OUT OF THIS WORLD: THE SURREAL ART OF LEONORA CARRINGTON Written by Michelle Markel Illustrated by Amanda Hall (Balzer + Bray; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Review – Booklist
Named as one of Amazon’s Best Nonfiction Books for January 2019, Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington engages us from the opening lines where we’re told that “Leonora’s parents wanted her to be like every other well-bred English girl. But she was not.” Carrington’s amazing history unfolds with her love of drawing at age four. In the early 1900s, women were expected to be proper ladies then wives. Yet even with few opportunities, Carrington boldly forged a life which allowed her imaginative spirit to flourish.
This is the second picture-book collaboration between Michelle Markel and illustrator Amanda Hall. (The first, also about a significant figure from art history, was award-winning and critically acclaimed The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau). Once again, Hall’s art infuses vibrant color and lively images. She succeeds in conveying “the spirit, themes, and sensibility [Carrington] explored in her creative output without attempting to re-create any of her actual imagery.”
This book introduces surrealism to kids in a fun manner, yet Carrington’s plight is also understood. Instead of conforming to her society’s ideas about a woman’s place in the world, Carrington’s paintings, sculptures, and writings shaped a path that brought wide recognition in her lifetime. Additional, fascinating details are summarized in the back matter.
AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET: BEN FRANKLIN AND NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION Written by Beth Anderson Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Paula Wiseman Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
Anderson’s debut picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, will resonate with young readers who are in the thick of mastering the spelling oddities of American English. While some may doubt they have anything in common with Noah Webster or Ben Franklin, Anderson makes a convincing case why the two revolutionaries should be lauded for efforts to unite a young America through common spelling and language conventions.
Writer and printer Benjamin Franklin was frustrated by inconsistent spelling. He tried to simplify the alphabet by removing extraneous letters, but his work did not catch on. Post-Revolution, Noah Webster was also vexed by grammar and pronunciation differences. His solution was the creation of a written guide to American English, but that also did not win public favor.
When Franklin and Webster finally met in Philadelphia, their shared interests in reading, writing, language and education sparked a new synergy between them. They agreed that “Using twenty-six letters to write forty-four sounds caused nothing but trouble.” Together they decided to devise a new alphabet in which letters matched sounds and sounds matched letters.
Franklin, the elder partner, left young Webster to the task of winning the hearts and minds of Americans to these spelling reforms. It was a long, uphill battle, even for these two accomplished and educated thinkers, to reach their ambitious goal. Yet Webster’s ultimate solution – a dictionary – was successfully published in 1806 with 37,000 entries, laying the groundwork for the spelling and grammar resources we use today.
Anderson’s illuminating text incorporates playful examples of inconvenient homonyms and confusing phonetic spellings that readers will appreciate. Baddeley cleverly energizes the subtle wordplay with colorful block letters that envelop and accost the main characters. Whimsical wallpaper, silly signage and quirky colonial architecture offer bold and brilliant punny details. In addition, charming dog and cat characters, explained in the postscript, provide lighthearted counterpoint to the “two men wearing tights and ponytails” throughout.
Thoroughly researched and delightfully presented, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET is a unique look at a new kind of “revolution” and a lively choice for its approachable introduction to the history of American English.
WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN! Written by Leslie Kimmelman Illustrated by David C. Gardner (Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)
This quote says it all –
“Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”
— Jerome Kern
It’s been almost 30 years since we lost the brilliant musical talent, Irving Berlin, but his music lives on. In fact, the great news is that we can frequently hear some of his most famous songs throughout the year at sporting events, at Christmastime and in musical revivals across the country. Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman and illustrated by David C. Gardner is billed as a lyrical story of an immigrant and the composition of “God Bless America.” This picture book biography provided the interesting back story of the man behind so many hits including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “Putting On The Ritz”, “White Christmas”, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” as well as all the wonderful songs from Annie Get Your Gun, Easter Parade and many others.
When it became too unsafe to remain in Russia for Jews, five-year-old Israel Isidore Baline and his family traveled by ship to America in 1893 to begin a new life. Thousands of immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in New York with barely anything but memories of their homeland. But at least they were safe and free. In school, Israel went by the name of of Izzy but found it difficult to focus on learning. Music filled his head. That was no surprise. In Russia his father had been a cantor, “standing side by side with rabbis, singing and filing synagogues with beautiful music.” Sadly, Izzy’s father passed away when the boy was just thirteen. He left school and his family so as not to be an added burden and struck out on his own. What did he do? He sang wherever he could get a paying job. He also wrote song lyrics although he couldn’t read or write music! He actually hummed his tunes and had someone else write down what he created. Pretty impressive I’d say. By this time Izzy was calling himself Irving Berlin and had sold his first song for 37 cents. He found a job at a music publisher and, since ragtime music was all the rage, he wrote Alexander’s Ragtime Band which became “a smash.”
