Sheinkin strikes again

816maqpda9lMost Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, by Steve Sheinkin (2015)

Opening line: “They came to California to ruin a man.”

When I read Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon a few years ago when it was a Rebecca Caudill nominee, I was a HUGE fan of Sheinkin’s pretty instantly. What might have been a thick, dense history book, turned into a page-turner crime novel, that I just had to keep reading. Which is why I had no problem picking up Most Dangerous.

This one takes a look at a different war than Bomb, and does so with no less depth or intrigue. Starting as a data analyst with the Department of Defense, Daniel Ellsberg initially supports America’s role in the growing hostility in Vietnam. However, after travelling to the warzone, and witnessing firsthand the devastation of the country, the civilians, and the men fighting there, his opinion starts to shift. It is swayed even more when, back in the States where he has access to some very classified documents, he finds out that even more was going on behind the scenes that anyone in the public was aware of. Soon he decides that this 7000 page document known as the Pentagon Papers, in which all these secrets are listed, is not something to be kept behind closed doors. In fact, these papers should be broadcast for everyone to read.

This one took a little while to get into, but once I felt involved, as involved as Daniel Ellsberg, I couldn’t stop. Sheinkin has a knack for bringing history to life, a truly amazing feat for middle schoolers. If only I could get more of them to give it a try.

2 stars

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From Saigon to Alabama

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai (2011)

This is a beautiful book. I didn’t know much about it, though, except that it had was getting a bunch of awards and had a gorgeous cover. It lived up to expectations, certainly.

Hà is ten years old, living with her three older brothers and mother in Saigon in 1975. Let me remind you — today, Saigon is known as Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam. And what was going on in Vietnam in 1975? Yep.

Needless to say, Hà’s mother is worried for her family’s safety. But if she leaves Vietnam, her husband (who was lost at war) would never be able to find them again. The situation is desperate, though, and soon they have very little choice but to escape with Hà’s uncle’s family, on a boat bound for America. And it’s because of what happens once they hit the American shores that made me fall in love with this book and this girl.

I’ve never read a book that seems to so perfectly capture the young English language learner experience. Of course, I don’t have any personal experience as an ELL, but I AM reading an informational book for educators right now (Getting Started with English Language Learners, by Judie Haynes) and everything Haynes is telling me about ELLs shows up in this text. This either is a sign of authenticity for Lai or for Haynes (I’m not sure which), but because of this, the story definitely rings true. From Hà’s realization that a, an, and thes act like “little metaphors to tell the world whose English is still secondhand”, to her struggle with knowing she used to be smart and now feels incredibly stupid, it made me understand the ELL experience way more than I think Haynes’ book can.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s all written in verse? Beautiful, heart-breaking, hilarious, thoughtful verse?

I want everybody — especially everybody in a school setting where you may interact with students learning English — to read this book. Please.

2.5 stars