January 02, 2020


Rise Up: Ordinary Kids with Extraordinary Stories. By Amanda Li. Illustrated by Amy Blackwell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     It was probably inevitable after Time magazine selected Greta Thunberg as its Person of the Year for 2019 that there would be extremely high levels of attention lavished on the teenage Swedish environmental activist in other quarters. But Rise Up is anticipatory: being a book, it was prepared long before Time made its decision, and its placement of Thunberg as the first of 30-plus stories of exceptional young people was determined some time ago. In fact, although the book is new in the United States, it was first published in Great Britain last year, so it has no Time connection at all – except for a fortuitous one.

     Nevertheless, Thunberg is the first person profiled by Amanda Li, indicating that she was already having the sort of impact that would justify using her story before any other in a book of this sort. In a sense, this is surprising, since Thunberg has not actually accomplished anything significant – she herself has reported being dismayed that more progress has not been made on environmental matters since she began agitating for greater attention to be paid to them, as if such deep and widespread societal changes need no more than a “just get it done now” attitude. Still, Thunberg has rallied large numbers of people of roughly her own age to the cause in which she believes, and that is an accomplishment to which the young readers at whom Rise Up is aimed should be able to relate.

     Many of the 29 young people around whom the book is built, and the several others mentioned in brief after the longer profiles, did in fact accomplish remarkable things in life, although not always while they were teenagers or preteens. For example, there is something genuinely inspirational in the tale of William Kamkwamba of Malawi, who in 2002, at age 15, hand-built a windmill to bring electricity to his impoverished home area during a time of famine. There is a story of boldness and the overcoming of tremendous danger and fear in the tale of Yeonmi Park, who at age 14 escaped from North Korea with her mother and subsequently became a human-rights activist. There is astonishing bravery in the tale of Desmond Doss (1919-2006), who as a combat medic in World War II, at the age of 26, saved the lives of 75 fellow soldiers by carrying them one by one down a sheer cliff face – and was awarded the Medal of Honor as a result. These specific people may not be household names (despite books and movies by or about them), but there are some more-familiar people mentioned in the book as well, such as Helen Keller (discussed briefly after a longer profile of Louis Braille, inventor of the system that bears his name); Frida Kahlo (included because of the horrendous bus accident that nearly killed her when she was 18); soccer star Pelé (chosen at 17 to play for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup); and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai (shot and almost killed by Taliban murderers when she was 15 – a defining moment that is unfortunately minimized by Li’s insensitively bland explanation that “they didn’t like what Malala was doing”).

     Rise Up delves into many time periods and many locations to assemble its stories, all of which are illustrated more-or-less realistically by Amy Blackwell. The tales are given in no particular order, and the book as a whole lacks cohesion as a result – especially since the types of events on which Li focuses vary so much, from stories of survival (after an alligator attack in one case, a shark encounter in another) to ones of heroism in war (the Doss tale, plus one about a young boy serving as a spy) to ones of dealing determinedly with birth defects (a rare disease causing facial deformity, a congenital bone condition). Nothing is grouped logically with anything else; narratively, the book is quite disorganized. It is the interest level of the stories themselves that sustains Rise Up, even when Li’s writing itself is subpar: “When they call her up and ask her how to become a pilot. She is always delighted to tell them how she did it.”

     A significant plus of the book is a feature that is genuinely useful for readers who will never find themselves in circumstances akin to those of the people profiled by Li. This is what Li includes after each short biographical sketch: information drawn from or related to the story she has just told, and doable by readers themselves. Thus, after a story about a thousand-mile walk by young girls in Australia, Li gives some facts about the Australian Outback and also explains how, if you have no way of knowing the time, you can use your hands to figure out how long it will be until darkness. After the Thunberg profile, Li offers readers “some small changes that make a big difference” and also suggests ways “to be an environmental activist.” After a story about climbing Mount Everest, she gives the symptoms of altitude sickness and then explains “how to perform an ice-axe self-arrest” to keep from sliding down a mountain’s slope. Some of the “how to” suggestions will be far more accessible to the book’s target readership than others, but the mere fact that Li includes things that young people can potentially do themselves gives Rise Up a level of usefulness that it would not otherwise have. Presentation flaws aside, the book does have the potential to inspire its target readership – as well as elicit young people’s sense of amazement at what some other young people have dealt with, accomplished or endured in the past.

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