“Can we talk?” If little ones don’t recognize this signature question from the late comedian Joan Rivers, perhaps parents or grandparents reading the board book to them will. Rivers is just one of the more than three dozen famous Jews presented in this board book that I wish I’d written. Told in rhyme, My First Book of Famous Jews written by Julie Merberg and illustrated by Julie Wilsonis a fabulous introduction to the talented individuals who have made lasting and significant contributions to science, literature, music, film, politics, and the judiciary—even activism, an important inclusion.
It’s never too soon to start sharing the broad impact Jewish people have made in every field. This book sings the praises of everyone from Anne Frank to Helen Frankenthaler, from Steven Spielberg to Gloria Steinem in their respective categories. Wilson’s vibrant art throughout this 24-page book brings members of the tribe alive, in particular Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Bella Abzug, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Descriptions of these iconic figures are brief. “EMMA GOLDMAN rallied to help workers unite./ “BERNIE SANDERS said “’Health care is a human right.’” But just enough to make a great introduction and prompt further reading as kids get older.
A helpful page of back matter expands on some of the people mentioned. This board book offers a great jumping-off point for a conversation about Jewish identity and the influence and importance of these famous Jews with children during year-round and especially during Jewish American Heritage Month.
THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS
(Clarion Books; $17.99, Ages 6 to 9)
In 1903, a man’s innovative invention appeared in homes in a bright green box for only a nickel – Crayola crayons. In a world where children are given crayons almost as soon as they are born, where the smell of crayons is more recognizable than coffee and peanut butter, what must it have been like to live at a time when crayons were a novelty? TheCrayon Man, illustrated by Steven Salerno, is a story of the inspirational inventor Edwin Binney, the man who loved color and nature, who listened and created one of the world’s most enduring, best-loved childhood toys—empowering children around the world to imagine and draw ANYTHING!
Colleen Paeff: Happy National Crayon Day! It’s so nice to have the opportunity to talk to you about The Crayon Man, Natascha, because it happens to be the favorite book of one of my favorite 4-year-olds. I have it at my house and every time she comes over, she wants me to read it aloud.
Natascha Biebow: Wow, that’s so much fun to hear, thank you!
CP: I was listening to your interview on the Nonfiction4Life podcast and I loved hearing you talk about the extensive research you conducted. What were some of the highlights of your research process?
NB: I was very fortunate in that my research took me to some really cool places: I visited the inside of the Crayola crayons factory in Easton, PA, and saw first-hand how the crayons are made today with super-speedy machines; I went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History archives in Washington, DC, to view the Binney & Smith company archives; I connected with Binney’s great-granddaughter and so many helpful librarians and experts, who were incredibly generous in fact-checking my research.
CP:That sounds amazing! Did you learn anything particularly surprising?
NB: I did! Previously published nonfiction books about the invention of Crayola crayons focused on the manufacturing process and how Binney’s wife, Alice, helped to name the crayons, but none of these delved into Binney as a man and what motivated him. In my detective work researching, I uncovered just how much he loved color and was influenced by nature. Because he worked for a factory that made black stuff – printing ink, dye, lamp black – I was instantly hooked on the contrast: all day long, he was surrounded by black, yet he loved color. THAT was why he wanted to create colored crayons!
CP: I’m always hoping to find new tricks for organizing my research. How do you keep information organized as you conduct research?
NB: Ha! I wish I could say I have some amazing system. I know some people use index cards or similar, but the fact is I collate all my references into a folder of printed out articles and notes, etc., and keep an MSWord document with key facts and website links/dates. The best tip is to use EasyBib, which allows you to create a project-based record of all your sources (which is also excellent for when you need to create a correctly-formatted bibliography).
CP:Yes! Thank goodness for EasyBib! You mentioned earlier that you connected with one of Binney’s descendants. What was her reaction to the book?
NB: Crayola kindly put me in touch with Binney’s great-granddaughter, who generously shared her memories and photos. After publication, though, magic happened – Binney’s great-great-granddaughter sent me a fan letter, and she connected me with more relatives. When we met up in person, she shared a precious photo album and stories about other members of the family. Attics were dug into and more photos and artifacts uncovered, including a stunning snap of Alice Binney with her daughters, Dolly and Helen, standing by the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair Crayola display. It’s a rarity, given how few photos were taken then. No smartphones! I really wish we’d have had it in time to include in the book. Now, these family photos and artifacts have been donated to the Smithsonian to be added to their archive, which is fantastic.
