Posted in Intermediate, Non-Fiction, picture books

Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman gets a book and a giveaway for Women’s History Month!

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, by Laurie Wallmark/Illustrated by Brooke Smart, (March 2021, Abrams), $18.99, ISBN: 9781419739637

Ages 7-9

This picture book biography on code breaker Elizebeth Friedman is a great way to kick off Women’s History Month!  Beginning with her early years as a Shakespeare-loving student and working for an eccentric millionaire, she meets fellow code aficionado and scientist, William Friedman. The two marry, and their expertise in codes and ciphers led to their groundbreaking work in cryptology during World War I. Friedman traveled two worlds, raising her family away from the city and answering the government’s call for help, whether it was to break smuggler’s codes during Prohibition or ferreting out Nazi spies and Japanese spies during World War II. The FBI took credit for the work she and her team did, and she was sworn to secrecy. Her secrets were declassified 35 years after her death in 2015. Laurie Wallmark, a STEM/STEAM biographer for women in STEM, has written several books I’ve brought to my Girls Who Code sessions, including Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (2017) and Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (2015). She has a great way of factual storytelling that show each of her heroines breaking barriers while juggling the weight of societal expectations. Ms. Wallmark does Elizebeth Friedman a great justice and brings her story to a new generation of girls.

Brooke Smart’s watercolor and gouache paintings sprinkle Friedman quotes throughout and have humorous moments, including a page where a line of coded language wraps itself around an angry group of Nazis as Friedman gazes off sagely on the companion page; one spread has Friedman leading a team of young men through ticker tapes, curling all over the page, likely pointing out how to break codes. She combines the realistic with the imaginative, encouraging readers to let their minds go where coding takes them. Back matter includes an explanation on codes and ciphers, cryptography, and a crack the code exercise, along with a bibliography and timeline of Friedman’s life. An excellent biography on a ’til-now virtually unknown figure in history.

Check out the Code Breaker, Spy Hunter book page on author Laurie Wallmark’s webpage where you’ll find a trailer, cool activity sheets, and more!


Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark has written picture-book biographies of women in STEM fields ranging from computer science to mathematics, astronomy to code breaking. Her books have earned multiple starred reviews, been chosen as Junior Library Guild Selections, and received awards such as Outstanding Science Trade Book, Cook Prize Honor, and Parents’; Choice Gold Medal. She is a former software engineer and computer science professor. She lives in Ringoes, New Jersey. You can find her at

On Twitter: @lauriewallmark

Facebook: @lauriewallmarkauthor

Instagram: @lauriewallmark


Brooke Smart loves telling stories through her illustrations, especially stories about brave women from history. She has always loved to read, and growing up she could be found nightly falling asleep with a book on her chest. Illustrating books as a professional artist is a lifelong dream come true. She is living the busy, tired, happy, wonderful dream in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, their three kids, and their naughty cat named Sunshine. Learn more about her at

Instagram: @bookesmartillustration



One lucky winner will receive a copy of Code Breaker, Spy Hunter courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers (U.S. addresses). Enter this Rafflecopter giveaway!

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

David Almond asks: Why should children be at war?

War is Over, by David Almond/Illustrated by David Litchfield, (May 2020, Candlewick Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781536209860

Ages 9-12

Taking place in the UK in 1918, War is Over asks a timeless question: why do we expect children to fight our wars? Not having a child’s presence on the front, but the psychological war; the “us” and “them” mentality that permeates everything we do. John is a young boy whose father is fighting in the trenches of France while his mother works in a munitions factory. John’s teacher tells – bellows, really – that the students are fighting alongside the grownups, fighting the enemy in Germany that includes the children of Germany. But John certainly doesn’t feel like anyone is his enemy. When a classmate’s uncle tries to speak to the children, telling them that they are children and NOT at war with anyone, he’s attacked and taken away from the children, but he’s touched something in John,  who sees a sketch of a young boy among the man’s scattered papers. It’s a drawing of a German boy named Jan, the same age as John. John imagines he and Jan become friends, and dreams of a better world where children are children, not enemies, and create a peaceful world together.

This is a strong story of a sensitive boy trying to make sense of a world gone mad. It’s a story that’s as relevant today as it was in 1918, when the story takes place. David Litchfield’s black-and-white illustrations are moody, evocative, packing strong emotions. Visit his website to see some of his work from War Is Over. Poignant and ultimately hopeful, War is Over is a story that will resonate with kids and adults alike.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

The Good Son tells a tale in miniature

The Good Son: A Story from the First World War Told in Miniature, by Pierre-Jacques Ober/Illustrated by Jules Ober & Felicity Coonan, (May 2019, Candlewick Studio), $22, ISBN: 9781536204827

Ages 10-14

“About one hundred years ago, the whole world went to war. The war was supposed to last months. It lasted years.” This story about Pierre, a World War I French soldier, is told with spare narrative and is illustrated using antique military miniatures, photographed to create stunning moments.

