Micronations: Invent Your Own Country and Culture, by Kathy Ceceri

When I was offered a review copy of Micronations: Invent Your Own Country and Culture (with 25 Projects) by Kathy Ceceri (Nomad Press, May 2014) I jumped at it– the topic combines beautifully my interest in fantasy world-building, and my real-life background as an anthropologist/archaeologist.

This is a book that almost makes me want to be a teacher, either in class or homeschooling, because it would be so much fun to use as the basis for an exploration of geography and social studies!  Ceceri walks kids through all the things that go into making a modern country–the physical features of the land, the basics of government and economy, the symbolic elements of nation building, and more.  Generously interspersed with matter of fact discussions of such topics are interesting facts and activities (which seem entertaining, do-able, and useful), and I must say that I loved the interesting facts very much!  There are so many of them, and they are indeed so interesting, that the book is almost worthy reading and sharing just for their sake!

(Did you know in Bhutan there is one day every month where no one is allowed to drive, so as to cut down on air pollution?)

There’s much here a young writer (or even some older writers) would find useful in fantasy worldbuilding as well–solid world-building depends on a deep understanding of how countries work from the ground-up.    That being said, the more amorphus side of a country’s culture–the history, the mythology, the kinship structures–are not part of the scope of the book (which isn’t criticism, just a comment).

I appreciated that alternatives to late stage capitalism were included, such as barter economies, but couldn’t help but feel that more alternatives could have been offered to push kids to question all that they take for granted about nation-hood! (Which is to say, this isn’t subversive).

That being said, I enjoyed it for what it was.  It’s very much worth using in an educational setting, and even worth giving in a more casual way to your kid at home who has a penchant for social studies trivia!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

What’s New? The Zoo: A Zippy History of Zoos

Krull, Kathleen. 2014. What’s New? The Zoo!: A Zippy History of Zoos. New York: Scholastic.  Illustrated by Marcellus Hall.

What’s New? The Zoo? is an illustrated overview of zoos that combines history with hard science and social science.  Kathleen Krull outlines the history of zoos, and offers insight into what compels us to keep animals, what we’ve learned from them, and what has changed in zoos since the founding of the first known zoo,

4,400 Years Ago, The Sumerian City of Ur, in Present-Day Iraq

The king of beasts lunges and roars.  The King of Ur roars right back, feeling like the ruler of all nature.  How delicious to wield his power over dangerous animals!  It’s the world’s first known zoo, and all we’re sure about (from clay tablets in libraries) is that is has lions.

From this beginning, Krull highlights transitional moments in zoos throughout the ages and across the globe.  Just a few examples include:

  • Ancient Egypt and Rome where zoos were created to impress
  • Ancient China where the zoo was a contemplative and sacred place
  • Sweden where the science of zoology was established in 1735
  • The U.S. National Zoo where the concept of zoos protecting threatened species was introduced
  • South Africa’s Kruger National Park where the protection of rhinos was so successful that rhinos were delivered to other zoos
  • Germany, 1907, where the “cageless zoo” concept is introduced

(Did you know that Aristotle wrote the first encyclopedia of animals?)

On most pages, humorous, watercolor illustrations nestle around paragraphs of simple font against white space.  Several pages, however (including one depiction of fifteen buffalo waiting for a train at Grand Central Station, 1907), are double-spreads with many amusing details.

If you like your science accessible and entertaining, this is the book for you.The very talented Kathleen Krull never disappoints!

See all of my reviews at Shelf-employed. Or follow me on Twitter @shelfemployed

Copyright © 2014 L Taylor All Rights Reserved.



New Melissa Stewart Title: How Does a Seed Sprout?

Prolific Melissa Stewart has another title out from Sterling Children’s Books:  How Does a Seed Sprout?: And Other Questions About Plants (Good Question!), illustrated by Carol Schwartz.


Stewart mentions on her web page that publishers sometimes hesitate to publish books about plants, but most of the kids I know are fascinated with gardening and plants. This title follows the popular question-and-answer format that works so well for reluctant readers who like to skim and read the sections they find most appealing. It covers both basic questions and more complex ones.

The book is filled with a mix of lively watercolor illustrations by Carol Schwartz and high-quality color photographs. It is an awesome reference that would be perfect for unit on plants or to accompany a school garden project.

If you’d like to learn more about How Does a Seed Sprout?, come on over to Wrapped in Foil blog.



At Home in her Tomb

AtHomeInHerTombAt Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Trasures of Mawangdui.

by Christine Liu-Perkins; illus by Sarah S. Brannen. (Charlesbridge, 2014)

“For more than two thousand years, people had gazed across the plains at a pair of hills rising like a giant saddle from the earth,” begins Christine Liu-Perkins. These aren’t ordinary hills, but burial mounds of ancient royalty. But who?