CP:That’s incredible! What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
NB:Edwin Binney had a knack for listening and making what people needed. He loved nature and turned to it for inspiration. Binney was also a generous entrepreneur who gave back to his community. His flair for innovation, creativity, persistence, and ability to listen are all attributes that future generations will need to make our world a better place. In this fast-paced world of ours, where kids are so often on devices, I’d love it if the book were to encourage kids to just doodle with crayons or to be inspired to look more closely at nature, ask curious questions and invent something.
CP:Wonderful! I know it will. You’re a writer, but you’re also an experienced editor who has worked on a number of award-winning books. How did you get started in editing?
NB:I studied Developmental Psychology at Smith College and have always loved writing and editing (I edited our high-school newspaper). I wanted to combine my interest in words and young children’s development so after I graduated, I decided I would start with the 6-week Radcliffe Publishing course (now Columbia Publishing course) so I could learn about children’s publishing. Soon after, I moved to London where I had family, and was lucky to land a job as an editorial assistant at a very small, independent publisher. It was the perfect place to get hands-on experience in all the aspects of how a book is made, before moving on to more senior editorial roles.
CP:That sounds like a good place to start. Was it your interest in editing that led you to start coaching writers through your Blue Elephant Storyshaping business?
NB: Yes, after several years in senior commissioning roles in-house at large publishing houses, I decided I wanted to spend less time on managerial and budgeting tasks and get back what I was most passionate about – hands-on editing and storyshaping. So now I coach and mentor authors and illustrators at all levels to help them fine-tune their work pre-submission, doing all the creative thinking and editing that I love; I am also developing a small, independent list as the Editorial Director of Five Quills, which is a huge privilege! I love the collaborative process of the picture book journey. A key part of this is helping creators to tease out the stories they want to tell.
CP:It sounds like you’re getting to do all the things you love! Are there any particular books you’ve edited that we should be on the lookout for?
NB: Always! Five Quills is thrilled to launch some very talented debuts – Paul Morton’s Bug Belly, a hilarious chapter book series about a greedy frog, who is an ingenious inventor; I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek, an empowering, joyful picture book that celebrates identity and belonging; and Lottie Loves Nature by bestselling author Jane Clarke and James Brown, an exciting new eco-adventure series for younger readers.
CP:Those sound wonderful! How do you divide your time between writing, editing, and coaching?
NB: My editing business – coaching and mentoring authors and commissioning and editing for Five Quills – is my day job. I feel very fortunate to be doing work I am passionate about and that I enjoy. Alongside this, I try to carve out time each week to at least noodle away at my new writing projects. Sometimes, I am writing when I’m not writing – in my head, on journeys, waiting for my son’s tennis lesson, as I fall asleep at night . . . In the summer when school is out, I earmark time to work on larger writing projects that involve research. I also spend time each month doing virtual school visits. Connecting with young readers is a fun, rewarding aspect of promoting your work and a source of inspiration. And then there is volunteering as Co-Regional Advisor SCBWI British Isles, which is a daily commitment. Some advice I got from Tim Grahl was to plan out your days so that you can be more focused and not distracted by ‘bitty’ tasks. That works well for me. But some days, the list just doesn’t get done, so my motto is to be kind to myself, eat some chocolate (dark), and try again tomorrow.
CP:That’s such good advice. And I think being kind to ourselves (and eating dark chocolate!) is key to doing good work. It sounds like you’ve created a perfect combination of structure and ease. I was very impressed when you received the 2019 Stephen Mooser Member of the Year from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) to recognize your contribution as Regional Advisor since 1998, building the British Isles region into the largest international region of the organization. What an accomplishment! But now I know you also received the MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), which was presented by HRH Prince Charles himself. That must have been exciting! Tell me about it. How did you get it? What was the ceremony like? How on earth did you decide what to wear?!
