Month: May 2011

Sandlot Reveries

Henry Aaron’s Dream
By Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press,Boston, 2010, $16.99)

Behind every great athlete – behind any success – is a dream. Without that yearning, the shoes and statistics mean nothing. In Henry Aaron’s Dream, writer and illustrator Matt Tavares explores baseball legend Hank Aaron’s path to the big leagues. Growing up African American inAlabama in the 1930s and 40s, Aaron faced poverty and segregation. His family couldn’t afford a baseball or bat, so the young batter improvised with broom handles and tin cans. But that didn’t daunt Aaron. He practiced diligently, progressing from the sandlot to the Negro Leagues to the minors and, finally, the majors.

Although Aaron won accolades and set records in the big leagues, Henry Aaron’s Dream focuses on his rise to the majors and the obstacles he faced. Tavares doesn’t shield readers from the nastiness of bigotry: he enumerates the abuse Aaron and other black players endured at the hands of white fans and fellow athletes. And although the book chronicles an individual’s career, Tavares discusses Aaron’s rise within the context of other African-Americans’ experiences. Of Aaron’s teammates in the Negro Leagues, Tavares writes, “Back when they were Henry’s age, they used to dream of making it to the major leagues, but…it was already too late for them. Big-league teams just weren’t looking for thirty-five-year-old rookies from the Negro Leagues.” Aaron’s triumph becomes all the more remarkable – and poignant.

Tavares’ illustrations play with perspective, adding dimension and nuance to the text. To show how Aaron tried to ignore the racism he encountered and focus on the game, Tavares provides a close-up of Aaron hitting the ball: the edge of the bat is out of the frame. In the background, the spectators’ faces are blurred. Readers can almost hear the crack of the bat. When segregation confines Aaron and two minor league teammates in a restaurant kitchen while the rest of the team enjoys a celebratory dinner, Tavares shows the three athletes joking with the kitchen staff. Circumstances were far from ideal, but Aaron made the best of them.

Henry Aaron’s Dream explores the hurt prejudice inflicts even while it invites kids to hold fast to the dreams. The biography also reminds readers that sports are not about records or salaries or outsize personalities, but boys and girls and their aspirations.

Dorothy A. Dahm

A Doll’s Biography

The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us
By Tanya Lee Stone
(Viking,New York, 2010, $19.99)

Perhaps no plaything has inspired so much controversy as Barbie. Some attribute women’s eating disorders and low self-esteem to the doll’s thin, yet voluptuous form. However, others believe that Barbie is a liberating force, a symbol of the modern woman’s freedom to combine a successful career with traditional femininity. (Over the years, Barbie has held a variety of jobs, including nurse, astronaut, surgeon, and Marine.) “Barbie has always represented the fact that a woman has choices,” said her creator, Mattel founder Ruth Handler. Still others refuse to politicize the doll, instead recalling the fun they had dressing Barbie and acting out innocent – and not so innocent – scenarios with her.

In The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie, Tanya Lee Stone chronicles Barbie’s trajectory from her debut in 1959 to her reincarnation as a cultural institution and muse. (Barbie has inspired artists from Andy Warhol to contemporary jewelry designer Margaux Lange.) Along the way, she describes how Barbie’s creators constantly refashioned the doll to reflect a changing world. Barbie’s gaze, skin tone, makeup, and apparel changed with each decade, and in 1980, Mattel premiered the first African-American Barbie. Her horizons expanded, too. In the 1960s, Barbie had a flight attendant costume; in 1989, she became a pilot with the introduction of Flight Time Barbie – in a pink flight suit.

Interwoven with Barbie’s story is that of her creator, Ruth Handler. A tomboyish child and a driven, determined woman, Handler never liked dolls. But her daughter Barbara did, and Handler saw a market for a fashion doll sturdier and more lifelike than the paper dolls Barbara and her friends loved. Thus, Barbie, named for Handler’s daughter, was born.

Because Barbie is not a real person – a fact her critics often forget – her biography includes the collective memories of children and former children. Hundreds of people shared their Barbie stories with Stone while she researched the book. Not all of the memories were wholesome: some recalled acting out love scenes with Barbie and Ken, while others remembering torturing their dolls. Some girls reveled in Barbie’s outfits and accessories; others compared themselves adversely with the eleven-inch blonde bombshell. And some had absolutely no interest in her clothing or appearance: they were more interested in imaginative play.

Although Stone is more interested in telling Barbie’s stories than in philosophizing about the doll, she doesn’t conceal her own conclusions about the toy. “Girls are strong, and no plastic, eleven-and-half-inch doll could ever change that,” she writes. By exploring Barbie’s many avatars and adventures, Stone invites young adults to reflect on their own experiences with the doll and to develop their own hypotheses about femininity, body image, and popular culture.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Celebrity in Miniature

Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature
By George Sullivan
(Clarion Books, New York, 2011, $20)

At age twenty-five, in 1863, Charles S. Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, was two feet eleven inches tall. He had toured theUnited StatesandEurope, singing, dancing, acting, and performing comedy routines, entrancing ordinary citizens and royalty alike. Showman P.T. Barnum had discovered Stratton when the diminutive performer was only four years old. The son ofBridgeport,Connecticutcarpenter, Stratton had attracted stares, comments, and unabashed curiosity since he stopped growing in infancy. However, Stratton thrived on the attention; his love of performing later made him the world’s most famous entertainer. At twenty-five, he married Lavinia Warren, a pint-sized teacher turned performer. Their wedding made as many headlines as today’s Royal Wedding, and the two later toured and performed together with other little people.

George Sullivan explores Stratton’s life and career in Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature. Throughout the biography, Sullivan considers Stratton’s prominence in its historical and cultural context. He devotes an entire chapter to P.T. Barnum, who assembled exotic animals, hypnotists, and unusual people – the very large, small, thin, and overweight among them – for New Yorkers at hisAmericanMuseum. In textboxes, Sullivan discusses dwarfism and the position of dwarfs throughout history, exploring how small people have been used and infantilized by mainstream society.

By presenting Stratton and his small colleagues as complex human beings, Sullivan takes his own stand against sizeism. Readers learn about Stratton’s hobbies and his love of luxury – in middle age, he found himself in debt – and the ordinary life he coveted after years of touring. “I love to watch children play,” said a middle-aged Stratton. “I never had much childhood.”

Did Barnum exploit Tom Thumb, his creation? Or was Stratton  a savvy businessman in his own right, an entertainer who capitalized on his tiny proportions to attain wealth and fame? Although Sullivan acknowledges that many small people have faced exploitation, he believes Stratton helped engineer his own career – and enjoyed every minute of it. With captivating period photographs, Tom Thumb is an entertaining, thoughtful look at a celebrity, his era, and the nature of inclusion and exploitation.

Dorothy A. Dahm