Trees for Peace

Wangari_300ppiWangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
By Franck Prévot
Illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
Translated from the French by Dominique Clément
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $17.95)

Wangari Maathai lived a remarkable life by anyone’s standards. Born in 1940 to a poor family in rural Kenya, she was the first East African woman to earn a PhD and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Along the way, she worked both to protect Kenya’s land and people from exploitation; in her mind, environmental protection and human rights were closely aligned. Her environmental activism often took a simple and concrete form: planting trees in deforested areas and encouraging others, especially poor women, to do the same.

In Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, Franck Prévot and Aurélia Fronty introduce young readers to the pioneering activist. Translator Dominique Clément ensures the picture-book biography retains the understated lyricism of the original French narrative: “In shade of the big mugumo, her mother teaches her that a tree is worth more than its wood, an expression Wangari never forgets.” Fronty’s colorful illustrations reflect the interconnectedness Maathai saw between all life. In one striking spread, a leopard poses gracefully in a tree with a slim, twisting trunk. The tendrils of other trees and even smaller plants intertwine with the trunk; a bird perches on one limb. Nearby, a young Wangari, whose name means “She who belongs to the leopard,” peeps from behind two large leaves. Other illustrations flirt with a symbolic surrealism. One spread shows the shoots of various plants, in vivid red, blue, and green, springing from Maathai’s fingertips. The plants’ veins extend down into her hand and arm; a red heart branches off from a vein in her hand, suggesting the love and interdependence that unite all life. A timeline of Maathai’s life and information about Kenya’s current political and environmental situation follow the narrative.

Both teaching tool and a work of art,  is a passionate look at the difference one person can make. It should inspire children and adults to improve their corner of the world – even if they only plant a tree.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Bridge to Fairness

Ruby Bridges

By Simone T. Ribke
(Scholastic, Inc., 2015, New York, Library Binding $23, Paperback $5.95)

Parents of all backgrounds often struggle to explain racism and segregation to their children. Simone T. Ribke’s Ruby Bridges allows parents and educators to introduce these sensitive subjects to beginning readers. Part of Scholastic’s Rookie Biographies series, the book helps children develop reading schools even as they learn about an important figure in the Civil Rights movement.

In very simple prose, Ribke tells the story of Ruby Bridges, who, at six, became the first African-American student to attend an otherwise white elementary school in Louisiana. To put Ruby’s experiences in context, Ribke also provides basic facts about segregation. Photos, a timeline, glossary, poem, and Fast Facts also help bring Ruby’s world to life.

Ruby Bridges became a Civil Rights pioneer when she was six – the approximate age of the students who will read this book. As such, she makes a compelling and admirable subject – and an excellent way for children to start learning about the Civil Rights movement.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Garden of Surprises

9780544272200_hresIn Mary’s Garden
Written and illustrated by Tina and Carson Kügler
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $16.99)

During her lifetime, Wisconsin artist Mary Nohl produced pottery, paintings, and jewelry. However, she is most famous for her sculptures: whimsical figures, animal and human, she created from driftwood, stones, and shells and installed in the garden of her Lake Michigan cottage. The world Nohl created for herself delighted some and bewildered others, but she worked for the pleasure of creating and not for profit or critical acclaim.

In Mary’s Garden, Tina and Carson Kügler introduce young children to Nohl’s art – and show the joy of creating. The picture-book biography shows a youthful Mary defying narrow gender roles by studying woodworking, helping her father build a house, and traveling the world as a young woman. The bulk of the narrative, however, focuses on the first sculptures Nohl built from the driftwood, shells, stones, and other objects she found along the lakeshore. Her dogs, Basil and Sassfras, accompany her on these expeditions, helping Nohl locate the treasures that will comprise her creations.

The Küglers’ illustrations continue the narrative’s playful touch – and emphasize Nohl’s lighthearted approach to art. Nohl’s two dogs scamper exuberantly through spreads, pausing to gaze thoughtfully at finished sculptures. Some illustrations are collages: in the spread about Nohl’s travels, the Küglers include postcards, her sketches, jewelry, and a pencil, all of which surrounds a picture of Mary drawing an exotic-looking sculpture. Perhaps the book’s most remarkable illustration is a close-up of the items she will use to create her first sculpture: colored stones, string, a broken comb, a feather, and driftwood. Nohl’s hand holds one slate-grey stone. By showcasing these seemingly insignificant items, The Küglers allow readers to see them as beautiful and alive with potential as Nohl did.

In Mary’s Garden is more than a charming look at Mary Nohl’s life and work. It is an introduction to her creative process and to her joyful approach to life and art.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

A Walking Dictionary

9780544129832_hresNoah Webster: Man of Many Words
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion, 2015, New York, $18.99)

Although most Americans associate Noah Webster with dictionaries, writing a dictionary was not his sole contribution to American life and letters. He wrote about American history, politics, science, history, religion, and spelling, penning encyclopedia, a version of the Bible, a spelling text, and countless essays during his lifetime. He also successfully campaigned for the first copyright laws passed in the United States. Through it all, Webster sought to celebrate and encourage the existence of a uniquely American, always evolving form of English, one he hoped would unite the people of the fledgling republic.

In Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Catherine Reef paints a lively, nuanced portrait of the vigorous and quirky visionary. Although Reef’s young adult biography is sympathetic, she occasionally lends her dry wit to her subject. For example, she describes how a young Webster addressed audiences about “such riveting subjects as long and short vowels.” Readers encounter Webster as opinionated iconoclast, tireless author, and devoted husband and father. Reef also includes contextual information about politics, education, and language in his era. In addition to helping readers understand his life and work, this material also makes the book a compelling introduction to eighteenth and early nineteenth-century American life.

Noah Webster may have spent years of his life brooding over pronunciation and spelling, but he is far from a dry biographical subject. After reading Reef’s excellent new biography, both young adult and older readers will have a new appreciation for the man behind the dictionary and the dynamic nature of language.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Poll Truth

9780763665937Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box
By Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein
Illustrated by James E. Ransome
(Candlewick Press, 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts, $16.99)

Before the mid-1960s, few African Americans voted. Although adults technically held the right to vote, many Southern states and towns manufactured a variety of legal devices to keep them from casting their ballots. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act attempted to eliminate all the restrictions – notably the poll taxes and “literacy” tests – Southern states used to prevent black citizens from voting.

Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box describes one African-American family’s first experience at the polls. Soon after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, author Michael S. Bandy’s grandfather decides to vote. Although the family owns a successful farm, none of the adults and none of their neighbors have ever voted. Bandy’s grandfather dons his Sunday suit, packs a camera, and has young Michael accompany him to the polls. There, both generations discover what the law has and has not changed about their lives.

Alternately infuriating and moving, Granddaddy’s Turn is a beautifully written account of one family’s experiences with voting rights and restrictions. Bandy and his co-author, Eric Stein, employ an understated first-person narrative to introduce young readers to segregation. And although the story illuminates injustice, the picture-book also celebrates the joys of farming and family. Readers hear the “cock-a-doodle doo” of young Michael’s rooster and his beloved Granddaddy say “Patience, son, patience” when the pair go fishing.

James E. Ransome’s illustrations also reflect this tension, capturing both the menace of segregation and the beauty of country life. One spread depicts Bandy’s grandfather proudly holding his ballot while young Michael photographs the momentous occasion; a sheriff’s deputy hovers uneasily in the background. Other spreads offer bucolic views of life on the farm with chickens, ducks, and even a cow grazing near the farmhouse. One particularly striking illustration shows young Michael and his grandfather wearing straw hats and toiling side by side in a field, their silhouettes illuminated by an enormous golden sun. Life is not easy for the family, the painting suggests, but they have each other, their pride in their work, and their joy in the landscape to sustain them.

By focusing one family’s experience, Bandy, Stein, and Ransome make the struggles of countless Americans tangible to young readers. Equally potent as a teaching tool and leisure time read, Granddaddy’s Turn is a powerful and very human look at a shameful chapter of American history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Choosing Subjects

authorpicAward-winning author Susanna Reich  has written about such varied figures as Julia Child, George Catlin, and Clara Schumann for young readers. Recently, she published Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles. This week, she is on a blog tour, and she paused in her cyber travels to tell Kidsbiographer how she chooses her subjects.

Choosing Subjects
By Susanna Reich

I’m often asked how I choose my subjects. Do you want to know a secret? (Doo-da-doo….) I start by asking myself several questions:


Did this person do something significant and original?

It helps if a subject is well-known, but whatever their field of endeavor—politics, science, the arts—a lack of fame doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is unworthy of a biography. Not many people had heard of Wilson Bentley before Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian created the Caldecott-winning Snowflake Bentley.


Is there sufficient research material?

What primary and secondary source materials are available? Biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, archival newspaper and magazine articles, films, audio recordings, art and artifacts? Quality, not quantity, is the deciding factor here. There aren’t that many books about Julia Child, but all of them are good, and her memoir provided wonderful anecdotes for Minette’s Feast. With Fab Four Friends, the challenge was the opposite. Which of the hundreds of books about the Beatles was worth reading? I concentrated on those that were authoritative, original and well-researched. And I listened not just to their songs, but to the musicians who influenced them.


Will this be a cradle-to-grave biography, or will it focus on an important period in the life of the subject? If the former, I’ll need a narrative thread that runs through a person’s life. For the latter, a theme or event that reveals something essential. Fab Four Friends focuses just on the Beatles’ early years and explores how four ordinary kids from Liverpool became the bestselling band in history.


Did this person have an interesting childhood?

For a cradle-to-grave bio, I’ll probably write more about that person’s childhood than an adult biographer would. I want young readers to feel a personal connection to the subject, and I want them to see how childhood shapes who we become.


How can I write about this person in a way that will be interesting to kids?   

Lively language, suspenseful narrative, fully-realized characters, evocative settings—all the hallmarks of good fiction come into play in writing a kid’s biography. These elements get fleshed out over the course of many revisions. I also look for universal themes. José! Born to Dance goes beyond dance to tell an immigration story. Painting the Wild Frontier isn’t just about a painter; it’s an adventure story. Fab Four Friends is a rock and roll book, but also tells of hopes and dreams, friendship and hard work.


