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.
My childhood friend’s mother was from the south and used to attend family reunions when we were kids. Going Down Home With Daddyis exactly how I imagined them to be. Lyons’s story, “inspired by her husband’s heritage and her own” beautifully captures the annual family gathering incorporating every sense in the reading experience. I could see, touch, smell, taste and hear everything through Lyons’s perfect prose from the car ride when Lil Alan’s too excited to sleep to his first glimpse of Granny, “scattering corn for her chickens like tiny bits of gold.” I could smell her peppermint kisses, hear the laughter as more and more relatives arrived, feel the breeze during the tractor ride, taste the hot, homemade mac and cheese and see the cotton field “dotted with puffs of white.”
The story unfolds as the narrator, Lil Alan, realizes he’s forgotten something to share for the anniversary celebration and cannot enjoy himself until he figures out what contribution he can make. When he does, it’s the most heartfelt moment although there are many others in this thoughtful, moving picture book. Minter’s warm illustrations in earthy tones heighten every experience and seem to recall the family’s African roots and connection to the land. I found myself rereading the picture book several times to soak up more of Lyons’s rich language and Minter’s evocative art.
Set in an India of a bygone era, and brought to life with vivid art that spans every page, this unique folktale introduces readers to Jiva even before the title page. In Feast of Peas, Jiva’s life is centered upon gardening and doing all he can to assure his carefully planted peas will grow undisturbed. That however is not to be. Though Javi sings
Plump peas, sweet peas, Lined-up-in-the-shell peas. Peas to munch, peas to crunch, I want a feast of peas for lunch.
his peas keep disappearing. He realizes he must construct obstacles such as a scarecrow and a fence to keep leering birds and other thieves at bay. What Jiva doesn’t realize is that no man-made deterrent will stop the peas from getting stolen if his pal Ruvji gets his way.
While little ones may not immediately pick up on the clever clues planted within the illustrations, older readers and adults will. They’ll also enjoy Ruvji’s not so subtle hints to his friend as he repeatedly smacks his lips and says, “Peas are delicious,” and “I would enjoy a feast of peas.” Jiva is determined to solve the mystery of the missing peas and the tables are hilariously turned when he plots a creative ploy to catch the pea poacher. This charming story of friendship, food and forgiveness will leave readers smiling with Ruvji’s unmasking and Jiva’s generosity and pea-licious punishment that promise a happy ending.
Who knew there were so many things you could do with a feather if you just used your imagination? I love how in Lali’s Feather author Farhana Zia has created this charming picture book inspired by such a simple premise. Think about it. What would you do with a feather if you were a child and found one that was oh so right?
This story, set in an Indian village will captivate youngsters. First Lali finds the feather and, concerned it’s lost, is determined to find its owner. After Rooster, Crow and Peacock do not claim the feather, Lali keeps it to see what it can do. Displaying her creativity to Hen, Duck, Blue Jay as well as her sister and Bapu (father), Lali finds entertainment in the most unlikely of activities such as writing in the dirt, sweeping, fanning a fire, and even tickling her Bapu’s toes. That is until a gust of wind whisks it away. Lali’s animal friends, who enjoyed her feather play, join together to help her get it back when another lost object captures her interest. Coleman’s warm color palette and energetic composition will carry readers from page to page along with Zia’s sweet prose. What a colorful way to engage readers with another country, some of its language, and show how childhood and imagination are the same the world over.
Don Tate’s picture book biography, William Still and His Freedom Storiesis the perfect example of how there is always something new to learn. And when it’s done well, as this one is, I don’t want it to end. That’s why I appreciate the author’s note and helpful back matter so I can read more about The Father of the Underground Railroad.
The son of enslaved parents Levin and Sidney Steel, William was born in 1821 and raised in the free North (as Still instead of Steel) after his father had earned his own freedom and settled in New Jersey. As a young boy William knew the local backwoods like the back of his hands. His life defining moment occurred when, using his knowledge of the woods, he led a former enslaved but now free neighbor to safety some twenty miles away from the clutches of slave catchers.
Once educated, the always ambitious William moved to Philadelphia in 1844. Life wasn’t easy and William barely got by doing any job he could until he landed an office clerk position at The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. “William’s employers were abolitionists who spoke loudly against slavery.” At the same time, as “freedom-seeking people were drawn to Philadelphia,” William helped however he could. His home had become a “station” on the Underground Railroad and its passengers’ struggles could not be ignored. He chronicled their journeys to freedom in the hopes of reuniting families. But by documenting their individual stories, William’s life and those he wrote about were imperiled when the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was enacted. He hid his records in a cemetery for safe-keeping.
