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: 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


Book Talk: Tru and Nelle

by Sharon Kane
tru and nelleMany readers who love To Kill a Mockingbird go on to read one or more of the many biographies of Harper Lee. They discover that her childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, provided many experiences that Nelle (as she was known) later wove into her classic novel set in the fictional Maycomb. Readers also learn of her friendship with little Truman (Streckfus Persons, later Capote), who also grew up in Monroeville. The children inspired each other and eventually influenced each other’s adult writing. Versions of Nelle appear in Capote’s work, and vice versa.

G. Neri, in Tru and Nelle (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), tells a fictionalized version of the friendship of these two young misfits. He explains that his story is based on real events, “but I’ve rearranged them into a single story and added more than a few fibs for spice, hopefully making for a flavorful bowl of southern homestyle yarns” (p. 318). The children, inspired by the Sherlock Holmes stories they have read, play detective games and eventually become embroiled in a mystery that involves an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. They write stories on a typewriter given to them by Nelle’s father; when Tru moves to New York, they promise to keep writing, and to go somewhere together when they grow up.

Teachers could offer this book as for additional reading while students are reading To Kill a Mockingbird; students will delight in finding episodes that are similar to the ones in the classic. They may also be inspired to write creatively about the childhood of one of their own favorite authors, conducting research and pondering the influences that led to the works they admire.

I’d pair this book with I am Am Scout: A Biography of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields (reissued in 2015 by Square Fish Books).  A book talk about that biography was posted on this site in January 2014 and can be found here:

Appropriate for intermediate, middle, and high school grades

ELA, history



Book Talk: You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen

by Sharon Kane

tuskegee airmenMany powerful history lessons are packed into Carole Boston Weatherford’s collection of verses, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (2016, Simon & Schuster). The poems give numerous examples of the courage and skills of the African American pilots as well as the challenges they faced due to racism at all levels of American society. Credit is given to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, flew in a plane piloted by an African American, and then convinced her husband Franklin Roosevelt to order the army to “give black pilots a shot” (p. 6). We learn of breakthroughs by various individuals: Dorie Miller, the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross; Joe Lewis, who in 1938 took advantage of his chance “to knock out Nazism and to hand Hitler an upset” (p. 29); and James G. Thompson, who began a “Double V” campaign, calling on African Americans “to support the war on foreign soil and to push for justice at home” (p. 37).

In the Author’s Note, Weatherford gives further information about the Tuskegee Airmen and the respect they earned as a fighter squadron, paving the way for President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the U.S. armed forces in 1948. A time line that starts with the abolishing of slavery in 1865 ends with 2007, when “Tuskegee Airmen are presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol” and 2009, when “Tuskegee Airmen are invited guests at the inauguration of Barack Obama” (p. 76). Scratchboard illustrations throughout are provided by Jeffery Boston Weatherford, who based his work on archival photographs.

In my classes, I plan to pair this with Steve Sheinkin’s Port Chicago 50 (2014), a nonfiction account of another group of African Americans in the armed forces who faced discrimination and injustice during their service in World War II. These two stories—one from the east coast and one from the west—will help us understand the enormity of the injustices that African Americans faced in the military as they risked and gave their lives for their country.

Appropriate for middle school and high school

history, ELA

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: True Stories Set during the Civil War

by Sharon Kane

When asked to think about the Civil War, often students will first recall the major battles, the tremendous number of lives lost on both sides, the leaders, the causes, and the results. As they should. But we as teachers can also introduce students to what might be considered side stories. These people and events are important, too.

Teachers who are pressed for time—since there is so much else to cover as we try to help students understand more than two centuries of American history—can turn to picture books; many are sophisticated enough to be appropriate for the high school level. I’ll discuss two here.

Louisa May Alcott civil warKathleen Krull, one of my favorite writers of nonfiction, has given us Louisa May’s Battle: How the Civil War Led to Little Women (Bloomsbury, 2013). The first line is a quote from Louisa May Alcott at age 15: “‘I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!'” (unpaged). Obviously, she dreamed big (especially considering that women were rarely allowed to work outside the home, and her family was poor). In 1862, at the age of 30, Louisa May did leave home, to serve as a nurse in Washington, D.C. It was the only way she could contribute to the Union cause, since women were not allowed to fight. In addition to tending to the wounds of hundreds of soldiers, she helped them write letters home, and she read to them from books by her favorite author, Charles Dickens. She wrote many detailed letters home herself, describing events such as the bells ringing at midnight on January 1, 1863, marking the emancipation of slaves in ten states.

Alcott’s letters were eventually published in a collection titled Hospital Sketches. It was a success, and her career as a writer took off; she had learned to write from her own experience, and she had developed a unique style. You can probably see by now the aptness of the subtitle of Krull’s book. I’ll save further details for you to discover on your own.

seven miles to freedomWho was Robert Smalls? Before I discovered the picture book Seven Miles to Freedom, by Janet Halfmann (2008, Lee & Low), I would not have been able to tell you. Now that I have read it, I want all my students to become acquainted and introduce him to their friends. As a 6-year-old house slave in South Carolina, Robert was the favorite of his master. But he witnessed many evils, which caused him to hate the institution of slavery. This only increased when he became a father and had to live with the knowledge that his daughter was the property of his wife’s master. When war broke out in 1861, Robert knew that slavery would cease to exist if the North won, but he was forced to use his skills to help the Confederacy. He was given the responsibility of steering a steamer; when a Union fleet blockaded the entrance to Charleston Harbor, he could see their ships only seven miles away. Robert came up with a daring plan. Am I going to tell you what the plan was or if it succeeded? Of course not. But I will tell you that there is plenty of suspense, and readers of all ages will acquire knowledge and inspiration from this almost unbelievable story. (I think Louisa May Alcott, whose family harbored runaway slaves in their Massachusetts home, would have loved this true account of Robert Smalls.)

appropriate for middle and high school

history, ELA

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 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.