I’ve had this book on my TBR shelf for way too long and should have reviewed it sooner, but I’m so happy to finally be able to share it with you now. The Artist Who Loved Cats grabbed my attention when it arrived via mail because its cover was gorgeous and full of cats. In fact, I recognized one cat in particular, le Chat Noir.
If you’ve ever traveled to France or are a francophile like me, you too may recognize artist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s famed black feline. It’s impossible to miss reproductions of Le Chat Noir images sold at almost every bookseller’s stand either in postcard, purse, keychain, or print form when strolling along the banks of the Seine in Paris. His advertising posters from the late 1800s and early 1900s featuring bicycles, cocoa, and chocolat are also well-known.
Author Susan Bernardo was inspired to write this picture book “during a trip to Paris in 2014” when she stayed in Montmartre “and found a lovely little bronze cat sculpture in an antiques store,” near her AirBnB. As a student in Paris, I lived close to Montmartre and yet never considered the backstory of the prolific artist whose beautiful art decorated our dorm room walls and still remains so popular. I’m delighted Bernardo has created a book to introduce Steinlen’s story to children.
Steinlen seemed destined to draw cats. As a child growing up in Switzerland he sketched them in “every which way.” But, following advice from his father, he began a career in textiles and fabric design. Eventually, the artist felt eager “to embrace the creative life.” Paris in the 1880s was a vibrant hub for artists, musicians, writers, and dancers. That’s why Steinlen moved there in 1881. Through a fellow Swiss ex-pat pal and Le Chat Noir cabaret owner, the artist was hired to do illustrations for the Montmartre cabaret’s newsletter. His cats became the talk of the town and things took off from there. While the story is charmingly narrated in rhyme by the antique shop cat, and can at times be uneven, the reason to read this book with children is to spark curiosity not only about the artist Steinlen, but about other countries, and the arts too. Bernardo’s biography conveys the essence of what made Steinlen tick. He clearly was able to capture in his art just what the public wanted.
Steinlen’s artwork celebrated the ordinary everyday things in life which he encountered and though we may know him for his posters, he also made sculptures, storybooks, and songbook covers. And kids who love kitties will not be disappointed with how frequently Steinlen’s feline friends appeared in his art. His love of cats is evident throughout this book.
Fletcher’s fabulous illustrations fill every page with the kind of exuberance that probably emanated from Steinlen’s presence. Her Parisian scenes will take you back in time as will her cabaret and studio spreads. Each illustration provides a chance for children to count cats and check out their antics.
Bernardo’s used the cat bronze sculpture as a clever jumping-off point to discuss the artist’s life but she also takes the opportunity to point out how old items like those found in an antique shop can unlock myriad mysteries and feed children’s imagination. She’s even included a fun search and find activity at the end of the book. In addition to locating antiques, children are told to look out for certain famous people of Steinlen’s era including artist Toulouse-Lautrec and musician Maurice Ravel. Readers will learn from the detailed backmatter that “Steinlen used his art to protest social injustice and war and to celebrate the lives of working people.” His work influenced many other artists but ultimately his passion was for his art to make the world a better place.
Did you know Srinivasa Ramanujan was one of the greatest mathematicians the world has seen? I didn’t, but was thankful to come across The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity by Amy Alznauerand learn a little bit about this man whose amazing accomplishments are still studied today.
Born in a small South Indian village in 1887, Ramanujan began questioning the world at an early age: “What is small? And what is big?” He spent endless hours writing and erasing on his slate, trying to capture his thoughts about numbers and size. “Ramanujan was a number theorist, a person who studies the properties and patterns of numbers.” This book’s examples make these large concepts easy to understand such as when Ramanujan takes food to the man by the river who claims to see odd creatures that aren’t there. To this, Ramanujan says, “Sometimes even invisible things can be real.” Kids can relate to this while their parents have a greater understanding of what Ramanujan meant.
This self-taught genius felt alone with his thoughts until reaching out to Cambridge University in England because of its great mathematical center where he finally connects with top mathematician, G. H. Hardy (whose pamphlet on infinity Ramanujan had recently discovered). Just six years after making that connection, Ramanujan died in 1920, at the age of thirty-two. “The profound originality of his ideas has been a source of inspiration for mathematicians ever since.”
Daniel Miyares’s lovely illustrations show us Ramanujan’s India blended skillfully with the boy’s thoughts. One of my favorite scenes discusses how numbers whisper to Ramanujan in his sleep; he tries catching ideas before they disappear. The accompanying art has multiple images of Ramanujan leaping and climbing on numbers, set against a night sky. Get this book for the kid in your life with big thoughts—whether anyone else can see them or not.
Click here to order a copy of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks! e Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/19/20
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.
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
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
MUDDY: THE STORY OF BLUES LEGEND MUDDY WATERS Written by Michael Mahin Illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Review – Booklist
Don’t miss the biography of the man and his music in Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters.
The story of blues legend Muddy Waters is told in prose which reads like one of his songs, filled with both sweetness and longing. Author Michael Mahin does a fine job of recreating for a young reader the life of Muddy Waters from his childhood days to one of the high points of his career, the creation of his first album.
All along the way through the book, beside those sweet and longing words of the author, are Evan Turk’s amazing illustrations that take your breath away. They look like the blues! They look like Muddy Water’s story and some of his soul. Strong lines paint the bold story of the legend, and color reaches out to convey the emotion that Muddy was going through at different times in his life. Truly these are some of the most unique illustrations to appear in a picture book. The people in Muddy’s life reach high in church, bow low over a harmonica, every movement is full of energy. Muddy’s grandmother appears as a larger than life character. She takes up so much room in one memorable two-page spread that one cannot escape the dominant presence she must have had in Muddy’s life. There is some kind of motion everywhere, in the playing of music, in the form of Muddy’s grandmother as she hangs her laundry while dancing to Muddy’s music, and in the movement of Muddy himself as he plays and sings.
The often repeated words, “But Muddy was never good at doing what he was told.” tell the story of a man who would not be dictated to by any boss but himself, and who successfully turned that persistence into a sound that the music world had never heard before, a precursor to rock and roll. This is a story that shows a child that sometimes staying true to yourself is one of the hardest battles, but ultimately one of the best. Muddy never gave up on his music the way he heard it, never listening to naysayers. All of us have something like that call in our lives. Muddy teaches us through his experiences to listen to that call, be true to it and to never stop believing that one day it will enable each of us to add a new sound to the world. One passage accompanied by a striking depiction of Muddy singing reads like music:
He called up the sticky heat of a summer
night, the power of love, and the need
for connection in a world that was
so good at pulling people apart.
Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters is an incredibly powerful picture book in every respect and is highly recommended. At the bookstore where I work, this is a staff favorite because we all agree that it is one of the most extraordinary picture books we have seen this year. Muddy is a wonderful introduction to the life of a legend as well as an inspirational and evocative experience of art so well matched to the man and his blues that you can almost hear the music playing.
This hardcover picture book will be available September 5, 2017 but can be pre-ordered now.
ORDINARY PEOPLE CHANGE THE WORLD: I AM GEORGE WASHINGTON Written by Brad Meltzer Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos (Dial BYR; $12.99, Ages 5-8)
For Presidents’ Day 2017, let’s take a look at Brad Meltzer’s I am George Washington, another terrific biography in the popular and entertaining Ordinary People Change The World series. These books serve as a great introduction to some of the world’s greatest heroes and historical figures while emphasizing that individuals are not born into greatness but work hard to achieve it, earning the public’s trust, respect and admiration along the way. Each person depicted in the series has demonstrated proven leadership skills or unique knowledge making them worthy of inclusion.
The fourth of nine children, George Washington had great people skills, something needed in a large family, and eventually, to run a nascent country. Back when Washington was growing up, there was no U.S.A. yet, only colonies ruled by Great Britain. Readers will learn how Washington’s older brother Lawrence, fourteen years his senior, had a positive impact on his younger brother. In fact, a soldier himself, Lawrence influenced Washington’s decision to serve in the military. When his father died, Washington’s family could no longer “afford proper schooling so my brothers had to teach me at home.” At sixteen, Washington worked as a surveyor in the Shenandoah Valley with a wealthy family called the Fairfaxes. They treated him kindly and exposed him to the finer things in life. Yet, despite the opportunity to hobnob with the rich, Washington never forgot his roots and all the people less privileged than the Fairfaxes. He later fulfilled his childhood dream by joining the military, showing bravery and leadership in battle and being made “commander of all Virginia’s fighting forces.” George Washington also ran for office, and though he lost at his first attempt, he won all future elections.
When the American Revolution began in protest against high taxes imposed by Britain, “Our thirteen colonies decided we would fight together against King George III.” Washington was chosen to lead the battle. Cleverness, determination and unparalleled leadership helped the less experienced military of the colonies defeat the mighty British led, of course, by General George Washington. And the rest, of course is history, with Washington being selected as the first president of the United States of America.
