The Feline Muse

9780761354727fcScarlatti’s Cat
By Nathaniel Lackenmeyer
Illustrated by Carlyn Beccia
(Carolrhoda Books, 2014, Minneapolis, Minnesota, $16.95)

Today, music lovers remember Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti for his sonatas. One of his most well-known compositions is his Sonata in G Minor, often called “The Cat’s Fugue” because of a story about Scarlatti’s cat Pucinella inspiring the music when she walked on his harpsichord keys. In Scarlatti’s Cat, Nathaniel Lackenmeyer and illustrator Carlyn Beccia imagine how Pucinella might have “composed” the music. Lackenmeyer’s whimsical, understated narrative celebrates both music and feline pluck, while Beccia’s charming illustrations bring readers a playful Pulcinella and the elegance of eighteenth-century Europe. Although Scarlatti’s Cat is a work of fiction, the picture book is a delightful introduction to a composer and a reminder that behind every accomplished human is a very talented cat.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Meet the Biographer: Alicia Potter

Alicia Potter has published fiction and nonfiction picture books, including Fritz Danced the Fandango and Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. Recently, she published Jubilee!, a picture-book biography of bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore and the peace jubilee concert he organized in Boston in 1869. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about the joys of discovering Gilmore’s work, her own connections to this landmark event, and the role of crowds in her work. On September 19th, she will be speaking about Gilmore and his jubilee at the International Day of Peace in Rockford, Illinois.

Kidsbiographer: Despite Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore’s contributions to American music, he is not a household name. How did you learn about this important composer and bandleader, and what made you decide to write about the National Peace Jubilee?

Alicia Potter: I first read about Patrick S. Gilmore and the National Peace Jubilee in my neighborhood newspaper. At the time, I had lived in Boston for 20 years and hadn’t heard of him or the concert. Mind you, it took place five minutes from my house! I did some preliminary research and was immediately struck by Patrick’s passion, the incredible scope of the concert, and its impact on the world. I discovered photos of Patrick online, and he’s wearing a uniform and white gloves and this neat little mustache, and I found myself thinking of him not just as an important historical figure, but also this appealing character. The history of the Jubilee was ripe for storytelling too. It had this great, engaging hero, strong emotional and dramatic arcs, and lots of quirky details. The giant bass drum traveling across Massachusetts on a flat bed train car to cheering crowds is perhaps my favorite!

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Jubilee!?

Alicia Potter: The Music Department at the Boston Public Library was a huge resource for me. After the Jubilee, Patrick compiled a 700-page account of the making of the concert, and when I was starting my research, I was only able to find the book in the BPL’s Music Department — except that I couldn’t check it out or Xerox it because of its age. So I did a lot of note-taking over many months there. Patrick wrote with an extremely vivid voice, so I was able to get to know him — his humor and energy and resiliency and tendency to get a tad melodramatic! Newspaper archives and online music resources, of course, were very useful. I also accessed the Michael Cummings Collection of P.S. Gilmore at the John J. Burns Library at Boston College, a special archives of items related to Patrick. It contained the actual tickets and programs from the Jubilee and these fantastic color lithographs of the massive Temple of Peace, where the concert took place. Seeing these items and reading Patrick’s account in his own words really made the concert come to life for me.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout Jubilee!, you emphasize the loudness of the concert Gilmore organized – the sort of volume that would make even live music fans cringe. And yet, your narrative conveys that the performance was “so very, very beautiful.” I can imagine young children delighting in the concept of a big, gorgeous sound. How did you achieve this delicate balance?

Alicia Potter: This was critical, I felt, because probably anyone could have put on a big, boisterous concert. To have it sound beautiful was the real achievement. Early on, critics thought the Jubilee would be this ear-splitting disaster. I even found this funny newspaper article in which the author expressed sincere fear that the Jubilee might injure people’s “tympanums.” The “very, very beautiful” refrain became a way to remind readers of the stakes — that Patrick’s goal was to create an experience worthy of being considered art. Up until the first day of the concert, whether or not he could pull it off was the subject of national suspense. Once the concert begins in the story, I attempted to create sort of a crescendo: the text builds from the “booms” of the cannons and the “bongs” of the church bells to end on a quieter note with the word “beautiful.” My hope is that the unexpected inclusion of “beautiful” echoes the surprise that many felt when the music ended up sounding great.

Kidsbiographer: In your author bio on the book’s cover flap, you mention that you were a member of your high school’s band. How did your own experience as a musician inform your work on this picture-book biography?

Alicia Potter: I took up the flute in fourth grade and continued to play through high school. I played my share of marches (and as this was the mid-‘80s, a Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”), and this connection to the music drew me in to Patrick’s story. It also made me feel the emotion of the event in a personal way. Even though my concert experiences occurred on a much, much smaller scale, some of the moments felt familiar and resonant, such as that dramatic pause before the conductor lowers the baton and the music begins and the sound of all the different instruments finally coming together on the day of the performance.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Jubilee!?

Alicia Potter
: To see themselves in Patrick’s passion and to find inspiration in the fact that, despite many obstacles and much opposition, he was able to accomplish his vision for music and peace — a dream that goes back to his childhood. I’d also like readers to get just how momentous this event was for 1869 America. I have a friend who told me that her daughter actually gasped at the two-page spread of the 30,000 people filling the Temple of Peace. That made me happy to hear that she was impressed! Matt Tavares did such an amazing job of capturing the scope of the event in his illustrations – not easy, I’m sure. And finally, since Patrick has become lost to history, I’d love for readers to appreciate his major contributions to American music.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Alicia Potter: I’ll be speaking about Patrick and the National Peace Jubilee as the guest author at the International Day of Peace in Rockford, Illinois, on September 19. I’m very excited for that! And I have a picture book due out from Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers in May 2015 — Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats, illustrated by the fantastic Birgitta Sif. It’s a fiction picture book, but it draws on my experience as an animal shelter “foster mom” to many litters of kittens! I find funny parallels between it and Jubilee! – I seem to gravitate toward writing picture books involving crowds, except this time, it’s cats. Lots and lots of cats.



In Search of Fairness

9780547290928_hresIda Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business – and Won!
By Emily Arnold McCully
(Clarion, 2014, New York, $18.99)

Best known for her articles, which later became a book, about the Standard Oil Company and its abuses, Ida Tarbell was as much a historian as she was a journalist. She penned series of articles about the lives of Napoleon and Lincoln that were well known in her day and also wrote about the business practices of her era.

Ida Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business – and Won! is a thoughtful, detailed biography of Tarbell, one of the first and most notable American women to earn her living as a journalist. Author Emily Arnold McCully intertwines Tarbell’s story with that of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company. Because Tarbell addressed many sociopolitical concerns during her long career, McCully’s narrative also discusses such topics as American imperialism, women’s suffrage, and Taylorism.

A highly readable account of Tarbell’s exciting life, Ida Tarbell is also an intellectual biography of the writer. McCully shows readers the joys and frustration of the research process: an endeavor that often sent the meticulous Tarbell across continents and oceans in search of a particular source or interview. In addition, she explores some of the writer’s confounding positions on a number of issues. Tarbell, for example, may have been among the most successful women of her era, but she did not support the campaign for women’s suffrage, a stance equally astonishing to both her contemporaries and today’s readers. McCully neither condemns nor defends what social reformer Jane Addams called “some limitation to Ida Tarbell’s mind.” Instead, McCully puts Tarbell’s beliefs in their historical context and incorporates this and other irrational beliefs into her nuanced portrait of the otherwise incisive writer.

At 235 pages, Ida Tarbell is much longer than most other young adult biographies. However, McCully’s impeccable research, clear style, and balanced treatment of her subject – virtues not unlike Tarbell’s own – make the book excellent reading for teens and adults interested in history and journalism.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Standing Up by Sitting Down


I am Rosa Parks
By Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
(Dial Books, 2014, New York, $12.99)

Everyone knows how Rosa Parks, an unassuming African-American seamstress, refused to give up her bus seat for a white man in Montgomery Alabama in 1956. This simple act got her arrested, sparked a citywide bus boycott, and invigorated the civil rights movement.  In I am Rosa ParksBrad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos tell Parks’ story for the youngest readers and listeners.

At first glance, Eliopoulos’ cartoonish illustrations appear almost too adorable for a book about civil rights. However, this book, part of the Ordinary People Change the World series that the author-illustrator team created for Dial, represent a unique approach to picture-book biography. In Eliopoulos’ illustrations, Rosa Parks always appears small and childlike – even when she commits her famous act of civil disobedience in her forties. This makes her defiance all the more remarkable and reminds young readers that even children can stand up for themselves and others. Indeed, Meltzer’s first-person narrative highlights Parks’ preternatural moral courage.  Instead of concentrating solely on her role in the bus boycott, Meltzer explores how she stood up to a white bully – and his angry mother – as a child and how she worked for civil rights long before the bus incident.  

I am Rosa Parks is an engaging introduction to Parks and the civil rights movement. It also reminds readers that while most of us cannot lead social movements, we can all demand fairness for ourselves and others.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Dancing for Freedom

By Patricia Hruby Powell
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
(Chronicle Books, 2014, San Francisco, $17.99)

Famous for the bananas she wore, the Charleston she danced, and her comedic flair, Josephine Baker is synonymous with Paris in the twenties and thirties. But there was much more to Baker than her flamboyant performances and lifestyle. In Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrator Christian Robinson celebrate Baker’s style and substance. This picture-book biography transports readers from the entertainer’s humble beginnings in St. Louis to her international renown: along the way, Powell explores Baker’s civil rights activism and her work with the French Resistance. Powell incorporates the artist’s words with her own narrative, which, at times, flirts with verse echoing the jazz Baker danced to: “RAGTIME MUSIC – / raggedy black music – / gotta-make-the-rent music – / lift-my-soul music – / GOLDEN-AGE music.” Although Robinson’s childlike, folk-art inspired paintings seem, at first, diametrically opposed to Baker’s glamour, they nonetheless convey the star’s dynamic stage presence. In fact, the stage is a motif throughout Josephine; spreads depicting open curtains announce each new chapter of Baker’s life. Although Josephine is a picture-book biography, it is longer than most picture books and works well for older readers: that alone makes it a fitting tribute to its larger than life subject.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Slow Ride to Freedom

UnderFreedomTreeUnder the Freedom Tree
By Susan VanHecke
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Charlesbridge, 2014, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

One night in May 1861, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory rowed across Hampton Roads Harbor in Virginia. All were enslaved men toiling for the Confederate Army for Fort Monroe, the Union-controlled northern portion of the harbor, where they hoped they would find freedom. Although the Fugitive Slave Act required him to return the men to the Confederate forces, General Benjamin Butler demurred. Instead, he declared the men enemy property and allowed them to live at the Fort. There, they –  and about ten thousand other men, women, and children who followed them – set up small communities and performed manual labor for the Union Army. All the time, they awaited their fate: would real freedom ever be theirs?

In Under the Freedom Tree, Susan VanHecke and illustrator London Ladd tell the story of the people who flocked to Fort Monroe to be contraband. VanHecke’s verse narrative avoids both cloying rhyme and bloated free verse, using a mixture of rhymed and unrhymed stanzas of varying lengths, often with the repeated refrain of “the old oak tree.” In this way, VanHecke evokes the form of earlier eras while bringing a modern sensibility to the subject. Ladd’s acrylic paintings capture both the drama of the men’s escape and the promise that awaited them. In fact, all the illustrations that depict the Confederate camp are night scenes while those at Fort Monroe are light.  In one especially luminous spread, a missionary teaches a group of children beneath the oak tree itself. Sunlight beams down on her and her open book and on the children who sit at her feet, suggesting the hope that education will bring them.

Under the Freedom Tree is a moving book about a little-known aspect of the Civil War. Readers of all ages will contemplate the desperation that drove ten thousand people to seek “enemy property” status and celebrate with them as they move, slowly, toward true freedom.

A Naturalist’s Ramble

9780763664701John Muir: America’s First Environmentalist
By Kathryn Lasky
Illustrated by Stan Fellows
(Candlewick Press, 2006, Paperback Edition 2014, Somerville, Massachusetts, $4.99)

Best known as the naturalist behind the creation of Yosemite and other national parks and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir explored some of America’s wildest places on foot. In John Muir: America’s First Environmentalist, Kathryn Lasky and illustrator Stan Fellows invite middle-grade readers to wonder with Muir at the land’s marvels.

The biography spends relatively little time on Muir’s landmark accomplishments, focusing instead on the various journeys he undertook as a younger man. Lasky’s lyrical prose illuminates the beauty the naturalist observed on his quests. For example, when a weary Muir rests in a cemetery, she writes, “But this graveyard was filled with birdsong and with grand old trees draped in long skeins of silvery moss…And so in this place of the dead, he found more life than he ever thought possible.”  Lasky also exposes readers to Muir’s scientific hypotheses: the threats he observed from overgrazing and logging and his ideas about glacial movements. Fellows’ paintings capture the grandeur of the mountain ranges Muir explored as well as the organisms – the flowers, insects, and birds – he saw. Many of the book’s spreads include small insets, sketches of the sort Muir himself would have produced on his rambles or miniatures of the birds, insects, and snowflakes he loved.

