(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. 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 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 speech writer, 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 Land 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 2020.
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
After 40 years it’s about time we have a children’s book that captures the glorious strength of social activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, as well as Gilbert Baker, the man behind the internationally renown Rainbow Flag. PRIDE: The Story of Harvey Milk And The Rainbow Flag is a wonderfully written, honest introduction to the LGBTQ movement and offers the chance for all kids to understand its history.
In clear and direct prose, PRIDE takes readers up to Milk’s death, stating that his assassination came at the hands of people who, “Did not think like Harvey, or feel like him, or love like him.” Then the story continues and shows that Baker remained a gay rights activist helping others reclaim hope and pride with the Rainbow Flag for the rest of his life. My favorite moment in the book is a glorious two-page spread, see below:
PRIDE conveys an important, timely message that we all have the power to give hope, spread love, and reach places that may seem unimaginable to us, especially when things seem so dark in life. That’s when we need symbols of hope more than ever, and the Rainbow Flag is a strong reminder and nod to inclusivity that we all need, regardless of sexual orientation. The helpful back matter includes a great timeline, reading recommendations and photographs.
Reviewed by Ozma Bryant
Read another recent LGBTQ themed picture book review here.
Fascinated by reptiles from an early age, Joan Procter followed her childhood passion for slithery, scaly, unusual animals to an internationally renowned career at London’s Zoo and the Natural History Museum. Valdez introduces us to young, curious Joan, holding tea parties with reptiles while her peers preferred dolls. As Joan grew, her interest did not wane, so at 16 years old she received a pet crocodile as a birthday gift!
In due time, Joan chatted up the director of Natural History museum about his work with reptiles. She began working there, surveying the museum’s vast collections, publishing research papers, and creating detailed, realistic models and drawings for the reptile exhibits. Given her enthusiasm, experience and extensive knowledge, Joan eventually became the Curator, an unusual role for a female scientist at the time.
When invited to re-design the London Zoo Reptile House, Joan fell in love with a new and exotic creature, the Komodo dragon. This so-called fierce, man-eating lizard was “rumored to be…Thirty feet long! Faster than a motorcar! Stronger than an ox!” Joan, undeterred, could not wait to study the dragons first-hand. Her deep connection with one Komodo called Sumbawa led to some of the most stunning and innovative work of her career.
Valdez keeps the paces of this fascinating story lively by introducing wonderful vocabulary woven carefully and completely within a child-friendly framework and perspective. She highlights her heroine’s passion and determination in an understated yet direct manner, giving Joan relevance and timeliness that transcend her time period. Joan Procter, Dragon Doctoris an essential addition for collections on women in STEM fields, with the broad appeal of reptiles and science for many young readers boosts this title to the top.
Salas illustrates dramatically, choosing with vibrant, rich colors for the settings, the tropical plants, and the starring-role reptiles. Joan is elegant yet serious, portrayed close to and interacting with her creatures, focused on them with great intensity, delight and passion. The reptiles themselves are marvelously textured and stylized, creeping, curving and twisting with dignified realism. Throughout the story, Salas provides tantalizing glimpses of early 20th century London through architecture and fashions of the era.
Valdez includes additional biographical information on Procter as well as on Komodo Dragons. A bibliography with primary and secondary sources is a helpful resource for young readers who wish to explore more. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn about this impressive scientist, her beloved ‘dragons’ and her trailblazing career in a book that is as beautiful and brilliant as it is important.
Where obtained: I reviewed an advanced reader copy from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
ABOUT JOAN PROCTER, DRAGON DOCTOR
For fans of Ada Twist: Scientist comes a fascinating picture book biography of a pioneering female scientist–who loved reptiles!
Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, young Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests: slithery and scaly ones, who turned over teacups and crawled past the crumpets…. While other girls played with dolls, Joan preferred the company of reptiles. She carried her favorite lizard with her everywhere–she even brought a crocodile to school!
When Joan grew older, she became the Curator of Reptiles at the British Museum. She went on to design the Reptile House at the London Zoo, including a home for the rumored-to-be-vicious Komodo dragons. There, just like when she was a little girl, Joan hosted children’s tea parties–with her Komodo dragon as the guest of honor.
With a lively text and vibrant illustrations, scientist and writer Patricia Valdez and illustrator Felicita Sala bring to life Joan Procter’s inspiring story of passion and determination.
★Starred Reviews: Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN:
Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong’s Work for Sustainable Farming
Written by Sigrid Schmalzer,
Illustrated by Melanie Linden Chan
(Tilbury House Publishing, $17.95, ages 6-9)
is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
A farm boy in China relates the tale of Pu Zhelong, a scientist and conservationist, and introduces readers to early research in sustainable agriculture practices in MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN.
Through a series of flashbacks, author Sigrid Schmalzer reveals how invasive moths and beetles were destroying precious village crops. When villagers try to defeat the pests, their methods repeatedly fail. As the threat of famine looms, Pu Zhelong, an outsider, arrives bearing new, untested scientific ideas. Can Pu Zhelong save the rice crop without using harmful and ineffective pesticides?
With patience, restraint and deference, Pu Zhelong eventually wins over the skeptical villagers. His innovative methodology, introducing parasitic wasps to destroy the crop-consuming moths, led to a successful and sustainable victory for the farmers. Schmalzer’s imaginative and informative text weaves a tale that will engage young scientists with its ingenuity and sophistication while celebrating this little-known environmental hero.
Debut illustrator Melanie Linden Chan pairs intricate and multi-layered images with the factual content, making this book a pleasure for young readers to pore over. Structuring the narrator’s flashbacks in a journal format, Chan cleverly weaves scientifically precise illustrations against a lush agricultural setting. Elements of Chinese art, history and culture frame the narrative in an engaging, pictoral manner that both delight and inform.
An extensive endnote provides additional information on the history of the story, as well as suggestions for further reading. Also included is a detailed explanation of the decorative Chinese folk art papercuts utilized by the illustrator, and referenced to the pages where they appear in the text.
MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN offers a unique, child-friendly perspective on a earliest origins of agroscience. Add this STEAM selection to your school or classroom library to add depth to collections on organic farming, sustainable agriculture and Chinese history.
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where obtained: I reviewed a digital advanced reader copy from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.