NB:Yes, it was all incredibly exciting and also a bit surreal. I am fortunate to work with a very talented and generous team of dedicated volunteers, some of whom decided to nominate me for the MBE. It takes a couple of years for the Queen’s approval. It was a complete surprise and is, of course, a huge honor. I didn’t know who would be presenting the award until the actual day of the investiture at Buckingham Palace. My son scored the day off school and my mom, partner, and uncle were guests. Figuring out what to wear was an interesting challenge – a day jacket and fancy hat are de rigueur, and of course, if you know me, they had to be . . . blue! The ceremony is held in the stunning Ballroom at Buckingham Palace. I met some fascinating people from all kinds of professions and voluntary services, who were also being recognized for honors. The investiture is meticulously choreographed. We were briefed about how to approach the royals: HRH Prince Charles would say a brief word to each of us, pin on our medals, shake hands, and then we should back away – no mean feat if you’re wearing heels. I was so afraid I would trip up or get muddled! Afterward, I signed a copy of THE CRAYON MAN and asked a staff member to pass it on to HRH Prince Charles. Later, I got a thank you note from his office! The MBE is really an award to celebrate with ALL the hard-working volunteers who have contributed to making the British Isles the largest international region of SCBWI.
CP:That sounds so wild! What is one thing you wish more aspiring children’s authors understood about breaking into this business?
NB: I love elephants – they have thick skins (which allow them to keep cool). We authors also need thick skins to keep cool (heads), because this is a business that requires a huge amount of perseverance to weather its ups and downs. Sometimes, it’s incredibly challenging to stay positive and to keep re-imagining your work until an editor says ‘yes’ to your book. Aspiring authors sometimes don’t realize publishing is a slow, long game. Even when you do secure a book deal, the work is just beginning! However, I feel very fortunate to be able to be part of the business of making children’s books, and to be doing something I love – writing!
CP:What’s next for you, Natascha?
NB: I have a number of books out on submission, and am constantly dreaming up new ideas.
I am also writing a young fiction chapter book series, which is a bit of a steep learning curve, but fun.
CP: It sounds like you have lots of good things in store for readers! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
NB: Thank you for inviting me to celebrate National Crayon Day on GoodReadswithRonna.com!
Natascha Biebow’s favorite crayon color is periwinkle blue because it makes her heart sing. She loves to draw and make stuff, just like the inventor of the Crayola crayons. She lives in London, where she writes, edits, coaches, and mentors children’s book authors and illustrators at Blue Elephant Storyshaping, and is the long-time Regional Advisor of SCBWI British Isles. In 2018, she was awarded an MBE for her services to children’s writers and illustrators. The CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS is the winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, voted for by children, and an NSTA Best STEM book and JLG Gold Selection. She loves true stories and is currently working on more nonfiction picture books, a chapter book series, and a novel. Find her at www.nataschabiebow.com
Colleen Paeff received a Bachelor’s Degree in set design for theater from California State University Fullerton, before becoming a bookseller, preschool teacher, and newspaper columnist. (She never did become a set designer!) Eventually, she figured out how to combine books, kids, and writing into one career––as a children’s book author. Her debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter), won the SCBWI’s 2022 Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction Text for Young Readers and was named a 2022 Robert F. Sibert Informational Fiction Honor Book. Colleen lives in Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY. Learn more about her at www.colleenpaeff.com or visit her on Instagram and Twitter @ColleenPaeff.
A topic on everyone’s tongues these days is vaccinations. When she wrote this book, Linda E Marshalllikely had no idea how relevant her book would be today and how once again, an innovative vaccine is saving lives around the world.
The book opens with four-year-old Jonas Salk sitting on top of his father’s shoulders during the victory parade celebrating the end of World War I. But Jonas doesn’t understand the cheering when all he sees are injured soldiers. Jonas, readers learn, sees things differently. Find out about the man and the story behind the life-changing vaccine he developed in THE POLIO PIONEER: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccinewritten by Linda Elovitz Marshallwith illustrations by Lisa Anchin.
Anchin’s art brings a warmth to the subject of science painting in soft colors of oranges and blues as the reader walks through the life of the main character Jonas. Whether that’s refereeing his friends’ games when not reading because he knows the rules or helping his Yiddish-speaking mother learn English after his Jewish family migrates to New York City. The kindness and love of the Salk family are depicted with each page turn as the family celebrates Shabbat with freshly baked Challah and Jonas’ inner thoughts are shown “when Jonas prayed that he might someday, help make the world a better place.”
