Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sailor TwainSailor Twain by Mark  Siegel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mystery, Romance and Legend on the Hudson

Let’s get one thing straight: the mermaid in Mark Siegel’s graphic novel “Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson” (First Second, 2012) is no cute Disney creature wearing strategically placed seashells. She’s beautiful, all right. She’s also seductive—and, quite possibly, dangerous, more like the Sirens of Greek mythology than the Little Mermaid.
The year is 1887. Elijah Twain, a young steamboat captain, rescues an injured mermaid from the waters of the Hudson River. He carries her to her cabin and nurses her back to health. Twain is a poet, and she becomes his muse. He keeps her a secret from the rest of the boat, from his wife, and most especially, from Lafayette, the ne’er-do-well womanizer and owner of the ship. But Twain suspects that Lafayette may have a secret of his own—and that it may have something to do with mermaids. A meeting with C.G. Beaverton, enigmatic author of “Secrets and Mysteries of the River Hudson,” propels the story forward to its unexpected and deeply satisfying ending.
Siegel weaves together legend, local history, intrigue, and romance in a kind of fairy tale for young adults. His gorgeous, moody charcoal drawings capture the feeling of New York’s Gilded Age perfectly. In an interview with the “Los Angeles Times,” Siegel said that the idea came to him on his morning train rides to work in Manhattan alongside the Hudson River. Of the appeal of mermaids, Siegel said “...a song that we can’t resist, even though we know it’s going to pull us down—anyone who’s lived a bit on this planet knows mermaids. Some people can be mermaids to us. We can be mermaids to others, sometimes. And chemical siren-songs too, like crack, or smack, or alcohol, even coffee (not all mermaids spell disaster for us sailors, of course.)”
In the tradition of a 19th century novel, Siegel began serializing “Sailor Twain” in 2010 ahead of book publication. You can read the opening chapters, along with Siegel’s commentary, at
“Sailor Twain” is one of those books that compelled me to turn back to the first page as soon as I read “The End.” It does include some nudity (and not just the mermaid’s bare breasts) and a few sex scenes. I’d recommend “Sailor Twain” for older teens and adults.

Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 16 books. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at This review was originally published in the Sunday, December 23 edition of the News-Gazette.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Never Fall Down (review)

Never Fall Down

Arn was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist regime, came to power in Cambodia. He was a happy, mischievous kid who hustled for spare change by singing and dancing with his brother, selling ice cream, playing games of chance.
            And then the peasant soldiers, wearing black pajamas and hats, came to town. Arn would never be that happy, mischievous boy again.
            “Never Fall Down” (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 2012), a National Book Award finalist by Patricia McCormick, is based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the genocide inflicted on the Cambodian people. Tens of thousands of people died from starvation, overwork, and disease; many more were tortured, killed, and buried in mass graves.
            When the Khmer Rouge soldiers first come to his town, Arn was happy; the war, they said, was finally over. But soon those with education or money disappear; those who remain are marched into the countryside. Arn is separated from his family and assigned to a child labor camp, where they work punishing hours under the blazing sun. He watches other children, weak from hunger, disease, or exhaustion, die before his eyes.
            McCormick uses Arn’s distinct and beautiful voice to tell the story of how he survived those brutal years: “I see some kids die in the field. They just fall down. Maybe it’s malaria. Or maybe they starve. They fall down, they never get up. Over and over I tell myself: never fall down.”           
One day, the soldiers ask if any of the kids play an instrument. Understanding that this may help him survive, Arn volunteers to play in the band—even though he’s never played a note in his life. Under the tutelage of an old musician, he quickly learns to play a traditional stringed instrument called the khim. The beautiful traditional Cambodian songs are forbidden. Instead, he and the other boys play revolutionary songs to bolster the spirits of the workers and, increasingly, to drown out the sounds of soldiers killing people they suspect of being traitors.
            Arn is forced to watch, and later, take part in, the brutal murder of innocents. He learns to key to survival: “I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.” Just as the country is about to be liberated from the Khmer Rouge, he is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier.
            Arn escapes from the army; he ends up in a refugee camp in Thailand, very near death from disease and starvation. An American minister adopts Arn and two other Cambodian boys. The final section of the book describes Arn’s struggle to overcome the guilt and trauma of his experience with the Khmer Rouge; he has dedicated his life to humanitarian causes around the world.
            “Never Fall Down” is not an easy read; there are many scenes of death and graphic violence. But it is also a beautiful and important book.  
            To learn more about Arn Chorn-Pond, go to

This review originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, December 12, 2012. Sara Latta is a children's science writer and author of 14 books. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews at