Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin

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MUDDY: THE STORY OF BLUES LEGEND MUDDY WATERS
Written by Michael Mahin
Illustrated by Evan Turk
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Booklist

 

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters book cover

 

Don’t miss the biography of the man and his music in Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters.

The story of blues legend Muddy Waters is told in prose which reads like one of his songs, filled with both sweetness and longing. Author Michael Mahin does a fine job of recreating for a young reader the life of Muddy Waters from his childhood days to one of the high points of his career, the creation of his first album.

All along the way through the book, beside those sweet and longing words of the author, are Evan Turk’s amazing illustrations that take your breath away. They look like the blues! They look like Muddy Water’s story and some of his soul. Strong lines paint the bold story of the legend, and color reaches out to convey the emotion that Muddy was going through at different times in his life. Truly these are some of the most unique illustrations to appear in a picture book. The people in Muddy’s life reach high in church, bow low over a harmonica, every movement is full of energy. Muddy’s grandmother appears as a larger than life character. She takes up so much room in one memorable two-page spread that one cannot escape the dominant presence she must have had in Muddy’s life. There is some kind of motion everywhere, in the playing of music, in the form of Muddy’s grandmother as she hangs her laundry while dancing to Muddy’s music, and in the movement of Muddy himself as he plays and sings.

 

Int art from Muddy by Michael Mahin with art by Evan Turk

Interior spread from Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin with illustrations by Evan Turk, Atheneum BYR ©2017.

 

The often repeated words, “But Muddy was never good at doing what he was told.” tell the story of a man who would not be dictated to by any boss but himself, and who successfully turned that persistence into a sound that the music world had never heard before, a precursor to rock and roll.  This is a story that shows a child that sometimes staying true to yourself is one of the hardest battles, but ultimately one of the best. Muddy never gave up on his music the way he heard it, never listening to naysayers. All of us have something like that call in our lives. Muddy teaches us through his experiences to listen to that call, be true to it and to never stop believing that one day it will enable each of us to add a new sound to the world. One passage accompanied by a striking depiction of Muddy singing reads like music:

He called up the sticky heat of a summer

night, the power of love, and the need

for connection in a world that was

so good at pulling people apart.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters is an incredibly powerful picture book in every respect and is highly recommended. At the bookstore where I work, this is a staff favorite because we all agree that it is one of the most extraordinary picture books we have seen this year. Muddy is a wonderful introduction to the life of a legend as well as an inspirational and evocative experience of art so well matched to the man and his blues that you can almost hear the music playing.

This hardcover picture book will be available September 5, 2017 but can be pre-ordered now.

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

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Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

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TWO FRIENDS:
SUSAN B. ANTHONY AND FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Written by Dean Robbins,
Illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko
(Orchard Books/Scholastic; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

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Two Friends is an excellent and inspiring new picture book about the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It’s told in such an immediate way that the reader is drawn right into the lives of these two legendary figures as they have tea together. Susan’s life is summed up best by the sentence, “And Susan had many things to do.” She really did. Author Dean Robbins looks back on Susan’s childhood noting that she did not get the education she wanted or deserved. This enables illustrators Qualls and Alko to portray Susan B. Anthony’s life in gorgeous and yet deceptively simple illustrations that show childhood pictures of Susan’s life at home that they’ve imagined her drawing. Susan’s journey to get the vote and to fight for equality got some mixed reactions by her peers, but it never stopped her.

 

Two Friends Interior Spread 1

Two Friends by Dean Robbins, Illustrations © 2016 by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, used with permission from Orchard Books/Scholastic.

Having taken us into Susan’s life, the illustrations return the reader back to these two friends talking over tea. Frederick Douglass tells Susan B. Anthony his exciting news about his newspaper. These magical words float across the page, “We are all brethren. Right is of no gender… of no color… Truth is of no color…” Frederick’s life is told as simply and as truthfully as Susan’s. Born a slave, he dreamed of learning to read and write. Qualls and Alko portray Frederick Douglass with a look of determination on his face as he reads a book. Like Susan, he wonders why some people have rights and others don’t. The illustrations clearly tell us that he has beautiful dreams of having something more. “The right to live free. The right to vote,” is what he is aiming for, something both Douglass and Anthony have in common. He was met with the same fate as Susan. Some of his peers liked what he had to say, but others didn’t. Frederick is shown standing proud while delivering a speech.

 

Two Friends Interior Spread 4

Two Friends by Dean Robbins, Illustrations © 2016 by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, used with permission from Orchard Books/Scholastic.

 

The two friends have promised to assist each other in gaining the rights they deserve. One illustration that just may be my favorite depicts Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony in a circle of support, surrounded by so many loving friends of all colors. In another, as seen above, a charming blue and white tea set remains visible on the table between them as they discuss their plans. Two candles on the table glow, symbolizing each of their luminary presences to readers. So many things they both have to do, but friendship and tea comes first! My mother loves children’s books and as I showed her this one she said, “That’s the most beautiful children’s book I have ever seen. It’s my favorite one now.” High praise from someone who is a writer herself, and has very high standards! It is stunningly perfect in text and illustrations. I love the bit of peach that shines though Frederick’s hair and suit. Equally pleasing is the same peach in Susan’s cheeks and dress. Even both their skin tones have a bit of that lovely color that seems to join them together visually as united in their causes. Two Friends is simple enough for a small child to understand, and a wonderful conversation prompter about the important contributions of both these great people. I can think of no better picture book published recently that would be more important to add to your child’s library. Highly recommended!

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

Frederick’s Journey and an Interview with London Ladd

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FREDERICK’S JOURNEY:
THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS
An Interview With Illustrator London Ladd

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Written by Doreen Rappaport
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Disney/Jump at the Sun; $17.99, Ages 6-8)

What’s the first thing I noticed when picking up my review copy of Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass? The piercing eyes of Douglass in illustrator London Ladd’s cover portrait and the absence of a title on the front. Then, gripped by the story, I devoured the book, not once, but twice in my initial read throughs of this expertly crafted picture book. Part  of the Big Words series, Frederick’s Journey effortlessly pairs Rappaport’s thoughtful biography of this former slave turned author, abolitionist and ultimately free man with Douglass’ actual words. “Douglass had traveled far – from slave to free man, from illiterate to educated, from powerless to powerful. It had been a difficult journey.” The book ends with this quote from Douglass, “What is possible for me is possible for you.” As a picture book, Frederick’s Journey is brought to life by Ladd’s inspiring artwork. I’ve interviewed this talented illustrator once before, but felt compelled to reach out again, this time for his insight on creating the illustrations and what working on the book meant to him.

An Interview with London Ladd

GRWR: Please tell us how you came to be connected with this project?

London Ladd: The publisher contacted my agent at Painted Words, Lori Nowicki, to see if I would be interested. I read the title of the manuscript [and] the answer was a definite yes. Once I read the through the manuscript I was so moved by it, so eager to get started.

GRWR: How do you decide what medium you’ll use for each book you illustrate and what did you choose for Frederick’s Journey and why?

LADD: For my illustration career I’ve primarily use acrylic with minor touched of pastels and colored pencils on illustration board if necessary. People says acrylics are challenging to use, but I love its flexibility because you can make it look like watercolor with layered thin washes or heavy opaque application like oils. It’s something I’ve always been comfortable using and quick drying is excellent for fast approaching deadlines.

GRWR: You mention in the back matter Illustrator’s Note how deep you dove into the research to really understand your subject including actually posing yourself in front of a mirror and reciting lines. Was there any particular text from Rappaport or quote from Douglass that you found most inspiring for this story’s artwork?

LADD: Rappaport’s text was so excellent with the way she gracefully combined her text with Douglass’ own quotes. But his autobiography was so powerful because you’re getting a first hand account in all its detail of his experience as a slave during the 19th century. Each page was filled with so much raw, honest, brutal, heart breaking material. So many vivid images would pop into my head from sadness, anger.