Have other children’s books on this subject been published, and are they still in print?

Ultimately, I want an editor to buy my book and consumers to purchase it, so the marketplace is always a consideration. If there’s a competing title, I’ll need to write something different and unique.


Do I have a passion for this subject?

This is perhaps the most important question. Researching, writing, revising and publishing a book takes a long time. I’m going to live with this subject for the rest of my life (or at least as long as the book’s in print). So I have to be really, really interested in the subject, with enough patience and commitment to carry me through. Otherwise I’m just the fool on the hill….


Tomorrow, read more about Susanna’s creative process on the next stop on her blog tour:




Young and Fabulous in Liverpool

FabFourFriends jkt des3 hiresFab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles
By Susanna Reich
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
(Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2015, New York, $17.99)

The Beatles remain one of the most popular and enduring bands of all time, but the group’s success once appeared unlikely. All four members hailed from humble beginnings in Liverpool, England, where their shared love of music helped them overcome grief and loss. John Lennon lost his mother as a teenager, and Ringo Starr spent three years in the hospital.) At first, no London producer would even listen to the four Liverpudlians play. Then one did – and Beatlemania soon followed.

In Fab Four Friends, Susanna Reich and illustrator Adam Gustavson tell the Beatles’ stories. Both a collective biography and an account of the band’s origins, the book contains sections devoted to each musician. Reich celebrates the band’s wit and high spirits, incorporating their quips and various Britishisms into her narrative. Gustavson’s oil paintings bring the musicans’ world to life, evoking both domestic life in post World War II England and the excitement of performing – and hearing – rock n ‘roll in crowded clubs.

Although it is a picture book, Fab Four Friends’ long and complex narrative is more suited to middle-graders than the youngest readers and listeners. Kids already familiar with the Beatles will enjoy learning more about the band. Parents and educators, on the other hand, will be only too happy to share their enthusiasm for the Fab Four with a new generation of fans.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Brothers Growing Up

pedrojacket420Growing Up Pedro
Written and Illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press, 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts, $16.99)

Pedro Martinez was one of baseball’s most unbeatable pitchers in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2004, he helped the Boston Red Sox secure their first World Series victory in eighty-six years. But before he became one of Boston’s favorite adopted sons, he was a small boy from Manoguaybo, a little village in the Dominican Republic. He idolized his older brother, Ramón, the best pitcher he’d ever seen.

In Growing Up Pedro, writer and illustrator Matt Tavares tells the story behind Martinez’s sparkling career. In simple, present-tense prose, Tavares relates – and occasionally implies – the many obstacles Martinez overcame to achieve baseball stardom: poverty, injuries, his slender frame. But the picture-book biography is more than the familiar tale of hard work trumping hardship; it is a poignant account of two brothers who have never lost their love for each other or their home despite their success. (Ramón also won fame as a big league pitcher.) Tavares has a gift for capturing facial expressions and body language, and the book’s most arresting illustrations are those that convey the bond between Pedro and Ramon: a shared look, a quiet moment tossing a baseball at the mango tree near their childhood home.

Baseball fans will enjoy Growing Up Pedro, an inspiring biography of a modern legend. However, even readers who are less interested in sports will be moved by Martinez’s story and his abiding love and respect for his older brother.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Depths of Intelligence

9780544232709_hresThe Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk
By Sy Montgomery
Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $18.99)

One of the world’s most intriguing animals is neither vertebrate nor terrestrial: it is a marine mollusk with three hearts, eight arms, a venomous bite, and the ability to change color. In The Octopus Scientists, Sy Montgomery and photographer Keith Ellenbogen transport readers to French Polynesia, where an international team  of researchers is studying the Pacific Day Octopus. Montgomery’s delight is infectious as she introduces readers to individual octopuses, whose personalities range from reticent to curious to playful. Never condescending to her audience, she also describes the scientists’ adventures in the field and their colleagues’ equally exciting work in the laboratory. In addition, the book contains brief biographies of the various scientists on the team. Meanwhile, Ellenbogen’s photographs let readers travel below the surface of the tropical blue waters to meet an array of octopuses – and the other fascinating creatures who share their home. The Octopus Scientists should interest both kids and adults in octopuses and other marine life and the health of the ocean; it should also inspire a few to try snorkeling.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

In the Saddle

9780544455955_hresThe Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of the West
By Holly George-Warren
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback Edition 2015, Boston, $9.99)

What is a cowgirl? A cattle wrangler? A rebel? A fabrication of Hollywood and popular culture? In The Cowgirl Way, Holly George-Warren explores the lore and lure of this uniquely American figure: the book is, in many ways, a biography of the icon. George-Warren begins by discussing the pioneering women who found unprecedented freedom in the Old West as cattle drivers, ranchers, and even outlaws. She also explores how the entertainment industry – from Wild West Shows to rodeos to television and film – shaped and still continues to define our understanding of cowgirl culture. The Cowgirl Way should engage cowgirls as well as those interested in Western and women’s history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm