Month: September 2010

A Cartoonist’s Spark

Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schultz
By Beverly Gherman
(Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2010, $16.99)

Although Charles Schultz died ten years ago, many American newspapers still run his Peanuts cartoons. Today, thanks to TV specials, greeting cards, and toys, his characters are familiar brands. But when Peanuts first debuted in 1950, the comic strip about a shy boy and his peers was revolutionary. Schultz’s simple line drawings and focus on everyday life charmed audiences accustomed to elaborate illustrations and dramatic plotlines.

In Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schultz, Beverly Gherman explores the mild-mannered man behind the gentle, insightful comic strip. Apart from his success as a cartoonist and brief army service, Charles Schultz lived a quiet life. But Gherman makes the most of Schultz’s ordinary heartaches and triumphs. We meet the real little red-haired girl and learn the touching story behind Snoopy. Gherman emphasizes his dedication to cartooning: his careful observation of people and objects, his willingness to learn new skills, and the long hours he spent honing his craft. Occasionally, Gherman forgets her audience and uses expressions, including “beau” and “seventh heaven,” that may be unfamiliar to today’s tweens. However, she skillfully connects Schultz’s life and work, stressing the universal themes of love, loss, and insecurity that make Peanuts so enduring.

As befits a cartoonist’s biography, Sparky is a beautifully designed book. Photographs, Peanuts strips, and Schultz’s earlier drawings illustrate his life, while different colored pages and fonts make the text fun to read. Students may read Sparky for school book reports, but they won’t feel like they’re doing homework.

Biographers love controversial subjects – they make our job much easier. In Sparky, Beverly Gherman does something far more difficult: she writes about an unassuming man with an ordinary life and an extraordinary talent.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

Freedom’s Conductor

Harriet Tubman
By Kem Knapp Sawyer
(DK Publishing, 2010, $14.99)

Most American students cover Harriet Tubman in elementary school. That is, they learn that she, a former slave herself, guided African-Americans to freedom via the Underground Railroad. In Harriet Tubman, Kem Knapp Sawyer creates a vivid portrait of the antislavery activist and her time.

A larger-than-life Harriet Tubman leaps from Sawyer’s pages.  A plucky, inventive heroine, she outwitted slave catchers with costumes and secret codes to bring as many as eighty people to freedom in Canada. But Sawyer also highlights Tubman’s humanity. Harriet daydreams as a teenager, grieves when her first marriage dissolves, and misses her family when she heads north. Sawyer also discusses Tubman’s less well-known, but equally remarkable accomplishments: her work as a nurse and spy during the Civil War and her care home for African American elders in Auburn, New York. A gifted public speaker, she won support for the abolitionist cause, charming audiences with her warm, humorous manner.

Occasionally, adding drama to an already exciting life, Sawyer embellishes Tubman’s biography with hearsay. According to some sources, Tubman threatened panicky protégés with a gun. “A live runaway could do great harm by going back, but a dead one could tell no secrets,” she said. Or so the legend goes. Such anecdotes may enliven Tubman’s story, but can middle-grade readers comprehend conjecture? Or moral ambiguity? Some kids may not be able to differentiate between facts and possible fictions, especially when they encounter both in a nonfiction book.

Harriet Tubman is also an unflinching look at the slavery in America. Sawyer discusses the history of the American slave trade and the horrors enslaved people experienced – drudgery, brutal beating, and the lurking possibility that one’s owner might sell off a family member. She also explores the abolitionist movement, and the courageous people, both black and white, who fought slavery and helped people on the road to freedom. Side bars, period drawing, and photos illustrate the struggle for freedom and make the biography visually appealing.

“I was a stranger in a strange land,” said Harriet Tubman of her first exhilarating, frightening arrival in the North. In Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor is no longer the remote stranger of the textbook, but a lively, courageous human being.