Pierre is a young French soldier who quietly left his regiment for two days to celebrate Christmas with his mother. Upon his return, he is imprisoned for desertion and awaits execution. As he waits, he looks back on his life as a soldier: his choice to sign up, his dreams of glory, and the horrific truth of the battlefield. He remembers sharing coffee with German soldiers who were tired of fighting, and of spending what would be his final Christmas with his mother. His friend, Gilbert, comes by to bring him food and wine, and makes a promise to carry Pierre’s letter to his mother.

The Good Son is not a picture book for young children; it’s for middle schoolers and up. The use of miniatures brings home the scale of war: seeing the lines and lines of soldiers going into battle looks impressive, but turned becomes chilling when you understand that young men, not toys, headed to battle. There are beautiful and horrifying shots of battlefield explosions and war machines; pensive portraits by firelight as Pierre waits for word from the colonel. The text is heart aching, as we read about a young man’s struggle to understand how to be a good son and a good soldier. An author’s note and a note on the photography process provide a deeper look into the creation of the book and offers some further insight into Pierre’s story.

Beautifully written and photographed, this is a story that will provoke thought and discussion. A good book group choice.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen

Radium Girls meets YA fiction with Glow

Glow, by Megan E. Bryant, (Sept. 2017, Albert Whitman), $16.99, ISBN: 9780807529638

Recommended for readers 12+

Julie should be starting college in the fall, but she used up all her savings to bail her mother out of debt. Frustrated and embarrassed, especially when her friend drops money on crazy shopping trips while Julie counts every cent. They wander into a thrift store where Julie discovers an antique painting that reveals a hidden, glowing image in the dark. Locating the rest of the paintings becomes Julie’s obsession; as she tracks down the paintings and the painter’s identity, she discovers that the paintings were made by and tell the story of the Radium Girls – young women who worked in factories, using radium paint to make glow-in-the-dark watches for the soldiers in the trenches of World War I.

The dual narrative keeps the novel moving at a fast pace, but it is Liza and Lydia’s story – the Radium Girls – that gripped me even more than Julie’s. If you haven’t yet read Kate Moore’s Radium Girls, I highly recommend it; the story of the women who were slowly poisoned over time is heartbreaking and infuriating, but so important to read and know. Glow is a great introduction to the subject on a middle school/YA level; the letters from Lydia to her betrothed, Walter, a World War I soldier, give readers the full horror of radium poisoning. These girls – some as young as 13 – were led to believe that the radium paint was safe, even beneficial – one floor manager brags about mixing some into his pudding for health reasons; girls paint their nails, their faces, even paint jewelry on their bodies before they go out on dates. Hindsight, for the reader, is 20/20; I wanted to shriek at them as Lydia described each detail.

That said, there are some moments I felt could have been stronger. I didn’t love the romance that felt pushed into the narrative to make it more attractive to teen readers, and the subplot tension between Julie and her mother feels like it’s there just to make readers understand why Julie would be shopping in thrift stores. The driving story here is Lydia and Liza’s story, though; that’s what will stay with you long after the story has ended and you’ve closed the book. An author’s note at the end talks about the Radium Girls and the indignities they suffered when they became ill and tried to come forward.

This one is going on the shelves at my library, and I’ve already told my son’s girlfriend that she has to read it the second it hits shelves. Glow has a powerful, heartbreaking story at its core that you should not miss.
Posted in History, Non-Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Discover the World War I trench poets in Above the Dreamless Dead

above the dreamless deadAbove the Dreamless Dead, edited by Chris Duffy (:01 First Second, Sept. 2014). $24.99, ISBN: 9781626720657

Recommended for ages 16+

As World War I dragged on, an artistic movement arose from the trenches. The Trench Poets, as they came to be called, were a group of soldiers who wrote about the horrors around them, as a way to cope with what they saw around them. The Trench Poets ultimately became a significant literary movement – but as all things pass, it appears that the memory of the Poets has dulled a bit. No longer. Contemporary comic book and graphic artists have given new life to these poems by giving readers an illustrated retelling. Artists, including Kathryn and Stuart Immonen – two of my favorites – are here, as are Anders Nilsen, Eddie Campbell, Kevin Huizenga, George Pratt, and many more.

There are 20 poems in comic form here, and they present a brutal, beautiful look at World War I through a soldider’s eyes. There’s no glorification of war here; no rousing cries of “Let’s get ‘im, boys!” and no grandstanding. These poets rejected the glorification of war and looked inward at the psychological damage these men knew they were taking home. The stark black and white art adds to the powerful punch delivered by this work.

I consider myself a pretty well-read person. Perhaps it’s because I’m not as up on poetry as I should be, but I’d never heard of the Trench Poets until I got a copy of Above the Dreamless Dead in my hands, and was blown away by what I read. This is a book that should be in every high school library; English and History teachers could put together one heck of a unit with this book. This stands with Maus and Persepolis, as graphic novel interpretations of history that demand to be read to understand, truly understand, a moment in time through the eyes of a person living it.

Some of the Trench Poets didn’t make it home from the War. Their stories are told briefly at the end of the book. I may not have known anything about the Trench Poets when I picked this book up, but I intend to find out more now. And really, that’s one of the best things one can say about a book.