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A Trio of Non-Fiction in Teen

The Chalk Art Handbook: How to Create Masterpieces on Driveways and Sidewalks and in Playgrounds by David Zinn

Everything You Need to Ace…in One Big Fat Notebook series, various authors

The LEGO Castle Book: Build Your Own Mini Medieval World by Jeff Friesen

It’s spring!  Or, at least it finally feels like it.  Flowers and trees and shrubs are blooming around town, and possibility is in the air.  Here in the Library’s Teen Department, the latest crop of books has as much variety and promise as the flowers outside.  Take a look at these non-fiction titles just waiting to be discovered!

For middle school and high school students who are wrapping up the semester and preparing for finals, try a title in the Everything You Need to Ace…in One Big Fat Notebook series from Workman Publishing.  Created by the editors of the popular educational game Brain Quest and written by authors with experience in the given field, each book is like borrowing the notes of the organized, thorough student in class.  

Each title in the series breaks down key concepts into important, easily understood components covering the subject.  The books are laid out like school notebooks with lined pages, handwritten fonts, and color-coded highlighted sections.  Doodles illustrating complex topics are scattered throughout as are mnemonic devices, definitions of key terms, and quizzes for review.  Compact-yet-thick, these titles easily fit into a backpack and are far easier to carry than most textbooks.

Disclaimer: the Big Fat Notebook series, while an amazing resource, is not a substitute for actually paying attention in class!  It is fantastic for review, confidence building, and reinforcement of concepts before exams or in smaller bites during the semester.  The series covers major subjects–computer science/coding, math, science, world history, American history, English language arts for middle school and pre-algebra/algebra 1, chemistry, biology, and geometry for high school.  They are super helpful and accessible, great for middle school and high school students plus adults wanting to catch up on these subjects.  (Where were these when I was in eighth-grade algebra?!)

To let off steam after studying, break out some LEGOs and try The LEGO Castle Book: Build Your Own Mini Medieval World by Jeff Friesen.  Written for LEGO enthusiasts, this straightforward, concise title begins with a history of castles and a tour of their architecture then moves to building different types of castles and landscaping a medieval village from LEGOs, ending with instructions for 6 “master builds” (even a dragon).

The book’s layout is clean and clear, with color photos of completed and in-progress builds throughout.  The brief text provides just the right amount of context for background; text in the builds sections is designed to look like manuals from LEGO sets, showing important phases along the way.  Builds and book are designed for LEGO fans with some experience plus access to the variety of bricks listed (a few specialty ones).  I was pleased to see a quick guide to the variety of bricks used (including color photographs showing individual bricks/plates with their official numbers) and a discussion of economical sources for purchasing the bricks needed.

Also, I was excited that the builds were grounded in history.  Author Jeff Friesen identifies major types of medieval (European) castles with photos of completed LEGO versions and interesting text.  He also depicts the main parts of the castle and the community within its walls and how to construct them, tossing in handy tips along the way such as using minifigure accessories as turret finials.  He reminds readers that castle life was real life a thousand years ago, discussing topics like the role of castle builders, the cost and building process, and how castle architecture is tied to its defense.  The LEGO Castle Book is great for teens, adults, or upper elementary ages with a passion for LEGO; pair this with David Macaulay’s classic Castle for a fantastic dive into the subject.

Looking for a different creative outlet?  Try The Chalk Art Handbook: How to Create Masterpieces on Driveways and Sidewalks and in Playgrounds by David Zinn for some outdoor fun.  Zinn has been creating delightful, amusing chalk drawings around his Michigan hometown for years and shares his enthusiasm and expertise in this guide to accessible outdoor art.

Zinn’s tone is warm and encouraging with a light sprinkling of dad humor.  He offers basic techniques and advice for drawing 2-D and 3-D illustrations on outdoor surfaces such as concrete, asphalt, and brick.  Viewing this art form as both an opportunity to stretch skills and to bring joy to the community, he emphasizes a respectful approach (ask permission, use media that will wash away, etc.).  Color photos of his completed and in-process artwork illustrate his tips and techniques.  His advice is concrete (no pun intended) and accessible although geared toward teens who have some drawing experience and skill.  He assumes a base level of drawing knowledge which could be frustrating for someone trying it for the first time.  

He invites artists to consider basic creative components before starting–what will you draw?  How many?  How will your creature(s) move around?  What is happening in the picture?  Then he moves to more detailed information about dealing with the drawing surface at hand.  Zinn identifies various paved surfaces (concrete, macadam, paving stones, etc.) giving hints about turning their natural, imperfect states into part of the picture–pits and holes in concrete become the eyes and ears and nostrils of a hippo, a manhole cover becomes a cookie about to be eaten by a monster.  As he notes, art tells a story, and depicting emotion is key even if it’s a small component, “Eyebrows are powerful things. Always use them wisely, both in your drawings and on your own face.”