Marshall writes about the financial difficulties the Salk family faced, but Jonas kept moving forward “attending the City College of New York where tuition was free and where, unlike at many other colleges and universities, Jews were welcome.” With a grin on his face and apron tied around his neck, Jonas discovers chemistry while mixing liquids amongst classmates in the college lab. Salk is determined to gain a better understanding of science so that he can make medicines to help people and decides to become a doctor. Illustrated wearing glasses and a white lab coat, Jonas enters medical school where he befriends his teacher Dr. Thomas Francis and the pair team up with an idea as the flu is killing millions. “What if … a person was given some flu virus that was killed by chemicals so it could not cause disease?” Dr. Salk and Dr. Francis thought this could be a way of fighting the flu. And they were right.
With men, women and children lined up on the streets, dressed in their Sunday bests, a nurse in white stands next to one of Anchin’s realistic illustrations with a chalk-written sign reading FLU VACCINE CLINIC. “Since then, flu shots have saved thousands of lives each year.”
“But another disease was raging … Polio”. Readers see Franklin Delano Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair in the oval office, as others are lined up in beds, victims of this new disease. People are shown hiding in their homes, just as we all have done these past fifteen months from COVID, and the similarities are not unnoticed. Today’s scientists learned a lot from Dr. Salk. “He and his team of scientists labored day and night, night and day.”
“On April 12, 1955, Dr. Francis joins the team and announced to the world: “The vaccine WORKS!” POLIO could be CONQUERED!” Dr. Salk continued his studies by establishing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where they have worked on cures for cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many other problems.
Marshall writes in a way that makes a tough topic easy to follow with her understandable language and flowing sentences, while Anchin’s drawings transport the reader to 1918 and beyond. The timing of the release of this book last year during the pandemic could not have been more prescient and still resonates today with over 49% of the population vaccinated for Covid-19. As for polio, America has been free of the disease since 1979 due to the amount of participation. Maybe a picture book about our current pandemic will be next to teach future kids about what we have been experiencing. Marshall’s book is fabulous for elementary-age children and higher. In the Author’s Note, Marshall heartwarmingly explains the backstory behind her reasons for writing the book and how Dr. Salk is her hero. She thanks the Salk family for sharing family stories and photos, including writings from Michael Salk, grandson to Jonas. Dr. Salk, as Marshall tells, was a Mensch, the perfect Yiddish word to describe a man whose good work, kindness, and dedication helped make the world a better place. And he did.
Colleen Paeff:Hi Candy! Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk In Space (illustrated by Courtney Dawson)! You’ve said that when you started writing this book you weren’t really a space buff. Do you think that helped or hindered you during the research process?
Candy Wellins: I hope it helped! Most of what I knew about the history of NASA came from THE RIGHT STUFF, which does a good job of covering Project Mercury and I think everyone has a basic understanding of Apollo, but the Gemini missions are kind of like the forgotten middle children of the NASA missions. Not the first ones and not the flashy ones, but certainly important ones. I read the transcript of the entire Gemini IV mission–pages and pages of technical jargon—but once you get to the heart of the mission and “hearing” the astronauts speak, it’s pretty riveting.
CP: Would you consider yourself a space buff now?
CW: No, not a space buff by any means. Maybe an above-average space enthusiast at best!
CP: I’m always impressed by authors who can tell a story in rhyme, but I’m especially impressed by authors who can tell a nonfiction story in rhyme! Was rhyming something that was a part of The Stars Beckoned from the beginning or did it come later in the revision process?
CW: I knew I wanted to tell Edward’s story for a while and I didn’t have a plan whatsoever. I only wrote in prose at that point and I tried a few things, but didn’t like them at all. A writer in my critique group shared a biography written in verse that I thought was just lovely. It made me want to do something biographical in verse just to try it. Edward came to mind immediately. I had done a lot of the preliminary research and, honestly, if you’re going to get your feet wet in rhyme, might as well do it with someone who has a very rhymable last name like White. The opening lines came to me pretty quickly and I just let the story take me where it needed to go.
CP: Edward White’s children gave you feedback as you worked on the story, right? How did you get in touch with them and were they immediately open to you writing about their dad?
CW: During one of my many Google searches of Edward’s name, I found a post his granddaughter made celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his spacewalk. She is a realtor so I was able to find contact information easily and reached out to her. She put me in touch with her dad and aunt and I shared the manuscript with them. It was important to me that the book be as historically accurate as possible. They were especially helpful as we moved into the illustration phase–getting hair colors, clothing choices and airplane models exactly as they were was important to all of us. Most Americans know the names of other “first” astronauts like Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, but I feel—and I think his children would agree—Edward has been somewhat forgotten by history. I hope my book can change that just a bit because he really was amazing and did important work.
