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Kids Book Review for Women’s History Month – Remarkable Women

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH
A ROUNDUP OF THE BEST BOOKS FOR KIDS

 

The wonderful thing about nonfiction biographies is that, when done well, they will take us on a journey full of facts, stories, and struggles that will not only enlighten us but also keep us glued to the page, even when we know the outcome. The following books we’ve selected to share for Women’s History Month are excellent examples of recent biographies about extraordinary, trailblazing women whose legacies are enduring and whose contributions remain invaluable serving as powerful role models for generations to come. Find out more about Hedy Lamarr, Susan B. Anthony and Ada Byron Lovelace below.

 

cover art by Katy Wu from Hedy Lamarr's Double Life by Laurie WallmarkHEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE: 
Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor
Written by Laurie Wallmark
Illustrated by Katy Wu
(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.99, Ages 5 and up)

Wallmark’s chosen a fascinating woman to profile in her illuminating picture book biography of Hedy Lamarr. The Hollywood legend was more than dazzlingly beautiful actress, she was a secret inventor whose “greatest invention was the technology known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum” which has played a crucial role in keeping “our cell phone messages private” and keeping our computers hack-free. Although she knew she was more than just her looks, Lamarr chose to hide this talent from public and didn’t sell her inventions.

Born in Austria in 1920 (100 years after Susan B. Anthony), Hedy was a curious child who, when other kids would likely be out playing, was pre-occupied with how things worked. Her father encouraged her interest in science and technology which no doubt had a positive impact on the young girl. She also had a love of cinema and pretending so it was no surprise she gravitated towards a career in the movies. “I acted all the time … I was a little living copybook. I wrote people down on me.”  Eventually doors opened for Hedy when a famous film producer offered her a seven-year film contract. She left her homeland for the bright lights of Hollywood, had her name changed to Hedy Lamarr from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler and went on to star in films with some of the industry’s most popular leading men including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.

With her wondering mind at work all the time, even after a day of filming, Lamarr always was thinking about a way to improve on things already in existence or to create something new. That was especially true during WWII. So when she met composer George Antheil, a former weapons inspector, she learned from him that the U.S. Navy, like the European ones, had trouble with the enemy jamming their weapons’ radio signals. Hedy wondered if there was a way to counter this. With the piano as the impetus for a new idea, Hedy thought there might be a way to change frequencies like playing the same keys on a piano in different octaves, and by doing so build a secure torpedo guidance system. And so, after a lot of hard work, they did. Together with Antheil they shared their invention and were told it was “red-hot” but it still needed more work to operate effectively. While the pair eventually received their patent, the Navy “refused to develop” this ground-breaking technology and even classified it as secret so no one else could use the idea. Ultimately they never earned a penny from this breakthrough.

Undeterred by her thwarted efforts to help her adopted homeland, Hedy found success by getting behind the war bond effort, selling millions. Lamarr also took time to meet with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen and pitched in any way she could. She retired From the movie business in the late 50s and only in the last twenty years has been earning the recognition long overdue. Wu’s artwork is just the right amount of subject and space, and pulls us into every illustration, my favorite being the one where Lamarr and Antheil first meet at a dinner party. Her simple depictions of Lamarr’s big green eyes, sculpted nose and brown hair are terrific. Wallmark’s added a “Timeline” and “Secrets of the Secret Communications System” in the back matter for young readers to learn more about “jam-proofing” technology. I love how even the endpapers are filled with artwork and details about Lamarr. Plus readers will find a “Selected Bibliography,” “Additional Reading About Other Women in Stem” and a list of “Hedy Lamarr’s Films.” Award-winning author Wallmark’s also written picture book biographies about Ada Byron Lovelace and Grace Hopper.  Add Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life to the list of must-read biographies.

