BookTalk: Do No Harm

by Sharon Kane

donoharmWe would like to think that brain surgeons are infallible, though of course that is an unrealistic expectation, as Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (2014, Thomas Dunne Books) demonstrates. Marsh shares his weaknesses, misjudgments, and anxieties as a neurosurgeon along with fascinating details of adventures he’s had in the operating room. We come to admire his talents in both his medical specialty and his writing as he “attempt[s] to give an honest account of what it is like to be a neurosurgeon” (p. x).

Most of the chapter titles indicate the conditions that lead to the need for Marsh’s services. The chapters include details of particular surgeries (most of which include a lot of blood), conversations with patients pre-and-post surgery, and explanations of how Marsh makes decisions in situations that are fraught with risk. Readers can feel his remorse and anguish when patients worsen after surgery, and his exhilaration when a seemingly hopeless scenario turns around due to his skill.

In one chapter, Marsh describes himself as a patient. He explains, “Most medical students go through a brief period when they develop all manner of imaginary illnesses . . . until they learn, as a matter of self-preservation, that illnesses happen to patients, not to doctors” (p. 215). He notes that doctors often dismiss their own initial symptoms and can be slow to diagnose themselves. But he could not ignore the effects of a vitreous detachment and thus had to place himself in the hands of a retinal surgeon. Another time, he broke his leg, and after that surgery his doctor “insisted on keeping me in hospital for five days on the grounds that I was a doctor and would not listen to his medical advice that I should rest my leg. . .” (p. 228). Some of his colleagues saw him in the hospital and “looked somewhat startled to see me disguised as a patient in a dressing gown with a leg in plaster” (p. 229).

Marsh manages to turn everything into a story, which is what makes this nonfiction account of his career so fascinating. He presents ethical dilemmas and then brings us along on his rounds as he deals with them. Marsh is an expert in his field and is someone I would trust.

Appropriate for high school and beyond

biology, ethics, careers, ELA

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

duelWhat could they have been thinking? I still cannot fathom how two of our young country’s leaders, both known for their intelligence, could have gotten themselves into the situation that resulted in Alexander Hamilton’s death. In The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (2009, Viking), Judith St. George compares the men at each stage of their lives. I learned some of the reasons for Hamilton’s growing opposition to Burr. They held opposing political views. I was surprised to learn that Alexander wrote an influential article defending the Boston Tea Party that was published in a New York newspaper, and gave speeches opposing the British, when he was a teenager! Additionally, at one point Burr was running for the United States Senate against Hamilton’s father-in-law.

On the other hand, some of the things I read made it seem unlikely that the two could end up facing each other with loaded guns on that field in New Jersey in 1804. Here’s a list:

-Several years earlier, Hamilton, feeling his honor had been questioned, challenged James Monroe to a duel. Monroe asked Aaron Burr to be his “second,” but Burr acted as a peacemaker instead. “Thanks to Burr’s masterly art of persuasion, the duel never happened” (p. 66).

-Burr knew what it felt like to be in a duel. He had been in one with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, whose bullet struck Burr’s jacket. One would think that was a close enough call to serve as a deterrent to future duels.

-In 1801, Hamilton’s nineteen-year-old son died—in a duel! The family grieved deeply.

-That same year, his eighth child was born. It sure seems like Alexander had a lot to live for.

St. George tells us, “National shock and outrage greeted the news of Hamilton’s death. Boston and Philadelphia went into mourning… But it was New York City that suffered the greatest pain” (p. 85).

I feel shocked and outraged by the story too. I feel grief. The book did its job.


Appropriate for middle school and high school

history, ethics, ELA

Read Part A here.

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: The Nest

by Sharon Kane

nestA label on a book classifying it in the horror genre attracts some readers and deters others. I am in the latter group. If I see the phrase “psychological thriller” on a book cover, I quickly walk away. On the binding of my public library’s copy of Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest (2015, Simon & Schuster) there is a symbol consisting of two red eyes and the word “SCARY” right below the juvenile section indicator. However, when my graduate students told me that I had to read it, I felt pressured to at least try it. I found Jon Klassen’s illustrations appropriately creepy but quite intriguing, and the first few sentences were aesthetically pleasing:

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels. What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them? Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me. They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born. (p. 1)

I found I could not abandon narrator Steve as he told the story of his baby brother, born with congenital defects that made his future uncertain. The infant already had multiple health problems resulting in numerous rushed trips to the hospital. The prognosis was poor in terms of his level of mental functioning. Steve was old enough to surmise from hushed conversations that the baby might not survive. But oh, how the family loved that baby, Theo.

Steve discovers that the creatures in his dreams are not angels, but wasps. He communicates with the queen, who assures him they have come to help. She tells him that because Baby Theo is damaged they are working on a replacement baby. Everyone knows that a perfect child is so much better than a damaged child. All will be well.

Steve inadvertently becomes an accomplice to the queen’s tactics by the time he figures out what evil is being planned. Horror mounts. You will have to read the details for yourself; I cannot bear to tell you.

The Nest is a good book for introducing the topic of archetypes. Steve is on a hero’s journey. He goes reluctantly; he does not feel brave; he does not have the capacity to overcome the obstacles he encounters. There are mentors as well as trials. There is a goal worth pursuing. Steve will do what it takes to protect the baby, even if that means descending to an underworld, or—despite his allergy—fighting his way through hordes of wasps.

I was afraid to read this book , but Steve had to face much bigger fears than I. I’m glad that I “met” him, which would not have happened had I let fear keep me from this valuable, inspirational story. Steve became a mentor on my reading journey.


Appropriate for middle school and high school

ELA, science, psychology, ethics

BookTalk: Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas

by Sharon Kane

primatesIn my literature classes, I often devote a week to the theme of “Our Closest Relatives: The Big Apes.” There are always some puzzled, perhaps suspicious, faces. Many readers don’t naturally gravitate toward books about chimpanzees, bonobos, or orangutans, much less one narrated by a gorilla, such as Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. But taking a journey with the teen characters in Eliot Schrefer’s National Book Award finalists Endangered or Threatened, or listening to the human “sibling” of a chimpanzee in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, can help them gain a new appreciation for these intriguing animals.

I am happy to have discovered a triple biography to add to the class choices this semester. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks (2013, First Second), uses a graphic novel format to bring readers into the title scientists’ worlds. We get to be with Jane as she sees a chimp use a tool to extract termites from mounds in the earth. We see the growing relationship between Dian and the gorilla she names Peanuts, and we applaud her efforts to eliminate poaching and promote conservation. Numerous panels show Biruté walking trails, sleeping, and writing, all showing a rescued baby orangutan clinging to her. Other scenes depict the three women together at conferences, demonstrating the social and collaborative aspects of science as well as shared passion.

I read this book in one sitting, and came away with a wealth of knowledge and a desire to read autobiographical pieces, interviews, commentaries, and other texts that will teach me more about the important work done by Jane, Dian, and Biruté. I want to join their club. I know there is such a club, because I have discovered the book The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall, edited by Dale Peterson (2015, Trinity University Press), containing over 100 pieces written by people who have been affected by Jane’s work. I’m heading there now…


Appropriate for middle and high school

science, history, geography, ELA, ethics

BookTalk: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans

by Sharon Kane

katrinaI remember following the news when Hurricane Katrina was pounding the Gulf Coast in 2005. My niece was attending the University of Southern Mississippi, and she was recounting events and personal stories that added to what I was learning from the media. Later, I also read critiques about the way the disaster was handled, during the hurricane and the following months.

Today’s students were too young at the time, however, and couldn’t follow the news; they know of Katrina only through textbooks, brief school lessons, or memories passed down by relatives. They might not feel an emotional connection to the people involved, and might not think very critically about the big picture. Resources such as Don Brown’s Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) can help. This informational book in graphic novel format brings the weeks of August and September of 2005 to life. The text is clear and mostly matter-of-fact, giving statistics about the weather conditions, the levees, the evacuation, the places the people went for refuge, the steps FEMA and the National Guard took in response to the emergency, and numbers and causes of deaths.

The illustrations, combined with a bit of dialogue, add a powerful affective dimension. One panel shows a train with a conductor (or engineer) saying, “‘We offered…to take evacuees out of harm’s way. The city declined,'” followed by the statement, “Five trains leave New Orleans empty” (p. 11). A double-page spread shows water up to the rooftops, with a woman and child clinging to a roof, and in a speech bubble, “‘Oh, Baby, I don’t think we’re gonna make it'” (p. 25).

Brown evokes the senses also. “Eighty percent of New Orleans—an area seven times larger than Manhattan—is underwater. The dark is filled with the croaking of thousands of frogs” (p. 46). “The stench inside the Convention Center is indescribable…overpowering…it’s like a solid wall almost pushing you back'” (p. 84).

This book may be a difficult read emotionally, but it is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I believe readers will want to read more about Hurricane Katrina, and can be offered informational texts, commentaries, editorials, and historical fiction to further their study. I would pair this with the novel Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2010, Scholastic).


Appropriate for middle school and high school

History, art, ethics, ELA

BookTalk: All American Boys

by Sharon Kane

allamericanboysTo be honest, it would have been easier not to read All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015); and it would be easier not to write this post. The novel is about police brutality; specifically it’s about an African American male teen, Rashad, who is beaten and arrested by a white police officer after a white woman trips him and knocks him down in a store aisle. It would be easier not to be reminded of similar stories appearing in the news. It saddens me every time I learn about such abuse, especially because my father spent his career on a police force and was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. I want to believe these cases are anomalies; I want to read about more positive things; I want to move on to the next YA book, maybe a feel-good book this time.