I’m thrilled to have Alexis back on GRWR to talk about her latest picture book biography and the quirky visionary she chose to write about.
Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop andimplement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.
When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!
Buy the book from your local independent bookseller.
Good Reads With Ronna: It’s like the history of Melvil Dewey has been hiding in plain sight all these years. I never gave much thought to his decimal system of book organization for libraries, and definitely never figured it out. What sparked your curiosity into the man and his contributions?
Alexis O’Neill: I hadn’t given him much thought either, Ronna, until a librarian friend sent me a funny video she used to help teach kids the Dewey Decimal System. That made me realize I didn’t know a thing about the inventor of this seemingly ubiquitous system.
GRWR: Apart from what Melvil Dewey is most famous for, what other ideas did you discover during your research phase that he championed which have impacted our lives?
AON: Dewey really championed education for all. He was concerned about rural Americans as well as the waves of new immigrants having easier access to information. He also was a proponent of the Simplified Spelling movement, a precursor to today’s texting – getting rid of vowels and extra letters in words that hindered or were unnecessary to pronunciation – like “tho” for “though.” He chopped “Melville” down to “Melvil” but when there was an outcry, was convinced not to change “Dewey” to “Dui.”
GRWR: Let’s talk about Dewey’s dream of a librarian school at Columbia College where he was the chief librarian. Trustees did “not want women on their campus.” So how did he succeed?
AON: He got around them by following the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. When Columbia College Trustees refused to have women on campus, Dewey bent rules to his needs: he opened his School of Library Economy in a storeroom over the chapel across the street. The entering class had seventeen women and three men.
GRWR: Dewey is referred to in the jacket flap as “EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often annoying.“ Can you describe some of his quirky character traits?
AON: Even if Dewey had no fatal flaws (and he indeed had them), I still don’t think I’d be able to stand being in the same room with him for very long. He talked incessantly and rapidly. While the average American speaks at about 100-130 words per minute, one of Dewey’s students clocked him at a rate of 180 words per minute. When he tried to convince others about one of his ideas, he was like a dog on a bone. From a very young age and throughout his life, he obsessively kept lists of things such as his height, weight, assets, and more. And he fixated on the number 10, thus decimals. He wrote, “I am so loyal to decimals as our great labor saver that I even like to sleep decimally” (in other words, 10 hours a night.)
GRWR: Melvil approached every endeavor and encounter in his life at 100 mph. The train visuals speeding through the pages of your story perfectly convey this energy. Do you think he moved at this pace because he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime that was predicted to be short after he inhaled smoke during a fire in his youth?
AON: Dewey grew up in a deeply religious, restrictive household. He was always concerned with wastefulness and a desire “to leave the world a better place than when I found it.” But when he was recuperating from a fire at his school as a teen, this desire became an obsession as did his preoccupation with efficiency.
GRWR: There are a lot of words printed in bold throughout the book. You also ask young readers several questions throughout it as well. Can you explain why?
AON: I wanted readers to come along with the book’s narrator on a breathless ride in “real-time” as Dewey’s driving energy rushes through the years. I used present tense, direct questions, and bolded words to make the narrative voice break the fourth wall and emphasize the surprise the narrator feels while making observations about Dewey.
GRWR: What made Dewey fall out of favor in the public’s eye?
AON: A couple of decades into his career, Dewey was exposed as a racist, anti-Semite, and serial sexual harasser. He had created the Lake Placid Club that specifically excluded people of color, Jews, and other religious groups. And there had been justified complaints for years in the American Library Association, a group he helped found, about Dewey’s serial harassment of women. For his actions, he was censured by the NYS Board of Regents for his discriminatory practices, forced to resign from his positions as State Librarian and director of the library school, and ostracized by the ALA.
GRWR: How do you reconcile Dewey’s love of books and reading driving his initial motivation to help immigrants and those who cannot afford books with his bigoted views of Jews and others?
AON: I really can’t reconcile or explain this.
GRWR: Is it hard to write about someone whose personal views you may not necessarily like or agree with?
