Gospel’s Royalty

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Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens
By Nina Nolan
Illustrated by John Holyfield
(Amistad, 2015, New York, $17.99)

Known as the Queen of Gospel, Malhalia Jackson brought majesty and deep joy to the religious music she performed. But her road to renown was as arduous and her hard-won triumph as moving as her voice.

In Mahalia Jackson, Nina Nolan and illustrator John Holyfield tell the artist’s story. Although Nolan acknowledges the hardships Jackson faced – poverty, her mother’s early death, a truncated education – the picture-book biography emphasizes the joy young Mahalia found in singing. Nolan’s narrative manages to be as conversational and lyrical, understated and warm as Jackson herself: “But singing in church raised her spirits. She felt like a peacock with her feathers all spread out.” John Holyfield’s paintings convey the transcendence Jackson – and her listeners – found in her singing. One striking spread shows several members of a church experiencing Jackson’s voice. Eyes closed, the congregants clap their hands, clasp their hands, laugh, and sway as the music transports them. Shadows of other jubilant congregants dot the purple backdrop. For a few minutes, they can escape their sorrows.

Mahalia Jackson is a stirring tribute to the Queen of Gospel. Like many children’s biographies, it is a story of persistence in the face of adversity; it is also a paean to music’s ability to transform lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Girl on the Bus

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She Stood for Freedom: The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Jean Trumpauer Mullholland
By Loki Mullholland
Artwork by Charlotta Janssen
(Shadow Mountain Publishing, 2016, Salt Lake City, $14.99)

The Civil Rights movement included both African Americans and their white allies. Although we typically assume these white activists were idealistic New England college students, some white southerners also participated in lunch-counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Among these courageous few was Joan Trumpauer, a university student from Arlington, Virginia.

In She Stood for Freedom, Loki Mullholland, son of Joan Trumpauer Mullholland, tells his mother’s remarkable story. The middle-grade biography follows Joan’s odyssey from child of segregation to committed integrationist. Mullholland’s narrative is not a typical biography; rather, he presents short accounts – written snapshots – of crucial moments in his mother’s childhood and youth. Readers learn how young Joan first became aware of the injustice inherent in segregation; they also join her at some of the most harrowing moments in the fight for equality. Although this episodic approach occasionally leaves readers with unanswered questions, it nonetheless conveys the full extent of Joan’s physical and moral courage as she separated herself from her family and community to join the movement. Photographs, telegrams, letters, poems, and other documents bring her world to life.

Charlotta Janssen’s collage illustrations depict significant moments in Joan’s life. In one, ten-year-old Joan and a friend walk hand-in-hand as they approach a one-room shack that serves as an African-American school. Legs appear behind sheets on clotheslines, suggesting that members of the community are anxious to avoid these white visitors to their community. Portions of the spread are in colorful pastel; others are charcoal drawings while clippings of black and white photographs are positioned over parts of the image. This childhood expedition, born of childish curiosity, is when young Joan first becomes aware that separate means anything but equal. The spread, with its discordant colors and textures, shows Joan’s uncertainty as she takes her first step toward consciousness.

She Stood for Freedom celebrates a little-know, but admirable figure in the Civil Rights movement. The episodic narrative and striking illustrations makes this timeless story especially compelling and timely.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Sickness and Stigma

TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARYTerrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of Deadliest Cook in America
By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, New York, $17.99)

Today, we remember Mary Mallon as “Typhoid Mary,” a healthy carrier of typhoid who transmitted the disease to others without showing symptoms herself. As a result, the New York City Board of Health compelled her to spend much of her life in quarantine. Mallon herself got lost under the moniker. An industrious Irish immigrant, Mallon had worked her way up the domestic servant ladder to become a sought-after cook for affluent households. She was also a fiercely private woman, a loyal friend, and a quick learner who later worked in health care.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Susan Campbell Bartoletti separates Mary Mallon from the urban legends that surrounded her during and after her lifetime. Although little information exists about Mallon’s early life, Bartoletti explores why so many Irish people emigrated to American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – and describes the hardships she faced as a domestic servant. Bartoletti intertwines Mallon’s story with other narratives, including that of George Soper, the sanitary engineer who first linked Mallon to a typhoid outbreak. In addition, she places Mallon’s plight in its historical context, educating readers about early twentieth-century advances in medicine and microbiology. Along the way, Bartoletti raises questions about the often dehumanizing treatment Mallon received from the Board of Health and the media. She asks readers to consider whether the Board violated Mallon’s civil rights and offers possible explanations for Mallon’s fervent distrust of the medical profession.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Bartoletti deftly mingles biography, science, and history. The result is an often gripping, always engaging look at a chapter in epidemiological history and a woman who was dismayed to find herself at the center of it.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Drawing from Life

 

DRAW WHAT YOU SEE
Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews
By Kathleen Benson
Illustrated with Paintings by Benny Andrews
(Clarion, 2015, New York, $16.99)

Born to sharecropper parents in 1930s Georgia, Benny Andrews knew grinding poverty, racism, and hard work. But he always drew his world: the fields where his parents toiled, the hot sun that beat on their backs, and the hats ladies wore in church. Later, the G.I. Bill helped Andrews attend art school, and he launched a successful career. However, he never forgot his roots. He used both his paintings and his position to advocate for civil rights and improve the lives of African Americans.

In Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, Kathleen Benson describes Andrews’ remarkable career. The narrative opens with an elderly Andrews visiting New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Andrews came to teach art to displaced children. “He knew that sometimes it was easier to tell a story with pictures than with words,” Benson writes. Fortunately for readers, Andrews’ paintings accompany Benson’s lucid prose and help tell his story. They depict farms, churches, and art galleries Andrews knew as well as the prisons where he taught art. Mostly oil and collage, they are colorful, sometimes poignant, yet always uplifting portraits of African-American life.

Draw What You See is an accomplished introduction to one artist and a reflection on art’s purposes. It also allows children – and adults – to enjoy Andrews’ work outside of the museum.
-Dorothy A. Dahm

Rising Up

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Cesar Chavez
By Josh Gregory
(Children’s Press, 2015, New York, $6.95)
Cesar Chavez is best known for organizing California farm workers in the 1960s. Inspired the peaceful dissent of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez led a large grape worker strike and fought for the right of farm workers to unionize. In Cesar Chavez, Josh Gregory introduces early middle-grade readers to the activist. In simple, straightforward prose, he describes the injustices laborers faced and the hardship inherent in their struggle for better wages . Photos of Chavez and his contemporaries as well as photos of union posters and buttons make his story more tangible. Although the lives of farm workers may seem distant to many children, with Cesar Chavez, Gregory brings one chapter of labor history vividly to life.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Under Sea Adventurers

9780547207131_hresProject Seahorse
By Pamela S. Turner
Photographs by Scott Tuason
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback edition 2015, Boston, $9.99)

With equine heads, monkey-like tails, and kangaroo pouches, seahorses seem like characters from a fantasy novel. Add facts about their reproductive lives – pairs usually mate for life, males give birth to fully formed live young, and mates regularly perform courtship dances – and seahorses appear more fantastic than ever.

In Project Seahorse, Pamela S. Turner and photographer Scott Tuason bring readers into the coral reefs where these marvelous fish live. On this journey, readers also encounter the scientists who study and protect seahorses as well as the people who make a living from catching seahorses and other fish. Turner and Tuason capture the beauty of the coral reefs and their inhabitants, the adventure of field biology, and the great challenge of conservation: balancing human needs with those of other species and entire ecosystems. Above all, they allow readers to glimpse of one of nature’s most improbable and elusive creatures, encouraging curiosity and wonder.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Renaissance Man

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Leonardo Da Vinci
Written and illustrated by Mike Venezia
(Children’s Press, 2015, New York, $29)

Artist, architect, scientist, and inventor, Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius by any standards. In Leonardo Da Vinci, author-illustrator Mike Venezia shares Da Vinci’s life, career, and art with early readers. Interspersed with Venezia’s straightforward narrative are his humorous, cartoonish illustrations about the artist’s life. In addition, photographs of Da Vinci’s paintings and sketches appear throughout the book. This allows readers to see the artist’s technique and appreciate his work. Finally, a map of Da Vinci’s Italy and a quiz about his life add to the biography’s appeal. Like the other titles in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series, Leonardo Da Vinci introduces beginning readers to one artist’s oeuvre. It also gives kids who might not be exposed to museums or art books a chance to view great art. Mike Venezia is taking art out of the gallery and bringing it into children’s lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

By Her Own Light

9781585369553_fc-1Miss Colfax’s Light
By Aimée Bissonette
Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2016, Ann Arbor, $16.99)

For forty-three years, from 1861 to 1904, Harriet Colfax kept the Michigan City Lighthouse. She worked round the clock, fueling and refueling the light, dragging fuel up and down the lighthouse stairs, and maintaining a log of the weather and her activities. Although the work was hard, Colfax reveled in her independence – and took pride in her labor.

