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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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People, Jazz and Life: The Inspirations of Illustrator Eric Velasquez

In honor of Black History Month, we’re thrilled to share Debbie Glade’s interview with the fascinating, ultra talented illustrator, Eric Velasquez.

Eric Velasquez

As a parent and book reviewer I’ve read more children’s books than I could possibly count. Indeed, there are many good ones, but only once in a while do I find a book that is extraordinary. Recently I reviewed My Uncle Martin’s Words for America and quickly discovered the story was awe-inspiring and the illustrations were in a league of their own. This is a sister book to My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart, which Eric also illustrated. I studied the pictures over and over again, shared them with family and friends who were equally as impressed, and then contacted illustrator Eric Velasquez to ask him if he’d do an interview with Good Reads with Ronna.

Eric Velasquez started his successful career as an artist, illustrating book covers. In 1997 he added picture book illustrations to his repertoire and has since won awards for his work. Growing up in Spanish Harlem, he credits his multi-cultural approach with his art to his rich, Afro-Puerto-Rican heritage. You will learn through this interview how Eric’s attention to people and their emotions, as well as his love of jazz play a significant role in the richness of his exceptional illustrations.

How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?

About 7 or 8 I believe.

Were any of your family members artistically inclined?

Yes, my uncle Louie is a photographer.  Also, my two cousins Edgard and Dennis both draw.

Your illustrations are unquestionably exceptional. I read that you have a BFA from New York’s School of Visual Arts. What is your view on how much natural ability plays a role in an artist’s work vs. techniques learned while receiving an art education?

Many people have a mistaken notion as to what natural ability is. True natural ability is often overlooked. To think like an artist is a true natural ability. Form will always follow function. Artists will develop the technical abilities to give life to their visions. People often confuse technicians with artists. Unfortunately, technicians have very little to say with their work.

That is the best definition of an artist I’ve ever heard. Did you know you wanted to illustrate books from the beginning of your career?

One of the illustrator’s many book covers

Yes, I wanted to tell stories. I thought that I would become a comic artist, but I fell in love with painting my senior year in the High School of Art and Design.

Do you remember how you landed your very first project as a paid artist?

 I won second place in a contest. RSVP Directory of Illustration. Aside from a little money, a page containing three images of my work was published in the directory and distributed to every publishing house, design firm and ad agency in America. I began working shortly after graduating college.

What a wonderful way to get your career started! Since then you have completed hundreds of illustrations for book jackets and interiors, including series such as Encyclopedia Brown. You have said that Journey to Jo’burg and Chain of Fire are your favorite books. What did you like about those books in particular?

Both of those books were highly political.  They dealt with the racism going on in South Africa before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Those books were my introduction into the genre of historical nonfiction.

You illustrated two books about Martin Luther King, Jr. – My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart and My Uncle Martin’s Words for America, written by Angela Farris Watkins. It is rare for one to see images of people as remarkably lifelike as yours. Did the fact that MLK’s legacy is larger than life make the project intimidating for you in any way?

I wanted to add something different to the stories. For “My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart” I began to think about my uncle and the possibility of him being an important world figure, but as a child I only knew him as my uncle.  My goal for the book was to inspire children to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts and loving care of the people in their own families.

And you certainly did accomplish that goal. For these MLK books you painted with oils on watercolor paper. How did that combination come to be?

My original painting surfaces were wooden masonite panels. However, for a book containing 15 -20 illustrations, the panels can get heavy, and they aren’t flexible to fit in a drum scanner. Hot press watercolor paper has a wonderful surface to draw on. After I sketch the picture, I then spray the drawing with crystal clear fixative and apply several coats of acrylic matte medium. Once the surface is completely dry, I begin to paint in oil. The 300-pound paper is flexible enough to fit in a drum scanner.

What inspires you most, and do illustrators ever get “inspiration block” like writers do?

