Meet the Biographer: Catherine Reef

catherine-reefAward-winning author Catherine Reef has written acclaimed biographies of Jane Austen, the Brontë Sisters, Ernest Hemingway, and Leonard Bernstein, among others. Most recently, she published Frida and Diego: Art, Love, Life, a dual biography of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The book explores the couple’s art, political activity, and famously volatile relationship. This week, Reef spoke with Kidsbiographer about the joys and challenges of writing aboutthe pair’s art.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most intriguing fact or anecdote you uncovered while researching Kahlo and Rivera’s lives?

Catherine Reef: What could be more intriguing than an unsolved mystery? I came across one while doing the research for Frida & Diego, and of course I included it in my book.

It happened late in the artists’ lives, in 1952, when the Mexican government invited Rivera to paint a mural for display in Paris, at an international peace conference. Rivera, who courted controversy throughout his career, proclaimed that he would create a work “dedicated to peace,” but instead he produced what was essentially a communist propaganda poster. The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace presented a beaming Joseph Stalin as the world’s peacemaker, inviting other nations to sign the Stockholm Appeal, a petition calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. Beside Stalin stood his partner in peace, a beatific Mao Tse-tung. And if communist leaders offered the dream of peace, then the United States—embodied by a machinegun-wielding Uncle Sam—was the land of greed and lynchings and represented the nightmare of war.

The thing is, it was all a lie. Rivera hated Stalin and his ruthlessness; and despite his lifelong commitment to communism, he adored the United States, its industry, and the opportunities it offered him as an artist. He can only have painted as he did to draw attention to himself and to gain favor with the Mexican Communist Party, which had expelled him in 1929 for his willingness to accept commissions from government and capitalist clients.

Rivera called the mural “the best thing I have ever done,” which is what he often did when a work fell short of his artistic ideals, but he fooled no one. Mexico’s leaders refused to display a painting that in their view insulted the nation’s allies, and the Communist Party declined to reinstate Rivera.

Then, somehow, this mural, measuring 40 feet long and 10 feet high, disappeared. Stories explaining what happened to it sound like urban legends. One theory has it moldering in a Moscow warehouse. According to another, Rivera presented it to China, and Mao ordered it destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. But we don’t know. The fate of Rivera’s mural remains among the art world’s most beguiling mysteries.

Kidsbiographer: All biographers begin the research process with some preconceptions about their subjects. How did your perception of Kahlo, Rivera, and their work evolve while you wrote Frida and Diego?

Catherine Reef: Spending so much time closely studying Rivera’s and Kahlo’s work greatly increased my appreciation of the pair as artists. Because Rivera painted on such a grand scale, many of us never have the chance to view his major works directly. The paintings of his that we see in museums tend to be his depictions of peasant life, often featuring the rounded human figures and lush bundles of calla lilies for which he is known. These works are lovely and full of feeling, but the splendor and majesty of his murals are missing from them.

Through this project I learned to fully admire—and marvel at—the enormity and complexity of Rivera’s achievement. He covered wall after wall with richly populated scenes of the present and past. In Rivera’s imagined world, Mexico’s early people share space with twentieth-century Californians; peasants rub shoulders with Jefferson and Lincoln; the whole of Mexican history plays out, from the pre-Columbian era through the bloody Spanish conquest of the 1500s and the revolution of Rivera’s youth. He painted optimistically, depicting his hope for the future in the clangorous machinery of modern industry as much as in the quiet lessons of an outdoor country school. Kahlo was right when she called Rivera’s painted world “a great fiesta.”

I had seen Kahlo’s paintings, of course, but upon viewing them in conjunction with a close study of her life, I came to understand how she created a very personal symbolic language with which to depict her inner life on canvas—she was pioneering in this way, really. Kahlo has been grouped with the surrealists, but I wonder if some of her imagery doesn’t prefigure magical realism. Think of the flowers with insects’ wings that hover above her head in Self-Portrait with Necklace of Thorns (1940); the vines that grow from her body in Roots (1943) or the varied images that float on her bathwater like tiny islands in What the Water Gave Me (1938).

Kidsbiographer: What are some of your favorite paintings by Kahlo and Rivera? Why?

Catherine Reef: I am never good at choosing favorites, but I do feel drawn to Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932-33). These twenty-seven panels celebrate industry, which in Rivera’s view offered hope to the laboring masses and made Detroit great. Grinding, turning machinery fills the largest panels. Workers operate drill presses, pull at handles, and seem to step off the walls and into the room. There’s a little bit of everything in the Detroit murals: smaller panels reveal the mineral wealth hidden below ground that made industrial development possible. Mighty hands emerge from the earth, peasants cradle fruit, a titan of industry looks down as if from a balcony, and a child grows in its mother’s womb. What a glorious achievement!