AON: Dewey’s goal was to make the world a better place. So the question is, did his classification system make the world a better place? I believe it did. It expanded educational opportunities for the general public by making access to information more efficient. There are countless examples of artists, scientists, and others whose negative personal behaviors are hard to reconcile with their contributions, but their contributions have made significant, positive differences in so many lives.
GRWR: You used to write fiction and of late have switched to nonfiction kidlit, primarily biographies. What about writing fact-based stories appeals to you? And what do you think kids like about them?
AON: I still write fiction, but I love American history! Early in my writing career, I wrote many articles for Cobblestone Magazine, and doing the research was a kick. Like me, I think kids are excited to know when something is real. Some facts–especially in history or science–just take my breath away.
GRWR: Where do you turn to for story inspiration?
AON: Footnotes in books, articles, videos – lots of things spark ideas for stories. I never know where the next spark comes from or if it will flame into a book.
GRWR: If you’re able to divulge this info, what is on your radar for your next picture book?
AON: Right now, I have a couple of fiction picture books circulating, and I’m working on a middle-grade nonfiction project. After so many years of writing “tight,” doing long-form work is challenging. I keep wanting to cut words!
Thanks for this opportunity, Ronna!
GRWR:What a treat it’s been to have you back here to share your insights about Melvil Dewey, Alexis. I will never look at those numbers in the library the same way again!
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 5 and up)
I like the play on words in the title, The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box, written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, which you’ll understand after you read the review of this interesting and recommended nonfiction picture book.
The book’s main character, Ralph Baer, was born in Cologne Germany and enjoyed doing things other kids his age did, like riding his scooter or playing stick hockey. Wessels doesn’t mention specific dates, but adults and older readers will know the action was unfolding in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power, which is mentioned. Around that time, readers are told, Hitler began making life difficult for the country’s Jewish people. And, since Ralph was Jewish, “Even former friends became enemies.” He was bullied, and attacks by the Nazis were not uncommon.
“With no one to play with, Ralph spent more time indoors, tinkering with his construction set.” Not only was Ralph able to complete all the models in the manual, he also came up with many clever ideas of his own.
Restrictions on Jews didn’t stop Ralph from learning even despite being kicked out of school at age 14 for being Jewish. In 1938 Ralph and his family fled Germany. Once in America, his inventiveness proved invaluable. When he saw a way to speed up handiwork that he, his sister and his mother were doing to help make ends meet, Ralph created a prototype machine. Soon they doubled the amount of projects being completed, increasing their earnings. Always industrious, Ralph took a radio repair course which led to “… fixing radios for the entire neighborhood.”
In the army, since necessity is the mother of invention, Ralph constructed a radio for his barracks from whatever bits and pieces he could find. Then, after WWII he learned how to build a TV set (the box in the title I referred to earlier). The advent of television heralded in a new era in family entertainment and Ralph saw immense “possibilities.” I was impressed with how Ralph’s career anticipated or paralleled the rise of home technology.
While Ralph saw the TV as a vehicle for playing games, his ideas were initially disregarded. He eventually held jobs building equipment for the U.S. military and for NASA. In fact “he embedded a radio transmitter in the handle of the video camera that astronaut Neil Armstrong took to the moon.” As time passed Ralph still envisioned the potential of TV and imagined “using an external box to control the TV to play games.” With the blessings and funding from one of his bosses, Ralph secretly created a home gaming system and “… the Brown Box, was born!” After numerous rejections, Magnavox took on Ralph’s invention and in 1972, the first iteration of the Odyssey went on sale. As we all know, the video game industry would grow in leaps and bounds over the decades and Baer can be credited with being one of its pioneers.
Wessels has made the story of Ralph Baer’s innovations an accessible and fascinating one. She’s managed to take a lifetime of Baer’s ingenuity and whittle it down to just 48 pages. While the book may read quickly, it definitely invites revisiting to let the scope of Baer’s achievements sink in. When children read the book or have it read to them, they’ll learn about more of Baer’s inventions and can find further sources for information in the back matter. Castro’s comic-like art wonderfully complements Wessel’s words. There is just enough realism to the illustrations when detailing the technology. She also conveys the right mood with the red palate during the dark days of Hitler. I’d love to see her do a graphic novel and could easily see Wessel’s story succeed in that format, too. The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box is a motivating STEM bio that will definitely resonate with unconventional thinkers and could very well inspire kids to pursue exciting new paths in learning.
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.
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.”