People, music and life inspire me. “Inspiration block” is something I choose not to believe in. Sometimes my art takes on different forms and one has to allow for that, whether it is writing, storytelling, cooking, carpentry, photography, etc.  I think we create the block when we are tired and want to move onto something else. Other times we allow the words of others to destroy our inspirations, which at times can come from the silliest notions or actions.

Is there one specific character in a book you illustrated with whom you can really relate?

Not only one. I relate with most of my characters. I think it’s part of my job as a storyteller.

On average, how many hours do you draw/paint each day?

I work every day, 7 to 8 hours a day.

Can you tell us about your love of Jazz and how you have incorporated that into your art?

I have always loved music, ever since my grandmother introduced me to salsa in her living room in Spanish Harlem.  What I love about Jazz is its improvisational nature. I believe that if more of us were to adapt a more offhand approach to our work, we’d have a more successful and original outcome.

You illustrated and penned the autobiographical picture books, Grandma’s Gift and  Grandma’s Records. Briefly, what is Grandma’s Records about, and what inspired you to write it? 

With a cover like this, who wouldnt want to read this book?

Grandma’s Records is the story of how I spent my summers as a child with my grandma, listening to her records.  Whenever Grandma played this one special song, she would put one hand over her heart and raise the other as she sang along. Later on, she would sit and reminisce about the old days in Puerto Rico with my Grandpa. One day her nephew, Sammy, who was a percussionist in the band “Cortijo Y su Comdo” came over with his fellow band-mates, Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera. We got tickets to their first New York show and the experience changed our lives forever.

I imagine you are flooded with offers to illustrate books. How do you decide which projects you want to take on?

First I read the manuscript thoroughly.  Afterwards, I’ll start doodling right on the actual script, and if I like what I see in the sketches, I’ll decide to take the job.

Can you explain how the process of illustrating a picture book works? Are you generally given specific artistic direction by the editor of the book? Or are you free to depict the story as you see it yourself? 

Usually I am free to depict the story the way I see it.  Although, often with a new client, I’ll receive specific instructions from the editor and the art director.

Are artists involved in the printing process of the picture books, to ensure that the qualities of the illustrations are not compromised in any way?

From time to time the publisher will invite me to come in and color correct the art proofs.  It’s a lengthy process and it can be quite exhausting.

It’s no surprise you have won numerous coveted awards for your illustrations. What does it feel like to receive prestigious recognition, such as the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award or the Coretta Scott King Award?

It’s always an honor to be recognized for one’s talent and contributions.  It is especially rewarding to be recognized for educating children about historical events in history.

Do you have an absolute favorite illustration you’ve ever done?

The artist at work in his studio

Not one in particular; that question is difficult to answer.

Do you sell any of your paintings or illustrations?

Yes, I usually sell them myself.  I am also represented by the R.Michelson Gallery in North Hampton, Mass.

When you are not painting, what do you like to do?

 I enjoy going to Jazz clubs and restaurant /clubs that feature Cuban bands because I love listening to live music.

What advice do you have for artists out there who dream of great success, such as yours, illustrating picture books?

Follow your passion first and be willing to work very, very hard to achieve your dream.  I also emphasize the importance of reading about the artists and illustrators that interest you.

Eric, we thank you so much for sharing your beautiful work and your wisdom with our readers. We cannot wait for your next book!

To contact Eric Velasquez or to schedule a school visit, click here. To purchase his books, click here.

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Thinking Girls

Six Historical Women Who Helped to Shape the World

Today’s review comes courtesy of regular contributor, Debbie Glade, an original thinking girl herself!

I was thrilled to receive a stack of six shiny new books in the series The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses by author Shirin Yim Bridges. I read them at the same time all the festivities with the royal wedding of William and Kate were taking place making it all the more relevant. This series teaches readers ages 9-13, that being a real life princess is not so much about donning jewels and modeling gowns as it is about having the courage to work against all odds during a time when women were not respected as leaders. What is more interesting than learning about strong historic women living in a man’s world, who dared to break the rules to rewrite the history books?

