Jen Bryant, who has won numerous awards for her books for children, which include biographies of poet William Carlos Williams, and Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White, has written the biography of August Wilson. The picture book, presented in two acts and 48 pages, is an inspiring and lyrical introduction to the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Black playwright who died in 2005.
Young readers are probably unfamiliar with Wilson’s work and Bryant writes mostly about his early years at school and the beginning of his career.
Frederick August Kittel, Jr. was raised with a sister and single mother, who cleaned houses. His mother, Daisy, made sure Frederick learned to read, telling him, “If you can read, you can do anything – you can be anything.” Bryant tells about the racism Wilson and his family experienced—brick-throwing, name-calling, fights, and accusations of cheating—driving Wilson from school after school, setting him on a course of self-education, reading all day in libraries. Wilson finds the “universe opens wide” when, as a teenager, he encounters Black authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.
His first paid writing job was completing his sister’s homework; he bought a used typewriter, composing poems after he finished washing dishes at the diner. The talk and stories of Black men in his community, many working at menial jobs, provided the dialogue for his poems and plays. Working odd jobs in a soup kitchen, Wilson listened to stories. “Who’s there? What are they saying … and why?” he asked himself, and these figures became characters in his dramas.
Debut illustrator Cannaday Chapman uses a limited color palette of earth tones to show the expressions on Wilson’s face and his connection to his environment.
Bryant includes a detailed Author’s Note explaining her interest in Wilson, her extensive research, and her process for writing the book. Students will enjoy her description of spreading her pages down her hallway. Feed Your Mind is an important book about an author of color, who endured poverty and racism, and whose life shows the power of literacy and community.
Guest review by Julia Wasson, veteran educator and curriculum developer.
The wonderful thing about nonfiction biographies is that, when done well, they will take us on a journey full of facts, stories, and struggles that will not only enlighten us but also keep us glued to the page, even when we know the outcome. The following books we’ve selected to share for Women’s History Month are excellent examples of recent biographies about extraordinary, trailblazing women whose legacies are enduring and whose contributions remain invaluable serving as powerful role models for generations to come. Find out more about Hedy Lamarr, Susan B. Anthony and Ada Byron Lovelace below.
Wallmark’s chosen a fascinating woman to profile in her illuminating picture book biography of Hedy Lamarr. The Hollywood legend was more than dazzlingly beautiful actress, she was a secret inventor whose “greatest invention was the technology known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum” which has played a crucial role in keeping “our cell phone messages private” and keeping our computers hack-free. Although she knew she was more than just her looks, Lamarr chose to hide this talent from public and didn’t sell her inventions.
Born in Austria in 1920 (100 years after Susan B. Anthony), Hedy was a curious child who, when other kids would likely be out playing, was pre-occupied with how things worked. Her father encouraged her interest in science and technology which no doubt had a positive impact on the young girl. She also had a love of cinema and pretending so it was no surprise she gravitated towards a career in the movies. “I acted all the time … I was a little living copybook. I wrote people down on me.” Eventually doors opened for Hedy when a famous film producer offered her a seven-year film contract. She left her homeland for the bright lights of Hollywood, had her name changed to Hedy Lamarr from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler and went on to star in films with some of the industry’s most popular leading men including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.
With her wondering mind at work all the time, even after a day of filming, Lamarr always was thinking about a way to improve on things already in existence or to create something new. That was especially true during WWII. So when she met composer George Antheil, a former weapons inspector, she learned from him that the U.S. Navy, like the European ones, had trouble with the enemy jamming their weapons’ radio signals. Hedy wondered if there was a way to counter this. With the piano as the impetus for a new idea, Hedy thought there might be a way to change frequencies like playing the same keys on a piano in different octaves, and by doing so build a secure torpedo guidance system. And so, after a lot of hard work, they did. Together with Antheil they shared their invention and were told it was “red-hot” but it still needed more work to operate effectively. While the pair eventually received their patent, the Navy “refused to develop” this ground-breaking technology and even classified it as secret so no one else could use the idea. Ultimately they never earned a penny from this breakthrough.