Despite rising through the ranks at the society, William still earned so little that he quit to start up a coal business. When the Civil War broke out, William prospered. “By the 1870s, he was one of the richest Black men of his time.” William used his wealth for the betterment of Blacks whether helping fund a branch of the YMCA for them or fighting to allow Black Philadelphians’ right to ride on city streetcars. Thirty years before his death in 1902 William published his first book, The Underground Rail Road, initially overlooked since it was centered on the African American perspective. Don Tate has lyrically and lovingly brought William’s story to us to honor both the man and all the other “free Black Philadelphians who worked tirelessly on behalf of their people.” His evocative illustrations bring a sense of time and place to this powerful biography and raise awareness of William Still’s important role in history.
The Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award-winning series
This easy-to-read series provides just the right combination of fun and mystery to earn new fans while it continues to satisfy old ones. This sixth book, King & Kayla and the Case of The Unhappy Neighborincludes five fast-paced chapters with adorable illustrations on every page.
If you know newly independent readers who are drawn to stories where they’ll have to figure things out, they’ll be delighted to meet King and Kayla, the dog and human detective duo. If they have trouble solving the mystery, the humorous illustrations showing King’s observations should help.
Told from King’s point of view, this book begins with Kayla’s friend Jillian explaining how her puppy Thor got into a neighbor’s yard and supposedly dug it up. Mr. Gary and Jillian’s mom were cleaning up the mess when Kayla and King stopped by. It certainly did not look like the kind of mess that little Thor could muster and that got Kayla thinking. Using her critical thinking skills and asking the right questions, Kayla notes that:
•Mr. Gary saw Thor in his yard last night. – True. Thor was chasing a cat. •Thor doesn’t like tomatoes, carrots or strawberries. – All partially eaten evidence in addition to a pile of poop left on the lawn. •Thor isn’t big enough to knock over a trash can. – What kind of animal can?
These clues, in addition to learning from King that there’s a new guy in town, help Kayla deduce just who the culprit might be. Will young readers be one step ahead and have their suspicions confirmed? Even if they learn at the same time as Kayla, they’ll be more than satisfied at the outcome and the fun time they had on their mission. Watch out for book #7 coming this spring 2021.
Prepare to fall head over hands (the main character Nina Soni talks with her hands a lot) for this endearing Indian-American nine-year-old in the first book of the terrific middle grade series from Kashmira Sheth. Nina Soni: Former Best Friendis told in first-person with heart and humor and loads of lists.
We meet record-keeping (we learn so much this way), loyal and easily side-tracked, Nina, right as she’s having what she believes is a major falling out with her best friend, Jay. Why? She accidentally knocked over his school project. On top of that she’s got to come up with an idea for her class Personal Narrative Project and time is running out. The good news is that her teacher tells her the project can be a list of observations. Well, that takes a bit of pressure off of her. Or does it?
Between her younger sister’s upcoming birthday party, trying to figure out what’s going on with her “former best friend,” and picking a project she can tackle, Nina’s finding it hard to stay focused. When a lesson about scientist Alexander Fleming’s chance discovery of penicillin inspires Nina to pay closer attention to her own experiments, her discovery yields interesting results. That those results also help save the day at her sister’s birthday party and shed new light on her former friendship with Jay is a resolution readers will love.
With a B.S. in Microbiology, Sheth brings a welcome STEAM approach to the series which now consists of three books. She also infuses Indian culture, cuisine and Hindi language into the stories meaning it’s best to read the books on a full tummy or with snacks nearby. Kocsmiersky’ spot art throughout the book adds extra appeal to the series for those moving onto middle grade novels from chapter books.
Reviews by Ronna Mandel
Click herefor a link to another #ReadYourWorld post: Five Diverse Books for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021 by Christine Van Zandt
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021 (1/29/21) is in its 8th year! This non-profit children’s literacy initiative was founded by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen; two diverse book-loving moms who saw a need to shine the spotlight on all of the multicultural books and authors on the market while also working to get those book into the hands of young readers and educators.
Eight years in, MCBD’s mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in homes and school bookshelves continues. Read about our Mission & History HERE.
MCBD 2021 is honored to be Supported by these Medallion Sponsors!
Join us on Friday, Jan 29, 2021, at 9 pm EST for the 8th annual Multicultural Children’s Book Day Twitter Party! This epically fun and fast-paced hour includes multicultural book discussions, addressing timely issues, diverse book recommendations, & reading ideas. We will be giving away an 8-Book Bundle every 5 minutes plus Bonus Prizes as well! *** US and Global participants welcome. ** Follow the hashtag #ReadYourWorld to join the conversation, connect with like-minded parts, authors, publishers, educators, organizations, and librarians. See you all very soon on Twitter! Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use our official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.
Did you know Srinivasa Ramanujan was one of the greatest mathematicians the world has seen? I didn’t, but was thankful to come across The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity by Amy Alznauerand learn a little bit about this man whose amazing accomplishments are still studied today.
Born in a small South Indian village in 1887, Ramanujan began questioning the world at an early age: “What is small? And what is big?” He spent endless hours writing and erasing on his slate, trying to capture his thoughts about numbers and size. “Ramanujan was a number theorist, a person who studies the properties and patterns of numbers.” This book’s examples make these large concepts easy to understand such as when Ramanujan takes food to the man by the river who claims to see odd creatures that aren’t there. To this, Ramanujan says, “Sometimes even invisible things can be real.” Kids can relate to this while their parents have a greater understanding of what Ramanujan meant.
