BookTalk: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

By Sharon Kane

lovelace-and-babbageI have previously written two posts about Ada Lovelace (on May 19, 2016, I wrote about Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine as well as Ada’s Algorithm; I also discussed her as part of Historical Heartthrobs on September 14).   After I read these various biographies and explored websites related to her, and after I learned about planned activities to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 11, I wanted more. Evidently, so did Sydney Padua, who did something about it. She wrote and illustrated The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (2015, Pantheon Books). Told in graphic-novel form, the captions and pictures are full of information about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, their work, families, contemporaries, and Victorian society; adding to the work are copious footnotes, annotations, and end notes. On page 19, readers see a drawing representing one of Babbage’s famous parties, including guests Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the mathematician Mary Somerville; the Duke of Wellington; Caroline and John Herschel; Michael Faraday; Charles Darwin; Charles Dickens; Florence Nightingale, and more. We can assume the conversations were lively indeed. The first chapter ends on page 29 with the reporting of Ada’s death at age 36 and Charles’s death at age 79, and the reminder that the first computers were not built until the 1940s. What’s left to be told in the next several hundred pages of this book?

I only had to turn the page to find out: “But wait! That ending to the story of Lovelace and Babbage is only ONE of the infinite array of possible outcomes, occurring on the more boring worlds that are part of THE MULTIVERSE!” The author then takes us along on awesome adventures, complete with explanations of some of the math, science, and history being alluded to. I especially enjoyed the segment of Ada in an Alice-in-Wonderland-type situation.

I cannot adequately convey the facial expressions, the cleverness, the sheer fun of this book. I’ll tell you that I learned from the book jacket that Sydney Padua is “an animator and visual effects artist, usually employed in making giant monsters appear to be attacking people for the movies.” That explains a lot. I love this unique book, and I believe Ada and Charles would approve of how they are portrayed throughout.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! I hope you’ll join others around the world every second Tuesday in October to celebrate women in the STEM fields and encourage young women to explore rewarding career options relating to math and science.

Appropriate for high school and beyond

math, science, computer programming, ELA, history, art

BookTalk: Books About Fibonacci and His Numbers

By Sharon Kane

fibonacciNumbers fascinated Italian mathematician Fibonacci. He probably would have liked 2010; that year saw the publication of three intriguing picture books featuring the number sequence named for him (in 2016, the books are worth revisiting). I think I would first share with students Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature, by Sarah C. Campbell (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press). The short, simple text on each page instructs readers to count the petals on various flowers. (Photographs are by the author and Richard P. Campbell.) The pattern is noted, as is the rule “in order to get the next number, you add the two numbers before it” (p. 13). Later pages contain a bit more text, explaining how the principle applies to spirals in nature. Pine cones, sunflowers, pineapples, and snails are pictured in vivid color.

After students have had time to appreciate the mathematical and visual beauty they encounter in nature, I’d offer them Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnese (New York: Henry Holt and Company. Illustrated by John O’Brien). The author fictionalizes some details of Fibonacci’s youth and his relationships with family and friends, since little is known about the mathematician. Readers become involved in the solution to a riddle about rabbit reproduction and discover, along with Fibonacci, that “These are the numbers Mother Nature uses to order the universe” (p. 36). On the last page the author invites readers to go beyond the pages of the book, offering clues as to where to look for more Fibonacci number patterns in nature.

rabbit-problemBoth books speak of a mathematical rabbit problem Fibonacci posed more than 800 years ago. So, head next to Emily Gravett’s picture book/calendar The Rabbit Problem (Simon & Schuster). You’ll see what happens when two rabbits fall in love in Fibonacci’s Field and must stay there for a year with their growing family. A delightful surprise occurs in December, when they are allowed out and the population of the field changes from 144 pairs to 0.

Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

math, ELA, art, science

BookTalk: Historical Heartthrobs

by Sharon Kane
historical-heartthrobsHave you ever thought about the romantic interests of John Wilkes Booth? Or the marriage of Harriet Beecher Stowe? How about the family life of Roberto Clemente? Or the relationship between Harry Houdini and his magician’s assistant? The theme of love brings together 50 people, famous in a variety of fields, in Kelly Murphy’s Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from Cleopatra to Camus (with contributor Hallie Fryd; 2014, Zest Books). Each short chapter contains subheadings regarding the subject’s life story, sex life, best feature, and “Heat Factor.” Chapters then end with quotes from or about the subject. A lot of information is packed into this unique reference book.