Undeterred by her thwarted efforts to help her adopted homeland, Hedy found success by getting behind the war bond effort, selling millions. Lamarr also took time to meet with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen and pitched in any way she could. She retired From the movie business in the late 50s and only in the last twenty years has been earning the recognition long overdue. Wu’s artwork is just the right amount of subject and space, and pulls us into every illustration, my favorite being the one where Lamarr and Antheil first meet at a dinner party. Her simple depictions of Lamarr’s big green eyes, sculpted nose and brown hair are terrific. Wallmark’s added a “Timeline” and “Secrets of the Secret Communications System” in the back matter for young readers to learn more about “jam-proofing” technology. I love how even the endpapers are filled with artwork and details about Lamarr. Plus readers will find a “Selected Bibliography,” “Additional Reading About Other Women in Stem” and a list of “Hedy Lamarr’s Films.” Award-winning author Wallmark’s also written picture book biographies about Ada Byron Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Add Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life to the list of must-read biographies.
Prepare to be impressed by the tireless commitment and inroads Susan B. Anthony made for women’s suffrage as detailed by Teri Kanefield in Susan B. Anthony: The Making of America, book #4 in this inspiring series in which each volume “tells the story of an American leader who helped shaped the United States” that we know today. My review copy is so dog-eared to mark the countless passages I wanted to return to. What Kanefield successfully does from the Prologue forward is thoughtfully convey the most important aspects of Anthony’s life so kids will see the evolution of her beliefs beginning with her Quaker upbringing, her teaching years and all the way through to her time lecturing across America as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
What comes across to the reader is that Anthony, born in 1820, prior to the Victorian era, from an early age held strong convictions that everyone should be treated as equals. At that time in our country’s history women were supposed to raise families and keep their noses out of politics and practically everything else unless it concerned homemaking. They were only allowed to work in a limited amount of jobs: teacher, seamstress or nanny. They were prohibited from owning property and, in the case of estrangement in a marriage, the man gained custody of the children. In fact, it was not uncommon for a man to have his wife committed to an insane asylum if he wanted out of the marriage.
The immoral slave trade was the most divisive issue, even among Quakers at that time. To Anthony, people of color as well as women were not second class citizens, destined to remain subservient to white men. This was considered a radical idea in the early 19th century and she did not have an easy path as she tried, along with her friend and fellow activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to bring about change and a new amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote. Frederick Douglass was a friend with whom she worked to help first abolish slavery and then gain constitutional protection for free slaves. However, before slavery was abolished and even after, prominent politicians and leaders cautioned her to put her agenda for women’s rights on hold. This was unacceptable. Anthony, along with her friend and staunchest ally, Stanton, challenged the notion that women had to forgo their wants and needs and remained determined “to ride roughshod over obstacles, ignore critics, and take help wherever they could get it.” The support of Anthony’s large family was a constant throughout her life and I wonder how she’d have managed without them during the numerous times she was broke or in debt. Her intelligence and quick wit made her the ideal person to speak on behalf of the suffrage movement but it’s worth noting that she also gravitated towards defending anyone whose rights were being abused.
This well-researched biography is filled with maps, photos, flyers, posters and advertisements that help paint a picture of American society during Anthony’s life. Even something like a lady’s corset could be symbolic of the self-imposed restrictions 19th century women placed upon themselves due to societal norms that a woman should have an hourglass figure. “Girls as young as seven were laced into overly tight corsets.” Also included are Notes, a Time Line, Selected Writings of Susan B. Anthony, a Bibliography, Acknowledgments and an Index.
By the time she died at age 86, four states allowed women to vote but it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson and the start of WWI that an amendment to give women the vote would gain traction, ultimately becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, also called the Susan B. Anthony amendment, in 1920, fourteen years after her death. Kanefield’s invaluable biography paints a portrait of an American hero whose convictions changed the course of American history
I told everyone about Ada Byron Lovelace after finishing Dreaming in Code. I had heard her name in regards to code but it ended there. I knew nothing of the back story that led to this brilliant woman’s presaging today’s computer era almost two centuries ago!
Ada Byron Lovelace was born in England at the end of 1815, just five years before Susan B. Anthony. Augusta Ada Byron, was the daughter of the celebrated poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his “prim, religious” wife, Anne Isabella Noel, called Annabella, a woman of wealth and intelligence. The couple did not remain together due to his philandering and squandering of money among other things so Ada, as she became known, was raised by a single mother. Annabella was a self-centered hypochondriac yet quite philanthropic at the same time and left it to nannies, governesses and tutors to raise her child while she spent time away visiting her newly inherited holdings and helping the coal miners under her employ. McCully engagingly details how Ada flourished from her education although she remained removed from society until her mother deemed it necessary to find her a husband.