This self-taught genius felt alone with his thoughts until reaching out to Cambridge University in England because of its great mathematical center where he finally connects with top mathematician, G. H. Hardy (whose pamphlet on infinity Ramanujan had recently discovered). Just six years after making that connection, Ramanujan died in 1920, at the age of thirty-two. “The profound originality of his ideas has been a source of inspiration for mathematicians ever since.”
Daniel Miyares’s lovely illustrations show us Ramanujan’s India blended skillfully with the boy’s thoughts. One of my favorite scenes discusses how numbers whisper to Ramanujan in his sleep; he tries catching ideas before they disappear. The accompanying art has multiple images of Ramanujan leaping and climbing on numbers, set against a night sky. Get this book for the kid in your life with big thoughts—whether anyone else can see them or not.
Click here to order a copy of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks! e Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/19/20
(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.
Wednesday, April 22, is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day which will be celebrated around the globe. Read below about some new picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, that Christine Van Zandt recommends to help your children understand the significance of this holiday.
One of my favorite things about Henry Cole’s gorgeous, wordless picture book, One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey, is the prologue. I was hooked from the first image: a forest where one tree—colored brown—stands out. Cole’s amazingly detailed black-ink drawings are juxtaposed by brown-colored items: the tree, first made into paper, becomes an unassuming lunch bag.
In the Author’s Note, Cole shares how, in 1970 for the first Earth Day, he decided to not throw out has lunch bag that day. Or the next one. Eventually, he used that bag about 700 times! Then, when he went to college, he passed the velvet-soft bag to his younger friend who used it for another year. Wow! This really hit home with me. I’m conscientious about noncompostables, but will now consider the possibilities of paper products.
Using a humble brown bag as its central element, the story follows the bag’s journey from creation to conclusion. We are emotionally engaged with the little boy as he grows to adulthood and the family members we meet along the way. This story drives home the messages that even seemingly insignificant choices matter and that kids have the power to change things. These workhorse lunch bags are relatively inexpensive and typically don’t garner a second thought. Cole’s true-life story brings this simple item to the front page of his book and the forefront of our attention. Bravo! ★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
When I think of the mischievously adorable Peter Rabbit, of course his creator, Beatrix Potter, comes to mind. But, who was the woman behind this famous character? Linda Elovitz Marshall’s picture book, Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbitfills in the blanks.
Potter was a bright artistic girl who lived in the city but cherished the family’s summers in the country. Too soon, it was back to the constraints of being a Victorian-era girl. Focusing on her drawings, Potter, later, was able to land a job—but only because the publisher thought she was a man. Throughout the story, we see Potter pushing against and past the bonds of what a woman was “supposed to do.” While these actions were commendable, Potter also took on the role of conservationist, buying up more than 4,000 acres of beloved land to keep it peacefully undeveloped; her donation to the UK’s National Trust allowed the area’s preservation.
The illustrator, Ilaria Urbinati, enlivens Potter’s story in a muted old-fashioned style complementary to the text. Be sure to check beneath the cover for a clever second image: a before-and-after of Potter in her cherished landscape.
This behind-the-scenes look at Potter’s life will engage kids because it’s relatable and inspirational—showing you can make a career doing what you love, break through societal limits, and care for our planet. What Potter managed in her 77 years was exceptional. ★Starred Review– Foreward Reviews
Land Wilson’s rhyming picture book, The Girl Who Spoke to the Moon: A Story About Friendship and Loving Our Planet, is a gentle story packing a powerful message. Little Sofia befriends the Moon and, one night when he’s blue, she imagines herself up there, seeing the Earth from a new perspective. The Moon sadly tells her, “With dirty waters, land, and air, it looks as though she’s in despair. Her people seem so unaware that what Earth needs is better care.”
Sue Cornelison’s soothing images are in the muted tones of a bedtime book, yet, the swoops of sparkles throughout give the story movement and feeling. Once Sofia realizes she must share her findings, we’re shown glimpses of children from around the world doing their part to help our planet.
The end matter provides explanations of how the Earth’s air, land, and water are polluted, followed by simple suggestions such as creating less trash and eating less meat. In the Author’s Note, Wilson shares how astronauts love looking back at our planet, but how that distance also brings an understanding of Earth’s vulnerability and precious importance. Wilson urges us to make the Earth’s well-being a priority: “When people work together, our power grows. But we need to work faster, harder, and smarter”—a message that should be taken to heart as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I like how Wilson’s commentary is both realistic and optimistic, hopefully inciting readers to action.
