Kids Books

January 01, 2003 10 min read
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Recommended | Noteworthy


Blazing the Iditarod Trail

by Debbie S. Miller
Illustrations by Jon Van Zyle
(Walker, $17.95; grades K-4)

Since its launch in 1973, the Alaskan dog-sled race known as the Iditarod has earned a reputation as one of the most arduous adventure sporting events on the planet. Following in part an old overland mail route that was once the only winter link between Anchorage and Nome on the remote Seward Peninsula, the competing mushers and their dogs must traverse more than 1,100 miles of rugged, snow-covered terrain. It takes those who finish somewhere between 10 and 17 days to do so.

While many Americans have heard of the race, few are aware of the dramatic events it commemorates. This riveting picture book tells that remarkable story.

The narrative begins in Nome “on a dusky January afternoon in 1925,” with a doctor named Curtis Welch diagnosing several local children with diphtheria. A highly contagious childhood disease, diphtheria in its final stages obstructs breathing and usually leads to death—unless the patient receives a timely dose of antitoxin. Unfortunately, the nearest supply of the needed serum was 1,000 miles away, in Anchorage. As a result, the first children to contract the disease died. Welch quickly imposed a quarantine and telegraphed government officials for help.

Because boats and airplanes of that era could not reach Nome in the winter, the only way to get the needed antitoxin serum to the community of 1,500 was by dog sled via the overland mail route. Health officials transported the serum by rail as far as they could—some 300 miles—and arranged for teams of mushers to cover the remaining distance in a harrowing relay race against the clock. In the end, 20 sleds pulled by a total of 160 dogs carried the serum 675 miles. It took five and a half days.

Writing in age-appropriate prose, Miller includes the kinds of colorful details and anecdotes that draw young readers in and add to their knowledge of time and place. Although she relates the whole story of the serum run, she dwells far longer on musher Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog, Togo, than on any of the other participants. And with good reason: Starting in Nome, Seppala drove his team eastward 170 miles to intercept the serum on its way west. He then turned around and carried it 91 miles back toward Nome before handing it off to another team. Altogether, he and his dogs had traveled 261 miles in sub-zero temperatures.

In addition to telling the story, Miller tries to correct a perceived historical injustice. After the antitoxin reached Nome and saved many lives, the final relay team—particularly its lead dog, Balto—received the lion’s share of the glory. Indeed, Miller writes, Balto “became a symbol for all the dogs that risked their lives to save the people of Nome.” But it was always Seppala’s belief, echoed here by Miller, that Togo was the true champion of the run and deserved far more recognition than Balto. (Owner bias wasn’t a factor; both dogs belonged to Seppala.)

Van Zyle’s full-spread acrylic illustrations complement the text nicely, giving readers a strong visual sense of the action and harsh climate. Some, particularly those of the dog teams and the frozen white landscape, are quite magnificent and sure to produce shivers.

—Blake Hume Rodman

by Cathryn Clinton
(Candlewick Press, $15.99; grades 6-8)

In the author’s note, Clinton writes: “The intifada, which literally means ‘a shaking off,’ was an unplanned uprising of street demonstrations and strikes by the Palestinian people.” Although this novel refers to the intifada that ravaged the Gaza Strip from 1987 to 1993, it offers a child’s perspective—an innocent, naive one—of violence in the Middle East that remains relevantin today’s tumultuous political climate.

Malaak Abed Atieh, an11-year-old Palestinian girl living in Gaza City, can’t imagine a society in which people of various religions live together in peace. In her neighborhood,Israeli soldiers wield gunsand impose curfews on Palestinians. In response, Palestinians build blockades, trying to push back the Israelis. Most days, Malaak’s school is closed due to fear of attack. Worst of all, her father, a mechanic, traveled to Israel looking for work and never came home.

For weeks, Malaak stops talking, retreating into a dark, quiet place inside herself rather than dealing with his disappearance. “Now I feel, see, hear the words in my mind, but it is like the front page of a newspaper that someone has torn into little bits,” she explains. “No one can read me. There are too many ragged pieces that don’t go together.” She is hoping that her father has been imprisoned and soon will be released.

Then her mother tells the truth: A bus broke down, and while a passenger was trying to fix it, it blew up. That passenger was Malaak’s father; the Islamic Jihad bombed the vehicle. Malaak can’t hide any longer, especially after realizing that her older brother, Hamid, desperately wants to fight theIsraelis by joining the same group responsible for their father’s death. “There is a burn in his eyes,” she says. “The burn scares me. I fear it goes all the way down to his soul.”

Malaak convinces Hamid not to join the extremists, but he can’t resist throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in the street. When Malaak finds his stash, she hides the stones, demonstrating remarkable maturity: “I pick up the stone, but my arms feel so heavy with the weight of them that I want to put them back right away. They are pulling me down, sinking me.” Malaak speaks eloquently, even poetically, underscoring the innocence the intifada has shattered.

Allowing Malaak to narrate her own story, Clinton captures with grace and compassion the fear, brutality, and helplessness that permeate the Middle East. Descriptions of violence, for example, are neither gruesome nor overwhelming. Rather than paint bloody scenes, she shows how hostility becomes second nature, even for nonaggressors like Malaak. In school, shortly after visiting the remains of a Palestinian home bombed by the Israelis, she opens a book and thinks: “I read one line about eucalyptus trees and close my eyes to see the silvery leaves, but instead I picture burning branches of furniture with shreds of clothing hanging from them.”

