March 10, 2011


Oil Spill Disaster. By Mona Chiang, Cody Crane, Karina Hamalainen and Lynda Jones. Scholastic. $5.99.

Profiles: One Event, Six People—The Civil War. By Aaron Rosenberg. Scholastic. $14.99.

A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America. By Laura Ingalls Wilder. Collins. $7.99.

     It is by no means easy to communicate the scope of major events of the recent or more-distant past to young readers, but cleverly designed books with a strong pictorial and graphic focus can do a fine job of bringing history to vivid life in our visually oriented age. Oil Spill Disaster is a quick-turnaround photographic book about the Deepwater Horizon explosion of April 20, 2010, and the response to it. Refreshingly balanced at a time of tremendous political polarization, it opens by explaining the environmental and ecological importance of the Gulf of Mexico – and continues, in the very next paragraph, by explaining how important offshore oil drilling is to the economy of the five states that border the Gulf. The book puts the Deepwater Horizon disaster in perspective by discussing four earlier U.S. spills and providing a table of the world’s five worst ones; and it explains, clearly and simply, just what oil is, where it comes from and why the world needs it. After providing useful and well-illustrated background, it discusses what happened in April 2010, including a discussion of “three places where things went wrong” and a drawing showing “the actual size of the drill pipe” – a fascinating and very appropriate visual aid. The balance of the book – which is only 32 pages long, but is packed to the margins with information – is devoted to showing the damage the spill did and what was done to contain and then stop it. The disaster is given human scale through biographical sketches of some of those involved in mitigating it, such as animal-rescue expert Tom MacKenzie of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and oil-spill expert Roger Anderson of Columbia University. The result of reading Oil Spill Disaster is that young people will have a better-balanced, more-complete understanding of what happened to the Deepwater Horizon, and why, and what the event’s repercussions were, than is possessed by many adults who have used the disaster primarily to score social and political points.

     Such points are still being scored in regard to the Civil War – or War Between the States, the preferred Southern term. As in its book on the Deepwater Horizon, Scholastic manages to find a highly creative way to get at the arguments and counter-arguments about the war in a well-written, simplified but not simplistic discussion of the confrontation that comprises mini-biographies of six important figures of the time: Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, Frederick Douglass, Clara Barton and Mathew Brady. Nowhere is there a claim that these are the six most important people involved in the war – it would be quite easy to argue, for example, that Ulysses S. Grant, not McClellan, should have been profiled – but Aaron Rosenberg’s text and the numerous photos and illustrations do an excellent job of showing the ways in which the lives of these six intersected amid the carnage and multiple disasters that are the foundation of all wars, perhaps especially one in which, in some cases, brothers literally fought brothers. Rosenberg deliberately asks intriguing questions as the book opens: “Why is George McClellan important if he was actually dismissed from his military position? Who was Mathew Brady and why did Lincoln sometimes say he owed his entire presidency to him?” There is plenty of familiar history here, but also plenty that will not be well known, even to adults: the fact that there were four major candidates for president in the election that Lincoln won in 1860; the way Frederick Douglass chose his last name – because of a poem by Sir Walter Scott; and the comments of Robert E. Lee on slavery after the war’s end: “‘So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that Slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South.’” These and many other telling moments make the people portrayed in this book come alive as real human beings, not as textbook historical figures or icons with little of the real world about them. And the Civil War itself becomes, not the simplistic battle for or against slavery that many textbooks and many modern politicians strive to make it, but a highly complex event in which people of high honor and good will fought and died on both sides.

     By the time Laura Ingalls Wilder made her three trips across the United States, that war was only a memory, although still a vivid one for some people – especially when she first traveled, in 1894, by covered wagon, from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, with her husband, Almanzo, and daughter, Rose. Wilder recounted that journey in On the Way Home – Mansfield was to be her home for the rest of her life. And she wrote subsequently, in West from Home, about traveling by train to California to visit Rose; and, in The Road Back, about her 1931 car trip back to DeSmet, the town where she grew up and fell in love with Almanzo. All three of these volumes, which consist of journal entries and letters, are collected in A Little House Traveler, a book of distinctly limited appeal (which results in a +++ rating) but considerable fascination for readers with a strong interest in the author of Little House on the Prairie and other books about living in the American West in pioneer days and thereafter. Scattered photos and mundane lists (such as one showing expenses for gas, dinner and other items on June 6 and 25, 1931, among other dates) are the stuff of everyday life, of little inherent interest but certainly effective at humanizing an author who, for some readers, seems larger than life. The bonus material at the back of the book humanizes Wilder still further, through a family tree and reproductions of several actual letters – including her final one to Rose, written three days before her death, which begins, “When you read this I will be gone and you will have inherited all I have.” Simple, plainspoken, homespun attention to details, combined with everyday wisdom and the ability to handle the inevitable setbacks of ordinary life with stoicism and good will – these are the qualities that Laura Ingalls Wilder shows in her books and also, in a different way, in this collection of her travel notes. Young readers seeking a fuller portrait of the author, or simply wanting to read a few more of her words, will find A Little House Traveler enchanting, although in a way quite different from that of Wilder’s other works.

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