Susan B Anthony The Making of America by Teri Kanefield book cover image and artSUSAN B. ANTHONY:
The Making of America #4
Written by Teri Kanefield
(Abrams BYR; $16.99, Ages 10-14)

Prepare to be impressed by the tireless commitment and inroads Susan B. Anthony made for women’s suffrage as detailed by Teri Kanefield in Susan B. Anthony: The Making of America, book #4 in this inspiring series in which each volume “tells the story of an American leader who helped shaped the United States” that we know today. My review copy is so dog-eared to mark the countless passages I wanted to return to. What Kanefield successfully does from the Prologue forward is thoughtfully convey the most important aspects of Anthony’s life so kids will see the evolution of her beliefs beginning with her Quaker upbringing, her teaching years and all the way through to her time lecturing across America as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

What comes across to the reader is that Anthony, born in 1820, prior to the Victorian era, from an early age held strong convictions that everyone should be treated as equals. At that time in our country’s history women were supposed to raise families and keep their noses out of politics and practically everything else unless it concerned homemaking. They were only allowed to work in a limited amount of jobs: teacher, seamstress or nanny. They were prohibited from owning property and, in the case of estrangement in a marriage, the man gained custody of the children. In fact, it was not uncommon for a man to have his wife committed to an insane asylum if he wanted out of the marriage.

The immoral slave trade was the most divisive issue, even among Quakers at that time. To Anthony, people of color as well as women were not second class citizens, destined to remain subservient to white men. This was considered a radical idea in the early 19th century and she did not have an easy path as she tried, along with her friend and fellow activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to bring about change and a new amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote. Frederick Douglass was a friend with whom she worked to help first abolish slavery and then gain constitutional protection for free slaves. However, before slavery was abolished and even after, prominent politicians and leaders cautioned her to put her agenda for women’s rights on hold. This was unacceptable. Anthony, along with her friend and staunchest ally, Stanton, challenged the notion that women had to forgo their wants and needs and remained determined “to ride roughshod over obstacles, ignore critics, and take help wherever they could get it.” The support of Anthony’s large family was a constant throughout her life and I wonder how she’d have managed without them during the numerous times she was broke or in debt. Her intelligence and quick wit made her the ideal person to speak on behalf of the suffrage movement but it’s worth noting that she also gravitated towards defending anyone whose rights were being abused.

This well-researched biography is filled with maps, photos, flyers, posters and advertisements that help paint a picture of American society during Anthony’s life. Even something like a lady’s corset could be symbolic of the self-imposed restrictions 19th century women placed upon themselves due to societal norms that a woman should have an hourglass figure. “Girls as young as seven were laced into overly tight corsets.” Also included are Notes, a Time Line, Selected Writings of Susan B. Anthony, a Bibliography, Acknowledgments and an Index.

By the time she died at age 86, four states allowed women to vote but it wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson and the start of WWI that an amendment to give women the vote would gain traction, ultimately becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, also called the Susan B. Anthony amendment, in 1920, fourteen years after her death. Kanefield’s invaluable biography paints a portrait of an American hero whose convictions  changed the course of American history

 

book cover illustration from Dreaming in Code Ada Byron Lovelace Computer PioneerDREAMING IN CODE
Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer
Written by Emily Arnold McCully
(Candlewick Press; $19.99, Ages 12 and up)

I told everyone about Ada Byron Lovelace after finishing Dreaming in Code. I had heard her name in regards to code but it ended there. I knew nothing of the back story that led to this brilliant woman’s presaging today’s computer era almost two centuries ago!

Ada Byron Lovelace was born in England at the end of 1815, just five years before Susan B. Anthony. Augusta Ada Byron, was the daughter of the celebrated poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his “prim, religious” wife, Anne Isabella Noel, called Annabella, a woman of wealth and intelligence. The couple did not remain together due to his philandering and squandering of money among other things so Ada, as she became known, was raised by a single mother. Annabella was a self-centered hypochondriac yet quite philanthropic at the same time and left it to nannies, governesses and tutors to raise her child while she spent time away visiting her newly inherited holdings and helping the coal miners under her employ. McCully engagingly details how Ada flourished from her education although she remained removed from society until her mother deemed it necessary to find her a husband.