Around this time Ada met Charles Babbage, “famous inventor, philosopher (as scientists were then called) and mathematician” who held Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University. Theirs was to be a long and intense, though completely platonic, relationship as they discussed big ideas since both were passionate about math and science. Their friendship provided Ada with the outlet she needed for stimulation. However things grew complicated when she married William, Lord King who became the Earl of Lovelace and soon became a mother. Though not as cold as her own mother, Ada, too, found it difficult to parent when her loyalties lay elsewhere. These chapters were some of the most fascinating ones yet sad at the same time. She often felt ill and, as was common in the early 19th century, was prescribed Laudanum, a tincture of opium viewed as a cure-all. That addiction had to have contributed to her early death at age 37.
As Countess of Lovelace, Ada mixed with a cross-section of society and attended talks on science given by brilliant minds of the era such as Michael Faraday. Ada also wanted to help Babbage and his Analytical Engine and at the same time make her own mark in the science and math fields. Here’s where her genius shone through. While Babbage saw his invention as “arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical,” Ada believed the machine could do more than compute … “that numbers were symbols and could represent other concepts, is what makes Babbage’s engine a prototype-computer.” Sadly, Lovelace lived in era when women were overshadowed by men and women’s freedoms were limited. We can only begin to imagine what miraculous achievements she’d have made had she only lived longer.
With the very readable Dreaming in Code highlighting her meticulous research, McCully has shed light on Ada Byron Lovelace, an important historical figure whose contributions to the field of STEM are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I recommend this young adult nonfiction book for anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the era in which Lovelace lived and how she was inspired to think outside the box.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Read about the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass here. Read another book, Dare The Wind, illustrated Emily Arnold McCully here.
We’re thrilled to once again participate in #MCBD2018 by sharing a review of42 Is Not Just a Number,a fantastic middle grade biography by award-winning author, Doreen Rappaport, focusing on the life of legendary athlete, Jackie Robinson.
It’s hard to believe I live less than 10 miles away from places in Pasadena that played such an important role in Jackie Robinson’s life, yet I never knew all their significance. After reading Rappaport’s 42 Is Not Just a Number, kids will understand why Jackie Robinson was destined to help break down the color barriers that existed in his lifetime, and is considered an American hero and champion of civil rights. Who knows when African-Americans would have been allowed in Major League Baseball had it not been for Robinson’s courage and determination? In fact, this past summer was the 70th anniversary of that sport’s desegregation, but it was not an easy feat to accomplish in the Jim Crow era with its rampant racism, segregation and discrimination.
In this meticulously researched biography packed with eye-opening stories and quotes, Rappaport takes us from Jack “Jackie” Robinson’s childhood through his college and military years to his baseball career, and concludes with his early death at age 53. The chapters flow easily and Rappaport shares just the right amount and choice of information to engage young readers, whether they’re sports fans or not.
Robinson, born in 1919, was raised by a single mom along with his four siblings. One of them, Mack, became a track and field silver medalist in the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin when another black man, Jesse Owens, took home gold. Mama or Maillie, Robinson’s mother, moved the family from Georgia to Southern California when Jackie was just a one-year-old in hopes of giving her family a better life. The racial climate of Pasadena at that time, though not as restrictive and oppressive as the Jim Crow South, was still segregated, something that young Jackie could not tolerate. He was quick to lose his temper at the injustice he saw and got into trouble a lot. However, with the positive guidance of Reverand Karl Downs, Jackie, who excelled in all sports, learned to channel his frustration and anger in other ways. No matter what sport he played, his speed, skill and quick learning brought accolades. But despite his talent, there was no chance to pursue a career if playing on a team meant integrating with whites. It just wasn’t done or accepted by many. After serving in WWII, Jackie joined the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Baseball League and was scouted by the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. That’s how Jackie’s abilities were recognized and within a year the trailblazing Dodgers’ manager, Branch Rickey, signed him with the Dodgers, shirt #42! However Jackie had to steer clear of controversy. “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey told Jackie upon bringing him onboard the team. Jackie knew the manager was right and that if he was going to effect change, Rickey’s advice had to be heeded although at times it was almost impossible.
Jackie’s star was rising and Black Americans from hundreds of miles away traveled to see this amazing talent steal bases, hit home runs and shine. Despite all the acclaim, Jackie continued to face prejudice at every turn. Ultimately it was Jackie’s spirit and convictions that won over fans’ hearts across the country. “In a nationwide contest of the most respected men in America, Jackie was ahead of President Truman and WWII heroes General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur …” 42 Is Not Just a Number deftly chroniclesthis inspirational man’s impact not only upon his sport but also upon his era. I am confident young readers will agree.