I’m so happy to share this interview with popular SoCal author, Alexis O’Neill. Her new picture book biography introduces Jacob Riis, a determined New Yorker born in Denmark, to a new generation of readers. It’s hard not to feel as though you’ve traveled back in time as you learn about Riis, who is best known for his moving photographs of the plight of the poor tenement dwellers in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
In Jacob Riis’s Camera, a penniless immigrant, who becomes a reporter and social activist, uses new flash powder technology to illuminate desperate tenement living conditions and brings about changes for children and their families.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA:Did you happen upon Jacob Riis’s photos one day and find inspiration to write this picture book or did you intentionally set out to write his story?
ALEXIS O’NEILL: I’ve always been interested in photography and photographers. I used to live pretty much with a camera in my hand, and when I lived in central New York, I belonged to the Syracuse Camera Club, one of the oldest in the nation. I met Riis’s photos when I was researching child labor issues for other projects. Then later, I read his autobiography, The Making of an American. He wrote so vividly and personally that I felt as if he were right beside me, chatting with me in my living room. That’s when I knew I wanted to write a book about him.
GRWR:Despite my familiarity with Riis’s haunting b + w photos, I had no idea how influential he had been during his lifetime. What fact or facts about Riis surprised you the most?
AON: I was really surprised that Riis didn’t consider himself a photographer. In fact, he later carelessly tossed his glass plate negatives into his attic. Then, just before a wrecking ball was about to destroy the family home, the images were rescued, thanks to photographer Alexander Alland, Sr., and donated by Riis’s son, Roger William, to the Museum of the City of New York.
GRWR:Riis was a champion of the poor as early as his youth in Denmark. What impact would you say his photos have had on the way this segment of our society is treated?
AON: Riis’s photos were revolutionary. They inspired accountability and gave documentary evidence that helped force compliance of landlords with sanitary and building regulations.
GRWR: How big a role did Riis’s immigrant background play in his career?
AON: Like most immigrants, he had a driving work ethic. He was an educated Dane with carpentry skills, but he had a hard time finding work in America. He did all kinds of menial tasks in order to survive. He experienced homelessness and hunger. He experienced injustices and wanted to fix them—not just for himself, but for others.
GRWR: Is there a particular photo of Riis’s that particularly resonates with you?
AON: To me, his most heartbreaking photo is “The Baby’s Playground.” A toddler with a shaved head and filthy dress stands in front of an overflowing public sink at the top of a dark staircase that has a railing held together with rope. The wall behind the baby is coming loose. No child should have to live like that.
GRWR:Obviously this nonfiction bio involved a lot of research. How did you choose what to include or leave out when his rags to not-so-riches-but-fame story is so fascinating? Was there a portion or time period of his life that was most difficult to nail down?
AON: Riis’s relationship with his Danish sweetheart was complicated, so I treated that with a broad brush stroke.
GRWR:Why do you think no professional photographer had captured the lives of shelters and tenement dwellers prior to Riis?
AON: At the time, most photographers made pretty portraits or, like Matthew Brady, recorded historical events. Riis, in contrast, showed the underbelly of life. I think that when Riis read about the invention of flash powder, it came at the right time for him. Photographs taken with this new technological tool helped him convince officials to make changes in the tenements.
GRWR:Do you attribute Riis’s success to his talent as a photographer, his perseverance, good timing or all three?
AON: I believe Riis’s success can be attributed to his determination and tireless work to tell a complete story of the social injustice experienced by impoverished city inhabitants. He lived during a time of great interest in social reform.
GRWR: As a former New Yorker and lover of NYC’s Tenement Museum, I’ve always admired Riis’s photos. Why do you think his accomplishments are not better known today?
AON: Riis’s photos continue to impress people, and his contribution was unique. In his advocacy for improving substandard housing, he was one among many of his contemporaries who also advocated for changing laws on child labor, suffrage, public health, housing, and schools.
GRWR: What’s one of your favorite illustrations by Gary Kelleyin your book?
AON: I love Gary’s illustration of Jacob giving a lecture and pointing to his photograph of a tenement mother holding her swaddled infant. As he talks, Jacob gestures to the poignant image. This image makes me wish I could have heard Jacob in person!
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 (due Fall 2020). 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.
Thank you so much, Alexis, for sharing your insights about Jacob Riis and giving us the inside scoop about your new picture book biography, Jacob Riis’s Camera. It’s so great to know how many children will now have a chance to learn about Riis’s important contributions to society.
What a treat it was to read Artie Bennett’s new picture book biography,The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8) with illustrations byDave Szalay! Bennett, who’s best known for his humorous picture books in verse, hit the daily double by bringing out both the humor and humanity (equus-ity?) in this charming tale of a horse destined for fame, but not the winning races kind. You’ll no doubt be champing at the bit for a chance to read Zippy Chippy’s story after my interview with Artie Bennett below.
Zippy Chippy is descended from the leading legends of horse racing. He is destined for greatness and glory.
But . . . when the starting bell rings, it’s anybody’s guess what Zippy will do. Will Zippy go for a gentle trot around the track or stop and smell the roses? Or, perhaps, never even leave the starting gate?!
With mischief in his makeup, he’s known to stick his tongue out at people and chew up the hats of passersby. And he’s always trying to break out of his stall. What’s an owner to do? Try and try again! After all, he believes in Zippy—and, besides, the horse is now a part of the family. But as Zippy’s losses mount, a funny thing happens. People start to take notice of the hapless, cupcake-eating horse. Could it be that they’re betting on Zippy to win?
This remarkable story of the famed racehorse who lost every race is sure to win your heart!
Good Reads With Ronna:Artie, this picture-book biography is like nothing else you’ve written before. What motivated you to pursue this horse’s tale and diverge from your funny nonfiction writing in verse?
Artie Bennett: Yes, you’re right, Ronna. This one is very different. I like to say it’s a horse of a different color for me. For one thing, it was something of an experiment to see if I could write in prose. I wasn’t sure myself. My five previous picture books (The Butt Book, Poopendous!, Peter Panda Melts Down!, Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!, and What’s Afoot! Your Complete, Offbeat Guide to Feet) are all in inspired verse. And I’m quite comfortable writing that way. I’ve worked hard to make the verses sing. I constantly tinker, and then when I’m finally satisfied, I tinker some more. But I knew I would have to take a different tack to write the tale of this remarkable horse. I had to transcend my impulse to rhyme. Curiously, the fact that Zippy Chippy’s own name rhymes may have drawn me to the subject, as well as helped to satisfy my itch to versify.
It was serendipity that drew me to the tale. I stumbled upon a newspaper article about the horse and knew right away that this story would resonate with young readers, just as it resonated with me. And after visiting the retired racehorse at his home in upstate New York, I was never more certain. Youngsters will identify with Zippy Chippy. He may have lost every single one of the 100 races he ran (Zippy won zip), but in the process, he became a folk hero, just like his champion ancestors. Zippy teaches us that just being in the game is enough. And he reminds us that sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses.
GRWR:Aside from being one of the losingest horses in racing history, what else did you learn about Zippy Chippy during your research that made you care about sharing his story?
AB: I was drawn to his quirkiness and his mischievous nature. And there was our shared love of ice cream, though I don’t know if he’s a three-scooper, like me! Free-spirited Zippy Chippy was always breaking out of his stall to go for a nice gallop. He was quite volatile in his youth and often ornery. He was known to kick and bite. He would even try to bite the other horses at the finish line. People were afraid to be around him. In fact, after Felix Monserrate, his third owner, acquired him, he greeted Felix with a sharp bite on the back. But despite being a terror to his handlers—which included the farrier, who fit Zippy with shoes—Zippy was always gentle and loving with Felix’s young daughter, Marisa. Once, eight-year-old Marisa went missing. Felix searched everywhere and finally found her in Zippy’s stall, being nuzzled by the temperamental horse, though the area was off limits to most everyone for safety’s sake. Zippy would blossom under the loving guidance of Felix, and he developed a strong familial bond with Marisa.
There were so many interesting aspects to Zippy Chippy’s story. One was how he happened to acquire his singsongy name. Another wonderful anecdote was how Felix had set up an exhibition race between his horse and a minor-league outfielder. His hope was that a victory, any victory, would boost Zippy’s morale. But the fleet-footed ballplayer bested Zippy in the forty-yard sprint.
Zippy Chippy is a model of determination and stick-to-itiveness. He raced until he was fifteen years old, giving it his all, whereas many racehorses retire by age four. There was a time, earlier in Zippy’s racing career, when Felix tried to retire him, but Zippy wouldn’t hear of it. He became crestfallen and stopped eating. Though defeat never disheartened Zippy, retirement did. Felix had to bring him back to the track for his own well-being. Because the horse was descended from so many legendary racehorses, including Man o’ War, Bold Ruler, War Admiral, Buckpasser, and Northern Dancer, racing was in his blood. He just wasn’t terribly good at it.
When I learned that Zippy Chippy was still alive, though quite ancient by horse standards, I made it my goal to write his story—and find a publisher—before the horse passed. This became something of a horse race, too. I’m so happy to note that Zippy, who will be 29 years old in April 2020, is still with us, lovingly looked after at Old Friends at Cabin Creek Farm, as the book publishes. I wanted the book to be a tribute to a living, breathing legend, not a eulogy. And I’m hoping that youngsters who are as moved by his story as I was may even pay him a visit.
GRWR:Your trademark sense of humor shines through many aspects of recounting this fascinating true story. Was it difficult to balance that with certain serious aspects of Zippy Chippy’s life and unsuccessful racing career?
AB: That’s a wonderful question. Yes, it was a balancing act. And it took me a while to find just the right tone. Writing in prose helped. Verse seems to invite mirth and laughter, but prose can be sober-sided. I had to rein in my sense of humor, for there are serious dimensions to the story. There’s a poignancy here that would be undermined by humor—how Zippy Chippy escaped the slaughterhouse by the skin of his teeth. But a touch of humor does uplift the tale. I love how Dave Szalay’s marvelous illustrations strike just the right balance, too, with many touching, memorable images.