Unfortunately, Malaak can’t hide all the stones in her homeland, and one day, Hamid is gunned down. She is temptedto retreat back into darkness, but she knows her comatose brother needs her.

So recalling her mother’s advice—"Bravery is not seen in one act. It is measured by the choices and deeds that fill every day of our lives"—she visits her brother’s hospital bed and whispers reassuring words.

—Jennifer Pricola


THE BRAVEST MOUSE,by Maria Barbero. (North-South, $15.95; grades K- 2.) One of Aesop’s more obscure fables concerns a large family of mice that a stealthy cat is stalking. After much talk, the mice hit on the perfect solution to their problem. They will tie a bell around the cat’s neck. They are pleased with themselves until an elder asks who among them has the courage to perform the dangerous task. The moral: Brave words are easier than brave deeds. There is no mention of the fable anywhere in this fun, colorfully illustrated picture book, but the setup is the same. In this case, though, a quirky little mouse with an embarrassing black birthmark around one eye steps forward, eager to prove himself. He does so and more.

EARTH FROM ABOVE FOR YOUNG READERS,photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, with text by Robert Burleigh. (Abrams, $12.95; grades K-6.) Arthus-Bertrand is one of a number of photographers who have made names for themselves in recent years snapping pictures of the world from the sky. Best known for his stunning Earth From Above coffee-table books, he travels the globe from his home in Paris taking photos from a helicopter of people, places, and animals. Most of the more than 40 photos he selected for this handsome, large-format volume were shot at relatively low altitudes and feature people going about their daily business in a wide range of international settings. There are boatmen in Mali moving crops on the Niger River, fishermen selling their catches on a beach in Senegal, Egyptians drying dates in a palm grove,a lone outfielder in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Each photo is accompanied by three crisp, easy-to-read paragraphs describing interesting facets of the image, subject, and region. Many carry environmental messages. This is cultural geography for kids and a great buy for a classroom or school library.

THE GREAT HORSE-LESS CARRIAGE RACE,by Michael Dooling. (Holiday House, $16.95; grades K-4.) Illustrator of acclaimed picture books about Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, Dooling for the first time tackles both art and narrative in this exciting, if somewhat comical, account of an 1895 automobile race, thought to be the first in U.S. history. The 52-mile Thanksgiving Day jaunt was organized by the Chicago Times- Herald to let designers of the newfangled horseless carriage show a skeptical public what their vehicles could do. Although 79 carriages signed up for the race, only six made it to the starting line on that snowy November morning. The book carefully relates the day’s events, cutting back and forth between the carriages but focusing most closely—for reasons that become obvious—on one belonging to a driver named Frank Duryea. Dooling’s prose is engaging and lively, but his real talent is with paint. Working here in black, white, and grays—it was a cold, bleak day—with a few touches of brown for skin tone, he brings the race and its colorful characters to life. It’s a splendid presentation of a small slice of Americana.

EARTHBORN,by Sylvia Waugh. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 4 and up.) Twelve-year-old Nesta Gwynn thought school bullies were the worst problem she’d ever encounter, but she’d gladly take them over her current troubles. Nesta just learned that her whole life—family roots in Boston and her childhood in York, England—has been an elaborate scheme to cover up her true identity as an alien from Ormingat while her parents complete a 20-year mission to learn about earth’s culture. Prompted by the mysterious disappearance of a young boy, however, British officials are getting suspicious, and Ormingat wants to bring the Gwynns home early. If they don’t enter their spaceship, a baseball-sized object buried in the backyard, at the specified time, they can never return. Nesta, knowing no world aside from earth, runs away until the ship leaves, forcing her parents to sever their ties to home. Waugh’s engaging tale offers insightful social commentary, a unique portrait of extraterrestrial life, and worthwhile discussions of identity and family bonds.

SECRET HEART,by David Almond. (Delacorte Press, $25.95; grades 7-9.) In the tiny English village of Helmouth, not far from a wasteland, lives Joe Maloney, a 9th grader with the innocence of a small child who feels most at home watching the bizarre creatures he sees in the sky. Kids tease “Only Maloney,” and his sole friend wants to teach him to kill in the wild. His mother, however, knows he’s a “funny’n” and predicts, “I think one day you’ll amaze us all.” When a run-down circus rolls into town, Joe proves her right. He befriends Corinna, the trapeze artist, and though the circus no longerincludes real tigers, after the show’s final performance ever, the two embark on an all-night expedition into the wastelandto release the hauntingly real spirit of a tiger. Almond skillfully blurs fantasy and reality in this imaginative and tender tale about a boy who discovers the heart and strength of a tiger deep inside himself.

TRIBES,by Arthur Slade. (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.95; grades 7 and up.) Three years ago, high school senior Percy Montmount’s father, a famous anthropologist, died in the Congo after being bitten by a tsetse fly. Afterward, Percy claims, his father gave him his eyes, inserting “the magical orbs into my sockets.” Ever since, Percy has carried on his father’s work, reading Darwin and observing the strange tribal behavior at his high school— the rough-and-tough customs of the Jock Tribe, for example. In doing so, however, Percy alienates his peers and misses out on romance. As graduation looms, he realizes he’s been hiding behind anthropology, concealing his grief, first for his father and then for a friend who committed suicide. Percy’s jargon is grating—after a football player punches him, Percy explains that “his machismo dictated he must respond in a physical manner"—but his observations are witty and suggest that cliques overlap more than teens might think. Plus, an unexpected twist keeps kids reading.

—Blake Hume Rodman and Jennifer Pricola


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