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

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Book Talk: Tender

by Sharon Kane

tenderWho is manipulating whom? This is the question I kept asking myself as I read Tender, by Belinda McKeon (2016, Little, Brown and Company). In 1990s Ireland, first-year college student Catherine meets James, who has returned after a year in Germany serving as an assistant to a famous photographer. As their close friendship develops, he confides to her that he is gay, something that much of their society has not yet accepted. Catherine offers James encouragement when he decides to come out to his mother, who does not take the news well. (He wouldn’t even consider telling his father.) But something about their relationship began to worry me when I got to a part where James insists that Catherine come home with him for a weekend and then mocks, chides, and pressures her when she says No. She decides to go home with him.

Catherine continues to support James through letters after he goes away again. Again, I was bothered. James is intense, to the point where I found him controlling. Catherine’s parents tell her he is trouble; I felt that, too, though not for the same reason they rejected him. When James returns, he is constantly around. Catherine tries to protect him, tries to listen and understand when he complains about how hard life is for him as a gay man, tries to improve herself whenever he criticizes her. Both Catherine and I were feeling smothered.

But then James finds friends; James finds ways to fit in; James begins to have some success with meeting men. And Catherine? Catherine finds that she is jealous, possessive, and obsessively in love.

I will stop talking plot here. I think this could be an important story for teens to read; although not at all didactic, it could serve as a cautionary tale. Signs throughout point to an unhealthy relationship–signs that were ignored. As the situation escalated, the relationship turned destructive. This book is for mature readers and belongs in the category of New Adult (for an audience from approximately age 17 to 25). It’s thought provoking, that’s for sure.

psychology; ELA; social studies

appropriate for upper high school grades and beyond

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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