GRWR: Can you explain the appeal of a horse who’d rather stop and smell the roses instead of competing against other horses, a dark horse, so to speak, for winning hearts, not races?
AB: I think Zippy Chippy is the quintessential Everyman, or Everyhorse, and therein lies his appeal. Few of us are blessed with exceptional athletic prowess, yet we still love to compete, to play the game. Zippy continued to run—and continued to love it!—even as he was amassing a rather lopsided won-loss record. But as his losses mounted, Zippy became a star attraction. And his oddball behavior just added to his appeal. Ever unpredictable, he would occasionally succumb to “dwelling,” failing to leave the starting gate at the sound of the bell. What was extraordinary was that later in his career, the horse often ran as the favorite to win, according to the betting line, despite his protracted lack of success. Racing fans were pulling for him. Spectators would besiege Felix for his autograph. Zippy had developed a cult following. He was the ultimate underdog. Horses are very intuitive animals and can pick up on people’s emotions, so Zippy would have known, and rejoiced, if he had won.
GRWR:For 15 years, Felix, Zippy Chippy’s owner, kept entering the unmotivated horse in races. That had to have been so frustrating for him. Why do you think he persisted?
AB: Yes, it must have been. But he was the horse’s biggest champion. He believed in Zippy with all his heart and felt, when he acquired the horse, that he would be the one to bring out the horse’s dormant greatness. Part of why he persisted was because he couldn’t disappoint the horse. We saw how Zippy spiraled into depression when Felix tried to retire him earlier in his career. And because he loved Zippy, he couldn’t let the horse down. He was also an eternal optimist and may have felt that the next race would be the one that Zippy would win, the one that would drape them both in glory. So there would always be one more race. And Zippy was actually highly motivated, though his idiosyncrasies might sometimes interfere with his motivation.
GRWR:What would you like young readers to take away from this picture book?
AB: I would love young readers to find inspiration in this book, but also acceptance. Inspiration can be found in the arc of Zippy’s story, as his popularity grew and grew from such inauspicious beginnings, despite his pedigree. He would even be featured in People magazine, though he was posed alongside a tortoise. Acceptance in the fact that we aren’t all blessed with the same gifts—and that’s okay, too. We need to accept our limitations, just as we celebrate our strengths. As Felix says, “Not everyone can be a winner.” But the important thing is to try. That’s where true courage lies.
GRWR:Has this experience motivated you to try your hand at more nonfiction in prose?
AB: Yes indeed. Though my first love will always be writing in verse, it’s not my only love. In fact, I’ve an idea for another crackerjack children’s biography, also with a protagonist ripe for revival. I’m doing research as we speak. But I also have ideas for more books in verse, so I hope to be moving back and forth between worlds. Additionally, I have two riotously funny joke and riddle books out (The Universe’s Greatest School Jokes and Rip-Roaring Riddles and The Universe’s Greatest Dinosaur Jokes and Pre-Hysteric Puns), so when I’m bubbling over with jokes (Knock, knock . . .) and riddles, there’s always that outlet.
GRWR:Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you’d like to add?
AB: Because I’m a word lover, I’ve tried to use a rich, creative vocabulary in telling the story. You’ll find words like “rambunctious,” “shenanigans,” “wafting,” “ballyhooed,” and much more, words that are evocative and fun to say. I hope young readers will make these words their own. And lastly, I want to thank you, Ronna, so very much for giving me the opportunity to share this captivating story. I’m deeply appreciative.
GRWR: Right back at you, Artie. I learned so much from your thoughtful replies and hope everyone makes tracks to pick up a copy of The True Story of Zippy Chippy:The Little Horse That Couldn’tto find out more about this truly unique horse.
Artie Bennett is an executive copy editor by day and a writer by night. He is the author of an inspiring picture-book biography of a hapless, though beloved, horse: The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t. He is also the author of a quintet of hilarious rhyming picture books: The Butt Book, his first “mature” work and winner of the Reuben Award; Poopendous!, his “number two” picture book; Peter Panda Melts Down!, an adorable departure from derrières and doo; the explosively funny Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!; and his latest, What’s Afoot! Your Complete, Offbeat Guide to Feet, which is guaranteed to knock your socks off. And if that’s not enough, he’s the author of two riotous joke and riddle books: The Universe’s Greatest Dinosaur Jokes and Pre-Hysteric Puns and The Universe’s Greatest School Jokes and Rip-Roaring Riddles.
He and his wife, Leah, live deep in the bowels of Brooklyn, New York, where he spends his time moving his car to satisfy the rigorous demands of alternate-side-of-the-street parking and shaking his fist at his neighbors. The Show Me Librarian says: “Bennett’s use of rhyme is excellent; his stanzas flow and exude joviality in a manner that few writers since Dr. Seuss have truly mastered. Simply put, these books are a joy.” The Huffington Post says: “It appears there is no topic Mr. Bennett can’t make funny and educational.” VisitArtieBennett.com. . . before someone else does!