When the tomb was opened, scientists found the mummy of Lady Dai of Mawangdui. Her body was so well preserved that they were able to perform an autopsy on her, and learned that she died of a hear attack. They also found 138 muskmelon seeds in her digestive tract – remains from her last meal.

This book takes readers into the tomb of Lady Dai, along with the archeologists – and forensic scientists – who excavated the site. It’s filled with photos and drawings of the things she carried with her to the next life. There’s plenty of back matter for folks who want more:  a timeline, glossary, author’s notes and sources.

To learn more about this archeological treasure, and see photos and a video, check out this article.

Nonfiction Monday

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Nonfiction Monday: More Civil Rights Books



The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate

by Rick Bowers

National Geographic Children’s Books, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4263-0915-1

MG/YA Nonfiction

Grades 7 and up

Source: purchased

All opinions expressed are solely my own.


This book tells a group of intertwining stories that culminate in the historic 1947 collision of the Superman Radio Show and the Ku Klux Klan. It is the story of the two Cleveland teenagers who invented Superman as a defender of the little guy and the New York wheeler-dealers who made him a major media force. It is the story Ku Klux Klan’s development from a club to a huge money-making machine powered by the powers of fear and hate and of the folklorist who–along with many other activists– took on the Klan by wielding the power of words. Above all, it tells the story of Superman himself–a modern mythical hero and an embodiment of the cultural reality of his times–from the Great Depression to the present.


I found this a very readable, fascinating account of the creation of Superman and how this fictional superhero was used to fight the Ku Klux Klan.  I’ve heard the story of Superman’s creation before but not in as complete a fashion as is explained here.  It’s an interesting story about two Jewish teenagers growing up during the Great Depression who desperately wanted to join the comics industry.  But neither could ever imagine their creation becoming the phenomenon it did.  Unfortunately for them, they turned the copyright over to DC Comics (normal procedure at the time) and as a result didn’t receive the benefits they should have. But Superman has throughout his history provided not only entertainment but the idea that good can defeat evil, even the real thing.

The Ku Klux Klan may not have started out as an organization of evil but it certainly became one.  What I didn’t know was that it petered out after their extreme acts of violence got out of control.  Reading about the deliberate reincarnation of the organization was a bit sickening, but ironically it seems that the people responsible for its recreation were more interested in money than ideology. Unfortunately, many of those who joined the organization did fully buy into the hate and fear that the organization encouraged and often acted on it, violently.

Seeing these two stories come full circle when the Superman radio show decided to have Superman face an organization that clearly represented the KKK.  This book represents the impact that even a fictional character can have on the history of a nation.  The power of propaganda for good or evil can easily be seen in this story, a story that happens to be true. A great example of the kind of history book that children will want to pick up and read.  There is however a lot of text here, more photos and extras would have been nice.  But the story is compelling enough to make up for that, but reluctant readers will be put off by the amount of text.  A great read though for more advanced readers.



The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement

by Rick Bowers

National Geographic Children’s Books, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4263-0595-5

MG/YA Nonfiction

Grades 7 and up

Source: purchased

All opinions expressed are solely my own.


The Spies of Mississippi is a compelling story of how state spies tried to block voting rights for African Americans during the Civil Rights era. This book sheds new light on one of the most momentous periods in American history.

Author Rick Bowers has combed through primary-source materials and interviewed surviving activists named in once-secret files, as well as the writings and oral histories of Mississippi civil rights leaders. Readers get first-hand accounts of how neighbors spied on neighbors, teachers spied on students, ministers spied on church-goers, and spies even spied on spies.

The Spies of Mississippi will inspire readers with the stories of the brave citizens who overcame the forces of white supremacy to usher in a new era of hope and freedom—an age that has recently culminated in the election of Barack Obama.


Fear and hate, two of the most dangerous weapons on the planet.  And boy did the segregationists use them to manipulate the public. Segregationists in Mississippi were so determined to undermine the civil rights movement and the legal decisions that were increasingly turning against them that they set up the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to combat it.  They recruited spies to check on civil rights workers and anyone they considered a threat.  Generally they tried to use more subtle methods to stop the movement, things such as manipulating jobs, white supremacist organizations, etc.  All to undermine and stop integration.

Bowers shares the stories of men who worked for both sides, those who worked against integration and those who worked for it.  Some of these stories were encouraging and some of them were sad.  It just bothered me what these men were willing to do to preserve their way of life, no matter how distorted.  A powerful example of how much some people hate change and yet how impossible to avoid.   