What I love about Meltzer’s writing and Eliopoulos’ artwork is that they make learning about these important people so accessible, interesting and fun. Who doesn’t love seeing a miniature George Washington on every page or having him narrate his life’s story? Picking out the most relevant aspects of any individual’s life is never easy and to condense them into a picture book biography for elementary school aged kids and still be meaningful takes a lot of experience, something best-selling author Meltzer has lots of! The choice of Eliopoulos as illustrator is just icing on the cake and I cannot imagine this series with any other style artwork. And did I notice author Meltzer drawn into one spread near the end? See for yourself and let me know.
“Leadership doesn’t come from charisma or personality. It comes from courage: The courage to do what’s right. The courage to serve others. The courage to go first.”
And George Washington, the father of our country, had enough courage for an entire nation and we celebrate him today.
DIANA’S WHITE HOUSE GARDEN Written by Elisa Carbone Illustrated by Jen Hill (Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 5-8)
Diana’s White House Garden takes place in 1943 when the US is at war. Ten-year-old Diana Hopkins lives in the White House because her father, Harry Hopkins, is President Roosevelt’s chief advisor. When the president announces, “we all need to do our part to win this war,” Diana considers how she can contribute and soon tests her skills as a spy and a city official. Clearly, she’s better at playing with the Roosevelts’ little Scottish terrier, Fala. Next, Diana tries leaving sharp pins in the satin chairs to deter the enemies; it doesn’t have the effect she hoped for.
President Roosevelt decides to ship most of the food grown by US farmers to the soldiers, ensuring they are well fed and strong. He declares that Americans should grow their own food, turning backyards and vacant lots into Victory Gardens, starting with one on the White House lawn. Diana offers to help, excited to begin.
She works with Eleanor Roosevelt and the groundskeeper. Soon the garden sprouts—only to be nibbled down by hungry rabbits. Enlisting Fala does the trick; the dog is able to keep the rabbits out while Diana learns from Mrs. Roosevelt that, “sometimes you just have to start over.”
The story comes to fruition with their first delicious harvest. As Diana and her father dine with the Roosevelts, the reader gains intimate access into a world rarely revealed to the general public. This book successfully conveys the human element at the heart of all meaningful relationships, whether between president and citizen or girl and dog.
Sepia-tone paper perfectly accompanies the lively illustrations which depict well-researched scenes from the 1940s. We travel through this important historical period with Diana, understanding the timelessness of childhood. The opening line says it all, “Diana Hopkins lived in a white house.” An enduring need for community—whether you live in a white house or in the White House—connects this seventy-three-year-old story with families today.
Find educational resources and more about author Elisa Carbone here. Visit illustrator Jen Hill’s website here.
Before I read this fascinating nonfiction picture book about the history of the first Ferris Wheel, I had no idea of the backstory; the competition to find and build a structure for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that would be taller than the Eiffel Tower, the lack of financial support for its construction, the grueling work on the foundation in the dead of winter, the tight timeline in which to complete it, and the lack of faith professionals and the public had in the project. I’m thankful to Kathryn Gibbs Davis for opening my eyes to innovator, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.
“George had an idea, an idea for a structure that would dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower.”
What wonderful feats of engineering and willpower enabled Ferris to prove all the naysayers wrong! Over 1.5 million naysayers to be precise, the amount of people who rode on the wheel at 50 cents apiece in the “nineteen weeks” that it was in operation. And they said it couldn’t be done. Not only did Ferris change the public’s mind, but he changed history by building out of steel, what is now a staple of amusement park rides.
“George knew something the chief did not. His invention would be delicate-looking and strong. It would be both stronger and lighter than the Eiffel Tower because it would be built with an amazing new metal — steel.”
On almost every spread, Davis has managed to weave in assorted facts about the wheel’s invention in a way that will keep youngsters as engaged and enthralled as I was. The story itself flows easily and the artwork is simply lovely to look at. Ford‘s fabulous jewel-toned illustrations of 19th century Chicago took me back in time to an era in the industrial age when even electricity in homes was not yet commonplace. But as the sun set each evening, Ferris’s wheel, with is 3,000 electric light bulbs, lit up the night sky and was visible “as far away as forty miles.” I was happy to learn that after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, in 1894 “the next Ferris wheel appeared in California on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.”
How sad I was to discover in the back matter (where sources are quoted, and a bibliography along with helpful websites are provided) that a New York Times obituary says Ferris passed away on November 23, 1896 while still in his thirties. I can just imagine all the other innovative contributions he could have made to society had he lived longer. As it is, the enduring popularity of his ride is a testament to Ferris’s genius, and Davis has done a terrific job conveying that in a most readable, enjoyable way.
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