Monday, August 29, 2022

MMGM- The Prince of Steel Pier and How Was That Built?

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Nockowitz, Stacy. The Prince of Steel Pier
September 1st 2022 by Kar-Ben Publishing (R)
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Joey loves spending his summers at his Bubbe and Zeyde's St. Bonaventure hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The hotel has been around for fifty years, since the 1920s, so is a bit worn out, but is a bustling destination for Jewish tourists to the area. Joey and his parents and three brothers, Reuben, Simon, and younger Ben, stay with their grandparents so they can work at the hotel in the summer. They usually live in Philadelphia, and their father goes back home to work during the week. Joey works as a waiter, although he doesn't get paid, and gets a fair amount of freedome to wander the area. During one of these outings, he puts down his tote bag with some winnings in it, and local tough Ralphie takes it. They have a bit of a scuffle over it, and Joey runs into Ralphie again when he goes to play some Skee-Ball on the Boardwalk. He does really well, and soon people are placing bets on his playing. This brings him to the attention of Artie, who offers Joey a job; for thirty dollars a week, which is huge money for the 1970s, Joey will entertain his daughter from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and "keep her out of trouble". Joey has been saving up for a camera, so reluctantly agrees, even though he feels a need to lie to his family about his connection to Artie, who seems shady at best. Artie's daughter, Melanie, turns out to be 15. Joey is apprehensive about spending time with her, but money is money. The two go to some of the attractions on the Boardwalk, spend her father's money on food (some of which Joey can't eat because it isn't kosher), and come to an uneasy agreement that Joey isn't the worst "babysitter" that Melanie could have. Joey is worried about the future of the hotel, since gambling has been legalized and properties are being bought up to build new casinos. He's also worried about Artie's position as the "king of Steel Pier", since he knows his family wouldn't want him associating with people who had possible ties to organized crime. When Artie asks him to keep a package safe in his grandparents' storage room, Joey knows that he is in too deep, but isn't sure what to do. Luckily, older brother Reuben, who has been seeing Melanie in the evenings, is able to help him out. It's an interesting summer of new experiences in an area that is down on its luck and about to change entirely, but Joey is able to make the best of his opportunities. 
Strengths: Ah, summer. I feel bad for today's children, who spend most of their summer shut up in the air conditioning playing video games and probably not talking to many people. I love books that showcase tourist areas from the point of view of local children, and since I've never been to the Steel Pier, this was absolutely fascinating. The descriptions were so vivid that I could practically smell the popcorn with hints of tar and rotting fish! There are plenty of good 1970s details that tell me that Ms. Nockowitz, who is a librarian here in Columbus, is about my age-- kids today don't get the joy that was St. Joseph's orange flavored chewable aspirin! The hotel is vividly described as well, and based on a similar hotel run by the author's grandparents. The feeling of living in a moment when the writing is on the wall that things will not go on the way they are is palpably sad, even though the way things are isn't perfect. Joey's family is close knit and supportive, and their Jewish cultural identity is woven into daily life. 
Weaknesses: I was hoping for a little more Skee-Ball, having recently read Jon Chad's Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball. Also, there could have been more descriptions of clothing (Tank tops on boys! Tube socks with stripes! Tube tops and blue eyeshadow for Melanie!), food, music, and other mid 1970s cultural touch points. Will my students want this? No, this would be to help me relive my youth!
What I really think: There should be more historical fiction written by people who lived through various eras, so I would love to see more books like this, featuring the 1950s-1980s. The Prince of Steel Pier reminded me a bit of Collard's Double Eagle, and is a great choice to hand to readers who like Grabenstein's Welcome to Wonderland series. Definitely purchasing, and can't wait to hand to students!

Agrawal, Roma and Hickey, Katie (illus.)
How Was That Built?: The Stories Behind Awesome Structures 
August 16, 2022 by Bloomsbury Children's Books
Copy provided by the publisher

Structural engineer Agrawal discusses some of the  most fascinating and architecturally challenging buildings in the world in this middle grade illustrated nonfiction book. Looking at the buildings through the lens of the design challenges they pose, such as building a structure to be tall, stable, watertight, strong, etc., we travel around the world to learn about the solutions that were applied to various problems with constructing in certain circumstances. From shoring up the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City that is slowly sinking to the very tall Shard in London (on which Agrawal worked) to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, each edifice is described, it's history detailed, and its construction technique parsed and connected to other similar buildings. The architects involved are given brief biographies as well. There are some very interesting spreads describing different types of architecture and their histories; I particularly liked the explanations of various kinds of bridges. Hickey's drawings are pleasant to look at but also include a lot of details. I was especially fond of the little 1960s-ish cars that appear in some pictures! Included in the book are two things that might not occur to people as "architecture"; the London sewage system and the Thames Tunnel; I love that this is included, and that the Halley VI research station is the example given for building on ice. There's a ton of information on each page, and at the end of the book there is a brief discussion about the future of building! There is a glossary of terms used at the end of the book, along with an Engineers' Gallery with brief biographies of engineers not mentioned in the body of the book. 
Strengths: I find buildings to be absolutely fascinating, and this gave me a really good look at what goes into the structure of them, and not just the facade. (One of my superpowers is being able to pretty accurately date most 20th century structures!) While I personally don't want to ever go into the Shard or the Burj Khalifa, it is fascinating to look at how they were made, and how the difficulties in constructing them were addressed. The drawings are great, and the color palette has a lot of blue and brown, which was soothing and appropriate to the topic. This is a great book to hand to a student who is involved in Future Cities or loves the STEM design challanges with straws, and I can see them enjoying many happy hours poring over the book and looking up more about the buildings. 
Weaknesses: The size of the book, combined with the illustrated cover, means that this might take some handselling to readers interested in engineering and architecture, because it looks like a picture book and not like the comprehensive look at engineering that it is. 
What I really think: It would be nice to have included some photographs of the buildings, but readers today are more apt to look things up on their phones than I am. I don't have a lot of books on architectures, but this one will be a good addition to the collection along with Theule's Concrete: From the Ground Up. This catapulted me into quite the rabbit hole about the Barbican Centre in London; most younger readers are going to enjoy reading about the extreme sorts of architecture described in this book, but I like things more on a human scale, and am fascinated by the 1970s Brutalist masterpiece that is the Barbican. 


  1. The Prince of Steel Pier would remind me of my youth too. This book is on my radar. Thanks for the great review.

  2. Great minds think alike as I featured the same title today on MMGM. I really enjoyed this story but probably a lot more so than the intended audience.
    Hope your school year is going well.

  3. Enjoyed having two different reviews today on The Prince of Steel Pier -- you both focused on different angles of the story. Sounds like a great read. I still have trouble of thinking of the 70s as historical fiction. It seems like yesterday to me! So much going on. But, I do agree with you about more books from the 50s-80s. Growing up in central Ohio, it was a special time for me -- we could be kids and play in the neighborhood all day, with all the mom's keeping an eye on us. Loved the evening times -- we stayed out until dark.

  4. I will have to look for How Was that Built. It sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Thanks for telling me about it.