Month: May 2014

One Woman’s Freedom

9780761365891fc (1)Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence
By Gretchen Woelfle
Illustrated by Alix Delinois
(Carolrhoda, 2014, Minneapolis, $17.95)

In 1781 Massachusetts, an enslaved woman called Mumbet mused on the nature of the new America. She had heard something about the state’s constitution and its stirring words “All men are born free and equal.” Although she had known nothing but slavery and abuse, she believed these principles applied to her as much as to any wealthy white man. Risking her owner’s ire, Mumbet took him to court in pursuit of freedom. Her case paved the way for the state’s anti-slavery laws, which were implemented two years later.

In Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, Gretchen Woelfle and illustrator Alix Delinois illuminate this little known chapter in American history. Woelfle conveys the horror of slavery in simple language. She lists the properties a certain Colonel Ashley owned and adds, “He also owned Mumbet.” Then, we learn “The colonel’s wife, Mrs. Ashley, owned the sharpest tongue in town.” The repetition of a single verb tells readers all they need to know about the greed, indifference, and cruelty that allowed the Ashleys and others to enslave other human beings. Alix Delinois’s illustrations help build the character of Mumbet:  an early spread contains seven portraits of the woman, all of which depict her varying moods. The pain and humiliation of enslavement range over her face; however, also present are the righteous anger and resolve that moved her to seek freedom.

One of the strangest ironies in early American history is the fact that the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners, had no trouble reconciling the existence of slavery with the famous lines from the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence celebrates the intelligence and courage of a woman who dared to question that contradiction. It is also encourages young readers to think critically about whom we include in conversations about human rights.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Angels of Mercy – and Steel

1386116620Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific
By Mary Cronk Farrell
Foreword by First Lieutenant Diane Carlson Evans
(Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014, New York, $24.95)

Although the status of women in the military has recently received a lot of attention, those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are the not the first generation of American servicewomen to experience the battlefield firsthand. During World War II, US Army and Navy nurses stationed in the Philippines cared for patients as war raged around them – even after they themselves were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

In Pure Grit, Mary Cronk Farrell celebrates these often overlooked contributors to World War II. She weaves together various nurses’ stories to create a gripping account of the war as experienced by a group of courageous women. Through the nurses’ recollections, letters, and journals, she brings to life their carefree existence before the war, their shock when Pearl Harbor was bombed, the deprivations of the army hospital they maintained in the jungle, the numbness of prolonged captivity, the madness of starvation, and the incredulous joy of liberation. Farrell also integrates contextual information about the war, the era, and the nurses’ past and future lives into her narrative. Maps of the Philippines, documents, and photographs make the book even more vivid.

Contemporary readers will be astonished that some of the nurses defied public – and familial – approval to enter the profession: in the 1930s and 40s, some people still considered nurses “impure” because they encountered nudity and bodily fluids in their work. This small-mindedness makes the women’s stoic heroism even more impressive.

In Pure Grit, Mary Cronk Farrell illuminates a little-known chapter of American history. Young adult – and adult – readers will be stirred by the nurses’ dedication to their patients and, perhaps, eager to learn more about both World War II and the history of women in the military.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Scientist and the Promise

9780547875071_hresA Boy and a Jaguar
By Alan Rabinowitz
Illustrated by Cátia Chien
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, Boston, $16.99)

People who don’t fit in with others often identify strongly with animals; sometimes, they spend their lives advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves. One such person is Dr. Alan Rabinowitz. The world’s foremost expert on jaguars and one of its most prominent conservation and field biologists, Rabinowitz is also the CEO of Panthera, a conservation charity dedicated to saving wild cats. But the science who now addresses government officials about the importance of conserving species and habitat once struggled to speak.

In A Boy and a Jaguar, Rabinowitz recounts his own painful journey from childhood stutterer to eminent field biologist. At school, young Alan’s teachers berate him; he soon learns to distance himself from others. He finds solace from the humiliations of the human world with animals. A favorite place is the Bronx Zoo, where he feels a particular connection to a solitary jaguar who lives in a bare cage. He vows, someday, to speak for those creatures who, like him, cannot speak for themselves.

Rabinowitz’s first-person, present-tense narrative gives A Boy and a Jaguar its immediacy. He invites readers directly into his emotions, both the hurt he experienced in childhood and the peace he finds in the natural world. Cátia Chien’s gorgeous acrylic and charcoal paintings further emphasize this tension. One spread captures the pain and isolation of his school days: a tiny Alan, burdened by a large backpack, stares at the ground while a grimacing teacher points at him. The classroom itself is blood red; a few classmates, seated at desks, recede into the dark burgundy of the periphery. Alan is completely alone in his hell. In contrast, the illustrations that depict his fieldwork show forests and jungles bathed in golden, even rosy light. And although most of the book’s human faces are hostile or inscrutable, Chien’s animals, including the jaguars, are neutral, friendly, or curious.