Review by Ronna Mandel
ABOUT MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY:
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2018 (1/27/18) is in its 5th year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.
Current Sponsors: MCBD 2018 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board.
We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.
TWITTER PARTY Sponsored by Scholastic Book Clubs: MCBD’s super-popular (and crazy-fun) annual Twitter Party will be held 1/27/18 at 9:00pm.
SHE PERSISTED: 13 American Women Who Changed the World Written by Chelsea Clinton Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger (Philomel; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★ Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
She Persisted, Chelsea Clinton’s historical picture book, celebrates thirteen strong and inspirational American women who overcame obstacles because they persisted. Featured are Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor. The book’s opening line, “Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy” sets the tone. With perseverance comes progress.
Each woman’s legacy is summarized in only one paragraph and includes the motivational words “she persisted”; the text is offset by corresponding images and a relevant quote. More personal than a history textbook, these bite-size biographies share a glimpse into the adversity overcome to achieve individual dreams. The book’s concluding words, “They persisted and so should you,” reinforces camaraderie and illuminates the message that, if you stick with it, you, too, can evoke change.
Alexandra Boiger’s watercolor and ink images contrast muted tones alongside bright colors to effectively showcase these important moments. The opening two-page spread includes pictures of fourteen women; though not mentioned in the text, Hillary Clinton is depicted here.
She Persisted would make an encouraging gift for young girls “stepping up” through grades in elementary school. It would seem fitting that Chelsea Clinton write an accompanying book for boys.
Chelsea Clinton is the author of the New York Times bestselling It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going! and, with Devi Sridhar, Governing Global Health: Who Runs the World and Why? She is also the Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, where she works on many initiatives including those that help to empower the next generation of leaders. She lives in New York City with her husband, Marc, their daughter, Charlotte, their son, Aidan, and their dog, Soren. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChelseaClinton or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/chelseaclinton.
Alexandra Boiger grew up in Munich, Germany, and studied graphic design before working as an animator in England and then at Dreamworks SKG in the United States. She is the author and illustrator of Max and Marla, and the illustrator of more than twenty picture books including the Tallulah series, and When Jackie Saved Grand Central. She has received the Parents’ Choice Award and has been featured on numerous state reading lists. Alexandra lives in California with her husband, Andrea, daughter, Vanessa, and two cats, Luiso and Winter. You can visit her online at www.alexandraboiger.com.
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)
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 Quallsand 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
GRWR: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.
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.
In 2014 and 2015 readers have been treated to a number of fantastic narrative nonfiction picture books. Today’s review features yet another add-it-to-your-collection book, the story of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm as recounted in the impressive Swing Sisters.
Back in the very early 20th century, Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones established an orphanage called Piney Woods Country Life. It was here that he would ensure African American children could thrive and he did so not only by letting kids be kids, but also by having them do work at the school “to earn their keep.” Using this same philosophy, he organized a school band “just for girls,” to “help raise money for the school.” Anyone involved in the band had to consider their role as an additional job on top of school work and other responsibilities at Piney Woods.
The girls played a kind of music called swing. It was jazz music that brought people to their feet, “that music was filled with energy!” It also touched people from all walks of life because it made them feel alive and excited. The girls’ group, named The Sweethearts by Dr. Jones, eventually left Piney Woods to launch a career starting in Washington, D.C. They traveled by bus and performed all over America. Their hard work and dedication helped them hit the “big-time,” at one point playing to a crowd of thirty-five thousand at the Howard Theater in Washington!
By this point the band was known as The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and though America’s Sweethearts were consummate entertainers, they still encountered gender and race discrimination. The Jim Crow laws meant they couldn’t work together with white people, so for the most part they played “for black audiences.” Since their band was multi-racial, they were essentially breaking the law in certain states. There was even one occasion when white band members had to flee or risk arrest. I was happy to learn that during WWII, the USO “arranged a six-month tour for the band to travel to France, Belgium, and Germany.” But at the same time I’m disappointed that, despite having played for the troops abroad, the group’s USO tour is something we rarely hear about.
L.A. local Cepeda’s acrylic-and-oil artwork, with its retro woodcut look and expressiveness, is a bonus. He’s captured the era through a rainbow of colors that dazzle and delight. And, how lucky for us that Deans has chosen to shed light on this group of talented and committed female musicians who were throwing rocks at the glass ceiling way before other women thought it was even possible. Their days on the jazz circuit made inroads for countless women performers who would follow in their swinging footsteps. There’s not a dull sentence in this story thanks in part to the subject matter, but also owing a great deal to Deans’ talent. She’s brought the experience of being a trailblazing band to life in a richly crafted picture book that begs to be shared with early school goers.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here to read an enlightening interview with author Karen Deans.