In Miss Colfax’s Light, Aimée Bissonette and illustrator Eileen Ryan Ewen celebrate Harriet Colfax’s life. In frugal, vivid prose, Bissonette conveys both nineteenth century constraints on women’s choices and Colfax’s determination to succeed in a man’s world. Excerpts from Colfax’s log appear in several spreads, further illuminating the harsh weather and constant toil that formed her days. Ewen’s illustrations evoke both the coziness of the lighthouse and the exhausting nature of the work. Readers see for themselves just how backbreaking the work was and why Colfax embraced this existence. An author’s note provides additional information about Colfax and includes a glossary of lighthouse terms.

Miss Colfax’s Light is a winning picture-book biography of an unconventional Victorian woman. It is also a look at a vanished way of life and a testament to the satisfaction of a job well done.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Faces of Feminism

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Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World
By Laura Barcella
Illustrated by Summer Pierce
(Zest Books, 2016, San Francisco, $14.99)

What is feminism? Every feminist has a different definition of the concept. In Fight Like a Girl, Laura Barcella profiles fifty women, all of whom project a different image of feminism. There’s a lot to like about this collective biography for young adults: Barcella’s lively voice, Summer Pierce’s engaging black and white portraits of the book’s subjects, and the diverse array of individuals profiled. Barcella’s subjects include artists and scientists, athletes and politicians, activists and writers, white women and women of color, straight women and members of the GLBTQ community.

Still, despite these virtues, some of Barcella’s choices are questionable. In her introduction, she explains that she didn’t include Gloria Steinem and other well-known feminists because she “didn’t want this book to exist solely as a refresher course.” However, it seems unlikely that today’s teens would have significant knowledge of Steinem, Friedan, or other well-known feminists who do not appear in this book. Also, although Barcella profiles some early figures, including Sojourner Truth and Mary Wollstonecraft, others, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone, do not appear. In fact, not one figure from the American suffrage movement made the cut. Instead, Barcella celebrates pop culture icons (Beyonce, Madonna, Queen Latifah) who have spoken about women’s rights. She also includes notable women who do not necessarily identify as feminists or have connection to the movement (Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama). Had Fight Like a Girl merely been a collective biography of influential or pioneering women, these choices would have made sense. As the book exists, however, these selections seem more like an attempt to stretch the definition of feminism than to educate readers about early participants in the movement.

Fight Like a Girl purports to give young adult readers a kaleidoscope view of feminism, and it does show the diversity of the concept and its adherents. However, by spurning early activists in favor of contemporary celebrities, the collective biography inadvertently dismisses the sacrifices women made so that others could vote, own property, work without fear of harassment, and attend school. Singing a song about women’s issues may still be controversial, even in twenty-first century America. However, early activists faced social ostracization and even imprisonment. They had to be braver than today’s boldest artists. Without their efforts, the actions of today’s feminists might not be legal or possible.

– Dorothy A. Dahm

Her Own Beat

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Dream Drum Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

By Margarita Engle
Illustrated by Rafael López
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $16.99)

Cuba has a long tradition of drumming, and until the mid-twentieth century, that tradition was male. However, in 1932, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a ten-year-old girl of Chinese, African, and Cuban descent, played the drums in Anacaona, an all-girl band formed by her older sisters. Zaldarriaga went on to enjoy a successful career as a jazz drummer: she performed with many leading jazz musicians of the day and even played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday celebration when she was fifteen.

Inspired by Zaldarriaga’s early life, Drum Dream Girl explores the obstacles the young musician overcame to even study her instrument. In free verse, Margarita Engle describes how a youthful Millo heard music in island life: “the whirl of parrot wings/the clack of woodpecker beaks/the dancing tap of her own footsteps.” Forbidden to play percussion, she practices in secret and retreats into her dreams until she is finally permitted to pursue the instrument she loves. Engle’s verse evokes both Cuba’s beauty and that of the world Millo creates for herself.

Rafael López’s gently surreal illustrations round out young Millo’s dreamscape and bring her Cuba, with its cafés, flowers, and carnivals, vividly to life. In one spread, set against a starry sky, Millo mounts a ladder of conga and bongo drums to play a timbale that is the surface of the moon. Pleased to be part of her music, the moon smiles. In another, a flamingo, small bird, butterfly, and a snake paused to listen as Millo drums beside a small pool at night. Even a fish peeps from the water and smiles up at her: all nature delights in her beats. In this way, López captures exaltation and the sense that the universe itself rejoices with the creator: a feeling familiar to all those who’ve experienced real joy, whether it is the thrill of creation or falling in love. Various motifs float through the book’s illustrations, including a small bird who appears in several spreads. With a purple body, pink wings, and humanoid legs, she seems to represent Millo’s desire for freedom.

With lyrical verse and gorgeous illustrations, Dream Drum Girl is an inspiring introduction to Zaldarriaga’s life and work. It is also a moving reflection on the human need for creative expression.

-Dorothy A. Dahm