The Chalk Art Handbook is packed with tips for creating whimsical, thoughtful drawings to delight artist and neighborhood alike.  It serves as encouragement and inspiration to teens with drawing experience and/or an interest in sidewalk art, including 3-D illusion pictures.  Everybody can win when public art is shared because “More art in more places brings more people more joy”.

Stop by the Library for these and many more titles blooming this spring!

How the Post Office Created America: A History by Winifred Gallagher

I fancy sending and receiving mail: cards, letters, mail art, packages, and postcards. I delight even in receiving unsolicited consumer catalogs and other junk mail that make for great collage material. In a word, mail is fun. At its inception, however, what came to be our country’s postal service wasn’t meant for fun, but for a “secure, independent communications network so that [our country’s co-founders] could talk treason and circulate the latest news without fear of arrest.”

Readers interested in the history of the United States Postal Service or the history of the founding of America will find Winifred Gallagher’s How the Post Office Created America: A History fascinating. Throughout the book, Gallagher draws parallels between the development of the postal system and that of our country, illustrating that one could not have happened without the other.

In addition to needing a way to “talk treason,” our forefathers desired a way to disseminate information to the public in post-Revolutionary America. Prior to this time, mail, which was then the only means of remote communication, was a privilege rather than the given that it is today. Those who lacked access to this communication network also lacked access to information. The postal service was increasingly relied upon as a means to educate the public about our country’s development and encourage their participation. Newspapers are among the first materials to be mailed to the masses. In fact, it was common for printers to double as postmasters. The distribution of newspapers via the postal service helped democratize access to information similar to how the post democratized access to communication.

But it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. Gallagher expounds on the challenges that beleaguered the post. Transportation, for example. The earliest mail carriers were post riders. Men, usually, though not always, who carried the post on horseback and rode tirelessly to their destinations or to hand the mail off to their relay (not unlike a relay race). This was especially dangerous in a mostly unsettled country thick with uncertainty and thin, at best, with the infrastructure required to carry out the service.

Post roads were mapped to connect the country, as well as to shape its settlement. Mail was increasingly delivered by stagecoach (so called because it would stop at various intervals, or stages, along the way). By 1813, Congress authorized steamers to carry mail and, in 1823, “all waterways” were declared post roads. The development of the postal service is closely tied to that of the railroad with a sort of public-private partnership that led to the Railway Mail Service, which, until aviation came along, was the most efficient method of transporting the mail. According to Gallagher (and she makes a great case), the postal service single-handedly supported the aviation industry by subsidizing its infrastructure.

Transportation wasn’t the mail’s only challenge, however. Another was safety. Not only that of postal employees, but of the mail itself. Especially during the post rider, stagecoach, and railway days, it was not uncommon for the mail to be stolen. When mail traveled via railway it did so in wooden train cars that were placed behind the engine car, which meant that it was susceptible to fire, endangering both employees and the mail.

Finances were yet another challenge. In the early days of the American postal service, it was not the sender who paid for personal correspondence, but the recipient. One went to the post office (because that was the only option prior to home delivery) and asked for their letters and paid only for those that they wished to receive. Not surprisingly, this was costly. Not to mention the accumulation of unwanted letters, which ended up in the Dead Letter Office (an interesting destination and story in and of itself).

The postal service did more than overcome challenges, though. It changed America’s social landscape. During the Victorian era, letter-writing became extremely popular, especially among women. So much so that post offices installed separate windows for women to pick up their correspondence so as to keep aligned with that era’s social mores (i.e. to keep the women from the men, especially because, at that time, post offices could also double as places of vice). Books about the etiquette of writing letters abounded and stamp lockets, a locket containing stamps worn on a chain around the neck, became popular, as did stamp collecting.

In her final chapter, she examines the postal service’s missed opportunity to provide the Internet as a non-profit public service rather than our current privatized for-profit system. When considering how different access to electronic communication and information might look had the post prepared for a digital future, she imagines: “They would have insisted that every post office in America become a neighborhood media hub equipped with a bank of computers that enable citizens to go online for little or no expense–a service now provided by more than sixty nations around the world, to say nothing of America’s own public libraries, where people que up or take a number for online access.”

These considerations have merit. After all, the postal service and the Internet are not unlike one another. Both came about to fulfill the need for remote communication and the dissemination of information, while helping to democratize access in the process. Interestingly, public perception of both has been, at times, similar. To wit: It was feared that mail order catalogs and buying/selling goods through the mail would destroy local businesses much like it’s feared that buying/selling goods online will do the same.

Gallagher details America’s long, winding postal road with an intriguing history that spans two centuries while skillfully supporting her claim that the post office created America. In the final words of her afterward, “Whither the Post,” Gallagher encourages us “to reflect on what the post has accomplished over the centuries and what it could and should contribute in the years to come” before deciding its future. To state it simply, reading this title has only strengthened my opinion that, too often, our postal service is taken for granted.

As always, happy reading.

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