August 14, 2017

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Death and Destruction’s Lure: Catastrophes Equal Riveting Booktalks

Young learners know from watching television and listening to grown-ups that disasters can strike anywhere. Show your booktalk listeners a map of North America and point to Canada’s eastern coast, where disaster struck not once, but twice!

Nova Scotia’s largest city, Halifax, has a superb harbor and a history of horror. The cold waves have sent dead bodies to shore several times in the town’s lifetime. Hundreds washed up in its port when the Titanic sank in 1912. Barry Denenberg’s Titanic Sinks! (Viking, 2011) offers a riveting mix of fact and fiction while telling the story through the eyes of a news reporter on board. Denenberg’s new twist adds color and suspense. Student booktalkers will bombard you with questions when you tell them about the richest man on board, John Jacob Astor, and his much younger pregnant wife.

The French ship, Mont Blanc, exploded when it collided with another ship, killing 2,000, and upending the lives of thousands more. 

Tell your audience that Astor went to the kennels to let the dogs out after the lifeboats were gone because he felt they should have a fighting chance when the ship went down. Show photos of the eight-man orchestra that continued to play and died when the ship sank. Historians aren’t sure what they were playing—could you identify the background music as you prepared to die? Point out the drawing by a survivor on the rescue ship Carpathia, which became the basis for all subsequent pictures of the Titanic sinking. Learn which passenger had the most shame heaped upon him and why. The drama of reality TV can’t match this amazing story.

Stephanie Sammartino McPherson’s Iceberg Right Ahead! The Tragedy of the Titanic (21st Century Bks., 2011) tells the same tale in a less original, yet still utterly compelling way. Kids love good photos and illustrations, and McPherson delivers. Listeners will “oooh” at the criminal iceberg that sank the ship. Learn why the binoculars that might have helped the lookout see the iceberg went missing. Find out about the 306 bodies that were frozen to death, fished out of the water, and taken to Halifax. Astor, the dog lover, was among them. Much of the book covers the aftermath of the sinking and the official investigations. Exactly why did more people perish in the third-class section of the ship than in the first and second classes? What memorials were built? Who was the last Titanic survivor alive?

The Titanic sank almost 100 years ago, but that wasn’t the end of the story for Halifax. Sally M. Walker’s Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 (Holt, 2011) details a horror story that most of us have never heard: the largest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb. Canada, throughout much of World War I, was a busy place. On December 6, 1917, the French ship Mont Blanc, one of the 40-odd vessels that floated in the Halifax harbor, carried tons of explosives bound for overseas. It exploded when it collided with another ship, killing 2,000, and upending the lives of thousands more. Many who died were burned beyond recognition. Families were separated as people were blown about or crushed in collapsed buildings. The injured were sent out of Halifax’s overflowing hospitals to other towns and cities, and it took weeks before some of the victims’ families knew they were alive. In one case, it took more than 50 years! Check out the photo showing a 1,140-pound anchor that was blown more than two miles away. Walker’s anecdotes of families and survivors will make you care and made me cry.

These books aimed at grades 4-8 compel our attention. Unimaginable catastrophes always make for riveting booktalks, not just because young readers are fascinated by the scale of destruction, but also because disasters prompt them to ask the bigger questions. Why does something so dreadful happen? Who is responsible? Could something like that happen to me? Learning how people coped with these same questions can offer some comfort to today’s young listeners.

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.

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