June 19, 2008


The Day the World Exploded: The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa. By Simon Winchester. Adapted by Dwight Jon Zimmerman. HarperCollins. $22.99.

As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom.
By Richard Michelson. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Knopf. $16.99.

      Dwight Jon Zimmerman’s adaptation for ages 10-14 of Simon Winchester’s nonfiction book Krakatoa shows why Winchester’s work for adults became a bestseller. The monumental explosion of the volcanic island of Krakatoa in 1883 is an event about which much has been written, but the focus is usually on the explosion itself, which generated the loudest sound ever made in human history and spawned tsunamis that killed more than 30,000 people. Winchester’s work goes much further, as does Zimmerman’s profusely illustrated adaptation of it. The Day the World Exploded puts the eruption of Krakatoa in fascinating human, historical, religious and technological context. This means explaining the Dutch East Indies Company, through which Holland controlled the Indies, in which Krakatoa lay. It means discussing the area’s most valuable export, which was pepper. It means looking at the continental shelves that meet along what is known as Wallace’s Line – and explaining who Wallace was. It means looking at the way Dutch settlers lived in the Indies, the tourism that occurred there, and the Islamic leaders who used the eruption of Krakatoa – evidence, they said, of Allah’s anger – as the impetus for a rebellion against the Dutch that eventually led to the creation of the Republic of Indonesia. It means looking not only at the physical effects of the eruption, which were frightening enough, but also at its psychological effects: the recently invented telegraph spread news of the disaster faster than it had ever been possible to disseminate information before, leading to near-real-time awareness of the interconnectedness of people and events all over Earth. The Day the World Exploded weaves these threads together with considerable skill, and the well-chosen illustrations – notably including 19th-century prints and photographs – give a strong sense of reality to an event that might otherwise appear only as a dry, remote piece of history.

      In more recent history, there has been plenty of attention focused on the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr., but As Good as Anybody tells young readers – ages 6-10 – a much less well-known part of King’s story. This is a tale not only of King himself but also of the man who, at King’s funeral in 1968, told the crowd, “His mission was sacred.” That man, Abraham Joshua Heschel, is introduced halfway through Richard Michelson’s book, after background material on King and his determination to stage a protest march in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel was a Polish Jew and a poet who became a rabbi, like his father, in the years just before Hitler rose to power in Germany. He escaped the Nazis by coming to America, but his family stayed behind in Poland and was killed. Heschel made marches of his own in his adopted country, incurring the ire of many of the same groups that opposed King. On March 21, 1965, the two prayed together and then led the Selma-to-Montgomery march side by side. Michelson’s straightforward language and Raul Colón’s sensitive illustrations bring the time and the people alive for today’s young readers, and Michelson’s page of text after the main story sums up what happened later. Like The Day the World Exploded, Michelson’s As Good as Anybody brings an earlier day into sharper focus in a way that shows the continued importance in the 21st century of these historical events.

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