What I enjoy most about Kahlo’s work is her delightful attention to detail. Her style may appear primitive at first glance, but when we look closely we see that the thought and skill she applied to every aspect of her painting were really quite sophisticated. I love the way she painted her pet birds in Me and My Parrots (1941). I can see that she spent a long time studying the parrots’ coloration and character, and the fall of their feathers. She rendered each bird with great care, presenting it as a distinct individual. The fellow on Kahlo’s left shoulder has puffed out his plumage; the way the artist used dappling brushwork to capture this makes me smile.

I like looking at so many details in Kahlo’s work: her flyaway hair in Diego and I (1949), the yellows and pinks of the bright grain that forms a background to Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot (1942), and the twining tendrils in Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (1943), to name a few. This close study adds to my appreciation when I step back and view the paintings in their entirety.

Kidsbiographer: Frida and Diego explores the artists’ work and political activity. What was the most challenging aspect of conveying this often complex information for younger readers?

Catherine Reef: Art and politics were integral to the story I was telling, but it was a big challenge to decide how much information to include and where to place it. I was writing a biography, not an art book or a political history, so my goal was to weave these aspects into the subjects’ story but avoid long digressions.

When writing about the art, I needed to show how each subject developed as an artist and found his or her preferred medium and subject matter. I needed as well to provide enough information about the work to enable my readers to understand and appreciate what they were seeing. I also needed to place the work in its historical context: how did it build on the work of artists who had come before Rivera and Kahlo? Was it similar to or different from paintings being produced by their contemporaries? How was it innovative? I found it helpful to focus on major works and paintings that were pivotal in the artists’ development. I described these briefly and explained why they were significant. The fact that Frida & Diego is richly illustrated allowed me to go beyond the text in presenting some of the work; nevertheless, the number of images included is limited, as the book is, after all, a biography. It does contain a list of museums in the United States that have works by Rivera or Kahlo in their collections, and a number of these places make paintings available online. The back matter also includes a list of recommended books on the artists’ work for readers who want to explore further.

Now let’s consider politics. The artists’ long commitment to communism and Rivera’s troubled relationship with the Mexican Communist Party were integral to the drama of their lives. Leon Trotsky had an important role to play, so his predicament needed to be explained as well. I considered what my readers might already know or not know, and I anticipated questions that might occur to them as they read. Never forgetting that I was writing biography, I linked the discussion of politics to my subjects’ experience. For example, I showed the first stirrings of communist thought in Rivera’s mind by having him witness poverty in his youthful travels. When discussing the Mexican Communist Party’s activities in the 1920s, I emphasized Rivera’s role: marching, speaking at rallies, and helping to publish El Machete, the party newspaper. That the couple remained active participants in party activities throughout their lives is made plain by their participation in a political rally shortly before Kahlo’s death.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young adult readers will take away from Frida and Diego?

Catherine Reef: I hope my readers will come away from the book with a deeper understanding of two major figures in twentieth-century art. I hope they will have the foundation they need to delve into the artists’ work on their own and to form their own opinions about it. Ideally they will have found, in Kahlo’s paintings and Rivera’s murals, art that will continue to enrich their lives.

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

Catherine Reef: I am always happy to talk about new projects! In summer 2015, Clarion will release Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, a biography for young adults. Webster is known best for writing his great dictionary, so I got to delve into some fascinating aspects of the development of dictionaries and of written and spoken English. He was also an outspoken witness to the American Revolution and the formation of the early republic, so the book presents this part of our history along with his commentary, which was sometimes entertaining and always insightful. But behind the words and politics was a well-meaning if opinionated and socially awkward man, and the book is ultimately his story.

Intergalatic Music

9780763658069The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra
By Chris Raschka
(Candlewick Press, 2014, Somerville, Massachusetts, $15.99)

Jazz musician Sun Ra’s unique moniker was not the only thing that differentiated him from his contemporaries. Among the first to use an electric keyboard, he and his orchestra, the Arkestra, donned purple robes and metal foil crowns for their performances. He liked to say he hailed from Saturn because he found so much of human life, especially war, greed, and bigotry, incomprehensible.

In The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra, author-illustrator Chris Raschka celebrates the musician’s remarkable talent, colorful personality, and humanity. Raschka’s narrative is conversational; he sounds as though he is spinning a yarn for an audience of rapt children. “Sun Ra always said he that he came from Saturn,” he begins. “Now, you and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn.” His expressionist-style illustrations complement his subject’s free-ranging musical style and evoke the joy Sun Ra found in music and life. Stars and moons float over paintings of Sun Ra and his bandmates performing, suggesting the musician’s otherworldly origins. A picture of a young Sun Ra composing music appears atop a musical staff.

The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra is an inspiring introduction to Sun Ra. It celebrates freedom of expression and invites young readers to embrace their own creativity.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

A Meeting of the Imaginations

9780547821849_hresFrida and Diegeo: Art, Love, Life
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion, 2014, New York, $18.99)

The most famous twentieth-century Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera also conducted one of art history’s most celebrated romances. Their highly distinctive painting styles, radical politics, Frida’s unusual beauty, her chronic health problems, Diego’s larger-than-life ego, and their explosive, unconventional marriage made their pairing the stuff of legend.