This is an important book about the dangers of too much power in the hands of a few and how easily it can be misused.  It’s also an important book about the courage of individuals in making a difference despite the sacrifices that are sometimes required.



The Assassination of Malcolm X

by Matt Doeden

Twenty-First Century Books, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-7613-5484-0

MG/YA Nonfiction

Grades 7 and up

Source: publisher giveaway

All opinions expressed are solely my own.


February 21, 1965. Controversial civil rights leader Malcolm X is gunned down during a speech in Manhattan. Few were shocked by the news of Malcolm X’s death. Since 1952 the former member of the Nation of Islam had supported the Nation’s philosophy of violence as the method to achieve justice for blacks in the United States. But in March 1964, after a major shift in his philosophy, Malcolm changed his message. He no longer agreed with the Nation of Islam and feuded with its leaders. The 39-year-old was shot in public at point-blank range. The news devastated Malcolm’s followers. But other people reacted to his death with relief. Three men were found guilty of the murder. But rumors of conspiracy and cover-up still swirl. In this chronicle of an assassination, find out the answers to these questions and learn more about the impact of Malcolm X’s life, and his death, on civil rights in the United States.


I’ve long had mixed feelings about Malcolm X. On the one hand, the man had a great passion for his cause and he expressed himself powerfully.  But on the other hand, his long expressed ideas about hate for whites and the use of violence to achieve black rights I don’t agree with at all.  Yet I learned some really interesting things reading this book.  The information about Malcolm’s background caused me to empathize with tragedies of his life. His father’s death when he was six, watching his home burn at age four, having his mother committed to an asylum when he was 13 and of course the constant bigotry he faced because he was black.  It wasn’t hard to see what lead Malcolm to hate whites and why the Nation of Islam appealed so much to him while he was in prison.

The irony in all this is that after spending so many years working for and promoting Nation of Islam, his own ideas and passion led him away from it.  A pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia changed some of Malcolm’s extremist views and pointed him toward greater cooperation with the mainstream civil rights movement.  This infuriated Malcolm’s former allies with the Nation of Islam.  He himself expected to be targeted and he was right.  The book explains what is known about the circumstances surrounding the assassination including the questions that remain.  While many suspected the Nation of Islam of being behind it, it was never proven.

What I found so sad was that if greater precautions had been taken, it might have been postponed or not occurred at all.  A well put-together book about a controversial figure from history who left his mark on the world.  The book is beautifully designed with quotes, photographs, a glossary, index, and brief biographies of some of the major players.

June Quick Tips: Focus on STEM

My June Quick Tips: Focus on STEM column, Testing, Testing: Summer Science Experiments has 6 new books for children and teens to use this summer!

Have you read these three?

Explore Natural Resources! With 25 Great Projects.
by Anita Yasuda

Plastic, Ahoy!: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
by Patricia Newman

Genetics: Breaking the Code of Your DNA
by Carla Mooney

Nonfiction Monday

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See more booktalks at the Booktalking #kidlit blog.

Copyright © 2014 Anastasia Suen All Rights Reserved.
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Light Is All Around Us

Light Is All Around Us

written by Wendy Pfeffer; illustrated by Paul Meisel

2014 (Harper)

Source: Mebane Public Library

Light is found in many different forms and many different places. It travels from the sun and the stars. It lights up the sky, the sea, and our backyards.

Light Is All Around Us begins with our biggest source of light, the sun. Ninety-three million miles away, the light from the sun travels in waves of electromagnetic radiation. Light travels over 11 million miles a minute! There’s a great graphic on pages 14 and 15 that shows how it compares to other things (cars, planes, sound) that travel. Light is not only fast, but it can be tremendously bright as well. Measured in lumens, light from a lightbulb measures about 1,750 lumens. Light from the sun measures 35 octillion lumens. That’s 27 zeroes after the 35. That’s more light than all the lightbulbs on Earth turned on simultaneously. This illustrates what I like best about this book. It has some very cool facts. I didn’t even know that octillion was a number. Throw that word in a conversation and watch someone’s jaw drop.

Light comes from many other sources besides the sun. Several familiar examples are presented, but one I did not know was my favorite. People in the West Indies would poke holes in gourds and put fireflies in them. This was their version of the flashlight. Very ingenious.

The last part of the book teaches readers how they are able to see light. On pages 32 and 33, there are two terrific diagrams that show the human eye and how the eye sends messages to the brain. In the back matter, you will find three simple experiments that will encourage students to think more about light.

Check out how I would use this book at NC Teacher Stuff.