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My favorite YA nonfiction book of the year is Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal.  YALSA has announced that it is one of five finalists for the 2012 Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.
If you’ll pardon the expression, I never found the writing to be “dry.” It helps that the book covers a fascinating segment of American history that is full of larger than life characters like Carrie Nation and Al Capone. Blumenthal draws readers in immediately with a vivid account of the St. Valentine’s Day murders and then shoots back in time to describe the people, ideas and events that led up to it. In addition to introducing readers to major players like Morris Sheppard, the “father” of Prohibition, she traces the roots of the Prohibition movement all the way back to the pilgrims without letting the story get bogged down in the minutia of the past.

The overall design of the book is nothing special, but the number of images is a great strength. From a beer advertisement featuring a toddler (p. 28) to a full-page photograph of labor union members marching with “We Want Beer” signs and miniature flags (p. 107), the pictures alone tell a compelling story. A pair of photographs on page 68 comparing prohibition agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith in and out of costume had me giggling for several minutes.

Blumenthal makes a point of mentioning in her bibliography and source notes that there is great wealth of primary sources on prohibition available to anyone willing to dive in. She describes her trips to university libraries with entire sections on temperance and prohibition. In addition to library research, she also contacted famous people born just before 1920 to request interviews. Jean Craighead George (p. 75) and John Paul Stevens (p. 126) were two of the people who responded. Source Notes are organized by chapter, and while a little guesswork is needed to pair sources with quotes, I still found them to be helpful. Also included in the back is a useful Prohibition and Temperance Glossary. It’s worth browsing for the definition of “ombibulous’” alone.

The lessons learned during Prohibition (the problems with single-issue politics, the need for compromise, the consequences of changing the Constitution) are pertinent in today’s political climate and ripe for discussion.Ken Burns’ 3-part Prohibition documentary would pair nicely with this book for a discussion. In his Sept. 28 interview with Stephen Colbert, the reasons for Prohibition, the problems with the Volstead Act, and the era he describes fits snugly with what Blumenthal described. Historian David Okrent, author of recent adult title Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, figures prominently in Burns’ series. These two books may pair well for a teen-adult book discussion.

-Donna

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