A Boy and a Jaguar is many things: an inspiring autobiography, a narrative about overcoming obstacles, a moving account of the bond between species, a call to action for all the world’s animals. It is also a celebration of a paradox: our strengths often lie in our weaknesses.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Sy Montgomery

sycheetahA prolific author of books about animals for adults and children, Sy Montgomery has delved the secrets of tarantulas, pigs, tapirs, snow leopards, and kakapo parrots. She has also penned a biography of animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin for young readers. Recently, she published Chasing Cheetahs, a book about the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s latest research (CCF), its founder Laurie Marker, and Montgomery’s experiences at CCF’s center in Namibia. This week, she took time away from her latest research to discuss her encounters with the world’s fastest cat.

Kidsbiographer: Chasing Cheetahs isn’t just a collection of stunning wildlife photos; it contains complex information about ecosystems and genetics. What sort of background research – apart from visiting CCF’s center – did you do to write the book?

Sy Montgomery: Most of the research for this book, as with our others, was actually done on site, largely because we are documenting science as it is actually being done and it’s often the first of its kind! We spent about 2 weeks in Namibia with Laurie Marker and her staff, feeding and exercising their resident cheetahs, tracking cheetahs with radio telemetry, and mounting camera traps to capture images of wild cheetahs. Our visit included several afternoons and mornings in CCF’s genetics lab while geneticist Janine Fearon and master’s student Lucia Mhuulu were analyzing samples we had collected with the help of cheetah scat-finding border collie, Finn. We also had the pleasure of working with CCF chief ecologist Matti Tweshingilwa Nghikembua, accompanying him on an animal survey during a game drive, and a survey of “play trees” from which cheetahs survey their surroundings and leave messages for one another in scent. Nothing could have better illustrated the dynamic ecology of the area and how any change in the animals, plants or human activity profoundly affects everything that lives there. Happily, I was well prepared for our trip to Namibia, with a broad working knowledge of how ecosystems and genetics work from my 30 years of writing about this stuff. But it also helped that before we showed up in Africa, I read a number of books and articles on cheetah biology, conservation and genetics as well as both scientific and popular articles about Laurie’s seminal work. I list some of these in the bibliography in case readers or their teachers want to know more.

Kidsbiographer: Which aspect of cheetah conservation was the most challenging to write about for middle graders?

Sy Montgomery: Middle graders are so smart and fun that writing for them is not very difficult for me. But I suppose writing about the genetics lab was the most challenging. The stuff they do in that lab is so cool that it wasn’t hard making it interesting to young readers. But I did have to explain it so they understood. Because my readers are just as smart as I am, sometimes it’s easy to forget they don’t have all the same background knowledge that I have accumulated during my 56 years. Occasionally I have to remind myself to fill in the gaps for the readers who haven’t lived as long.

Kidsbiographer: Visiting Namibia and CCF’s center must have been a memorable experience. Can you discuss the most interesting experience you had there that didn’t make it into Chasing Cheetahs?

Sy Montgomery: I could have gone on and on about how great it was to walk into an enclosure full of cheetahs and feel them purring all around me. I did describe this in the book—it feels like an ocean roaring in your chest—but I didn’t convey the sense of peace and wellbeing I felt while with these beautiful animals, bathed in their own contentment, engulfed in the sound of their breath. Just seeing them every morning was a thrill. Imagine: In the mornings, Nic and I would wake up in the bottom floor of CCF’s guest house, and just yards from our beds, cheetahs were pacing the perimeter of their large, fenced enclosure. Then along our walk to the dining area, we’d get to see more cheetahs. Everywhere you looked, there was a huge enclosure with cheetahs in it. And they were more than just beautiful, powerful cats. They were individuals who we came to know and recognize, and to a small extent, communicate with. Cheetahs, like smaller cats, purr when they are in the mood for social interaction. Those closest to our guest house—Tiger Lilly, Peter, Senay and Kaijay—would often purr at our approach. What a way to start the day!

Kidsbiographer: Chasing Cheetahs includes a chapter that constitutes a short biography of Dr. Laurie Marker, the head of CCF. How did you integrate the story of her life with information about the species she works to protect and the organization’s current efforts?