Whether they read straight through or browse randomly chosen chapters, readers will appreciate the humor as well as gain knowledge about the historical heartthrobs being introduced. They may remember quirky tidbits like Salvador Dali’s moustache; the low “Heat Factor” the authors give to John Wilkes Booth: “Colder than an assassin’s blade” (p. 51); or the high scores awarded to Bessy Coleman: “She believed she could fly! And then she touched the sky!” (p. 115) and W.E.B. Du Bois: “Positively burning (with the desire for change)” (p. 71).

Readers may be spurred to learn more about the figures they have been introduced to and inspired by. Later, they can bring a bit of knowledge about the people they’ve met on these pages to their content area classes. They, and their students, may meet again with Ada Lovelace in computer class, Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo in art class, Nikola Tesla and Jane Goodall in science, Lord Byron and Sylvia Plath in English, Fidel Castro and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in global studies. They will have gained many acquaintances, as well as a bit of gossip to liven up their lessons.

This book shows that fun and learning can go together, as can love and fame.

Appropriate for high school

art, history, science, social studies, ELA, math


BookTalk: The Garden of Monsieur Monet

by Sharon Kane

garden of monetI recently visited one of the most famous gardens in the world: a garden in northern France, in the village of Giverny. My guides were Giancarlo Ascari and Pia Valentinis, author and illustrator of The Garden of Monsieur Monet (2015, Royal Academy of Arts). The first pages of this graphic novel show Claude Monet and his family arriving at their new home, but what I encountered upon opening the book gave me the context for the story that was to follow. Titled “The Belle Epoque,” an introduction describes the period at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, when arts and sciences were flourishing across Europe. Illustrations and captions give information about the cinema, motor cars, railway lines, electric lights, radio transmissions, the discovery of vaccines, aircraft, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and art and fashion from the newly explored Japan. Everything sounds positive until one sees the words in the bottom right-hand corner: “In 1914 the belle epoque came to a tragic end with the beginning of the First World War.”

For many pages, we don’t have to think about war. We can join Monet as he decorates his home with Japanese art throughout; as he heads to the fields to paint in the open air; as he brings in guests to enjoy the flowering gardens. But war intrudes, and we see the gardeners leaving to fight. We learn that a depressed Monet, hearing the sound of the artillery in the distance, goes inside his home to re-create his water garden on huge canvases, even as his eyesight fails.

The closing pages are a delight, displaying an illustrated catalog of some of the flowers found in Monet’s garden: Japanese cherry, foxtail lily, snowdrop, white foxglove, flowering quince, gladiolus, and many more.

On one double-page spread we see eleven versions of Monet’s haystack paintings. “Monsieur Monet is so fascinated by the variations of light and color that he paints the same subject over and over again at different times of the day and in different seasons of the year” (unpaged). Students can follow the master’s example as they notice, and capture in some medium, the objects and scenes from their everyday lives. They can also apply the principle of perspective to Monet himself, by exploring other biographies of the artist to see what is emphasized and compare them to this biography.

Art, history, ELA

Appropriate for intermediate and middle grades, and high school

BookTalk: Children’s Book of Philosophy

By Sharon Kane

children's book of philosophyDon’t be fooled by the word Children’s” in the title of DK’s Children’s Book of Philosophy: An Introduction to the World’s Great Thinkers and Their Big Ideas (2015). Based on what I learned as I read the book, I can assure you it is not just for children. It’s filled with thought-provoking questions such as “Is there life after death?” (p. 62), “How do I know if I am real?” (p. 38), “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (p. 14), “What is happiness?” (p. 70), “Can we think without language?” (p. 66), “Are people naturally good or bad?” (p. 118), and “Isn’t philosophy a little weird?” (p. 9).

