Never Say Never! Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story

NATURE’S FRIEND:
THE GWEN FROSTIC STORY
Written by Lindsey McDivitt
Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)

 

cover art from Nature's Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivitt

 

One of the best parts about reviewing children’s books is learning about someone or something new. That’s exactly what happened after reading Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivitt with illustrations by Eileen Ryan Ewen. You may have noticed that there aren’t a lot of traditionally published picture books about people with disabilities, but there are more now than there used to be and that’s a good thing. Authors like McDivitt are making a difference by writing about diverse individuals and topics which I truly appreciate and why I jumped at the chance to review Nature’s Friend.

This inspiring debut picture book biography introduces children to the art and writing of Gwen Frostic, someone about whom, as I mentioned above, I knew nothing prior to reading the book. And now I’m eager to see her art in person and you will be, too. Born in Michigan in 1906, Frostic contracted an illness as an infant that left her physically disabled. But with the positive influence of her mother, Gwen never avoided doing all the things that her brothers and sisters did. “I never knew I couldn’t do something,” is the overarching message of Nature’s Friend, a quote in McDivitt’s book that captures the essence of who Gwen was—a bright, creative and resourceful woman who never let perceived obstacles hold her back. She clearly was ahead of her time.

 

Int illustration by Eileen Ryan Ewen from Nature's Friend by Lindsey McDivitt

Interior artwork from Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story written by Lindsey McDivitt and illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

Gwen’s mother, a former teacher, could have taught her daughter at home because in the early 20th century it was more common for disabled children to stay at home. Instead, Mrs. Frostic “sent Gwen to school and pushed her to learn.” While the bullying might have painful, the young girl chose to focus on her academics and was an adept student. In fact, it was also due to her mother’s encouragement and guidance that Gwen’s weak hands grew stronger as her mother had her practice sketching. Gwen, who had embraced nature at an early age, would find later in life that this experience greatly influenced her career path.

 

int art by Eileen Ryan Ewen from Nature's Friend by Lindsey McDivitt

Interior artwork from Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story written by Lindsey McDivitt and illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

At age 12, Gwen’s family moved to Detroit. It was there in high school that she learned mechanical drawing and other skills not typically part of a girl’s curriculum. Someone wrote in her yearbook, “Her brush, her pencil and her pen will make this world a better place!” But pursuing a career in art wasn’t necessarily going to provide for her. The tides turned in her favor when wealthy and influential people began purchasing her designs. What joy and satisfaction it must have been for Frostic when her art was chosen to be exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair! Soon though her grand plans were put on hold due to WWII. She went to work at the Ford Motor Company to help the war effort by designing “tools for building the airplanes.”

In addition to Gwen’s airplane construction work, at home she remained drawn to art, eventually purchasing a printing press and starting her own business. Frostic called it Presscraft Papers Stationary Company and based it first in Frankfort, Michigan and then on the Betsie River to be closer to nature. The back matter states that Frostic created greeting cards and books that “celebrated Michigan plans and wildlife.” She was awarded countless honors in her lifetime and worked in her shop well into her 90s.

 

int art by Eileen Ryan Ewen from Nature's Friend by Lindsey McDivitt

Interior artwork from Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story written by Lindsey McDivitt and illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

Ewen’s serene artwork conveys Frostic’s love of nature on every page. I also felt the movement and emotion as Gwen clenched her sketching pencil, smelled the fresh Michigan air in the beautifully rendered outdoor scenes and watched the changing fashions go by as Gwen matured. The illustrations, coupled with McDivitt’s honest and uplifting prose that applauds determination and individuality, promises hope and invites creativity (there’s a craft included at the end), make this a wonderful and worthwhile read for not only kids, but for adults too who may be unfamiliar with Frostic.

Everything about Gwen Frostic was unique, from her art to her attitude. Rather than let society define what she could and couldn’t do as a woman and as a person with disabilities, she wrote her own rules and lived happily and successfully by them. Considering the era she lived in, it’s especially encouraging to read about female trailblazers like Gwen Frostic who forged ahead with their talents allowing their heart to guide them.