Sy Montgomery: Laurie’s life has been inextricably bound with the fate of the cheetah ever since she met her first cheetah cub when she was working at a wildlife center in Oregon three decades ago. Her story is a blueprint of how we save what we love. Laurie only took a job at the wildlife center to raise money for the organic winery she had hoped to create. But the cheetahs stole her heart. In recounting Laurie’s biography, readers learn the scientific facts behind the cheetah’s near extinction as she was discovering it, and share, I hope, her insight—and perhaps her passion–that something had to be done to stop it—even if it meant abandoning all her previous plans and possessions and any hope of financial security. Laurie felt the animals were worth it. And today we know she was right!

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Chasing Cheetahs?

Sy Montgomery: I would hope that readers, when confronted with a terrible problem that somebody should solve, would look in the mirror and realize, as Laurie did, “that somebody was me.”

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss a current or upcoming project?

Sy Montgomery: Oh, I’d love to! Last summer, I took my book research under the sea. Working with underwater photographer, Keith Ellenbogen, I traveled to the waters of French Polynesia for another book in the Scientists in the Field series called The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk. We worked with a scientific team headed by an octopus psychologist. We even administered personality tests to octopuses (writing on a plastic dive slate underwater, of course!) And this summer, Keith and I will be working on The Great White Shark Scientist. Our research will include scuba diving in a shark cage so we can get inches from these powerful but shy predators for super-close up views! I can’t wait.

Meet the Illustrator: Gerald Purnell

Bunny Cover-thumb smllGerald Purnell has illustrated picture books as well as twenty covers for the Bluford series, a set of young adult novels set in an inner-city high school. Last year, he illustrated A Home Run for Bunny, a picture book about a baseball team from Springfield, Massachusetts who defied segregation in the 1930s. This week, Purnell opened up to Kidsbiographer about engaging today’s readers, composing complex illustrations, and communicating with young artists.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate A Home Run for Bunny?

Gerald Purnell: Because there were only a couple of photos of Bunny, and not many photos on-line about the subject. I began buying old baseball books, and checking libraries for reference photos. I then brainstormed rough ideas and made multiple sketches for each page. Most are a composite from different photos.

Kidsbiographer: In this book, you use a few different styles of illustration. Some spreads have a collage-like effect: readers see Bunny excelling in different sports, and he seems to have different texture than the illustration’s backdrop. In one picture, he emerges, in color and holding a football, from a black and white newspaper photo. Even without the text, readers understand that Bunny’s talents were undeniable. How did you conceive this approach?

Gerald Purnell: As compelling a story as Bunny’s is, I felt that my challenge was to create a picture book that’s visually engaging and fun. I used color and contrast to make Bunny pop out of his background. All pieces were done in soft pastels on paper; no over ays or computer enhancements were used.

Kidsbiographer: Later in the book, when Bunny and his teammates attend the tournament in North Carolina, the illustrations become visibly darker and grimmer. The boys and their coaches confer in beige and dark grey hotel rooms that mirror their troubled minds. How did you compose these spreads?

Gerald Purnell: I thought that a traditional approach, where all the paper is of one or two colors, and all pages maintain the same look, while that might be functional in telling the story, with all of the media, games, 3-D movies of today, that would lack excitement and surprise, so I wanted to be a little out of the box in the telling of this story.

Kidsbiographer: A Home Run for Bunny’s front and back inside cover contain illustrations as well. The inside front cover depicts African Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson, who changed American life in the decades that followed the events discussed in the book. The inside back cover contains a poignant image of memorabilia from Bunny’s American Legion team: a group photo, a glove, a ball, and a small framed picture of Bunny himself. Can you describe how you composed these images?

Gerald Purnell: Thanks, I love this question. Both were done on tinted paper, which I used as the mid-tone, meaning that I drew the black of the shadows, and used white pastel pencil to draw the highlights. The desired effect was somewhat like an old photo. The inside back cover is a composite of images that I layered to look like one old picture.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying response to A Home Run for Bunny you’ve received from a young reader?

Gerald Purnell: That would be from a smart and talented young man named Gillis MacDougall, age 9. Not only did he write me a heartfelt letter of appreciation and call me one of his heroes; he also drew, in color, his interpretation of one of my painting.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Gerald Purnell: This is the third picture book that I have done; the first two, Am I A Color Too? and God’s Promise, together won ten national and international awards. I have also illustrated twenty bookcovers for The Bluford Series, which have sold over ten million copies. Now I’m ready for a new publisher or art rep to take a look at what I’ve done so far and challenge me with new work. I may be reached at g.purnell@concast.net .