September 04, 2008


Reaching for the Moon. By Buzz Aldrin. Paintings by Wendell Minor. Collins. $6.99.

Leningrad: State of Siege. By Michael Jones. Basic Books. $27.95.

Out of Bounds: Seven Stories of Conflict and Hope. By Beverley Naidoo. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

The Greatest Story Never Told: The Babe and Jackie. By Ray Negron. Illustrated by Laura Seeley. HarperCollins. $17.99.

     For every tale of great human success, there seems to be one of our inhumanity to ourselves. Some accomplishments, though, stand out all the more because they involve overcoming severe hardships, often ones imposed by fellow human beings.

     Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the Moon in 1969 was, as Aldrin tells it, the culmination of a lifelong dream and the result of a great deal of hard work and “determination, strength, independence” – qualities the young Buzz admired in his favorite movie hero, the Lone Ranger. The target audience for this simplified biography, children ages 6-9, will probably need help from parents or grandparents to understand who the Lone Ranger was. Most of Aldrin’s tale, though, is simple enough: a focus on sports, especially ones in which he could excel as an individual; admission to West Point; joining the Air Force; admiring the men of the Mercury program, America’s first astronauts. Then the story takes an educational turn – a useful lesson for young readers. Aldrin realizes that he needs more than piloting skills to become an astronaut, so he returns to school, studies aeronautics, and identifies an area that he thinks will give him an edge in applying to the astronaut program. Yet it is only on his second try that he is accepted. The rest of the book is about training for and accomplishing the first Moon landing – and even in simplified form, this is a fascinating story from Aldrin’s first-person perspective. Supplementary pages on the origins of the Moon landing program and the history of flight will give parents a broader view of what Aldrin did, and a chance to discuss their own children’s hopes and dreams.

     The only hope and dream of the people of Leningrad during World War II was survival, and for many of them, that dream did not come true. A greater contrast between the positive nature of Aldrin’s book for children and military historian Michael Jones’ terrifying Leningrad: State of Siege for adults is hard to imagine. For an astonishing 900 days – nearly two-and-a-half years – the people of Leningrad (now restored to its previous name of St. Petersburg) endured a deliberate attempt by the Nazi High Command to starve them into submission and ultimately wipe them out: Adolf Hitler specifically said he would not accept any offer of surrender. He never got one: with a degree of pluck and determination amazing to contemplate, the citizens of Leningrad held out against the Nazi battle machine, forcing their enemies to spend longer trying to move from one side of a street to the other than they had spent in their entire conquest of France. First-person stories, careful use of primary sources (including some that were suppressed until recently), and a focus on the psychological strength of the starving, surrounded and outgunned citizenry make Jones’ book as readable as a novel, and often more frightening. The casualties were almost unimaginable: more than a million people died before the Soviet Army liberated Leningrad in 1944. But the tales of heroism, more in small ways than in large ones, are what resonate here. Among them are remarkable stories about the power of music. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” written largely during the siege and completed after the composer finally fled the city, proved to be a tremendous rallying point: conductor Karl Eliasberg said that with its first performance, “The whole city had found its humanity. And in that moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.” And soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, a Leningrad native who would later marry cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, remembers being a teenager during the siege and attending an opera put on by nearly frozen performers: “The thrill I felt…was pride in my resurrected people, in the great art which compelled those human shadows – the emaciated musicians, singers, the audience – to come together in that great opera-house, beyond whose walls air-raid sirens wailed and shells exploded.” An absolutely incredible story; a tremendously effective telling of it.

     Sometimes a fictional guise helps an author tell a nonfiction story, especially in books intended for younger readers. Both Beverley Naidoo’s Out of Bounds and Ray Negron’s The Greatest Story Never Told use that approach. Both handle their tales well, but take a little too much advantage of the ability to fictionalize reality: they tie things up a touch too neatly. As a result, both books receive (+++) ratings. Naidoo’s focuses on apartheid in South Africa, the author’s home country, through seven stories set in a timeline that stretches from 1948 to 2000 (the last two tales take place after apartheid has ended). The book is intended for ages 10 and up, with each story focusing on a choice made by a young person at a particular time in South Africa’s history. “The Dare” ends with a brutal caning; “The Noose” includes a Lone Ranger outfit, but with a perspective on that character very different from that of Buzz Aldrin; “The Typewriter” is about the perils of stirring up the oppressed with leaflets, and the solidarity that eventually ends oppression; and so on.

     The Greatest Story Never Told has a racial element, too: two hospitalized boys, one white and one black, both gravely ill (one with cancer, one with diabetes), focus on their differences and demand new roommates – until a nurse arranges for a magical batboy to take them on a journey through time to meet Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, and to learn how the things that unite us are so much more important than those that divide us. A seriously ill Ruth did actually sneak out of his hospital room in 1948 to see Robinson play, but this story is about magic and human connections more than any semblance of reality. It is an effective tearjerker, very earnest and assiduously well-meaning, but its emotional manipulativeness is on the extreme side, especially for the 5-9 age group for which it is intended.

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