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For Women’s History Month – Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird Blog Tour

AWAY WITH WORDS:
The Daring Story of Isabella Bird
Written by Lori Mortensen
Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell
(Peachtree Publishing; $17.95, Ages 6-10)

 

cover illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen

 

Before Nellie Bly or Amelia Earhardt there was Isabella Bird and, thanks to this eye-opening new picture book biography, Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, children can read about what impressive inroads this English explorer made at a time in history when a woman’s place was in the home not out globetrotting around the world, and writing about it to boot!

This “unlikely candidate for adventure,” who never felt well as a child, was born in the Yorkshire countryside in 1831. Isabella Bird suffered from a multitude of ailments and rarely left the house. That worked for awhile because, according to Victorian societal norms that she would eventually challenge, “Young ladies wore dresses. / Young ladies didn’t go to school. / Young ladies stayed home.” Countless doctors couldn’t diagnose her with anything until one doctor recommended she get some fresh air. Her father took Isabella out with him on his horse and, with his encouragement, she made discoveries that would forever change the course of her life. “Out in the wild, Isabella forgot about her aches and pains. / She breathed in new ways to see and describe everything around her.”

Captured beautifully by Caldwell’s spread below, letters from relatives abroad and other news from overseas sparked a flame in Isabella. She felt deep inside that travel would feed her soul and she yearned for the possibilities it would provide but some days she could barely get up. The tide turned for the better when her doctor suggested a sea voyage and her parents agreed.

 

interior illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen

Interior spread from Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird written by Lori Mortensen and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Peachtree Publishing ©2019.

 

She boarded a mail steamer for Nova Scotia and from then on there was no looking back for this intrepid young woman. Her red leather notebook accompanied her wherever she went. I love how Mortensen weaves quotations of text from Bird’s own published books wherever it adds atmosphere to the story. Caldwell’s colorful illustrations pair perfectly with those lines. One of my favorites is, “There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it; I took it up and swarms of living creatures fell out of it …”

Her first book, The Englishwoman in America, was published in 1856, smack in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. But when her father passed away Bird chose to end her explorations. That ultimately led to a flare up of her ailments and an onset of doldrums that, at her sister’s urging, could only be allayed by journeying across five continents. It took grit and guts and bravery to gallivant solo around the world to myriad destinations lacking in creature comforts, but Isabella persevered. Thanks to her detailed record keeping of all the places she visited, the nine additional books she wrote became bestsellers. People craved reading about the exotic locales and peoples that they’d never see in their lifetime whether that be climbing up Kilauea volcano in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), trekking across the dangerous frozen Persian “desert at the roof of the world,” or befriending a “notorious outlaw.”

 

int illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen

Interior spread from Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird written by Lori Mortensen and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Peachtree Publishing ©2019.

 

As Mortensen’s story vividly demonstrates, the world was indeed Isabella’s home so it’s no surprise that in 1892, Bird was the first woman to ever be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London and a year later was presented to Queen Victoria. In 32 pages of lyrical prose, Mortensen shows young readers the personal growth and happiness that can come from travel and exposure to a vast range of cultures. Caldwell’s artwork includes just the right amount of soaring spirit a name like Bird implies.

Picture book biographies, when done well, provide a much needed window on the world of important people from the past that we might ordinarily never hear or read about. Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, does that and more. It offers inspiration and a role model for children who, long after Women’s History Month has ended, will no doubt want to seek out Bird’s impressions by turning to her original books to learn more about this trailblazer’s 19th century daring journeys. The back matter including an author’s note, a timeline of Bird’s travels and publications, Bird’s text quotations, and a bibliography make this nonfiction book ideal for both home and school. In fact, I’d give it as a gift to a child along with a journal to get them started on documenting their own travels, even if that’s just an outing to the zoo or a trip to another city.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Visit other stops below on this enlightening blog tour from Peachtree Publishing:

3/5: Let’s Talk Picture Books

3/6: Pragmatic Mom

3/7: Geo Librarian

3/8: Kid Lit Frenzy

 

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A Boy Called Dickens

From Rags to Riches: The Hard Knocks Life of Young Charles Dickens

In A Boy Called Dickens  by Deborah Hopkinson with illustrations by John Hendrix ($17.99, Schwartz & Wade, ages 4-8) school-aged children will be transported back to the foggy, crime-riddled streets of Victorian London to get a taste of what life was like for this very famous author who moved there at age 10. I can just picture a school librarian reading out this story to students who sit in amazement as she turns the pages slowly for impact, maybe even dimming the lights and feigning a cockney accent. Do kids today realize how over one hundred years ago and even more recently than that, many families sent their young children out to work? And that even those who did take on employment could barely scrape together a decent living, let alone a healthy and safe one?

Readers will learn from A Boy Called Dickens that from an early age Dickens loved books but they often had to be sold to make ends meet.  At age 12, to help out his struggling family, he worked at a blacking factory where they made shoe polish. There author Hopkinson imagines him spinning tales to his friend Bob Fagin and perhaps sowing the seeds for his later literary life.  Sadly, Dickens’ family was sent to Marshalsea Prison (aka debtors prison) in London because of his father’s inability to pay back money owed to a bakery.  I never knew that after Mr. Dickens was able to settle his debt and was freed from prison, he came into an inheritance. Inheritances feature prominently in so many of Dickens’ classic novels that it’s no surprise he had a wealth of material to write about as he approached manhood. So rather than keep young Charles working at Warren’s and causing him shame, the now more prosperous Mr. Dickens decides to send his bright son to school in Camden Town for a proper, more middle class education. Ironically it took Dickens years to be able to write about his own childhood poverty, yet he could poignantly portray so many others’ including ill-fated  Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

This book is a fantastic introduction to Charles Dickens and events that served as lifelong inspiration for him.  In the end page Hopkinson explains more about Dickens’ life and what led her to write the story. Hendrix’s illustrations further complement the story, capturing the scruffy feel of the period and the general darkness and harshness that dominated every day life for the poor in 19th century London.

 

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Please Sir, I Want More

I must begin by saying that titles such as these are reason enough to keep printing books the old-fashioned way. The sturdy, meaty volumes are superior in quality in every way. There are envelopes to opens, flaps to flip, sidebars to read and gloriously detailed old-world illustrations to study. The experience a middle grade reader (or middle aged reader, like yours truly) gets from holding this physical book and savoring its contents simply cannot be obtained on a computer.  And no one can talk me into believing it can.

As an English major myself who once visited Dickens’ home in England and who played the small role of Charlotte at age 10, in the play Oliver Twist, I can totally appreciate learning about the author’s life and struggles and how that inspired his writing. Dickens is known for his portrayals of difficult Victorian family life, and writes with a great deal of honesty and insight. His writing was so prolific, that at one time, he was considered the most successful novelist in the world. He often worked on numerous novels at a time.

Several fulfilling hours are needed to read Charles Dickens: England’s Most Captivating Storyteller, open all the letters and flaps and delight in all the tidbits and illustrations. Readers will discover facts about Dicken’s: family life; rise to fame; education; interest in writing about crime; fixation on workhouses; orphan characters; settings for his books; interest in changing industry and technology; love of theater; Christmas themes; social life, visits to America and his legacy.

Did you know that Charles Dickens had 10 children with his wife, Catherine, but that they separated  in 1858? Separation was practically unheard of during the Victorian era. 

This biography celebrates the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth. And with the holidays coming up, I cannot think of a better gift for a middle grade reader or any child who enjoys reading, writing or history. I only wish books like these were available when I was growing up.  This one is indeed a keeper.

CHARLES DICKENS: ENGLAND’S MOST CAPTIVATING STORYTELLER. Text & design copyright © 2011 by The Templar Company Limited. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Ian Andrew, Caroline Anstey, Nick Spender and Diz Wallis. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
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