Around this time Ada met Charles Babbage, “famous inventor, philosopher (as scientists were then called) and mathematician”  who held Isaac Newton’s chair at Cambridge University. Theirs was to be a long and intense, though completely platonic, relationship as they discussed big ideas since both were passionate about math and science. Their friendship provided Ada with the outlet she needed for stimulation. However things grew complicated when she married William, Lord King who became the Earl of Lovelace and soon became a mother. Though not as cold as her own mother, Ada, too, found it difficult to parent when her loyalties lay elsewhere. These chapters were some of the most fascinating ones yet sad at the same time. She often felt ill and, as was common in the early 19th century, was prescribed Laudanum, a tincture of opium viewed as a cure-all. That addiction had to have contributed to her early death at age 37.

As Countess of Lovelace, Ada mixed with a cross-section of society and attended talks on science given by brilliant minds of the era such as Michael Faraday. Ada also wanted to help Babbage and his Analytical Engine and at the same time make her own mark in the science and math fields. Here’s where her genius shone through. While Babbage saw his invention as “arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical,” Ada believed the machine could do more than compute … “that numbers were symbols and could represent other concepts, is what makes Babbage’s engine a prototype-computer.” Sadly, Lovelace lived in era when women were overshadowed by men and women’s freedoms were limited. We can only begin to imagine what miraculous achievements she’d have made had she only lived longer.

With the very readable Dreaming in Code highlighting her meticulous research, McCully has shed light on Ada Byron Lovelace, an important historical figure whose contributions to the field of STEM are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I recommend this young adult nonfiction book for anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the era in which Lovelace lived and how she was inspired to think outside the box.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Read about the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass here.
Read another book, Dare The Wind, illustrated Emily Arnold McCully here.

 

 

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Frederick’s Journey and an Interview with London Ladd

FREDERICK’S JOURNEY:
THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS
An Interview With Illustrator London Ladd

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Written by Doreen Rappaport
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Disney/Jump at the Sun; $17.99, Ages 6-8)

What’s the first thing I noticed when picking up my review copy of Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass? The piercing eyes of Douglass in illustrator London Ladd’s cover portrait and the absence of a title on the front. Then, gripped by the story, I devoured the book, not once, but twice in my initial read throughs of this expertly crafted picture book. Part  of the Big Words series, Frederick’s Journey effortlessly pairs Rappaport’s thoughtful biography of this former slave turned author, abolitionist and ultimately free man with Douglass’ actual words. “Douglass had traveled far – from slave to free man, from illiterate to educated, from powerless to powerful. It had been a difficult journey.” The book ends with this quote from Douglass, “What is possible for me is possible for you.” As a picture book, Frederick’s Journey is brought to life by Ladd’s inspiring artwork. I’ve interviewed this talented illustrator once before, but felt compelled to reach out again, this time for his insight on creating the illustrations and what working on the book meant to him.

An Interview with London Ladd

GRWR: Please tell us how you came to be connected with this project?

London Ladd: The publisher contacted my agent at Painted Words, Lori Nowicki, to see if I would be interested. I read the title of the manuscript [and] the answer was a definite yes. Once I read the through the manuscript I was so moved by it, so eager to get started.

GRWR: How do you decide what medium you’ll use for each book you illustrate and what did you choose for Frederick’s Journey and why?

LADD: For my illustration career I’ve primarily use acrylic with minor touched of pastels and colored pencils on illustration board if necessary. People says acrylics are challenging to use, but I love its flexibility because you can make it look like watercolor with layered thin washes or heavy opaque application like oils. It’s something I’ve always been comfortable using and quick drying is excellent for fast approaching deadlines.

GRWR: You mention in the back matter Illustrator’s Note how deep you dove into the research to really understand your subject including actually posing yourself in front of a mirror and reciting lines. Was there any particular text from Rappaport or quote from Douglass that you found most inspiring for this story’s artwork?

