Book Reviews, Children's Fiction, Children's Nonfiction, Fiction, Nonfiction

ARC Book Reviews: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Spies

Alright, I’m putting on the children’s librarian hat and reviewing an upcoming picture book and middle grade nonfiction book. If kid’s books aren’t your cup of tea, keep scrolling!

Thanks to NetGalley for free copies of the books for honest reviews.

Title: Jean-Michel Basquiat
Author: Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara
My rating: 3 / 5
TL;DR: A good addition to the Little People, Big Dreams series, though a little distilled for my taste.
When does it come out? June 16, 2020

Summary

From the publisher: Jean-Michel was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father. When he was eight and recovering from an accident in bed, his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which sparked his interest in the human form. As a teenager, he gained recognition as part of the graffito duo SAMO that spray-painted cryptic messages and images around the landscape of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He eventually made his way to the New York gallery scene and on to international acclaim.

My Review

I like Vegara’s Little People, Big Dreams series, because I’ve found them to be a gentle introduction into biographies for younger children. I think of them as a young child equivalent of the Who Was…? series for elementary students. The illustrations are great, and the story and text are very approachable for young audiences. I also like how all the books have a short biography section in the back. I do wish there was a bibliography for further reading, but maybe that’s not necessary for the audience this series is trying to reach.

This title is a good introduction to Basquiat, although it definitely glosses over the troubled parts of his life. As a children’s librarian, I struggle with the tension between wanting books to be age-appropriate, while also feeling that it’s important to not shield children from the realities of life. While this book is a decent primer to Basquiat, I found myself comparing it to Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe, which I think is a superior book (also a Caldecott winner!).

Although I like the Little People, Big Dreams series, I think this one depicts a version of Basquiant’s life that is too sanitized and cheerful for me to fully get behind.

Title: The Secret Life of Spies
Author: Michael Noble
My rating: 1 / 5
TL;DR: Clunky writing and a higher reading level than advertised. I wouldn’t purchase this book for my library or my child.
When does it come out? May 5, 2020

Summary

From the Publisher: This book journeys around the world and delves back and forth in time to introduce readers to a host of incredible spies who dedicated their lives to world of espionage. Meet Alan Turing whose work cracking the Enigma code helped shorten World War II by a number of years and save countless lives and let Hedy Lamarr prove to you that looks can be deceiving as she put her Hollywood glamour on hold to help advance radio technology. With accounts told through first person narrative, readers will feel like they’re meeting some of the most infamous spies of all time.

(I mean, just reading that description you can see what I’m talking about below…)

My Review

Spies are endlessly fascinating to both adults and children alike. The popular Spy School series comes to mind for elementary kids, as well as many movies featuring kid spies.

That’s what makes this book such a disappointment. The biggest problem is that the writing is truly awful. As a children’s librarian and former copywriter, I can say with confidence that this text would have been rejected by my editor immediately, AND it is way above grade level for its audience (7-10 year olds). Every paragraph has large words and clunky sentences that I found boring, dry, and challenging to read as an adult. It’s a combination of bad writing…”Espionage is one of the oldest human activities ever to have existed…Although they try to keep their work hidden from everyday view, they have left their impact scattered throughout history.”…and difficult vocabulary words: “This gives us a chance to look inside the mysterious world of spies and uncover some of the incredible techniques they use in their inscrutable work.” The book also didn’t use contractions, which makes the writing feel stilted and awkward. The first bolded sentence of page 4 also has a grammatical error (“spy” should be “spies”). The text feels like an early first draft, not even close to being publishable. I tried reading a few passages out loud, and kept getting tongue-tied.

Then we get to the stories of the spies themselves. I found the spies’ storylines convoluted and hard to follow. Words like “handler” were introduced without any definition (or not until later in the book), but then other words like “pilgrim” are defined. I was also confused by the constantly changing perspective. Sometimes the spy narratives were in the first person, then they suddenly shifted to third person. Then sometimes the spy is talking to the reader (like in Sun Tzu’s section). It’s disorienting. Sometimes I get the sense the author is trying to give the spies a unique voice, but it quickly shifts back into dry narration, just in first person.

I wish that the spies were also listed in order chronologically. We keep jumping around different centuries and times in history, and it’s difficult to follow. I also wish there had been a map included with each spy to highlight where they were born or operated. Seven- to ten-year-old children might not know the location of Russia offhand. They also might not know that UK stands for United Kingdom.

Now that I’ve mentioned all the problems with this book, there are two redeeming qualities: The illustrations are fun, and I do like the spy terminology sprinkled throughout (even though the blurbs are overly-long). I like that there’s a glossary at the end of the book.

Overall, I don’t think this book accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s marketed for 7-10 year-old children, but it’s written at a college reading level, and somehow it manages to make the interesting topic of spies boring (an impressive feat!). The text of this book needs some serious chopping, streamlining, and simplifying. I think more diagrams of gear and equipment, maps of countries, and perhaps even photographs of the modern spies would enhance the book.

And one last beef–how could this book leave out Virginia Hall, one of the greatest female spies of World War II?!

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