The book is filled with biographical and other information about philosophers, beginning with the great ancient trio of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and taking us through the centuries with guides such as Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Simone de Beauvoir. Plenty of photographs and a multitude of anecdotes explain and discuss philosophical principles. Sidebars contain timelines, symbols, quotes, and ethical dilemmas to contemplate.

As our students read novels and analyze disciplinary texts, perhaps they can apply some of what they learn, or are exposed to, in this book. It contains few, if any, definitive answers, but it does contain examples of convictions that various leaders, activists, and thinkers have acted on. Although philosophers may disagree over ways to answer questions such as “Will there ever be world peace?” and “Is war ever right?” (p. 114), it’s comforting to know there is one principle that any number of philosophies and religions espouse: the Golden Rule.

appropriate for middle and high school

philosophy, social studies, ELA, history, art, science

Book Talk: Boxers and Saints

by Sharon Kane

boxers and saintsJoan of Arc was my way in.

I have been planning to read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints (2013, First Second) for a while. The two books in this set have won major awards, and Yang is presently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. But the books never seemed to make it to the top of my “To Read” pile. I’m not totally comfortable with graphic novels, nor am I comfortable with books about war—especially when the violence is depicted visually.

I admit that I struggled through Boxers. I cringed as I, along with Little Bao, watched a Christian cleric smash the village’s sacred idol, accompanied by the caption, “This is Good News of Jesus Christ!” (p. 19). Readers encounter much blood and too many deaths, and it was especially hard to read knowing that the work was well researched and based on actual events that took place during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899.

I found the beginning of Saints very sad—a young girl so rejected and abused that she chose to embrace her devil self. When she found acceptance in a Christian missionary community, I was glad for her. She had been called Girl-Four since infancy, when her grandfather refused to even give her a name. Now she was Vibiana; she had an identity and a purpose, caring for children in an orphanage. And she had a spiritual guide—Joan of Arc! Joan had had visions several centuries earlier, and now she was appearing in Vibiana’s visions.

I won’t go into how Little Bao’s and Vibiana’s stories intersect. Rather, I’ll reflect on the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. As soon as Joan came into the picture (literally), I was engaged in a new way and could make valuable connections. At one point Vibiana has the opportunity to save her life if she will deny her faith; there could be no better guide as she makes her decision than Joan of Arc, who was offered that same choice as she faced being burned at the stake in 1431.

I finished Saints and went back to Boxers, able to tackle it with new appreciation. I was amazed at Yang’s ability to describe the Boxer Rebellion from opposing perspectives, without ever tipping the scales in terms of which side was better or more right. Readers are the winners as they learn Chinese history through art and story.


Appropriate for high school

history, ELA, art, religion

A Pair of BookTalks about a Pair Bound in History: Part A

AAThe famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr leaves me questioning: What were they thinking? How could they have found any logic in settling differences in a manner that would leave at least one of them dead? And, what thoughts were going through their minds as they prepared for the duel, then faced each other?

Someday I will see the Broadway play “Hamilton,” and examine how the playwright and actors interpret the characters. In the meantime, I read Aaron and Alexander (2015, Roaring Brook Press), written and illustrated by Don Brown. Through an explicit compare/contrast pattern of organization the author shows baby Aaron being held at Princeton, surrounded by scholars, while on the opposite page a barefoot Alexander grows up on the island of St. Croix amidst sailors, pirates, merchants, plantation owners, and slaves. Both boys were orphaned early in life; both were smart; both “staked their lives on independence” (unpaged) during the American Revolution; both became lawyers in New York City, sometimes even working together. But they ended up in separate political camps, and went about fulfilling their visions in different ways.

As Brown describes, Alexander opposes Aaron, speaking out against him when the House of Representatives holds a run-off vote after Burr and Thomas Jefferson tie in the race for president. After a subsequent verbal attack, Aaron demands an apology and then challenges Alexander to a duel.  Brown explains that settling differences this way was not unusual at the time (though it will never make sense to me). In the minutes leading up to the event Brown shows the men attending a party, acting as though things were normal.

The last page shows Aaron walking through Europe, looking aged and unhappy, saying, “I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” Wow.

In the Author’s Note, Brown reveals his own thoughts:

Despite his tarnished reputation, I find myself in Burr’s corner. His flaws appear to me less as failings and more as unsubstantiated bad press. And I’m drawn to his apparent humanity and genuineness, especially in regard to his devotion to his beloved wife and daughter.

Burr and Hamilton were ensnared by the cultural conventions of their day; the death of one was ostensibly needed to satisfy the honor of the other. In the end, nothing was accomplished but tragedy. (unpaged)

Brown lists several intriguing titles in his bibliography, including Judith St. George’s The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. I’m eager to compare the two authors’ treatments of the topic in next week’s BookTalk. Stay tuned.


Appropriate for intermediate, middle school, and high school grades

History, ethics, ELA, art

Read Part B here.

BookTalk: Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey

by Sharon Kane

daretodisappointI visited Turkey a few years ago, and fell in love with the country. So when I began reading Özge Samanci’s memoir in graphic novel format, Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I was pleased to recognize some of the places and events mentioned, and I was eager to learn more about Turkish culture and history. Despite Özge’s childhood taking place in Turkey in the 1980s, the coming-of-age story is familiar, with what feels like a universal theme.

Panels and speech balloons take readers back and forth between school and home, where Özge works toward discovering, or constructing, her unique identity. A chapter on politics, called “Atatürk,” connects to her search for identity. The text of the Student Oath is included; it begins and ends with “I am a Turk.” In one panel, a bird says that “Students repeat this oath 800 times before they graduate from primary school” (p. 27). Özge’s uncle, a socialist, tells her she is being brainwashed. TV is censored. Her beloved teacher uses Özge’s pink ruler to beat her and her classmates. Figuring out her identity is complex, and so is figuring out her future.

Özge’s father insists she have a career in medicine or engineering. He only wants the best for her, which in his mind equates with security. Özge craves her father’s approval, yet the picture of Jacques Cousteau on her bedroom wall whispers to her, suggesting a different path. She boards at Istanbul Atatürk Science High School, where the principal insists there is no such thing as evolution, and teachers espouse the subservience of women. She does not fit in.

At college she majors in math, but isn’t passionate about it and doesn’t do well. Her father does not support her decision to add a drama major. Life after college brings more conflict. Özge fights with her father about his expectation that she should marry in addition to their never-ending arguments about a career. Will she ever truly find herself? I recommend this book for those who need hope and encouragement on their way to becoming themselves, no matter what their culture, family, or internal anxieties may be.


Appropriate for middle school and high school

art, careers, ELA, history, psychology

BookTalk: Two illustrated biographies of dancers

by Sharon Kane

I can’t dance. I don’t dance. But I appreciate dance, and am inspired and intrigued by dance. And I have a special fondness for books about dance. I’d like to discuss two illustrated biographies of dancers that were published during the last year, because I think they work beautifully together.

swanSwan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder (Chronicle Books, 2015) begins on the day the very young Anna was taken to a ballet performance by her mother—the day that literally changed Anna’s life. The text is sparse, encouraging the reader to use the words combined with Julie Morstad’s pastel illustrations to follow Anna’s journey to dance school and to the stage. “Anna is a bird in flight, a whim of wind and weather. Quiet feathers in a big, loud world. Anna is the swan” (unpaged).

We see Anna teaching children how to dance. Two pages later, we see her bedridden, and then turn the page to see only swan feathers falling on a stage, accompanied by the words, “Every day must end in night. Every bird must fold its wings” (unpaged). The author adds a two page note that gives biographical information along with her comments. Anna was born to a laundress in 1881. And, since the poor generally stayed poor in Czarist Russia, “Anna’s life should have been dismal” (unpaged). Her mother allowed her to go away to a boarding school at the age of ten. There she overcame obstacles, including a weak back and arches in her feet that made aspects of ballet difficult. After her success, she traveled the world in order to bring dance to those who would otherwise not have experienced it. In 1931, she took ill, missed a performance, and died the same night. Laurel Snyder’s final words struck me: “I think of all of us—millions of us, all over the world (me too!)—pulling on our ballet shoes, working at the barre… All of us laboring in the smells of sweat and crushed rosin; all of us reaching for beauty. And indebted to Anna, who led the way” (unpaged).

mystorymydanceI remembered those words when I read Lesa Cline-Ransome’s My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey (Simon & Schuster, 2015). I wondered if Robert Battle, born almost a century after Anna Pavlova, in another hemisphere, would consider himself one of the millions indebted to her. Like Anna’s, his childhood circumstances presented obstacles to his dream. He wore heavy metal leg braces for years and he was bullied on the streets. He began lessons at a much older age than is common for successful dancers.

