who helped encourage him to go on to college. Though he couldn't stay due to his father's death, he eventually met some businessmen with whom he discussed his idea and who gave him money and a year to make it work. Though his first attempt didn't work, he got new investors and his second attempt in 1927 worked.

 One year later, at the age of 22, he announced the invention of television. An author's note at the end goes on to discuss the legal battles over patents and recognition. It's a bittersweet ending for such a remarkable story. It is for ages 5 to 8, though with all of the concepts involved, I'd lean closer to the older kids' recommendation.

*** Through pictures and facts, National Book Award Finalist Elizabeth Partridge tells the story of the children behind the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in "Marching for Freedom" (Penguin, $19.99.) Centering on the walk on March 7, 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., Partridge shows the events leading up to the march, including the segregation during that time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s involvement, and how the Voting Rights Act was eventually put into place on August 6, 1965. It's a good look back into darker periods of history that may be incomprehensible to children and how far the nation has come since then. It is for grades 5 and up. *** Children can be introduced to the man behind the Greatest Show on Earth in "The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum" by Candace Fleming (Random House, $18.99, Junior Library Guild Selection.) In this biography, using photos and pictures from the time period, Fleming paints a picture of the ultimate showman and his bizarre collections and the story behind them, as well as a look at his family and wife and children. It's an interesting take on Barnum's life and his collection and his attitude about them.


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