LADD: Rappaport’s text was so excellent with the way she gracefully combined her text with Douglass’ own quotes. But his autobiography was so powerful because you’re getting a first hand account in all its detail of his experience as a slave during the 19th century. Each page was filled with so much raw, honest, brutal, heart breaking material. So many vivid images would pop into my head from sadness, anger.

GRWR: Was there one particular image in the book that most resonated for you?

LADD: I think the first three images [see below] as a whole really resonate for me deeply due to the range of emotions and sounds I hear from the heart wrenching scream of Frederick’s mother as he’s being taken from her, the peacefulness of the river when he’s fishing with his grandmother, and his low weeping as he suddenly realizes his grandmother is gone and now his new life begins in the institution of slavery.

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Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

 

GRWR: You travelled to a lot of places in Douglass’s history, which place made the biggest impression on you?

LADD: Wow it’s so hard to pick one. Visiting his home in Anacostia was powerful. But I’ll have to go with a trip to Rochester in 2006. During my last semester in college I enrolled in an African American religious history course and the final was this amazing project where you had to travel to historical locations involved in the Underground Railroad in and around the Central New York area like Harriet Tubman’s grave and church in Auburn, NY. Well it happens that Douglass’ grave at Mount Hope Cemetery (Susan B. Anthony is buried there, too) in Rochester NY was on the list. The cemetery is huge and his grave is by the front street nearby so vehicles drive by constantly so it can be a little noisy. When walking to his grave it was so quiet with only a slight wind blowing. Being at his gravesite was moving. I just stood there silently for 20 minutes with many emotions going through my mind. After visiting his grave there was this incredible interactive Douglass exhibit at a local nearby museum and I’ll never forget it. So much on display like his North Star press, part of a house with hidden area for slaves, a double-sided mirror that when you dim the lights Douglass’ face appeared on the other side, an exhibit where you lay in a really small area like slave did during the middle passage (that had a strong impact on me) and so much more. Ten years later and it’s still one of my favorite museum exhibits.

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd

Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

GRWR: Not many illustrators get a front cover portrait with no title as an assignment. That’s a huge honor and your cover is outstanding. Can you tell us more about how that decision was made?

LADD: Thank you so much. That’s what makes the Big Words series so unique from other book series because each biography has this beautiful portrait of a well known person with the title on the back. That’s why I worked so hard on trying to not only capture Douglass’ likeness, but his essence. 

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd

Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

GRWR: In a previous interview here you said “The human spirit interests me. I love stories of a person or people achieving through difficult circumstances by enduring, surviving and overcoming.” Douglass clearly exemplified that spirit. Who else, either living or deceased would you like to portray next in your artwork or in a story of your own creation?

LADD: Ernest Shackleton! I would love to illustrate Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance. An absolutely amazing story of when, in the early 20th century, he and his crew were stranded near Antarctica for nearly two years and everyone survived. It’s a testament to his tremendous leadership during the whole ordeal.

This Shackleton quote sums up my attitude towards any challenges I face. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd

Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

 

GRWR: It’s said art is a universal language. What is it about making art and teaching it as well that speaks to you?

LADD: I think to be able to share with other people is something very important to me. I wouldn’t be here without the help of other people so it’s always been my goal to pay it forward when possible.

FJ_Int_art_London_Ladd

Interior artwork from Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by London Ladd, Disney/Jump at the Sun ©2015.

London_LaddGRWR: Can you share with us anything else about your experience working on Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass?

LADD: I truly loved working on this book and I’m so thankful to have been part of such a special project. Hopefully young people will learn, enjoy and appreciate the life of Frederick Douglass.

A huge thank you to London Ladd for this candid and informative interview. 

Click here to download a teacher’s guide.