GRWR: Was there one particular image in the book that most resonated for you?

LADD: I think the first three images [see below] as a whole really resonate for me deeply due to the range of emotions and sounds I hear from the heart wrenching scream of Frederick’s mother as he’s being taken from her, the peacefulness of the river when he’s fishing with his grandmother, and his low weeping as he suddenly realizes his grandmother is gone and now his new life begins in the institution of slavery.

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Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

 

GRWR: You travelled to a lot of places in Douglass’s history, which place made the biggest impression on you?

LADD: Wow it’s so hard to pick one. Visiting his home in Anacostia was powerful. But I’ll have to go with a trip to Rochester in 2006. During my last semester in college I enrolled in an African American religious history course and the final was this amazing project where you had to travel to historical locations involved in the Underground Railroad in and around the Central New York area like Harriet Tubman’s grave and church in Auburn, NY. Well it happens that Douglass’ grave at Mount Hope Cemetery (Susan B. Anthony is buried there, too) in Rochester NY was on the list. The cemetery is huge and his grave is by the front street nearby so vehicles drive by constantly so it can be a little noisy. When walking to his grave it was so quiet with only a slight wind blowing. Being at his gravesite was moving. I just stood there silently for 20 minutes with many emotions going through my mind. After visiting his grave there was this incredible interactive Douglass exhibit at a local nearby museum and I’ll never forget it. So much on display like his North Star press, part of a house with hidden area for slaves, a double-sided mirror that when you dim the lights Douglass’ face appeared on the other side, an exhibit where you lay in a really small area like slave did during the middle passage (that had a strong impact on me) and so much more. Ten years later and it’s still one of my favorite museum exhibits.

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Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

GRWR: Not many illustrators get a front cover portrait with no title as an assignment. That’s a huge honor and your cover is outstanding. Can you tell us more about how that decision was made?

LADD: Thank you so much. That’s what makes the Big Words series so unique from other book series because each biography has this beautiful portrait of a well known person with the title on the back. That’s why I worked so hard on trying to not only capture Douglass’ likeness, but his essence. 

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Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

GRWR: In a previous interview here you said “The human spirit interests me. I love stories of a person or people achieving through difficult circumstances by enduring, surviving and overcoming.” Douglass clearly exemplified that spirit. Who else, either living or deceased would you like to portray next in your artwork or in a story of your own creation?

LADD: Ernest Shackleton! I would love to illustrate Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance. An absolutely amazing story of when, in the early 20th century, he and his crew were stranded near Antarctica for nearly two years and everyone survived. It’s a testament to his tremendous leadership during the whole ordeal.

This Shackleton quote sums up my attitude towards any challenges I face. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

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Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

 

GRWR: It’s said art is a universal language. What is it about making art and teaching it as well that speaks to you?

LADD: I think to be able to share with other people is something very important to me. I wouldn’t be here without the help of other people so it’s always been my goal to pay it forward when possible.

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd

Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

London_LaddGRWR: Can you share with us anything else about your experience working on Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass?

LADD: I truly loved working on this book and I’m so thankful to have been part of such a special project. Hopefully young people will learn, enjoy and appreciate the life of Frederick Douglass.

A huge thank you to London Ladd for this candid and informative interview. 

Click here to download a teacher’s guide.

  • Interview by Ronna Mandel

I am Martin Luther King, Jr. by Brad Meltzer

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I AM MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
(ORDINARY PEOPLE CHANGE THE WORLD)
Written by Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $12.99, Ages 5-8)

 

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This fabulous nonfiction series called Ordinary People Change the World asks the question, “What makes a hero?” Then, while his latest, I am Martin Luther King, Jr. takes its place alongside seven previously published titles, author Meltzer answers that question. By honing in on certain positive traits of the young King, the biographer immediately pulls readers in while introducing this great man born 87 years ago.