John Muir is not only a biography of the naturalist; it is a celebration of the adventure he lived and the land he loved. It should inspire young readers to explore and protect their own patch of greenery.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


A Joyful Noise

J9780763658564ubilee!: One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace
By Alicia Potter
Illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press, 2014, Somerville, Massachusetts, $16.99)

In 1869, against much public skepticism, bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore gave a concert in Boston. But this wasn’t a typical concert: it involved a chorus of twenty thousand children, among other choruses, thousands of musicians, forty bells, twelve cannons, and a giant pipe organ built especially for the occasion. Gilmore wanted to commemorate the end of the Civil War and the nation’s newfound peace with a large, loud musical extravaganza.

In Jubilee!, Alicia Potter and illustrator Matt Tavares celebrate a little-known event in American musical history and the extraordinary bandleader who organized it. Potter’s narrative transports readers from Gilmore’s boyhood in Ireland, where he fell in love with music, to the battlefields of the Civil War. There, as a bandleader and stretcher-bearer, he saw firsthand how music could lift people’s spirits. The picture-book biography is, in many ways, a celebration of sound: musical words, such as “toot” and “la-la-laaa” float over Tavares’ depictions of musicians and singers. And the book also rejoices in the music of everyday life: in one remarkable spread, readers see Patrick in the middle of a crowded city street, reveling in his plans for the jubilee and the sounds that surround him. A cat “meows” from a window, horses “clomp – clomp,” and a streetcar “screeches” and “dings” overhead.

Today, multi-day music festivals are commonplace. Jubilee! reminds readers this was not always so even as it rejoices in music’s ability to bring people together.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

One Girl’s Courage

Malala_front_coverMalala Yousafzai and the Girls of Pakistan
By David Aretha
(Morgan Reynolds, 2014, Greensboro, North Carolina, $ 27.45)

The world knows Malala Yousafzai as the Pakistani teenager who defied the Taliban in order to advocate for education for women, the brave girl who faced an assassin’s bullet for gender equity. In Malala Yousafzai and the Girls of Pakistan, David Aretha gives young adults a closer look at the courageous young woman. He introduces them to Malala’s region of Pakistan with its beautiful mountains and complex political history and its tumultuous present, focusing especially on the trials facing women, including child marriage, domestic abuse, and sexual assault. In addition, Aretha considers the movement Malala inspired and the controversies it provokes in both Pakistan and the West. Although Aretha’s biography is as much about Malala’s homeland and advocacy as it is about her, some poignant details bring the teenager to life. With breathtaking and often disturbing photos of Malala and Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai and the Girls of Pakistan is a succinct, nuanced, and highly visual introduction to an inspiring young activist.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

A Girl from Oklahoma

9781419708466Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America
By Tonya Bolden
(Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014, $21.95, New York)

In 1911, oil drillers found their quarry on a parcel of land in Oklahoma. One of the many homesteads allocated by the U.S government, the property technically belonged to Sarah Rector, a nine-year old African American girl. As a result, Sarah instantly become very wealthy – newspapers proclaimed her America’s richest black girl. Suddenly, a child from an ordinary background became the subject of controversy. Journalists, black and white, took stances on her position. Some proclaimed she was exploited; others questioned her right to prosperity. Then, for a time, Sarah seemed to be missing. Rumors about her whereabouts exploded. In the media frenzy, Sarah’s real story got lost.

In Searching for Sarah Rector, Tonya Bolden examines this strange chapter in America’s history.  She devotes much of the book to explaining the history behind the Rectors’ presence in Oklahoma. Readers will be surprised to learn that some nineteenth-century Native Americans owned slaves, whom they took West with them. The Rectors were descendents of these slaves.  She also explores the government’s practice of allotting land to citizens and the various media controversies Sarah’s case inspired. Documents, photographs, and text boxes supplement Bolden’s narrative. However, nearly every page of Searching for Sarah Rector contains supplemental background information accompanied by an image; sometimes, this information appears before Bolden has introduced the particular topic. Although these pictures and text boxes make the book visually appealing, their near-ubiquity makes an otherwise engaging narrative somewhat disjointed. Readers can never quite settle into Sarah’s story; the book’s very format constantly jolts them out of it.

Searching for Sarah Rector introduces readers to some little-known aspects of American history. It also raises questions about the nature of media controversies. Educators should use the book to encourage teens to think critically about the veracity of stories the media just won’t drop.

-Dorothy A. Dahm