But wait. About halfway through the book, Quinn, who witnessed Rashad being excessively beaten despite having offered no resistance to arrest, tells a friend at school he is just trying to figure it all out. The police officer, Paul, is a friend of the family; he is also the older brother of Quinn’s basketball teammate and best friend. There just has to be a reasonable explanation. Later, he reflects on his own words:

I thought about the guy who hadn’t meant to sound hurtful. The guy who was just trying to walk down the middle and not disturb anybody, basically give some meaning to what I’d seen in the street. … And here’s what I realized I was saying beneath it all: I didn’t want my life to change from the way it was before I’d seen that. … (p. 178)

The revelation is that his life actually does not have to change; he could walk away from what was happening to both Rashad and Paul in a way his friends who were not white could not. But, “What kind of a person did that make me, if I did?” (p. 179).

As a person who avoids confrontation, I was disturbed by Quinn’s revelation; I realized that I, too, have that choice to make. I watched closely as Quinn and Rashad, in alternating chapters, make decisions about what to do next. Their decisions involve paths that don’t necessarily represent the easiest answers or actions. Everyone in the story faces hard choices—teachers, parents, students, hospital staff—leaving readers questioning who will show up at the protest march. At that point I asked myself, if I were there would I take a stand? This powerful story demands that readers entertain hard questions.

So, while not an easy read, I believe this is a necessary book, and I highly recommend it.


Appropriate for high school

(current events, history, ELA, ethics)

BookTalk: Jefferson’s Sons

by Sharon Kane

In the picture book Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation (2015, Calkins Creek), Peggy Thomas tells the story of the third president of the United States of America through  the lens of Jefferson’s love of gardening. She metaphorically extends that image to talk about how he helped the country “grow” in terms of territory, ideas, education, and so on. At the end, in a section called “Thomas Today,” the author explains that the same person who penned the Declaration of Independence owned six hundred slaves, and she adds, “We must decide for ourselves how slavery taints the legacy of Thomas Jefferson” (unpaged).

jeffersonssonsKimberly Brubaker Bradley explores this idea exquisitely in her well-researched novel Jefferson’s Sons (2013, Scholastic). It introduces readers to Sally Hemings, who was a slave at Monticello, and her four children, who were fathered by Jefferson. We see the children glowing on the rare occasions when Jefferson gives them a present or pays attention to them, but frustrated by the knowledge that he will never publicly claim them as his children (even though people can plainly see the physical resemblance). They witness their father selling their friends away from their families; they watch as he lavishly entertains guests while the field hands go without proper socks. Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston certainly grapple with the contradictions between the man’s famous words and his actions. Their mother tries to help them understand:

“Master Jefferson would think it impossible that he could in any way be compared to a slave trader. He would say that he’s a gentleman, and educated man. He would say that he works for the good of his country, and therefore for the good of all Americans. He’d say he’s a farmer, a landowner.” (p. 231)

When Eston then asks his mother what she would say, Sally Hemings replies, “‘I’d say master Jefferson avoids causing pain to anyone where he can see it… But if he can’t see it, or won’t see it, he doesn’t think the pain he causes is real'” (p. 232).

In the Afterword of Bradley’s book, she talks about how complicated it is to answer the questions about which parts of a work of historical fiction are true. She assures readers that all the named characters in Jefferson’s Sons are historically accurate, as are their actions. What we don’t know from documents is how they felt and what they said. That’s where her storytelling takes over. To write the story, she imagined herself as the characters, and asked herself how she would react to their circumstances. Readers can conduct thought experiments like this also. If we were Sally Hemings’ children, would we be proud of our father for the many great things he has done, as Sally hopes her children can be?


Appropriate for middle school and high school

(history, ELA, ethics)

BookTalk: Champion of Freedom: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Sharon Kane

dietrichWhen would assassination be the right course of action? In what situation, if any, could it actually be a moral obligation? In the biography Champion of Freedom: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Michael J. Martin (2012, Morgan Reynolds), we meet a Christian scholar and theologian who lived in Germany during World War II. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became involved in plots to end Hitler’s life in the hope of saving the lives of millions of others. Early chapters tell of Dietrich’s youth, including studies, travels, relationships, and pastoral work. He became interested in Gandhi’s use of nonviolent resistance to oppression and he became friends with Swiss theologian Karl Barth. As conditions grew worse for the Jews in his country, Bonhoeffer was appalled that many Christian churches were expressing allegiance to the Nazis, or at least giving tacit support. He stood out in firm, public opposition to that stance. “He argued that churches that vowed to stay neutral in the face of blatant inhumanity were not neutral at all—their inaction actually encouraged injustice and oppression. Tolerating a regime that murdered millions of innocent people was worse than trying to overthrow its leader by violent force” (p. 116).