Also like Anna, Robert’s dream was fostered by a performance he attended. He saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform Revelations. In the Foreword, Battle tells us, “At the tip of my tongue was always the question, ‘Who am I?’…. After seeing the Alvin Ailey performers onstage who looked like me and my family, I began to be able to answer the question of who I was and where I fit in” (unpaged). The book takes us through his schooling at Juilliard, and his career that ultimately led to becoming the artistic director of Alvin Ailey in 2011.

In the Author’s Note, Cline-Ransome admits, “While I have always enjoyed dance, it’s been from a viewer’s perspective” (unpaged). That made me feel in good company. She tells about getting to know Robert Battle and hearing stories of his childhood over lunch; some of which were included in the book. In the Illustrator’s Note, James E. Ransome explains:

Two of my favorite artists, Edgar Degas and Robert Heindel, were well known for their pastel drawings of ballet dancers. Inspired by that tradition, I, too, chose pastels to capture the color, movement, and fluidity of the Alvin Ailey dancers. When I had the opportunity to attend rehearsals and performances, I was further inspired by the hard work, tireless repletion, creativity, and collaboration among dancers and choreographer. (unpaged)

As I experienced these two books back to back, I was struck over and over again with the notion of connectivity. I somehow feel connected to the authors, the illustrators, all the people from the past and present mentioned in the texts, other readers, and future students with whom I can share these books. Dance connects people, and books connect people. So, let’s dance on, and read on, and connect.


Appropriate for intermediate, middle and high school grades

Art, dance, history, ELA

BookTalk: Echo

by Sharon Kane

Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo (2015, Scholastic) draws readers in with its fairy tale quality and the art work. I began reading it at home and was intrigued by the often repeated lines (of prophecy, I guessed):

“‘Your fate is not yet sealed.

Even in the darkest night, a star will shine.

A bell will chime, a path will be revealed'” (p. 6).

echoSurprisingly, I encountered the title page about 30 pages in. Part One followed, set in 1933 Germany. The next day, on a plane going to North Carolina, I opened the book and came to know Friedrich Schmidt, a schoolboy with great musical talent and a noticeable facial birthmark that he is bullied for. As Hitler’s power grew, Friedrich’s family life became more complicated. How could Friedrich’s sister join the Nazi party? Could he save his father from imprisonment in a concentration camp? How does a harmonica connect his passion for conducting with the horror of this time and place?

About a third of the way through the book, the author stopped this story with Friedrich in an extremely dangerous situation. It was time for Part Two of Echo.

During my stay in North Carolina, as I read Part Two, I found myself immersed in a story set in Pennsylvania in 1935. Teen Mike Flannery and his little brother Frankie are in a home for destitute children, and Mike is desperately trying to keep them together; the danger of one of them being fostered out is constant. I won’t give you the details of the boys’ hardships or adventures or their relationship with a special harmonica, but I will say that once again the author stops the story at a point where I must know whether Mike is okay, or even alive.

I started Part Three on my plane ride home, and the book required me to mentally place myself in Southern California in 1942. I had to trust that by the end of the book the author would either bring the stories together or return to the previous stories for resolution. Luckily, my plane was delayed for a couple of hours during my layover in Philadelphia so that by the time I landed in Syracuse–oh, wait, I can’t give away the ending!

I’ll finish by saying that by the following morning, when I was watching the live presentation of the ALA Youth Media Awards and I heard that Echo had been given a Newbery Honor Award, I was very glad that I had experienced the echoing stories within stories, and I could agree with the committee that Echo is an outstanding book for young readers.


Appropriate for middle and secondary grades

(history, geography, ELA, art)