  • Interview by Ronna Mandel
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Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America’s Presidents by David Stabler and illustrated by Doogie Horner:

 Kid Presidents:
True Tales of Childhood from America’s Presidents
,
written by David Stabler and illustrated by Doogie Horner
(Quirk Books, $13.95, Ages 8-12)

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Did you know that many of our presidents were pranksters when they were young? Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter all pulled pranks on their friends and family, and Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush were even considered class clowns. Dwight Eisenhower, Andrew Johnson, and Barack Obama spent their childhoods standing up to bullies, and then stood up to even bigger bullies during their terms as president.

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Interior art from Kid Presidents by David Stabler and illustrated by Doogie Horner, Quirk Books, ©2014.

We sometimes forget that these powerful, influential men were once playful, individual children. This engaging nonfiction book, Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America’s Presidents, tells a myriad of stories about our presidents’ pasts. Through David Stabler’s engaging storytelling and Doogie Horner’s comical illustrations, we are reminded that the great leaders of this country all started out as kids, who liked to run around, get dirty, make jokes, explore hobbies, enjoy animals, climb trees, play sports, and hang upside-down from the jungle gym. We even learn that they were not perfect and made many mistakes in their lives, as we all do as human beings. Like any kids, they sometimes avoided chores, fought with their siblings, and had temper tantrums. They also experienced loss, disabilities, overbearing parents, and blended families. They had to persevere through adversity, not only on the road to the White House, but also on their journeys through life.

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Interior art from Kid Presidents by David Stabler and illustrated by Doogie Horner, Quirk Books, ©2014.

The stories are interesting and well told, the cartoon illustrations are funny and relatable, and the word choice is easy to grasp, but can still help kids build a better vocabulary. Best of all is that Stabler and Horner present a view of our presidents as everyday people, which allows readers to envision themselves sitting in that Oval Office someday. It ultimately shows kids that any single one of them can grow up to be great.

Visit the Kid Presidents website by clicking here to get a glimpse inside the book, and for teacher and librarian resources, too. – Reviewed by Krista Jefferies

 

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Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History by Brianna DuMont

Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History by Brianna DuMont
(Sky Pony Press, $14.95, Ages 10 – 14)

Famous-Phonies-cvr.jpgIt’s time for some historical horizon broadening courtesy of Famous Phonies, a new nonfiction book from Brianna DuMont that will not only enlighten young readers, but will make them eager for the next book in The Changed History series. Kids will enjoy this middle grade book written in a quirky, playful tone. “It’s especially aimed at reluctant readers, but it engages the parents too. (Always a bonus!),” says DuMont and she’s spot on! And don’t you just love that cover?!

Read the review then enter our Rafflecopter giveaway below for a chance to win one copy of the book.

Review:
Meet a dozen individuals whose legends are often larger than life: Confucius, George Washington, Pythagoras, Hiawatha, Gilgamesh, Major William Martin, William Shakespeare, Pope Joan, Homer, Prester John, Huangdi, and The Turk. Some you’ve heard of and others may initially produce a hunch of the shoulders. Either way, after reading Famous Phonies, you’ll know them all, learn how easily the facts of their lives got blown out of proportion and have a greater appreciation for the weeding out history buffs like DuMont do so that readers can see the whole picture. Plus it doesn’t hurt that she’s honed in on some fascinating details and shares them in a tongue in cheek way that middle graders will adore. The interesting factoids included for each personage also add to this book’s  appeal.

For example, how many disciples did Confucius really have – was it three thousand or seventy-two? And all this before social media! What facts were bent after his death and what were legit? Was he really over nine feet tall? I found out that Confucius’s father died a couple of years after his birth, and his wives (neither one Confucius’s birth mother) kicked him and his teen-aged birth mother out of the house. He traveled around seeking recognition, but it turns out, he wasn’t always the nicest or sharpest knife in the drawer. In fact, as a result of “his nasty personality, the actual Confucius had very little influence over others during his lifetime. But that just wouldn’t do for his followers, so they decided to jazz things up after Confucius’s death.”