Other African-American kids might not have persevered in light of the pervasive prejudice that existed when Leontyne Price was growing up in the deep south, but thankfully she did. Price was born in 1927, just one year after Melba Doretta Liston, another musical talent. She grew up in Laurel, Mississippi to a hard-working, supportive, and music-loving mother and father. At a young age Leontyne found herself moved by the music she heard: “Singing along to her daddy James’s records and listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts.” Her parents even sold their phonograph so their daughter could get a piano along with lessons.
Like the opera singer Marian Anderson before her, Leontyne felt the music stir within her as she sang in the church choir. Soon she was heading off to college to pursue a teaching career since, in that era, the chances of becoming a successful black singer seemed out of reach. Surely her talent played a part in that educational opportunity as I read online that she received a scholarship to attend university in Ohio. Everything changed however, when her singing talents were heard by the college president who “convinced her to study voice instead.”
It didn’t take long for Leontyne’s star to begin rising when she attended Julliard and began earning acclaim for her singing. Her first break came when she appeared on Broadway in Porgy and Bess. She was also the “the first black singer to star at La Scala, Italy’s famed opera palace.” What I would have given to be in the audience at that performance! Eventually she landed a lead role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, breaking new ground for generations of African-American performers to come.
Weatherford points out in her Author’s Note that while Leontyne may have achieved great fame, she “still encountered racism in the United States. To her credit, her wondrous voice overcame the obstacles.” This wonderful biography chronicles the life of an iconic 20th century opera singer who followed her dream and ultimately fulfilled it. As an adult, I can recall watching Price on Ed Sullivan but having no idea of what her challenges would have been to gain recognition and be on TV. In fact, Weatherford says, “Price was the first black opera singer to perform on television in the United States.” What a great story for kids to read who may take for granted the struggles African-Americans like Price faced in the past. Nowadays it may just take a click of a cell phone to get a video made and uploaded onto YouTube for anyone to see, when in the previous century it may have taken an entire lifetime. I like that young readers can use this book as a jumping off point for reading more about influential African-Americans mentioned such as Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle, and Denyce Graves.
Raul Colón’s illustrations bring the same joy to this picture book that Price’s voice brought to anyone who heard it. From the opening spread, what looks like a rainbow of musical notes, takes on the form of a wave and flows through the book on pages when Leontyne sings. I also like the slight fuzziness of the artwork, as if we’re watching Price’s life unfold as seen on the early days of television broadcasting.
Before reading Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century I had no idea all the firsts this amazing woman achieved and I hope her accomplishments will inspire our 21st century children to keep reaching for the stars.
Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day and we’re SO excited!! We’ve got one book from our friends atLee and Low Booksthat we’re talking about today, and two more we’ll mention below that are also must-reads. But before you get the scoop aboutLittle Melba and Her Big Trombone, learn about the origins of MCBD and help us celebrate and promote diversity in kidlit. Use the hashtag #ReadYourWorld and spread the word!
THE MISSION OF MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY: Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day, Mia and Valarie are on a mission to change all of that. Their mission is to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these types of books into classrooms and libraries. Another goal of this exciting event is to create a compilation of books and favorite reads that will provide not only a new reading list for the winter, but also a way to expose brilliant books to families, teachers, and libraries.
You can find the MCBD blog and links to all the other participating siteshere.
REVIEW: Little Melba and Her Big Trombone
Pick an instrument, any instrument – would you pick the trombone? Well, in Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, (Lee and Low, $18.95, Ages 4-8) by Katheryn Russell-Brownwith illustrations byFrank Morrison, that’s exactly what Melba Doretta Liston did and never once looked back! This eye-opening fictionalized picture book biography recounts the story of a jazz pioneer whose contribution to the music industry is presented in irresistible prose and artwork certain to get your toes tapping and fingers snapping.
Born in pre-Depression Kansas City, Melba had the music in her from an early age. In fact making music would always matter to Melba. It was easy to be influenced when “avenues were lined with jazz club, street bands, and folks harmonizing on every corner.” From blues to jazz to gospel, Melba loved it all and soaked up all the sounds around her. At age seven she chose a “shiny trombone: from the traveling music store and, with the help of her grandpa and her keen ear, Melba learned how to play it.