“As long as there are trees in tiny seeds … there will be miracles on earth.” – Gwen Frostic, A Walk With Me

Learn more about Gwen’s studio here.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read another picture book biography here.

 

 

 

World Make Way – Art Inspired Poetry Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins

WORLD MAKE WAY:
New Poems Inspired by Art
from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins
(Abrams BYR; $16.99, Ages 5-9)

 

World Make Way cover image of Cat Watching a Spider by Ōide Tōkō

 

A curious, crouching cat on the book’s cover immediately drew me into World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from The Metropolitan Museum of Art edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Eighteen thoughtful and evocative poems and the accompanying works of art that prompted their creation kept me turning the pages. This beautiful collection is everything a poetry anthology for children should be: diverse, original and, as the title suggests, inspiring. In the book’s back matter I learned that Lee Bennett Hopkins, the editor of World Make Way, holds the Guinness Book of World Records citation for compiling the most anthologies for children, making him more than well-suited to spearhead this satisfying project in conjunction with the Met.

I appreciate the breadth of art that was selected and the variety of poems that were commissioned for World Make Way. There is something that will appeal to every reader who dives in, whether they like short, simple poems or those more complex and layered. There are serious poems and those that have fun with the reader like Marilyn Singer’s poem, Paint Me, the first in the book. In it the teen subject of Gustav Klimt’s portrait, Mäda Primavesi, bids the artist to make haste and finish up the painting because she’s such a busy person, hence the book’s title World Make Way, a line she utters in desperation! She has places to go. People to see. After all, if her family can afford to have Klimt paint her, she’s likely a socialite. Ultimately the book will show children how to look at art with fresh eyes and take from it something unique to them. Art evokes something different in each person who beholds it and the poems included perfectly capture that.

One particular poem that stayed with me was Young Ashoka Sundari by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater inspired by Shiva and Parvati Playing Chaupar: Folio from a Rasamanjari Series, 1694-95 by Devidasa of Nurpur. Her poem introduces readers to Ashoka who secretly observes her parents: I stand behind this neem tree / to watch my parents play / a game of chaupar / on a tiger rug / beneath bright mango sky. Offering a child’s perspective in her poem, Vanderwater helped me to have a lightbulb moment with the artwork. It’s not always about what we see when observing art, it’s also about what or who the artist left out, or where the scene is set. What a wonderful conversation starter! What does this art say to you? What do you think is happening here now? How does this picture make you feel? What might happen now that the child has witnessed this scene?

In my multiple readings I found myself wondering what I’d write about a certain piece of art such as Henri Rousseau’s The Repast of the Lion, but if I ever see the painting again, I’ll forever associate J. Patrick Lewis’s poem with it. Now that he’s fed and jaguar-full— / Finally his appetite is dull— And of Joan Bransfield Graham’s Great Indian Fruit Bat, a poem about a painting of the same name attributed to Bhawani Das or a follower, 1777-82  I marveled at her internal rhyme and alliteration. As my wings whisk me, swooping through / this black velvet night, who will admire / my elegant attire, the intricacy …  A bat’s point of view, fantastic!

Other featured poets are: Alma Flor Ada, Cynthia S. Cotten, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Julie Fogliano, Charles Ghigna, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Irene Latham, Elaine Magliaro, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ann Whitford Paul, Carole Boston Weatherford and Janet Wong. Other featured artists are: Rosa Bonheur, Fernando Botero, Mary Cassatt, Liberale Da Verona, Leonardo Da Vinci, Han Gan, Martin Johnson Heade, Frank Henderson, Utagawa Hiroshige, Winslow Homer, Kerry James Marshall, José Guadalupe Posada and Ōide Tōkō.

While I can definitely see educators enjoying the book for its varying forms of poetry and the individual interpretations of the poets to accompany the magnificent works of art, I can also easily see a parent sharing the book before any museum visit or simply as a way to spark a child’s imagination. It certainly sparked mine.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read a review of another poetry collection here.