In Frida and Diego: Art, Love, Life, Catherine Reef tells the artists’ intertwining stories. She transports readers from the elite Mexico City high school where Kahlo and her friends played pranks to bohemian Paris where a young Rivera honed his craft to Detroit, where the married couple marveled at American industry. Along the way, Reef describes the artists’ work and provides contextual information about their political activities. She never sensationalizes her subjects’ lives and she has no need to: the real account holds enough drama and excitement. A selection of Kahlo and Rivera’s paintings appears at the back of the book.

The archetype of the mad, brilliant artist appeals to adolescents and adults alike. In Frida and Diego, Catherine Reef has created a captivating young adult biography of two volatile artists that is also a nuanced book about freedom of expression and the nature of love.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Emily Arnold MCully

Emily Arnold McCully has written and illustrated numerous fiction and nonfiction picture books. This summer, she published Ida Tarbell, her first young adlt biography. This week, she took time to chat with Kidsbiographer about Tarbell’s fiercely guarded privacy, her complex views on the suffrage movement, and her own upcoming picture books. portrait

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Ida Tarbell?

EAM: Tarbell left most of her personal papers and photographs to the library at her alma mater, Allegheny College, in Meadville, PA. I spent time there reading letters, looking at clippings she saved, printouts of articles, notes and so forth. The nearby Drake Well Museum possesses the letters exchanged by Tarbell and her assistant Siddall. I was told, initially, that I was the first to see them – but alas, that wasn’t the case. Still, they were exciting to hold in my hands and conveyed the real excitement both felt as they worked on the History of Standard Oil.

Smith College also has some Tarbell papers, as does the NY Public Library.

{Sam}McClure’s (Ida’s longtime editor and publisher) papers, including many wonderful photographs, went to the University of Indiana.

I read most, but not all, of her voluminous output. The big job was to condense so much material and to select what constituted the heart of it for today’s readers.

I read a great many books on the history of oil, the progressive era, Darwin, Chautauqua and the other themes in Tarbell’s life.

Kidsbiographer: During the research process, we all unearth more material than we use. What the most fascinating fact or anecdote you uncovered about Tarbell that you didn’t include in the biography?

EAM: Tarbell was not totally transparent, because she valued privacy in ways that are fast disappearing today. But there wasn’t much that surprised me, once I got to now her. I believe that I included everything of importance. Her private life was well concealed, but Kathleen Brady quotes a gentleman admirer in New York who was being transferred to Washington. He regretted the “losses,” in his move, including his hope of spending evenings in her apartment “getting better acquainted with…your cat.”

She also socialized with several prominent lesbians who seem to have had cultural influence without being identified as such. (Another feature of the privacy people enjoyed). Tarbell herself seems never to have been attracted to another woman, but other women were attracted to her. These friendships were matter-of-fact and no doubt provided career support. But Tarbell seems generally to have preferred the company of men, which most definitely meant carrier support. She was easy in her affections.

Kidsbiographer: Biographers learn a great deal about their subjects: more, perhaps, than we know about our closest friends and relatives. How did your thoughts and feelings about Tarbell evolve as the book took shape?

EAM: When I began, I knew only about her work as a muckraker. Discovering her profound antipathy toward the suffrage movement and, even worse, her prisspot attitude toward women in a series of articles purporting to analyze their role in society, forced me to try to find ways to understand, if never to sympathize with her views. Tarbell was thought of by her colleagues as “too good.” She was limited, all too human, as it turns out.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout the first half of Ida Tarbell, you alternate her story with that of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company, the subject of her History of the Standard Oil Company. How did you conceive this approach to Tarbell’s life and work?

EAM: Since they both started out in the oil regions, it seemed right to introduce JDR when he first showed up there to assess his prospects. Waiting to bring him onstage when Tarbell began writing about him would have required a major interruption of her story to bring readers up to date.

Kidsbiographer: You devote a chapter of Ida Tarbell to her opposition to women’s suffrage, a position seemingly at odds with her own remarkable and unprecedented career. What do you hope young adults will take away from this aspect of Tarbell’s life?

EAM: First of all, I hope that young women will understand what the fight for women’s rights was all about, at least in the period of Tarbell’s lifetime, how hard it was, how entrenched the opposition was, even from other women. The issues are not all behind us today, any more than regulation of business, money in politics and corruption, legal and and illegal, are behind us. Her times brought forth muckraking, which rallied the people to demand progressive reforms. Our times need the same. The fight for an equal place everywhere for women is far from won.

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

EAM: Sure! I’m working on a picture book about the first rhinoceros to tour Europe (for nineteen years) in the 18th century, when rhinos were thought be mythical beasts. She was a beguiling creature. It’s a story of the love between her and her owner, a Dutch sea captain.

I am also near the end of another YA book, a fictionalized life of Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.

Two picture books will be published in the next few months: STRONGHEART, the First Movie Star Dog and THE LIZZIE MURPHY STORY, about a girl who played on men’s big league baseball teams in the early twentieth century.

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

9780803740853_large_I_am_Rosa_Parks

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

Josephine_FC_HiResJosephine
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.