January 16, 2014


Scholastic “Discover More”: Titanic—A Picture History of the Shipwreck That Shocked the World. By Sean Callery. Scholastic. $15.99.

Winter Sky. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

     The sheer scale of the disaster of the sinking of the Titanic, along with the sheer scale of the ship itself, keeps the 101-years-ago disaster fresh in many people’s minds and makes it worthy of a top-notch entry in Scholastic’s “Discover More” series. Details about turn-of-the-20th-century shipbuilding, of competition between the White Star and Cunard lines, of customs such as promenading, of the designer of the Titanic (who was aboard on the maiden voyage and one of the victims), of cabin layout and design, of children’s deck games aboard the doomed ship – these and much more appear in Sean Callery’s well-designed retelling, which is crammed with eyewitness and passenger accounts and many, many photos, some in black and white and some colorized. Like all the “Discover More” books, this is an oversize paperback designed to be looked at as much as read – the text is short and tied closely to the photos, but is nevertheless packed with facts and interesting information. There is, for instance, a photo of a countess who steered a lifeboat all night long after the ship’s sinking – while other survivors let crew members do all the work. There is information on the final meals served aboard the ship, the differences in service among the three passenger classes, and the fact that of the 1,517 people who died, 685 were crew members – many of whom helped rescue passengers or stayed aboard the ship to try to stop the water from pouring in. Big stories like this one are difficult to tell without personalizing them by making them into multiple small stories, and Callery does this very well indeed, making this oft-told tale seem fresh and every bit as tragic as it ever has.  A free digital book, available to buyers of the print version, gets into more detail about what happened by presenting the stories of five survivors of the ship’s sinking. But even without seeing that book, readers of this “Discover More” volume will find out a great deal about Titanic, what happened to the ship and the people aboard it, and why the story remains such a compelling one after so many years.

     The Titanic story is a century-old wintertime one on a large scale – and winter continues to provide an effective backdrop for modern stories as well. Winter Sky is fiction, is decidedly small-scale, and ends without great tragedy or, indeed, any loss of life. But it is an affecting story nevertheless, told with Patricia Reilly Giff’s usual sensitivity to family matters and skill at characterization. It is the tale of a girl called Siria, named for the brightest star in the winter sky, who loves the stars that make her think of her now-gone mother – and who tries to bring luck to her firefighter father by sneaking out of her house at night to chase the trucks heading to blazes. Abetted by her best friend, Douglas, Siria continues her adventures until she discovers that someone appears to be setting fires – putting her dad and the other firefighters in jeopardy. And to make matters worse, the clues she discovers make Siria think Douglas may be the arsonist. Complicating matters further is Siria’s rescue of a dog that has become stuck in a pipe, a dog she cannot possibly keep but that seems to know something about the fire-setting situation, so she cannot possibly take it to a shelter. Matters get more and more complicated as the mystery of the fires deepens and as Siria copes with her father being hospitalized after being injured on the job. In fact, the story gets somewhat too complicated as Giff has Siria juggle a few more issues and difficulties than the rather frail plot can withstand. Winter Sky is never quite sure whether it is mainly a family story, a mystery, a girl-and-animal story, or a coming-of-age tale, and is not really solid enough to succeed as a mixture of all those elements. It is nevertheless a very affectingly written (+++) book that has a not-very-surprising solution to the fire mystery and a feel-good ending that leaves everyone in the story happier and more satisfied than they have been. Fans of Giff’s books will be happy and satisfied, too.

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