Written and Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell
(Little, Brown, & Company, 2011, New York, $15.99)
Jane Goodall, chimpanzee researcher, conservationist, and UN Messenger of Peace, was once a little girl who adored her plush chimpanzee. In Me…Jane, Patrick McDonnell tells the story of Jane, a girl who loves the Tarzan books and dreams of one day living amidst African wildlife. Meanwhile, she learns all she can about animals. One day, she awakens to find her wishes have come true. McDonnell’s gentle prose and illustrations evoke a sense of approachable wonder about the natural world. Photographs of the young and grown Jane and examples of her childhood drawings complement his illustrations, further blurring the boundaries between her dreams and her future. Above all, Me…Jane suggests young readers should prize reveries for their own sake – a valuable lesson in a world in which even childhood is fast-paced.
-Dorothy A. Dahm
Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition among Snow Leopards in Mongolia
By Sy Montgomery
Photographs by Nic Bishop
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Paperback Edition 2012, New York, $7.99)
Field biology is especially challenging when your quarry is one of the most elusive mammals on the planet. In Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop accompany snow leopard researcher Tom McCarthy on an expedition in Montgolia. Although not strictly a biography, the book, part of The Scientists in the Field series, includes biographical information about McCarthy and his colleagues and frankly describes the challenges, frustrations, and joys of fieldwork. Some chapters and textboxes focus on the animals, both domestic and wild, who share the snow leopard’s territory; others on the region’s culture. Montgomery’s account is lively and engaging, and Bishop’s photos capture the splendor of the mountains and the Gobi Desert as well as the warmth of the land’s people. But the most engrossing passages describe McCarthy’s fleeting encounters with the mountain ghost itself. Here, readers understand why McCarthy persists in his quest to uncover the snow leopard’s mysteries despite blazing heat, freezing cold, and arduous mountain hikes – and why saving the endangered cat is so compelling.
-Dorothy A. Dahm
For the Birds: Roger Tory Peterson
By Peggy Thomas
Illustrated by Laura Jacques
(Calkins Creek, Honesdale,Pennsylvania, 2011, $16.95)
A quirky, misunderstood kid pursues his interests despite peer pressure and parental disapproval – and achieves something great. That plotline is the premise of countless biographies, including that of naturalist Roger Tory Peterson. In For the Birds, Peggy Thomas and illustrator Laura Jacques share Peterson’s story with young readers.
Growing up in Jamestown, New Yorkin the early twentieth century, Roger Tory Peterson was a misfit. He preferred exploring the woods and collecting bird nests to playing with his peers. His unusual hobbies exasperated his father. But one insightful teacher encouraged Roger’s interests in nature and naturalist art. As a young man, he studied art in New Yorkand quickly won recognition as a bird painter. He wrote and illustrated A Field Guide to the Birds, the first bird identification book for lay audiences, which made bird-watching a popular pastime. Later, Peterson advocated for bird conservation and helped ban the use of DDT in the United States.
Together, Thomas and Jacques capture the marvel of both Peterson’s life and the creatures he loved. For the Birds has more and denser text than most picture books; for this reason, it often reads more like a middle-grade biography with illustrations than a picture-book biography. However, Thomas’s prose, with its reassuring repetitions, lends itself well to reading out loud. Her similes and metaphors often link her subject with birds: as a boy, he was “as think and gawky as a fledgling egret.” “A flock of friends” helped Peterson complete a later edition of his field guide. With vivid, arresting representations of various bird species, many of Laura Jacques’ illustrations are themselves splendid examples of naturalist art. Often, Peterson and his surroundings – a city street, his peers, an easel – seem to occupy another dimension than the birds that fascinate him. This suggests nature’s ability to help us transcend our immediate concerns and enter another sphere. For the Birds should introduce children to a world of wonders just outside their door.
Dorothy A. Dahm
Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein
By Susan Goldman Rubin
(Charlesbridge,Watertown,MA, 2012, $19.95)
Most biographies tell their subject’s stories from cradle to grave; a few focus on a specific chapter of the person’s life. In Music Was It, Susan Goldman Rubin explores the early part of Leonard Bernstein’s career, concluding with his triumphant conductorial debut at Carnegie Hall when he was twenty-five. Although an epilogue summarizes Bernstein;s remarkable achievements as a conductor, composer, and concert pianist, it remains a young adult biography about the struggles one young adult overcame to pursue his dream.
Certainly, enough roadblocks existed between Lenny Bernstein and musical success. First, in the 1930s and 40s, most professional classical musicians in the US were European. Second, anti-Semitism was alive and well: at Harvard, Bernstein could not join certain musical societies because he was Jewish. Finally, his father kept pressuring him to abandon his musical studies and join the family business. Fortunately, Bernstein had everything he needed to surmount these obstacles: exuberance, charm, prodigious talent, and a love of music that superseded everything else in his life. Although Rubin’s biography concentrates on Bernstein’s artistic development, his personality emerges from the pages. Readers glimpse the playfulness that inspired him to produce spoofs of operas as a teenager and turn a joke with a roommate into a song when he was a struggling young musician. A foreword by Jamie Bernstein, the conductor’s daughter, highlights his personal warmth.
Music Was It constitutes a solid introduction to Bernstein’s life, oeuvre, and era: a discography and mini-biographies of his musical friends and mentors appear at the book’s end. But above all, it is a moving narrative about personal dreams and family relationships with a satisfying conclusion.
Dorothy A. Dahm