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: 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)

BookTalk: Walk on Earth a Stranger

by Sharon Kane

walkonearthastrangerWith a story that takes place in 1849, it is no surprise to see 15-year-old Leah Westfall heading to California to seek gold. But the trip recounted in Walk on Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson (2015, Greenwillow Books) turns out to be full of surprises and discoveries. Readers learn early on that some people are willing to murder family members in cold blood for gold. Uncle Hiram disposes of both Leah’s parents and then inherits their possessions, and he considers Leah one of those possessions—a uniquely valuable one, since he knows of her ability to sense the presence of gold.

Leah, who narrates the book, runs away and joins others who are going west. She eventually meets up with her best friend Jefferson, who had asked her earlier to head out with him (and sort of proposed to her, though not in the most flattering way). Each obstacle she encounters and overcomes helps readers better understand the perils of the journey and the courage and tenacity of the individuals and families working their way across the vast territory. The weather is unforgiving; provisions are scarce; fear among the travelers could be just as dangerous as wilderness challenges. A particularly troubling fact is that some of her fellow travelers do not trust any Indians they encounter and thus treat them all as enemies. Jefferson’s mother was an Indian so this distrust saddens and angers him.

Leah, still reeling from the loss of her parents, loses several new friends to death along the trail. She also experiences amazing acts of kindness, and gives of herself in ways that help her mature and grow. Readers watch her become a respected leader, one who could make a decision that would save the lives of those in her company. When she finally gets to California, Uncle Hiram appears again, but Leah is no longer afraid. He explains to the group that she is a runaway. “‘That’s my girl you’ve got there, and I’ve come a long way to fetch her, so I’ll be taking her back now'” (p. 429). Her friends counter by loading their guns and advising Hiram, “‘It would be a strategic error … You see, Mr. Westfall, sir…Leah is ours now…. She’s with her family now'” (p. 430). I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief and satisfaction, knowing that Leah is no longer walking on Earth a stranger.

The book includes a map showing Leah’s overland journey from Georgia to California, as well as an Author’s Note explaining parts of the writing journey Rae Carson embarked on in order to produce this inspiring story.


Appropriate for middle and high school

(history, geography, science, ELA)

BookTalk: Euphoria

by Sharon Kane

euphoriaI think Lily King’s Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) fits the category of New Adult Literature, appropriate for upper teens and twenty-somethings. I would love to use this novel to introduce the discipline of anthropology to high school students. It is based on the life of Margaret Mead (though the story takes on a life of its own–the characters all have fictional names– and it diverges from biographical information in other ways that I will not mention in order to avoid spoilers).

The story involves three fictional anthropologists: Nell Stone (who is based on Margaret Mead), her husband, Fen (who is based on Margaret’s second husband), and Andrew Bankson, the point-of-view character (who is based on Gregory Bateson, who would become Mead’s third husband). It begins with Bankson looking back to the year 1933 when he was in the Territory of New Guinea with Nell, already famous for a book she published about the children of a tribe she had observed, and Fen. Readers get early clues alerting them to Fen’s jealousy and abusive behavior toward Nell, as well as to his questionable values regarding sacred traditions and what he considers artifacts. Conversations ensue between Nell and Bankson about intellectual ideas, as well as about grief they both experienced after the death of siblings. These conversations make it easy for readers to predict that they will fall in love. Add Nell’s yearning for a baby, and the complexity of the story increases.

The story presents ethical ideas for readers to ponder. Referring to Fen’s work, Bankson muses, “I couldn’t help questioning the research. When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?” (p. 177). Speaking of Nell’s desire for an interview with a man who had left the tribe to work in the mines, he explains:

An informant like this in the field, a man who has been raised in the culture but removed for a time so that he is able to see his own people from a different angle with the ability to contrast their behaviors to another set of behaviors, is invaluable. … She felt she knew his story already. … But she was aware that the story you think you know is never the real one. She wanted his real one. (p. 159)

After closing the book, I was curious to know how Lily King did her research and made decisions as she wrote this historically inspired work of fiction. Luckily, I found many interviews with the author that answer my questions and share great insights about her writing process.


Appropriate for high school and beyond

(anthropology, psychology, history, geography, ELA)


BookTalk: Enchanted Air

by Sharon Kane

enchantedI have learned some of the history of Cuba by reading Margarita Engle’s novels and nonfiction told in verse format.The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzanotook me back to the nineteenth century. The Silver Peopletells one story of the building of the Panama Canal—certainly from a different stance than I remember from my high school history textbooks. My favorite book by this author might beThe Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist. I had never heard of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda; now she is one of my heroes. In 2014, I had the opportunity to visit Cuba, and after that I began to wonder about Margarita Engle as I read her poetry. She reveals an intimate knowledge of and love for the island and its people and history. How and where did she acquire these, along with her skill in creating poetry, giving her the power to share them with readers?

Enchanted Air, Margarita Engle’s memoir in verse (2015, Atheneum Books for Young Readers) provides a rich account of her childhood in Cuba (the homeland of her mother) and in the United States (her art-teacher-father’s homeland) during the 1950s and 1960s. Every time her family visits Cuba, she falls more deeply in love with the musical language, the dancing plants, the magical animals, and the loving, spiritual, story-telling people.

When revolution rocks Cuba, Margarita’s American elementary school teachers turn on her, making her feel like something is her fault, though she doesn’t even know what communism is. Neighbors become unfriendly and suspicious, and her Mami endures a visit from the FBI. Margarita tells us she has more questions than the FBI, including,

“Why are Cubans suddenly spoken of / as enemies?” (p. 52)

In 1960, Margarita visits Cuba with her mother and sister, feeling at home again with her “invisible twin” (p. 102), but also finding evidence of the recent violence. She’s deprived of the libraries she is accustomed to in California, but is enchanted by her grandmother’s stories; she wonders if she will ever be brave enough to tell stories like that.

By 1961, relations between the two countries Margarita loves have broken down, and she watches her mother transform into an exile. In a poem titled “Library Life,” we see Margarita turn to books for hope and refuge; she finds no books about Cuba, however, and an idea about trying to write one begins to form. Meanwhile, life in junior high school is miserable as her peers ignore or taunt her and she must master the art “…of pretending I don’t care” (p. 134).

Margarita gives us a first-hand account of how she experienced the terrifying time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After 1962, she notices that the island—her island—has disappeared from travel brochures. The trade embargo imposed by the United States—her country, too—is not mentioned in school. Her Abuelita must write letters in code. Margarita’s own views of history are being formed.

And, during this time of her youth, she is writing; she is becoming a poet.

I was captivated by the beauty and poignancy of the poems in this memoir. I am eager to pair Enchanted Air with Jacqueline Woodson’s 2014 verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. I hope that some of my students will attempt to use poetry to construct their own stories involving the places that influenced their childhoods. And I might begin my own, going back to my home in Binghamton, New York. Once upon a time . . . .

Appropriate for middle school and high school

(geography, history, ELA)