In the years following the Depression, things got tough financially for Melba’s mom so together the two moved to Los Angeles where Melba’s trombone talent really took off. Eventually, when she was just seventeen, Melba toured the country with trumpeter Gerald Wilson’s band. With the popularity of jazz sweeping the nation, Melba’s prowess on her beloved brass instrument stood out on stages everywhere. “She composed and arranged music, spinning rhythms, harmonies, and melodies into gorgeous songs.”
This young woman was a musical force to be reckoned with. But the harsh realities of racial segregation she and the band experienced while touring down South meant “some white folks didn’t show good manners toward folks with brown skin.” This brought Melba to the brink of quitting, but ultimately she persevered, playing her horn with the likes of “Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and more.” She even toured briefly with Billie Holiday. Melba’s career took her around the world and garnered her numerous awards including being named Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, “the highest honor the U.S. gives to a jazz artist.”
Helpful back matter includes an Afterword, a Selected Discography and Author’s Sources. This pioneering, brass playing woman has left a legacy of music to learn and love, as well as a tale that begged to be told. I’m thrilled Russell-Brown found Melba’s inspiring story and conveyed it so beautifully. Russell-Brown’s words coupled with Morrison’s warm and spirited illustrations take us back in time so when we’re done reading we feel as if we’ve been on the road with Melba Liston, and that’s really something special!
RELATED ACTIVITY: Make a musical instrument with your child
Simply get an empty toilet paper roll, scissors, wax paper, a rubber band (or masking tape), fun stickers, and something sharp like the point of the scissors (NOTE: for parents to do only!). Cut a piece of the wax paper that is large enough to completely cover the hole at one end with room to spare for fastening it down. Use a rubber band or masking tape to hold the wax paper in place. One option is to make small holes in the wax paper then have your child decorate the toilet roll with stickers or patterned duct tape and try out the sound. Another option is to make one hole in the part of the toilet paper roll that is not covered by the wax paper, and no holes in the wax paper. Have your child compare the sounds these two types of kazoos make. Try making the instrument with a paper towel roll instead. Is the sound any different using a long paper roll? Will more holes cut into the toilet paper roll or paper towel rolls make the sounds change?
Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of this Landmark Civil Rights Project
⭐︎Starred Reviews – Booklist & School Library Journal
“I am determined to become a first class citizen … I am determined to get every Negro in the State of Mississippi registered (Fannie Lou Hamer, p 1).
Susan Goldman Rubin, author of several biographies and books on the Holocaust (see her website: www.susangoldmanrubin.com), has written a dramatic account of the efforts of civil rights organizations and volunteers, mostly college-aged students, who worked together during the summer of 1964 to educate African Americans in Mississippi about their voting rights. While greeted warmly by African Americans, who also opened their homes to the young students, volunteers worked in an intense and dangerous environment. Prior to arriving in Mississippi, volunteers, who hailed from all across the country, received one week training in how to behave and dress so as to avoid physical harm. They learned that “no one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night …” (pp. 6-7). Volunteers were advised to sleep at the back of the house and listen for sudden car accelerations as that might signal a bombing. Contrary to what they had been taught in the North, Southern police were not their friends.
Despite the never ending climate of fear and the murder of three of the workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner), students and community members continued their heroic efforts to establish Freedom Schools and register voters. The Freedom Schools were enormously successful: with enrollment of over 2000 adults and children. Voter registration, however, proved to be much more challenging due to African Americans fears of physical violence and obstacles such as poll taxes and literacy tests designed to prevent them from voting. However, these efforts led to President Johnson’s 1965 Civil Rights Act and, by 1966, registered African American voters soared from 6.4% to almost 60% (p. 97).
Rubin’s compelling and gripping account includes primary sources: interviews with surviving volunteers and community members, reproductions of period photos, FBI posters, newspaper articles and other documents. End material includes a bibliography, timeline, recommended websites, and appendices of original documents. The book also includes illustrations by Tracy Sugarman, an American artist who illustrated important historical events. At 41, he was the oldest volunteer and shadowed the volunteers to chronicle their work in art (see PBS’s “Freedom Summer” web pages for more information on the documentary and Sugarman and his illustrations: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/freedomsummer). Highly recommended for middle graders thru high school, as a readable narrative as well as a compelling way for teachers and librarians to meet Common Core standard in how researchers use primary sources to bring historical events to life. In an interview with Holiday House (see below), Rubin expresses her hope that this book will inspire students to seek out their community’s stories.