And George Washington, who cannot tell a lie, actually lied through his removable teeth all the time. Here’s an excellent example: “When calling upon the Continental Congress to boycott all imported goods from Britain prior to the Revolutionary War, he was secretly ordering carriages, fancy clothing, guns, and Wedgewood pottery from London for his own personal use.” It’s not that DuMont was deliberately digging only for dirt, although she does have a degree in Archaeology, it’s just that finding out the truth is easy if you look for it. It’s also fascinating.

Being a huge Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) fan, I’d have to say my favorite chapter was the one about Major William Martin. It seems that prior to penning his novels, Fleming worked for an Admiral concocting plans to trick the enemy, aka the Axis powers during WWII. To move the direction of the war from losing to winning, Britain and America knew they had to secure the island of Sicily because, “The Axis Powers used Sicily as a base for German Luftwaffe bombers to launch surprise attacks on the rest of Mediterranean Sea, destroying anything that flew or floated past.” However, the Allies couldn’t let the enemy know that this was their ultimate goal hence the need for a major deception or in this case “disinformation,” putting out false info to fool the Axis powers. This particular ploy, #28 to be precise, was originally devised by Fleming with his boss, as part of the secret list known as the “Trout Memo.” It would be implemented by a British spy named Ewen Montague and “use a dead body as a fake spy in order to plant false information in the mind of the enemy.” Brilliant, right? Ah, but it was a lot more difficult and complicated than it sounds involving a frozen corpse, fake documents and a backstory for said dead body (Major William Martin) that would not alert the Germans to the plot. Success could mean the tides of the war might turn in favor of the Allies. I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that DuMont’s got all the elements of a gripping spy movie here that are guaranteed to pull your child into the intrigue and excitement that grabbed me.

Okay, so you know I thought Famous Phonies was a fabulous, fun read, but I think parents, teachers and librarians will like it, too. That’s in addition to your kids, of course! Nowadays lots of students do their research online. They think Wikipedia is the be all end all, but here’s a chance to get kids engrossed with historical figures and let them see that there are multiple sources for their fact finding missions. They can read the book in one sitting, or return to it on multiple occasions absorbing one chapter at a time. DuMont’s done a wonderful job of selecting subjects whose stories are interesting, and presenting them in a middle grade friendly manner sure to entertain even the biggest history-phobe. And that’s the truth!

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

A Rafflecopter Giveaway

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Candlewick Biographies about Handel and Darwin

The two Candlewick Biographies below are reviewed by Dornel Cerro.

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Handel, Who Knew What He Liked by M. T. Anderson with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes, Candlewick Press, 2013.

Handel, Who Knew What He Liked, written by M. T. Anderson and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes,
(Candlewick Press 2013, $14.99, Ages 8-12)

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin, written by Kathryn Lasky and illustrated by Matthew Trueman, (Candlewick Press 2014, $14.99, Ages 7-10)

Did you know that composer George Frederick Handel was once challenged to a duel? Or that scientist Charles Darwin’s childhood nickname was “Gas” because of the deliberate explosions he and his brother set off in their makeshift laboratory?

The two books reviewed here are part of the Candlewick Biographies series for children. Each examines “…a turning point or defining moment in the life of a famous person and how it led to significant contributions.”

Both men were born to fairly well-off families and had domineering (but well-intentioned) fathers who wanted their sons to pursue more affluent careers. Despite their fathers’ objections, both men realized success in their chosen professions.

When his father refused to pay for music lessons, Handel (‘who knew what he wanted”) smuggled a clavichord into the attic and taught himself how to play it. In England, he found the British didn’t like his Italian operas. So he wrote them in English. Throughout his life, Handel, when challenged by the naysayers, found a way to make everything work and still do “…what he wanted.”

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One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky with illustrations by Matthew Trueman, Candlewick Press, 2014.

Darwin’s father wanted him to be a doctor. All young Darwin wanted to do was explore the natural world and collect specimens. So he did not apply himself to what his father wanted him to study (medicine, and when that didn’t work out, theology), causing his father tp accuse his son of disgracing the family. A botany professor recommended Darwin for the position of naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, and, despite his father’s objections, embarked on a five year journey that gave birth to his theory of evolution.