 

Garden-Themed Books for Spring: Lola Plants a Garden & In Mary’s Garden

Lola Plants a Garden
Written by Anna McQuinn and illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw
(Charlesbridge; $15.95, Ages 2-5)

In Mary’s Garden
By Tina and Carson Kugler
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $16.99, Ages 5-9)

Spring is only a few short weeks away, and most of the country can’t wait to thaw out. In anticipation of sunshine and warmer temperatures, here are two picture books about different types of gardens.

Lola-Plants-Garden-cvr.jpgIn Lola Plants a Garden, young Lola is inspired to plant a garden after reading the “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” poem. First, she conducts her research with books from the library. Next, she and Mommy make a list of Lola’s favorite flowers. Then they’re off to buy seeds and carefully follow the instructions on the seed packets. But growing a garden doesn’t happen quickly, and Lola has to wait. Not to worry, as Lola and her parents have plenty of ways to keep busy.

Lola makes her own flower book…She finds shells and some old beads. She even makes a little Mary Mary. Daddy helps Lola hang her shiny bells. Lola finds Mary Mary a special spot. It’s just perfect. And, before Lola knows it, her flowers grow and her friends visit. They share the crunchy peas and sweet strawberries…What kind of garden will Lola plant next?

Int-Lola-Garden.jpg

Interior artwork from Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn with illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw, Charlesbridge Publishing ©2014

This sweet book highlights the fun of getting back to nature and teaches the virtues of hard work and patience. Good things come to those who wait, and Lola must wait for her flowers to sprout and grow. With the help of her parents, Lola doesn’t dwell on the waiting and enjoys her time with related activities. I just adore the illustrations. They are bright with the little details that convey so much meaning. We know Lola is working hard on her flower book when we see her tongue stick out from the corner of her mouth. And pulling weeds isn’t easy as we can tell from Lola wiping her brow. I especially liked seeing how Mommy and Lola lean into each other as they make cupcakes. These touches are the illustrator’s mastery. The font is also spot on with just the right size and style (modern with clean lines) to help emerging readers identify letters and words.

 

InMarysGarden-cvr.jpgIn Marys’ Garden brings to life a true story of art and inspiration. Mary Nohl was a little girl in Wisconsin who loved to create, invent, and build things. Mary tried woodworking. She helped her father build a house on the shore of Lake Michigan. She won the first place prize in her industrial arts class for building a model airplane. This was unusual for the time, as girls were supposed to follow traditional paths. In fact, Mary was one of only two girls in the class. But Mary had an intrepid spirit and a keen eye for art. As she grew older, she traveled the world and drew inspiration from everywhere. One summer, her dogs, Sassafras and Basil, found driftwood on the lakeshore. Mary then began to hunt for more items—old keys, shiny rocks, feathers, cogs, combs, and on. She began to create. It took a long time to put together all the odds and ends and bits and bobs, but finally Mary was done. The creature was magnificent. She continued to create art piece after art piece in her garden and then in her home. After her death, Mary’s art is being preserved.

My daughters and I greatly enjoy this story. It shows a woman who follows her own path and mind. Despite society’s conventions, Mary Nohl kept true to herself and her muse. These are lofty concepts, but even young children can understand the idea that a person can do what she loves. Older children will hopefully take away the lesson that gender shouldn’t stop someone from achieving milestones and following a dream. The book ends with factual information and photographs of Mary and her garden.

The book’s art is traditional watercolor with digital painting, collage and vintage papers. Postcards, patterns, and writing are used as backgrounds for the main illustrations and offer a look at Mary’s creativity. The “creatures” (statues and creations) are unconventional but fun to study. They demonstrate Mary’s incredible imagination. There’s a lot to take away from In Mary’s Garden—creativity, inspiration, challenging society’s norms, being true to yourself—and it’s well worth the read.

NOTE: If you live in L.A., you can see Tina and Carson Kugler at Once Upon a Time Bookstore at 11a.m. on March 28th.

Here’s a book trailer to enjoy, too.

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