©  Dorothy A. Dahm

Seams that Bind

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln

By Lynda Jones
(National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, 2009, $18.99)

So often, biographies overlook ordinary interactions, especially those between people of different stations. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker celebrates the everyday life and the unlikely friendship of two remarkable women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, her African-American dressmaker.

The women’s very different backgrounds and personalities made their later relationship all the more improbable. Mary Todd grew up in a wealthy, slave-owning Kentucky family. For the first thirty-seven years of her life, Elizabeth Keckley was a slave in Virginia. Mary was temperamental and volatile, while Elizabeth was patient and self-contained. However, both were determined women who rebelled against their circumstances: Mary defied her family to become an outspoken abolitionist and marry an impoverished lawyer, while Elizabeth toiled long hours as a seamstress to buy her freedom.

 In 1861, soon after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, Mary hired Elizabeth as her dressmaker. Through the Lincoln presidency, Elizabeth’s artistry made the First Lady a trendsetter. But Elizabeth did more than create low-cut ball gowns. She listened to her problems, offered reassurance, and consoled Mary when she lost her son to typhoid. In return, Mary’s patronage made Elizabeth the most sought after dressmaker in Washington – for a time. Eventually, Mary’s emotional demands undermined both Elizabeth’s career and their friendship.

As author Lynda Jones weaves together the women’s stories, she doesn’t shrink from the truth. In her matter-of-fact prose, she describes the cruelties of slavery Elizabeth Keckley faced, including beatings, rape, and separation from family members. She also paints a balanced picture of Mary Todd Lincoln: intelligent and warm-hearted, but often demanding and wrong-headed. In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Jones creates a nuanced portrait of two strong women and their unusual friendship. The book is also a meditation on friendship’s possibilities and disappointments.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

Portrait of the Artist

An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers
By Natasha Wing
Illustrated by Julia Breckenreid
(Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009, $16.99)

 Artists’ biographies for children are usually more about art than life. In An Eye for Color, Natasha Wing and Julia Breckenreid introduce Bauhaus artist Josef Albers – and invite kids to share his fascination with color.

The book follows Albers from his working-class boyhood in Germany, when he marveled at the shapes and colors in the urban landscape, to his triumphant show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Julia Breckenreid’s images include lots of colored squares and rectangles, illustrating Albers’ discoveries about colors and their interactions. In two epilogues, Natasha Wing sheds more light on the artist. One is a more detailed account of his life, while the other describes her childhood friendship with the legendary artist, who lived in the Connecticut neighborhood where she grew up.

An Eye for Color is an excellent teaching tool for parents and educators who want to introduce children to twentieth-century art. The book even includes a list of relevant art projects. Best of all, this biography educates kids, while heightening their awareness of the beauty around them.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

Under the Sea

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau
By Dan Yaccarino
(Alfred E. Knopf, New York, 2009, $16.99)

In The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau, Dan Yaccarino introduces young readers to the oceanic explorer’s work. Simple prose and colorful illustrations allow children to share Cousteau’s sense of wonder at the natural world.

Yaccarino focuses on Cousteau’s love for the world’s oceans. He touches the high points of Cousteau’ life: Cousteau’s childhood sickliness, which he overcame by sea swimming, his invention of the Aqua Lung, an attempt to colonize the ocean, and the discovery of 2,200 year old wine. With Cousteau, readers venture into Mediterranean, Australian, African, and Antarctic waters. Throughout the book, bubbles containing Cousteau’s most inspiring quotes float alongside the illustrations.

Yaccarino creates red, blue, purple, and orange seas for Cousteau and readers to explore. The oceans’ inhabitants are just as vivid:  puzzled seahorses, playful fish, and a curious sea dragon regard Cousteau quizzically. Yaccarino isn’t giving readers a biology lesson, but inviting them to marvel at a new world with him and the French explorer.

“The ocean, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever,” said Cousteau. This picture-book biography should cast its own spell, prompting kids to learn more about Cousteau’s career and ocean life.

 © Dorothy A. Dahm