Month: January 2014

Scientists under the Microscope

lives of the scientists_hresLives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 2013, Boston, $20.99)

Lives of the Scientists is not about science. Kathleen Krull is upfront about this in her introduction: “Other books explore the details of their discoveries. This book is about their lives.” Thus, the middle-grade collective biography does not introduce young readers to the principles of gravity, pasteurization, or adaptation; instead, they learn about Newton’s prickliness, Pasteur’s autocratic manner, and Darwin’s intestinal difficulties.

Krull’s lively prose style and Kathryn Hewitt’s playful illustrations that flirt with, but do not quite descend to, caricature make Lives of the Scientists an enjoyable read. Adults in particular should enjoy learning the about the characters behind advances in genetics, astronomy, and animal behavior. However, the book’s problem is just that: readers unfamiliar with the scientists profiled will remember their personal quirks and not their contributions to human knowledge. Young readers deserve entertainment as much as anyone, but if a book is their introduction to a historic or public figure, then that text should offer a reasonable summary of that person’s work. Without this focus, the biography becomes mere gossip.

Lives of the Scientists may amuse readers of all ages, but it should not attract young people to science. In fact, the collective biography unwittingly perpetuates the oddball genius stereotype. What it does do is raise questions about the role of children’s biographies: should authors strive to educate children? Entertain them? A bit of both? The debate over the boundaries between instruction and amusement continues.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Crushing through History

Historical Heartthrobs cover lo-resHistorical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes – from Cleopatra to Camus
By Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd
(Zest Books, 2014, San Francisco, $17.99)

As no human activity proves as universally absorbing as sex, many adult biographies focus on their subjects’ love lives. In Historical Heartthrobs, Kelly Murphy brings sex to the young adult biography, profiling fifty historical figures renowned for their physical appeal or personal charisma.

Murphy draws her subjects from the worlds of arts, letters, politics, sports, and fashion, including figures as diverse as Che Guevera, Coco Chanel, Ernest Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, John Wilkes Booth, Frederick Douglas, Marie Antoinette, Carmen Miranda, and Jim Thorpe. Some of her choices, such as Benjamin Franklin, may puzzle readers. She begins each profile with a brief summary of the individual’s life and accomplishments. Each entry also includes short headings about the subject’s sex life, overall significance, “Best Feature,” and “Heat Factor” on a scale from one to five. (Franklin gets a four!)

The collective biography’s focus and Murphy’s breezy, irreverent style make Historical Heartthrobs a guilty pleasure, much like celebrity gossip. But this resemblance is also the book’s downfall: while amusing and often interesting, Murphy’s assessments lack depth and, occasionally, accuracy. For example, she writes that Lord Byron’s poetry “shocked Victorian audiences,” but Byron died in 1824, thirteen years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. Murphy skates blithely over some ambiguities, including Chanel’s possible collaborations with the Nazis and Marie Antoinette’s real attitudes toward the peasantry. She also accuses writer Dorothy Parker of being shallow about appearances – a strange charge from the author of a book about attractive people. Finally, she examines her subjects’ sexual identities through a twenty-first century lens, celebrating Byron and George Sand as champions of GLBTQ rights. She forgets people of earlier eras did not think of sexuality in terms of orientation, but in acts.

None of this should detract from readers’ enjoyment of Historical Heartthrobs. However, it is a mere introduction to its subjects, and it often does them – and young adult readers – real injustice. Depending on our convictions, we admire some people for their courage and vision and revile others for theirs. When we look backwards, looks hardly matter.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Godfather of Soul

James BrownProud: The Story of James Brown
By Ronald J. Lankford, Jr.
(Morgan Reynolds, 2014, Greensboro, N.C., $28.95)

Renowned for perfectionism, politics, and theatrical performances, James Brown helped shape American music in the latter half of the twentieth century. The man who served as midwife to soul and funk grew up in the blues: born into poverty, abandoned by his mother at four, Brown was raised by various relatives in segregated Georgia and South Carolina. At sixteen, he went to prison for breaking and entering. How he soared from prison to the pop charts seems nothing less than an American fairy tale.

In Proud, music scholar Ronald D. Lankford explores Brown’s remarkable ascent to stardom. He skillfully intertwines musical and American history with Brown’s story to educate young adults about the entertainer’s contributions to pop music and the Civil Rights movement. Lankford does not neglect the uglier side of the sixties; he describes the unfair treatment black soldiers encountered while serving in Vietnam. He also articulates Brown’s complex political position: a strong belief in equal rights coupled with an unwavering faith in America as a land of opportunity. Finally, quotes, often poignant, from Brown and those who knew him, complete Lankford’s portrait of the volatile, ambitious, and larger-than-life musician.

Proud is a nuanced young adult biography of a complicated and important artist. Today, over one thousand hip-hop tracks contain samples from Brown’s oeuvre; these songs, along with Proud, should introduce Brown to a new generation of fans.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

A Quiet Exit

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The Cart that Carried Martin
By Eve Bunting
Illustrated by Don Tate
(Charlesbridge, 2013, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to improving the lives of ordinary people: he imagined an America in which all people, regardless of their skin color, enjoyed political, economic, and human equality. Anticipating he might die prematurely, he requested an ordinary funeral, not the ornate service a prominent civil rights leader might expect.

In The Cart that Carried Martin, Eve Bunting and illustrator Don Tate tell the story of King’s funeral for the youngest readers and listeners. Bunting’s understated prose makes the narrative especially moving, while Tate’s watercolors capture both the vastness of the crowds that attended King’s funerals and individual mourners’ emotions. A respectful, age-appropriate look at death and grief, the picture book should also spark conversations about the leader’s legacy. The Cart that Carried Martin is a fitting tribute to a man who combined modesty and greatness.

-Dorothy A. Dahm