Soon Irving Berlin married but not long after the wedding, his wife Dorothy became ill and died. He turned to his music to get him through his grief, still grateful for all that his new country had given him. During WWI Berlin was drafted into the army where he wrote songs to lift the spirits of his fellow soldiers. After that he found love again with Ellin and wrote the song “Always” for her. One hit followed another and Berlin’s popularity grew. He seemed to live and breathe music and wrote songs at any time of the day or night and in any place, including the bathtub!
It probably took little time to write one of his all time greats, “God Bless America”, a song that celebrates its 100th or 80th anniversary this year depending on whether you count when he first composed it or when he released it decades later. I had no idea Berlin donated all the proceeds from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America or that people weren’t happy that a Jewish man, an immigrant, had written the song. What stunned me was those same folks could again not embrace his other huge hit, “White Christmas” for the same reason. Despite that, Berlin is said to have told a friend he thought it was the best song anybody had ever written. There is more to learn about this amazingly talented man such as how he traveled to war zones during WWII to help entertain the troops and how his fount of song ideas seemed ever flowing. Kimmelman’s included an author’s note in the back matter where I learned Berlin not only helped found the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) but in his lifetime he received not only the Medal of Merit from President Truman but the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Eisenhower as well.
Kimmelman’s shared just the right amount of information with her prose although there is so much material about Berlin to choose from given his long career. I liked how, since this is an anniversary year for “God Bless America”, she included that very line at various points throughout the book. Looking at Gardner’s beautiful historical imagery with its water color quality, readers will get a terrific sense of time, place and mood. Prepare to be transported back by both Kimmelman’s words and Gardner’s illustrations to a time when Tin Pan Alley was turning out the hits and Irving Berlin was at the top of his game. I recommend reading the book while playing a selection of some of his songs which can be found here.
Before I read this fascinating nonfiction picture book about the history of the first Ferris Wheel, I had no idea of the backstory; the competition to find and build a structure for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that would be taller than the Eiffel Tower, the lack of financial support for its construction, the grueling work on the foundation in the dead of winter, the tight timeline in which to complete it, and the lack of faith professionals and the public had in the project. I’m thankful to Kathryn Gibbs Davis for opening my eyes to innovator, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.
“George had an idea, an idea for a structure that would dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower.”
What wonderful feats of engineering and willpower enabled Ferris to prove all the naysayers wrong! Over 1.5 million naysayers to be precise, the amount of people who rode on the wheel at 50 cents apiece in the “nineteen weeks” that it was in operation. And they said it couldn’t be done. Not only did Ferris change the public’s mind, but he changed history by building out of steel, what is now a staple of amusement park rides.
“George knew something the chief did not. His invention would be delicate-looking and strong. It would be both stronger and lighter than the Eiffel Tower because it would be built with an amazing new metal — steel.”
On almost every spread, Davis has managed to weave in assorted facts about the wheel’s invention in a way that will keep youngsters as engaged and enthralled as I was. The story itself flows easily and the artwork is simply lovely to look at. Ford‘s fabulous jewel-toned illustrations of 19th century Chicago took me back in time to an era in the industrial age when even electricity in homes was not yet commonplace. But as the sun set each evening, Ferris’s wheel, with is 3,000 electric light bulbs, lit up the night sky and was visible “as far away as forty miles.” I was happy to learn that after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, in 1894 “the next Ferris wheel appeared in California on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.”
How sad I was to discover in the back matter (where sources are quoted, and a bibliography along with helpful websites are provided) that a New York Times obituary says Ferris passed away on November 23, 1896 while still in his thirties. I can just imagine all the other innovative contributions he could have made to society had he lived longer. As it is, the enduring popularity of his ride is a testament to Ferris’s genius, and Davis has done a terrific job conveying that in a most readable, enjoyable way.
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Big events – really BIG events – are not a new idea for most of us these days. We witness enormous crowds at sporting events like the Super Bowl and World Cup soccer matches. Political rallies, marathons, even royal weddings draw spectators and participants by the hundreds of thousands. But this idea was more novel in 1869, when Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore pulled off an incredible festival in Boston; the National Peace Jubilee.
Alicia Potter and Matt Tavares have captured Gilmore’s story with enthusiasm in this picture book biography extolling one man’s determination to mark the end of the Civil War with a celebration of unheard of proportions. As a child in Ireland, Gilmore developed a passion for music that he brought to America as a professional bandleader and a member of the Massachusetts 24th Regiment. After the war ended, Gilmore dreamed up a five day musical concert bigger, bolder and louder than any other to celebrate peace and restore national unity.
Potter writes masterfully, building anticipation toward the big event by chronicling the steps Gilmore took to raise funds and public support over several years. She chooses great aural vocabulary to describe the roar of the organ and the thundering of drums. Tavares wisely incorporates toots, booms, and shreets into his soft, detailed illustrations that fill both the eyes and the ears with impressions of the experience.
An extensive author’s note and bibliography provide supplemental information about Patrick Gilmore’s life and subsequent events that led to his designation “Father of the American Band.”
Potter and Tavares’ fascinating tale will captive elementary age readers and ensure that this important chapter in American music history is not forgotten.
– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where obtained: I received a review copy from my public library. The opinions expressed here are my own.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, I am thrilled to recommend Dare The Wind, an exciting picture book biography of a brave and inspiring naval pioneer, Eleanor “Ellen” Prentiss. Born in 1814 in the maritime hub of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Ellen “had always felt the sea tug at her heart, strong as a full-moon tide.” Her father, a schooner captain, said she had saltwater in her veins and gave her lessons in the fine points of sailing and navigation.
While other girls stitched samplers and swept floors, Ellen learned that “A true navigator must have the caution to read the sea, as well, and the courage to dare the wind.” She sailed and raced for fun, then married a man given command of a clipper ship called the Flying Cloud. Ellen accompanies him as navigator on an exciting voyage from New York, around the tip of Cape Horn, and into San Francisco. Despite a broken mainmast and a fierce storm, she charts a course that led the Flying Cloud to set the world record for speed along that route, 89 days and 21 hours.
The best picture book biographies transport the reader into a new time, place or perspective. Dare The Wind pairs vivid description and elegant illustrations so effectively that you can almost feel the spray of salt water on your face, and hear the weighty snap of thick canvas sails overhead. McCully’s fabulous seascapes masterfully depict the roiling, dangerous journey through grey-green storms, and the deadly blue calm of equatorial doldrums. Fern’s lovely turns of phrase keep readers deeply rooted in the nautical world, as Ellen’s face “turns white as whalebone” and her heart races “like a riptide.” The tale zips along at an engaging, page-turning pace despite the highs and lows of their daring voyage.
An author’s note and glossary provide supplemental information about Ellen Prentiss’ life and the technical tools of her trade as a navigator. There are suggestions for further reading as well as endpages detailing the 1851 voyage of the Flying Cloud. While wind-driven clipper ships became obsolete in the late 1800s, Fern and McCully’s skillful storybook will ensure that the accomplishments of Ellen Prentiss will continue to inspire young readers to pursue their own groundbreaking journeys.
– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where obtained: I received a review copy from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln! Ronna Mandel reviews the biography, I am Abraham Lincoln, by Brad Meltzer.
I am Abraham Lincoln by Brad Meltzer with illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014.
In January, reviewer MaryAnne Locher reviewed I am Amelia Earhart by Brad Meltzer with illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos and discussed what makes a hero. Today, on our 16th president’s birthday, I thought I’d share Meltzer’s other book in the new Ordinary People Change The World series from Dial Books for Young Readers ($12.99, ages 5-8), I am Abraham Lincoln, and discuss what makes a great human being.
What is it that makes Abraham Lincoln one of the most admired, quoted and famous individuals in American history? Clearly it’s because stories of Lincoln’s life demonstrate he was a role model, a voice for those who could not be heard. In I am Abraham Lincoln, one of the first titles published in the new Ordinary People Change the Worldnonfictionseries, author Meltzer introduces us to the young Lincoln, a boy who early on felt strongly about right and wrong and didn’t hesitate to say so.
From a young age, Lincoln preferred reading to working on the farm. He defended the rights of animals when he saw boys behaving cruelly to a turtle and actually composed one of his first essays – “about how hurting animals is wrong.” When most kids of that era did not even attend school, Abe was determined to learn and spent time teaching himself to write. “I loved books so much, I once walked six miles … to get one.” He read every book he could get his hands on and he read everywhere he could. It’s no surprise his love of books would prove to serve him well as he entered public life.
Presented in an engaging, cartoon-like style that sets this biography series apart from others, I am Abraham Lincoln, is not only easy to read, but fun, too! What kids will adore is seeing our 16th president as a child, interacting with other children and dealing with issues other children deal with to this very day. And though we know Lincoln as a tall, almost larger-than-life figure, looming over his fellow politicians or his foes, in the picture book he remains small throughout, and depicted by Eliopoulos most of the time wearing his signature top hat (where he often kept his important papers).
We learn that Lincoln was once bullied and what troubled him most about being bullied was that the bully, one Jack Armstrong, cheated. He didn’t beat Lincoln fair and square. This irked Lincoln more than being beaten up and when he confronted Armstrong and his cronies with this fact and proposed to fight each and every one of them, they relented. “Sometimes, the hardest fights don’t reveal a winner – but they do reveal character.” This has to be one of my favorite lines in I am Abraham Lincoln because I think it is indeed the essence of who he was and what he was all about. He was destined for great things.
Of course in school children learn about Lincoln and his role in the Civil War, keeping the South from seceding and bringing freedom to slaves, but I also learned that he lost four elections (yes, four!) before becoming president and that his Gettysburg Address, which followed “a speech that lasted nearly two hours” was only two minutes long and 271 words! I love the quotes used in the book and the B & W photographs included in the end pages. They help ground the story of this remarkable man and remind us of his enduring contribution to our nation. A hero among men. “I am Abraham Lincoln,” he says and “I will never stop fighting for what’s right.”