Saturday, August 10, 2013

Remembering JFK - 50 years later

November 22, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. I don't remember the first time I heard about Kennedy, or his assassination.  It is almost like I was born knowing about him because of the stories I heard growing up. I loved hearing my parents tell stories about themselves when they were kids, especially while they were dating in college. One of the stories I remember the most was the day they came to visit my grandmother in Irving and just about scared her to death. It was November 24, 1963, the day Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. My grandmother and a friend were listening to the news. It had just been reported that Oswald had been staying in Irving. My parents came up to the house, grabbed the door, and walked in giving both ladies quite a fright. Like the author's father, my father collected a variety of newspapers in 1963 about the assassination. Since my family is from the Dallas area, my father collected the local papers which included the The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times Herald.

"The President Has Been Shot!":
the Assassination of John F. Kennedy
by James L. Swanson

The opening pages of the book provide a quick overview of the early years of the President's life in a single chapter which includes the fact that he was one of nine children, his service during World War II as a navy lieutenant, and his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier.

Following this brief history the author quickly moves on to the 1960 election in which Kennedy defeats Richard Nixon in "one of the closest elections in history." We then move on to January of 1961 for the inauguration and a number of excerpts from the Presidents inaugural address, including his most famous lines
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
Key elements in Kennedy's administration, including Bay of Pigs operation, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, the President's speech in Berlin, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the Civil Rights movement are presented in short easy to read chapters. Throughout the book black and white photographs with descriptions are included as half-page or double-page spreads.

Part Two of the book takes the President and First Lady to Texas and the fateful day in Dallas. It is stated Lee Harvey Oswald "would have known from his military training, to hit someone from such a distance, he would have to use a rifle." A brief history of presidential assassinations and attempts is presented to show "no American president had ever been assassinated by a rifle." [67] Swanson's theory is that Oswald had not planned to, nor would he have attempted to assassinate Kennedy had he not come to him, by passing the School Book Depository.

An account of Lee Harvey Oswald's life is portrayed as the youngest of three boys to a single mother. The family was unstable and moved around to a number of different cities and his mother would frequently turn the boys over to relatives or a local orphanage for care. It goes on to tell how he dropped out of school at sixteen, join the United States Marine Corps shortly after and was court-martialed twice. It is during this time Oswald learned his rifle firing accuracy. Oswald's demeanor in the years leading up to November 22nd was one of "a lifelong loser, a high school dropout, a second-rate ex-U.S. Marine, and a malcontent with a chip on his shoulder." [78]

Then with an almost minute by minute account leading up to the assassination, Swanson provides details of the Kennedy's and Oswald's actions. As the president's motorcade approaches Elm Street, Abraham Zapurder's, who's famous footage captured the assassination, movements are revealed. The events and actions of these men are presented in great detail. As you read, you feel that you are there, witnessing the events in the presence of each of the individuals, including the traumatic details and quotes from the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. The perspective of the writing is very well done.

The author then takes the reader through the swearing in of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the flight back to Washington, D.C., Mrs. Kennedy's meticulous planning of her husband's funeral, and the funeral itself. Swanson goes back and forth between Washington, D.C. and Dallas by telling how Mrs. Kennedy prepared for her husband's funeral while the captured assassin was claiming his innocence.

"The President Has Been Shot!": The Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a well researched account of the events of November 22, 1963. It is written for middle and high school age students. I believe, for this age group this is an excellent overview of the life of, presidency, and sacrifice of John F. Kennedy. I would highly recommend this book for all libraries serving teenage patrons.

*To comply with new guidelines introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, Scholastic, has provided a complimentary electronic copy of this book for review purposes. My review is in no way influenced by the author or publishing company and is solely my opinion.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Historical Fiction for Middle and High School

I love historical fiction. I have read books from all different places and times, such as the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1483), the Jacobite Rising in Scotland (1745), nineteenth century China, United States Civil War (1861-1865), World War II (1939-1945; from the British perspective), and many others. This is the first time I have read a book set during the French and Indian War (1689-1763).
The Snake Fence
by Janet Kastner Olshewsky

The Snake Fence by Janet Kastner Olshewsky takes place in Pennsylvania and is narrated by a young Quaker boy named Noble. More than anything this book is a coming of age story for Noble and an account of his experiences in helping to bring peace between the Delaware Indians and the British colonies, which concluded on October 26, 1758 by the signing of the Treaty of Easton, but is not mentioned in the book because it ends prior to this time period.

