Children's book reviews: Two true tales that read like novels

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Sometimes, truth really is stranger than -- or at least as strange as -- fiction. Two new nonfiction books tell of two events that, had they not actually happened, would have fit right into a novel.

On the centennial of the Titanic's sinking, there is renewed interest in the disaster. Even after 100 years, questions remain.

How could the largest ship in the world at the time, the one everyone said was unsinkable, be destroyed by an iceberg on such a calm night?

Once the disaster occurred, why weren't there enough lifeboats? And why was help not nearer at hand?

In "Titanic: Voices From the Disaster" (Scholastic Press, $17.99, ages 9-12), Deborah Hopkinson answers "how" with "who." Using photographs, letters and personal testimonies, she tells the story of the ship through the words of its passengers and crew.

Individuals profiled include a 9-year-old boy, a science teacher, a wireless operator and a steward. The perspectives combine to give not only a view of the ship, but also a glimpse at the lives and deaths of the people on it.

The facts and figures relating to the ship's construction and size are painstakingly detailed. This exhaustive approach may at first seem intimidating. Fortunately, the book is arranged and organized so well that readers can easily grasp the information presented. Chapter titles forecast their topics while endings hint at later events.

Sidebars answer key questions, such as the reason for the lack of lifeboats. And the combination of impressive photographs with statistics convey the magnitude of the tragedy from a mathematical angle.

Still, the passengers' and crew members' voices are the most compelling aspect of the book. While other authors have taken a narrative approach, Ms. Hopkinson's presentation of primary sources makes dense information more accessible as well as more poignant.

She blends quotes with her own explanations, making the information relevant and easy to follow. She chooses her quotes and back stories well, so that the reader feels an emotional connection to the individuals without being overwhelmed.

An extensive list of resources, including some with audio of real voices, makes this an excellent book for avid Titanic researchers.

In "The Fairy Ring: or Elsie and Frances Fool the World" (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 10-12), Mary Losure tells a lesser-known but no less unbelievable story: how two English girls and a trick photograph convinced intelligent adults that fairies existed. Those adults included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most logical detective in literature.

When Frances' father goes to fight in World War I, she and her mother go to stay with her cousin Elsie's family in the rural village of Cottingley. Lonely, Frances spends her time playing in the meadows and streams, where she begins to see gnomes and fairies.

One day she reveals this to her mother and relatives. They mock her and Elsie.

Elsie, artistic and stubborn, decides to end the teasing by creating and photographing realistic paper fairies. Years after Frances goes home and the photographs are thought forgotten, Elsie's mother attends a lecture on nature spirits and reveals that her daughter photographed some fairies.

This comment sets in motion a "fairy machine" of people trying to prove scientifically that fairies exist. Elsie and Frances must take more pictures to appease the Spiritualists or risk exposure.

Ms. Losure describes the small town setting picturesquely. Clearly Cottingley was the perfect place for a fairy sighting.

The photography process, with its juggling of light and shutters and glass plates, is exhaustively explained, complete with quotes from a camera manual. Elsie and Frances' photographs of winged fairies and tiptoeing gnomes illustrate the text, as do some of Elsie's paintings.

The descriptions and explanations, as well as the photos, help the reader understand why the Spiritualists may have confused technology and magic.

Ms. Losure creates a vivid relationship between Frances and Elsie, hinting at both friendship and power imbalance. Her narration reflects the girls' possible moods. When the girls feel ridicule toward a researcher, she narrates as though the reader should share their joke. She gives a sense of Frances' shyness as well as her gradual maturity. She suggests strong motives for Elsie's stubbornness.

Other matters are vague. Throughout her life, Frances said that she saw fairies even when Elsie wasn't taking pictures. Why?

Ms. Losure implies possibilities but does not explore any. This ambiguity is likely to confuse some readers but intrigue others. Readers with an interest in either fairies or photography may enjoy this look at a long-ago hoax.

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Amy Robinson is children's librarian at the main branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. First Published June 19, 2012 12:00 AM


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