In All the Walls of Belfast two teens struggle with the past in order to change their futures.

All the Walls of Belfast by Sarah J. Carlson. Turner Publishing Co. Nashville, TN, 2018.

This young adult novel begins with seventeen-year-old Fiona on her way to Ireland to meet her father. Her mother fled Ireland for America when Fiona was two, and Fiona spent her childhood believing her father wanted nothing to do with her. Her mother only recently admitted that Fiona’s father has been wanting to be a part of Fiona’s life ever since. A million questions are going through Fiona’s mind,  as her plane begins its descent. She’s beginning to think her best friend, Nevaeh, was right: “…this was totally insane. And I hadn’t even told her the whole surprise-Dad-was-in-the Irish Republican Army thing.” Needless to say, this is a lot to digest for a seventeen-year-old. She’s miffed at her mother, that she kept her away from her father all these years, but she’s both eager and hesitant to meet him. Her mother has assured her that her father “…was not one of the real bad guys…it wasn’t like he’d killed anyone.”

Meanwhile, Danny, an Irish Protestant teen, is on his way to an interview that he hopes will take him out of the “sectarian rubbish,” as his teacher describes Danny’s life. Danny wants to join the British army as a nurse. His mother died in one of the bombings, but she left behind a note to him in his baby book: “…I dream that you’ll save lives instead of take them. Make the world a better place. Mummy loves you.” His father, though, hates the British government because they negotiate and make deals with the IRA. No son of his will be in the British army. Danny’s father drinks, abuses Danny and cherishes the July 12th parades that celebrate “his culture.” These parades sometimes wind their way through Catholic neighborhoods, causing tension, if not outright violence.

All the Walls of Belfast is a well written, poignant look at modern day Ireland long after the “Troubles” have passed. The undercurrent of tension between the Catholics and Protestants, however, still affects real people’s lives: in this story, the lives of two teenagers who just want to live in peace. How these two teens face their pre-conceived biases and learn to forgive is at the heart of this excellent young adult novel.

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“A Green Place To Be” is Perfect Non-fiction To Ignite Young Reader’s Curiosity

A Green Place To Be, The Creation of Central Park by Ashley Benham Yazdani. Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2016, 2019.

“Central Park in Manhattan is green and growing and full of life. It’s a vibrant jewel at the heart of New York City, but it wasn’t always this way…”

So begins Ashley Benham Yazdani’s captivating picture book about the transformation of what was once swampland into what is now Central Park. The illustrations, done in pencil and watercolor, add to the fun of discovering each step along the way in the park’s evolution.

New York City was growing fast, “…but the people needed a green place to be. In 1858 in the city, only a few people had this luxury. If a park wasn’t made quickly, there might not be enough open space left for one.” Enter Calvert Vaux, an architect, who convinced city leaders to hold a design contest. Calvert intended to win the contest himself.

Calvert asked Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who had been appointed superintendent of the park, to help him come up with a design. A double page spread shows how the two men made a ten-foot-long drawing of their design. They even showed where rocks and plants should be and asked people who visited them to add grass. While the two men almost missed the deadline for the contest entry, they ultimately won the contest.

Another double-page spread shows the explosion of gun powder used to break up the boulders that riddled the area. One page is taken up with only three words: “Boom Bang Blam.” The background illustration is white clouds of smoke depicting the rocky explosion. These clever sorts of illustrations are sure to capture the eye and imagination of the young reader.

Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead went on to create many more parks all over America. The last few pages of the book have short biographies of the two men, a bibliography and fun suggestions of things to hunt for in the drawings—including a pair of ghostly sisters who supposedly continue to haunt the park today!

It’s encouraging to see so many wonderful non-fiction picture books being published. A Green Place To Be , like Out of School and Into Nature (reviewed here in April) tells the story of people who, long ago, had a vision and pursued those dreams. Historical non-fiction when done well, like both of these books, can excite children’s curiosity and lead them to pursue areas of research they may not have otherwise considered.

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“Out of School” a Perfect Non-Fiction Read for Earth Day

Out of School and Into Nature, the Anna Comstock Story by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Jessica Lanan. Sleeping Bear Press Ann Arbor Michigan, 2017.

“From the time she was no higher than a daisy, Anna was wild about nature.” Out of School and Into Nature is a delightful picture book that tells the story of Anna Comstock, a woman ahead of her time. Anna is depicted as a little girl who loved the outdoors and was curious about nature: “She loved to hold it close in her fingers, she wanted to feel it squish between her toes, which is why she ran barefoot all summer…” She would sit for long periods of time, just watching nature. Her mother must have been an exceptional woman as well, as she gave Anna the freedom to learn and explore on her own; to ask questions and to try to find the answers.

 Anna pursued science during a time when women simply didn’t do that. Instead of getting married after high school, like most girls, she went on to college to study plants and insects. Anna started drawing the plants and bugs she learned about. Her sketches were so realistic, that her art professor used her drawings during his lectures. In time, farmers studied her sketches to help identify insects that were destroying their crops. Later, Anna used wood blocks to make impressive prints of her creations.

Anna was responsible for introducing nature classes in New York schools. She encouraged teachers to take their lessons outside. At first, this suggestion was met with skepticism. “People thought she was crazy. Didn’t she know school rules? Students learn inside. Students play outside.” Many schools today have incorporated outdoor education into their curriculum.

In 1911, Anna Comstock published a book on nature called the Handbook of Nature Study. At over 900 pages, it contained lessons on a variety of topics. Her book has been translated into eight languages and reprinted frequently.

Teachers who are looking for an engaging biography for younger children will find this book is the perfect choice. It is also an excellent addition to a classroom’s STEAM (A stands for Art) resource shelf. Out of School and Into Nature can easily be used in literacy, science and art lessons.  Kids who are interested in bugs will delight in the illustrations, but the message—that Anna pursued her dream of being a scientist against the social mores of the time—is an important one. Anna was a gifted artist and a dedicated scientist as well.  

Every April, Northland College in Ashland Wisconsin chooses books in several categories for their Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA). Out of School and Into Nature was last year’s choice in the children’s literature category. I have found their award winners to be exceptional children’s literature. This year’s winners have just been announced.   To see the winners, honorable mentions and a complete list of past awards, click on this link: https://www.northland.edu/sustain/soei/sonwa/