Noble is a sixteen year old boy who has finished an apprenticeship with a carpenter when the story begins. He yearns to be a cabinetmaker, but needs money in order to purchase the tools for this profession. An opportunity arises for Noble to earn money when he sees an advertisement in the paper for volunteers to take supplies to General Braddock at Fort Cumberland. This is when historical information is presented for the first time. Noble sets out and joins the wagon train from Philadelphia to Wills's Creek as advertised by Benjamin Franklin. General Braddock and Mr. Franklin are not the only historical figures to make an appearance in this novel.  Others include the Pemberton family, specifically Israel Pemberton - known as the "King of the Quakers", James and Susannah Wright, and Scarouady - half-king in the Ohio Valley over Iroquois and their allies.

The novel does not end when Noble and the other members of the wagon train arrive at the fort. In fact, this is only the beginning of his journey to manhood. Through the choices he makes on his return home from the fort, Noble begins to establish his own course, not that chosen by his father. In the end it seems appropriate for this young man to have been named for his grandmother's family - Noble - in his deeds and actions. He is certainly a young man with superior character and morals.

One of the characters I was most interested in was John McCowen. He is indeed a real person, as is Noble. I attempted to find out more information about Mr. McCowen because my maiden name is McCown. I was able to find out the McCowen's connected to my family were actually in Tennessee and Kentucky - according to my father who has been doing genealogy for over sixty years. It would have been very ironic had this John McCowen been related to me, but I was still intrigued with him as a character in the book.

The only difficulties some readers may have is in the Quaker "lingo" (as the author states on her website). "By the 18th Century, when The Snake Fence takes place, hardly anyone except Quakers used "thee" and "thy." In fact, if people used those pronouns, others could be pretty sure they were hearing Quakers. Everyone else had gone to "you" and "your."  Now, I don't know if it is because I was born and reared in Texas, but I have never heard the word "mayhap". When I first came across the word, I immediately thought of "perhaps" and learned when looking the word up online that it is indeed "an archaic word for perhaps" according to The Free Dictionary by Farlex.

I believe this would be an excellent novel for students in middle and high school, especially in the area in which this story takes place. The story provides a wonderful mix of historical events in an easy to read story line. I believe students would not only have a better understanding of history, but also more appreciation for our forefathers if they were to read more books like The Snake Fence. The story provides historical information in a manner that is entertaining and informative to the reader. Like I said at the beginning, I have read a lot of historical fiction. It is one of my favorite genres, however this is the first book I have read about the French and Indian War and I learned a great deal. I'm not sure all readers would research the people and places like I did in order to learn more, but the opportunity is there and so is the historical information.

*To comply with new guidelines introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, the author - Janet Kastner Olshewsky, has provided a complimentary copy of her book for review purposes. My review of this book is in no way influenced by the author and is solely my opinion.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Rosh Hashanah Tale

I'm Sorry, Grover: A Rosh Hashanah Tale
by Tilda Balsley & Ellen Fischer
I have always been a great fan of Sesame Street. The program premiered on November 10, 1969, forty-nine weeks before I was born. My mother stayed home from school (she is a retired teacher) that day in order to see the premier episode.

This particular book, I'm Sorry, Grover: A Rosh Hashanah Tale is from the first Israeli co-production of Sesame Street, called Rechov Sumsum. Some of the familiar characters from America's Sesame Street are also seen on Shalom Sesame (the central location for the set of Rechov Sumsum). Grover and Cookie Monster appear in this story as well as Broch, Avigail (a cross between America's Elmo and Abby Cadabby) and Moishe Oofnik (compared to American's Oscar the Grouch).

The story opens with Grover welcoming the reader a Shanah Tovah - "Happy New Year". He explains that he is in Israel and is going to be telling us a story about his friend Brosh. Cookie Monster finds a sad Brosh in a coffee shop. He soon learns Brosh is sad because he has lost his woolly cap. Cookie Monster goes with Brosh in order to help him retrace his steps. He attempts to locate Grover, thinking he took the cap. He then confront Avigail and Moishe Oofnik, neither have his cap. When the cap is finally discovered Brosh must find each of the friends he thought had taken his cap and apologize.

Throughout the book various items used during Rosh Hashanah are mentioned, such as the shofar (a horn blown in long and short staccato blasts), round challah (circular bread to symbolize the cycle of the year), pomegranates (to symbolize being fruitful in the new year), apples and honey (for a sweet new year).  The text of the book is in English. However, there is a Hebrew text in a number of places in the illustrations. Since the book takes place during the High Holidays (the ten day period leading up to Rosh Hashanah) Brosh is given the opportunity to apologize to his friends and begin the new year with a clean slate.

This is one of four books in the Shalom Sesame eBooks available from Kar-Ben Publishing. Other books in the series include : The Count's Hanukkah Countdown, Grover and Big Bird's Passover Celebration, and It's a Mitzvah, Grover!. I would recommend this book for a library serving children in an area with a large Jewish population. I believe it would be a great book to help young children understand Rosh Hashanah and how to ask for forgiveness.

*To comply with new guidelines introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, Kar-Ben Publishing, has provided a complimentary electronic copy of this book for review purposes through