As a child, MLK got “into a lot of accidents,” but never let unfortunate circumstances keep him down. Recounted in first person, King tells us, “No matter how many times I fell, I kept getting back up.” Enamored with the power of language, King surrounded himself with books, ultimately becoming the powerhouse speaker who, at age 35, won a Noble Peace Prize and is still frequently quoted today. His negative experiences with segregation and racism began at an early age. But, rather than hate, King’s parents taught the angry young boy “that it’s better to have more love in your life than hate.” He also learned that the color of his skin did not make him any less of a person. “You are as good as anyone,” his mother told him. Throughout his formative years, King felt the injustice in society and was determined to make changes. Influenced by the writings of Thoreau and Gandhi, MLK strove to eliminate segregation peacefully, without violence.

The arrest of Rosa Parker for refusing to give up her seat on a bus prompted a yearlong boycott of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama by black people. It worked! This was a pivotal time for the growing civil rights movement. King gave a moving speech about justice and moral courage, but was also arrested for orchestrating the boycott. King’s strategy led to countless other protests, and sit-ins as he helped give voice to a people whose growing calls for equality needed to be heard. The Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama and then the massive March on Washington were turning points in history culminating with MLK’s powerful I Have a Dream speech. Soon after “the president and Congress passed new laws for civil rights,” but the work for equality was still not over. Black people had no rights to vote and that, too, had to be overcome. Eventually, it was.

Conveyed via text and speech bubbles, and illustrated in Eliopoulos’s fun-to-look-at comic-style (who can resist the mustachioed, mini-sized, black suited MLK narrator), I am Martin Luther King, Jr., is an ideal way to introduce youngsters to one of America’s great leaders. Not only does Meltzer share some of the most important aspects of MLK’s life with children, but he makes it meaningful, memorable and moving for such a short book. The back matter includes a timeline, some photos, as well as sources and further reading for kids. I thoroughly enjoyed this kid-friendly picture book that combines Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inspirational story along with “Dr. King’s actual dialogue whenever possible.” It clearly demonstrates to children how one individual, armed with only a dream and determination, can make a huge difference and a lasting impression in the world.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy is Enlightening by Chris Raschka

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The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy is Enlightening, written and illustrated by Chris Raschka (Candlewick Press, 2014, $15.99, ages 5-9), is reviewed by Dornel Cerro.

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The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy is Enlightening written and illustrated by Chris Raschka, Candlewick Press, 2014.

Chris Raschka’s picture book biography about Sun Ra, comes just in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth (May 22, 1914). Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, Sun Ra believed that he came from the planet Saturn. Raschka playfully encourages his readers to imagine this is true and illustrates Sun Ra’s trip to earth with an astronaut-like figure blasting off from Saturn. Like any good traveler, Sun Ra was interested in everything around him, especially music, since it “ …was the one thing about earth that was most like the stars.”

An exceptional musician from childhood, Sun Ra formed an orchestra called the Arkestra, which traveled throughout the world. Raschka compares them to “ … sailors on a boat bound for a new world … of sound.” It was music, Sun Ra believed, not gravity, that held people together. On May 30, 1993, Sun Ra returned to Saturn.

Raschka, a two-time Caldecott award winner (The Hello, Goodbye Window and A Ball for Daisy), has introduced young children to the language and sounds of jazz in previous picture book biographies (Mysterious Thelonious and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps). Raschka captures the exuberance and energy of Sun Ra’s music in vibrant and colorful illustrations and accessible language. Back matter includes a brief biographical sketch and, along with the end pages, a list of recordings. Given starred review by Kirkus and School Library Journal, this inspirational book of an innovative and exceptional musician is highly recommended and must be accompanied by his music (see below)!

Visit the publisher, Candlewick Press, to download Raschka’s notes and the NPR blog Act Like You Know: Sun Ra by Patrick Jarenwattananon (May 22, 2014) for further information and to hear some of his compositions.