These short biographies are engagingly and humorously written by award-winning authors. Complex topics and terminology are clearly explained in accessible language. Colorful and vibrant illustrations convey each man’s world from the wealth and privilege of European aristocracy to the exoticness of the Galapagos Islands. Previously published as oversized biographies, the new smaller format is conducive to individual reading and research, although the lively language makes for a great read aloud. Added tools such as indexes and resources aid research and learning. Highly recommended for children 8-12 years old as wonderful introductions to biography and nonfiction.

Others in this series include biographies of Fred and Adele Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, and John Muir and Phillis Wheatley.

Read Ronna Mandel’s review of A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet.

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How They Choked Written by Georgia Bragg & Illustrated by Kevin O’Malley

How They Choked:
Failures, Flops and Flaws of the Awfully Famous
by Georgia Bragg
with illustrations by Kevin O’Malley
(Walker Books for Young Readers, $17.99, Ages 10-14)

is reviewed today by Ronna Mandel.

 

 

Real People Make Mistakes

Your fifth through eighth grader is going to thank you for getting them this book to read over the summer. Bragg put pen to paper (okay may fingers to keyboard) and tongue in cheek when she wrote How They Choked, an entertaining and educational nonfiction book about how successful people from the 1400s through the 1900s botched up big time. If that’s not a great way to start off summer vacation, I don’t know what is?

When kids see O’Malley’s hysterical illustrations, it will be obvious the artist had as much of a blast as Bragg did bringing out all the humor and irony surrounding these often over-achieving historical figures. For example, when the greedy, neurotic and power hungry (to say the least) Queen Isabella started the Inquisition, O’Malley drew two signs on the page: “Heretics Out!” and another one “Leave Your Stuff.” From Marco Polo and Queen Isabella of Spain, to the Aztecs and Anne Boleyn, from Benedict Arnold and Susan B. Anthony to Vincent Van Gogh and Amelia Earhart and lots more in between, there are characters galore to learn about, laugh about and yes, I admit it, occasionally feel sorry for.

You may recall Bragg as being the author of How They Croaked, so it’s only fitting that she should carry on this riotous tradition, an engaging look at history full of chapter heading hooks to pull in even the most reluctant of readers – Dressed to Kill (about Custer) or Least Likely To Succeed (about Van Gogh). Her gift is being able to talk to the reader in language they’ll understand, language that is not dated, but is at times quite daring. Frankly that’s what made How They Choked all the more appealing to me and I’m confident your kids will feel the same way. Whether she’s dishing the dirt on Marco Polo’s dad who offered his son to royal and notorious Kublai Khan or Montezuma acting like a “real living god” and not seeing the writing on the stone once Cortes entered the picture, the historical anecdotes Bragg’s included make for a multitude of “Wow, really!?” moments.

I got such a kick out of the section on Anne Boleyn called Till Beheading Do Us Part. This social climbing lady-in-waiting should have resisted Henry VIII’s advances, but no, she had to outdo her older sister, Mary. When Henry grew tired of Mary and moved onto the younger sibling, it became impossible for Anne to refuse, what with jewels bestowed upon her and the temptation of being Queen. Never once though did she imagine she’d be losing her head over the King. And Benedict Arnold? I knew his name was synonymous with traitor, but I had no idea how absolutely despicable he was. Forgiven by George Washington not once, not twice, but three times, Arnold was an arrogant turncoat who “made more money than any other American officer in the American Revolution.”

The mistakes of today’s rulers and politicians pale in comparison to many of the excellent examples in How They Choked making this a must-read book for aspiring political science majors and anyone even slightly interested in history. The pages are filled with tales of larger than life individuals being knocked down to size so as the warning in the beginning of the book says: “If you only want to see people at their best, this book isn’t for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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