The stories are rich in historical facts and are rather sophisticated, ideal for advanced readers. A great deal of time went into researching the rich legends of these 6 historical women; each of the books go into detail about what where they came from, when they lived, what they wore at the time and what they accomplished. Visually each book uses a mixture of photographs, maps, period art reproductions and original paintings by artist Albert Nguygen. The books are attractive, however I would have preferred to see more illustrations rather than the eclectic combination of visuals these books offer.

s1b2_coverArtemisia of Caria – Princess Artemesia lived in 500BC in ancient Greece, during a time when women were expected to obey their husbands and spend time at home weaving. Artemisia grew up to be a sailor, the captain of a ship, and ultimately a celebrated admiral during the great Persian Wars. Her claim to fame was when she bravely advised King Xerxes not to fight his Persian fleet against the Greeks; the king did not listen and was terribly defeated.

s1b1_coverHatshepsut of Egypt – Born around 1500 BC, Hatshepsut was the favorite child of her father, Pharaoh Thutmose I. After the death of 3 of her siblings, the Pharaoh insisted that Hatshepsut marry her half brother. He soon became Pharaoh Thutmose II, but quickly died, leaving Hatshepsut as Queen. Despite the fact that she was a woman, in 2 years she was declared Pharaoh, King of Egypt. She established trade relationships with faraway lands, traveling overseas on Egyptian boats. Her relationships helped Egypt’s economy thrive over the 22 years of her well-respected reign.

s1b5_coverIsabella of Castile – This 15th century princess of Spain chose her own husband during a time when husbands were chosen for women of her stature. Unlike any other woman of her time, she insisted that her husband-to-be sign an agreement that she would retain her powers as Queen, among other stipulations. Isabella and Ferdinand lived to be one of the most famous royal couples in history, best known for funding Christopher Columbus’ most renowned journey; it was supposed to be an expedition discover a new route to Asia, but it turned out to be a discovery of the Americas.

s1b6_coverNur Jahan of India – Nur Jahan was born with the name of Mihr al-Nisa around 1600 AD, during the Moghul Dynasty. When she was young, she met and later in her 30s, married Emperor Jahangir. She was said to be the 20th of the Emperor’s wives! She had great passion for the arts, particularly fashion, and even designed fabrics. She gradually helped her husband rule the court and the country and was credited for greatly increasing India’s trade with other nations and helping to improve lives for the women of India. Following her husband’s death, Nur Jahan led the army in a battle for power and eventually exiled to safety on a generous pension.

s1b4_coverQutlugh Terkan Khutun of Kirman – Before becoming a princess Qutlugh was born into a noble family as Halal Khatun in the 13th century in Persia (what is now part of Iran). When she was a child she was taken and sold as a slave; she never saw her family again. After a series of challenging events, Halal Khatun was adopted by a merchant and eventually married Prince Qutb al-Din to become Princess Qutlugh. After her husband’s death she took reign of the kingdom and worked against all odds to be accepted by her people.

s1b3_coverSorghaghtani of Mongolia – Sorghaghtani was a princess of the Kereit tribe of Mongolia around 1200 AD. At a young age she married Tolui, one of Genghis Khan’s sons, and she had four sons. Her family lived a nomadic way of life in tents called gers. Following the death of Genghis Khan and the sudden death of her husband Tolui, Princess Sorghaghtani became the ruler of Mongolia. She worked closely with the people of her lands to help improve farming conditions, restoring the area to its former wealth and earning a great deal of respect from the people of Mongolia and other parts of Asia.

After reading each of the books in this series, I learned so much and am compelled to research these fascinating historical figures further. Perhaps young girls who read these books will be inspired to do great things themselves.

debbiegladeDebbie Glade, today’s guest reviewer, is the author, illustrator and voice talent of the award-winning children’s picture book The Travel Adventures of Lilly P Badilly: Costa Rica, published by Smart Poodle Publishing. She visits South Florida schools with her reading, writing and geography programs. For years, Debbie was a travel writer for luxury cruise lines. She writes parenting articles for various websites and is the Geography Awareness Editor for She blogs daily at

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