Want to read more of Artie’s books? Here’s alinkto my review of a personal fave.
A 2019 Booklist Editors’ Choice A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream”, will never cease to give me chills or bring tears to my eyes so I’m grateful for the meticulously researched backstory behind the composition thoughtfully presented in A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney.
While elementary-school-aged children may be familiar with King’s speech, they may not know how long it took to write, that it was delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, or that one of the most quoted parts of it was shared extemporaneously at the prompting of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. In this enlightening picture book, readers are privy to fascinating fly-on-the-wall moments that demonstrate King’s writing process and how his background as a preacher played a part in its creation.
Over the years I’ve reviewed myriad wonderful MLK Jr. books and A Place to Land, like those others, has focused on an impactful point in King’s life and magnified it so we may understand it better. Wittenstein’s lyrical writing shines and flows like a King speech, pulling us in with each new line. I found myself repeating many of the sentences aloud, marveling at what he chose to keep on the page and wondering how much he had to leave out. The revealing information Wittenstein details will inspire readers to reexamine well-known orations throughout history, looking at their content through a new lens.
The story in A Place to Land unfolds in three significant locations, the Willard Hotel in D.C., the Lincoln Memorial, and at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama just prior to, during, and some years after King’s speech. Historical figures are woven into most of Pinkney’s spreads. Readers will be prompted to learn more about every individual noted and the comprehensive back matter provides the resources to do so.
I hadn’t known that the “I Have a Dream” speech was written at the Willard nor did I know how many influential colleagues contributed during the meeting of the minds prior to King’s drafting of the speech. “So Martin did what great men do. He asked for guidance.” I also hadn’t realized that MLK Jr. practically pulled an all-nighter writing it after the lengthy and honest discussions. How he managed to make such a powerful presentation after barely any sleep is beyond me, but clearly, his adrenaline kicked in and his natural oratory skills took command at that lectern.
As a former speechwriter, my favorite part of A Place to Land was reading about King’s exhaustive efforts to craft the speech late into the night while trying to integrate all the input he’d been given earlier in the meeting. In his message, he wanted to convey the goals of his non-violent civil rights movement and continue to push for racial equality and the end of discrimination. He was also determined to honor those who came before him and those who would carry on his dreams. “… and so many others, —their faces forever seared into his memory.”
King found himself “Writing. Rewriting. Rephrasing, …” and then practicing his delivery before succumbing to sleep. I felt as though I were in the room with him, knowing as he did that there was an important element currently eluding him that was still to come.
Pinkney’soutstanding collage-style illustrations are so fitting for the subject matter. He seamlessly blends images of civil rights advocates with elements of the movement and the era. As I turned the pages, I couldn’t wait to see what people would appear and against what backdrop. It’s hard to imagine any other art marrying so well with Wittenstein’s or MLK Jr.’s words. I resoundingly recommend A Place to Landby Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney for parents, teachers, and librarians. It’s a movingly written, motivating, educational, and timeless read that I will definitely revisit.
Visit the publisher’s website pageherefor bonus material.
Click herefor a roundup of more recommended reads for MLK Day.
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.
WHEN SUE FOUND SUE: SUE HENDRICKSON DISCOVERS HER T. REX Written by Toni Buzzeo Illustrated by Diana Sudyka (Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Review –Booklist
We may not be able to find which date is the real National Dinosaur Day (dates online vary), but what we have found is a really great new picture book reviewed today by Christine Van Zandt!
Toni Buzzeo’snonfiction picture book, When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex, centers around how childhood curiosity can launch a life of discovery. As a girl, Hendrickson was good at finding things; in 1990, searching for dinosaur fossils in South Dakota, she unearthed the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, distinguished for being exceptionally well-preserved and more than 90 percent complete. Aspiring paleontologists will appreciate the facts of the dig—both the excitement and the toiling excavation itself.
Diana Sudyka’scolorfully engaging water-colored art offers a glimpse of Hendrickson’s life, often with a pet at her side (a detail sure to appeal to kids). Peek under the cover for a bonus illustration.
In the back matter, we learn about the dispute over ownership of these magnificent bones—a fight between several parties but not involving Hendrickson herself. Hendrickson’s amazing life included working as a professional diver, specialist in paleontology fieldwork, specialist in fossil inclusions in amber, and long-standing member of the Franck Goddio marine archaeology team.
Self-educated and adventurous, Hendrickson shows where life will lead if you’re open to following your interests. The story reinforces that our innate talents and fascinations stay with us and can develop into rewarding lives. Hendrickson’s T. rex fossil resides in The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, a place where she spent much time as a child.
A GREEN PLACE TO BE: The Creation of Central Park Written and illustrated by Ashley Benham Yazdani (Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 7-10)
Ashley Benham Yazdani’sA Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Parkshines a light on a familiar subject in a new way. This historical nonfiction picture book gives a glimpse into 1858 New York City when the park’s design contest was held. Architect Calvert Vaux and park superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted teamed up to win.