In 1939, Bonhoeffer reluctantly left Germany for America to avoid military service, which would mean pledging loyalty to Hitler and fighting in an immoral war. He regretted his decision immediately, feeling he had abandoned those he had counseled to resist evil, and soon returned to Germany, where he joined the Resistance and became a double agent. After several failed assassination attempts, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned. His service continued in prison, where he continued to minister to others, write poetry, and smuggle out correspondence that would become the book Letters and Papers from Prison. He could have escaped, but chose not to because it would endanger his friends and family. He remained hopeful that he would someday be free and able to reunite with his fiancée, but he was executed just days before Hitler committed suicide, ending the war. Today, a statue of Bonhoeffer stands amid others honoring twentieth-century martyrs at Westminster Abbey in London.

Champion of Freedom: Dietrich Bonhoeffer contains numerous photos, including several of Bonhoeffer, as well as others depicting the political situation, throughout this inspiring and thought-provoking biography. It’s the story of an intense personal struggle in the midst of complex circumstances. Readers might feel compelled to consider what they would do if faced with this magnitude of hatred and evil on a national or societal level.

I was going to close with some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own words, but instead I’ll share a couple of quotes from those who were with him near the end of his life. A fellow prisoner recalled, “‘He never tired of repeating…that the only fight which is lost is that which we give up’” (p 129). Another remembered Bonhoeffer as “‘…different; just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at ease…his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison’” (p. 129).

Appropriate for middle school and high school

(history, ethics, ELA)

BookTalk: The Boys who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club

by Sharon Kane

theboyswhochallengedhitlerWhat would make a group of teenagers think they could resist Nazi occupation when the adults in their lives thought nothing could be done? Knud Pederson, along with his older brother and a few trusted friends, were disgusted with Denmark’s King Christian, who had, in their opinion, betrayed his country by not fighting when German troops moved in. The neighboring Norwegian leaders and citizens were fighting and dying rather than capitulate. The boys decided to take action, despite knowing that their parents, who cared about their safety, would not approve. The times called for disobedience, for sabotage, even for violence. They called themselves The Churchill Club, and they went about throwing paint on German signs and offices, stealing weapons, starting fires, destroying vehicles. Knud’s parents were shocked to get a call one day saying the boys had been arrested. They thought their sons were playing bridge all those evenings!

Knud and his brother were imprisoned for more than two years, but the news of the teens’ bravery inspired many adults to carry on their work. The boys arrived home to find their family harboring enemies of the state and taking part in resistance activities. But Knud had difficulty finding a way to fit back into society. As a friend explained, “’He was an artist, a painter. Here was a young man who had translated Milton’s Paradise Lost into Danish while he was in prison. He was too old to go back to high school’” (p. 153). Yet leaders of resistance movements considered him too high a security risk, with the government watching him so closely. Eventually he found a way back in. He fought with his intelligence, always totally devoted to the cause of resisting evil.

Germany surrendered when Knud was 18 years old. Winston Churchill made a special effort to meet the boys who had named their “club” after him, and to acknowledge their contribution to the war effort.

Fast forward to 2013. Knud, now in his late eighties, was in constant contact with Phillip Hoose, who was writing The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club (2015, Farrar Straus Giroux). His story needed to be told. At one point he was near death, had indeed felt its presence. “’I had the feeling that a shadow was walking softly around me … looking for a good place to get through for a final hit … I told it to wait, because you and I were not yet done with our work’” (p. 168). The book was finished in the fall of 2014. Knud forwarded it to his children and grandchildren. He died in December.

I love books where characters have to grapple with ethical issues and make tough decisions, often sacrificing themselves for the cause of defending what is right. This nonfiction book is a thriller, filled with courageous acts in the face of grave danger, and high costs for those refusing to succumb to evil. I would pair this with Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, a fictional account of Danish families during this time period, as well as Carmen Agra Deedy’s picture book, The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark (2000, Peachtree), which gives quite a different take on the actions of Denmark’s leaders and citizens during the Nazi occupation. Readers will want to move on to other books, such as Ellen Levine’s Darkness Over Denmark (2000, Holiday House), to get additional perspectives, and to form their own opinions as they gather data and ponder interpretations of researchers, authors, and survivors of the dreadful Nazi occupation of Denmark that Knud Pedersen risked his life to resist.

Appropriate for middle school and high school

(history, ethics, ELA)