Yazdani’s images capture the vast undertaking as Vaux and Olmsted draft the layout, called Greensward. I like the spread of the ten-foot-long drawing envisioning what could be done with the land. Though their design was entered after the deadline, they won but had to change the name to New York City’s Central Park.
Olmsted planned ahead—about 100 years ahead—using “the color and shape of each plant to create illusions in the landscape” so nature would be the focus for generations yet to come. “Amenities such as the Dairy were specifically built to help those living with less, and Olmsted’s and Vaux’s compassion for others is shown by their determination to create a park that welcomed all social classes.” The men were early environmentalists striving to conserve this patch of parkland in Manhattan.
Kids who like construction-type books will appreciate that boulders were blasted to bits. Nearly every piece of the swampy, sharp, and foul-smelling land was raised or lowered, rocks were relocated and reused. Thought was given on how to best move people through the park without disturbances from carriages.
The end matter sums up the lives of Olmsted and Vaux. A page of interactive questions with items kids can search for within the book adds an element of interactive fun. More detail is given on Seneca Village, the area of land which had to be cleared for the park. The freed African-Americans who lived there were first offered money, then forced out—a sad beginning to this story.
AWAY WITH WORDS: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird Written by Lori Mortensen Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (Peachtree Publishing; $17.95, Ages 6-10)
Before Nellie Bly or Amelia Earhardt there was Isabella Bird and, thanks to this eye-opening new picture book biography, Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird,children can read about what impressive inroads this English explorer made at a time in history when a woman’s place was in the home not out globetrotting around the world, and writing about it to boot!
This “unlikely candidate for adventure,” who never felt well as a child, was born in the Yorkshire countryside in 1831. Isabella Bird suffered from a multitude of ailments and rarely left the house. That worked for awhile because, according to Victorian societal norms that she would eventually challenge, “Young ladies wore dresses. / Young ladies didn’t go to school. / Young ladies stayed home.” Countless doctors couldn’t diagnose her with anything until one doctor recommended she get some fresh air. Her father took Isabella out with him on his horse and, with his encouragement, she made discoveries that would forever change the course of her life. “Out in the wild, Isabella forgot about her aches and pains. / She breathed in new ways to see and describe everything around her.”
Captured beautifully by Caldwell’s spread below, letters from relatives abroad and other news from overseas sparked a flame in Isabella. She felt deep inside that travel would feed her soul and she yearned for the possibilities it would provide but some days she could barely get up. The tide turned for the better when her doctor suggested a sea voyage and her parents agreed.
She boarded a mail steamer for Nova Scotia and from then on there was no looking back for this intrepid young woman. Her red leather notebook accompanied her wherever she went. I love how Mortensen weaves quotations of text from Bird’s own published books wherever it adds atmosphere to the story. Caldwell’s colorful illustrations pair perfectly with those lines. One of my favorites is, “There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it; I took it up and swarms of living creatures fell out of it …”
Her first book, The Englishwoman in America, was published in 1856, smack in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. But when her father passed away Bird chose to end her explorations. That ultimately led to a flare up of her ailments and an onset of doldrums that, at her sister’s urging, could only be allayed by journeying across five continents. It took grit and guts and bravery to gallivant solo around the world to myriad destinations lacking in creature comforts, but Isabella persevered. Thanks to her detailed record keeping of all the places she visited, the nine additional books she wrote became bestsellers. People craved reading about the exotic locales and peoples that they’d never see in their lifetime whether that be climbing up Kilauea volcano in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), trekking across the dangerous frozen Persian “desert at the roof of the world,” or befriending a “notorious outlaw.”
AsMortensen’sstory vividly demonstrates, the world was indeed Isabella’s home so it’s no surprise that in 1892, Bird was the first woman to ever be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London and a year later was presented to Queen Victoria. In 32 pages of lyrical prose, Mortensen shows young readers the personal growth and happiness that can come from travel and exposure to a vast range of cultures. Caldwell’s artwork includes just the right amount of soaring spirit a name like Bird implies.
Picture book biographies, when done well, provide a much needed window on the world of important people from the past that we might ordinarily never hear or read about. Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, does that and more. It offers inspiration and a role model for children who, long after Women’s History Month has ended, will no doubt want to seek out Bird’s impressions by turning to her original books to learn more about this trailblazer’s 19th century daring journeys. The back matter including an author’s note, a timeline of Bird’s travels and publications, Bird’s text quotations, and a bibliography make this nonfiction book ideal for both home and school. In fact, I’d give it as a gift to a child along with a journal to get them started on documenting their own travels, even if that’s just an outing to the zoo or a trip to another city.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Visit other stops below on this enlightening blog tour from Peachtree Publishing:
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.
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.
NATURE’S FRIEND: THE GWEN FROSTIC STORY Written by Lindsey McDivitt Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen (Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)
One of the best parts about reviewing children’s books is learning about someone or something new. That’s exactly what happened after readingNature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Storyby 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.
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.
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.
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