Author: Dorothy A Dahm

Farewell

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After careful consideration, I have decided to retire Kidsbiographer, at least for the foreseeable future. Although I have enjoyed working on the site, much has changed since I launched the blog in 2010. At that point, I was underemployed and just beginning my foray into children’s nonfiction. What was a burden to my pocketbook was a boon to my creative life: I had time to devote to the blog (and various writing projects) and then some. For the last few years, however, I have been unable to give Kidsbiographer the attention it deserves. A rewarding career in higher education and new family responsibilities now occupy much of my time. And although I have a couple ideas for nonfiction manuscripts, I am focusing primarily on fiction at the moment.

That said, I shall miss this blog dearly. I am in awe of the talented authors and illustrators whose work I have reviewed, and I enjoyed interviewing some of them about their creative process. Serving on the Young Adult Panel at the 2014 Biographers International Organization conference was a privilege as was meeting moderator and fellow panelists Catherine Reef, Mary Morton Cowan, and Kem Knapp Sawyer. I thank these women in particular for their kindness and encouragement and my readers for their loyalty.

Keep well and keep reading!

Standing Up for Education

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Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education
By Raphaële Frier
Illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
Translated from the French by Julie Cormier
(Charlesbridge, 2017, Watertown, Massachusetts, $17.99)

By now, nearly everyone has heard of Malala Yousafza. When she was only eleven, she started blogging about the Taliban’s efforts to suppress education for women and girls in her native Pakistan. Her activism attracted national and international recognition, but it also outraged extremists. One day, when Malala was fifteen, two militants boarded her school bus. One of them shot her twice; a few other girls were also wounded. After convalescing in Birmingham, England, Malala continued her studies – and her efforts to ensure education for all children, male and female, throughout the world. In 2014, at seventeen, Malala became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education, Raphaële Frier and Aurélia Fronty take a closer look at Malala’s story. Frier’s lyrical present-tense narrative, translated from French by Julie Cormier, brings readers into the young activist’s world. We learn how Malala liked to sit on her roof and listen “to the sounds of the city, the chatter of the birds, and the words her father talking about politics with his friends while they drink cardamom tea.” Frier also explains how the Taliban took advantage of a natural disaster to pretty on people’s fears and provides some contextual information about Pashtun culture. An extensive afterword discusses Pakistan, the plight of girls’ around the world, and Malala’s various role models. Aurélia Fronty’s illustrations use color and texture to celebrate Malala’s achievements and bring her world to life. In one early spread, Malala and her younger brother stand on a red rooftop, flying magnificently multicolored kites. Below them is a patchwork green valley; above them, snow-capped purple mountains. As Malala’s world becomes more dangerous, Fronty’s illustrations become more surreal. One spread shows Malala flying to England after the attempt on her life. A tiny figure lies in, or perhaps atop, a two-dimensional plan. An IV is attached to her. The plane soars over blue mountains patrolled by one armed figure and swirly striped clouds to a pile of letters addressed to her, presided over by a pink kitten. Some fanatics may wish Malala ill, but far more people support her.

Malala is an inspiring story about what one brave person can achieve. The picture-book biography should also make young people – and Westerners of all ages – appreciative of their educational opportunities and spark conversation about how social change happens.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Singing for Justice

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Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger and the Path to Justice
By Susanna Reich
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
(Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2017, New York, $17.99)

Best known for such folks perennials as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” folk musician Pete Seeger sang about social injustice. He performed for ordinary people, including workers organizing for better wages and working conditions. In the 1950s and 60s, his music inspired civil rights activists and those protesting the Vietnam War. He even participated in the fledgling environmental movement, building a boat, The Clearwater, to encourage others to clean his beloved Hudson River. His commitment to these causes at times compromised his career and even endangered his life.

In Stand Up and Sing!, Susanna Reich and illustrator Adam Gustavson bring Seeger’s message to a new generation. Reich’s narrative emphasizes the young singer’s evolving social conscience. For example, she describes his boyhood interest in Native American culture: “He read about Native Americans and loved the idea that, in some tribes, everything was shared.” She also discusses Seeger’s devotion to his craft, the hours he spent practicing his banjo and his early struggle to play and sing simultaneously. In this way, Seeger’s contributions to music and social movements seem the work of an ordinary, if extraordinarily dedicated, human being and not those of a prodigy.

Gustavson’s illustrations further humanize the folk icon. His Seeger never dominates the book’s spreads. Whether he is practicing the banjo, shaving in a cold water flat,  participating in a march, or performing for a crowd, he is always unassuming. Monocolor illustrations of significant moments and objects in the singer’s life – a band poster, a banjo, an image of him with Martin Luther King Jr. – complement the book’s larger paintings. In the book’s most startling spread, Seeger and his wife have just come from a concert where he performed with an African-American artist. The painting shows them in the front seat of their car. Not everyone is happy about integration: someone has thrown a rock at the driver’s side window. The glass splinters into numerous small pieces that spread onto the opposite page. Seeger faces the rock and grips the steering wheel. He and his wife may be frightened, but their commitment is unflinching.

Stand Up and Sing! offers an inspiring introduction to Seeger, his times, and the causes he espoused during his long career. But it is also an introduction to his virtues – compassion, moral courage, a belief in human dignity – that transcend any era.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

 

 

Batting for Boston

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Waiting for Pumpsie
By Barry Wittenstein
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Charlesbridge, 2017, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.99)

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play for a major league baseball team. But Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers didn’t mean the sport was instantly desegregated. Twelve years passed before the final holdout, the Boston Red Sox, hired Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, its first black player.

In Waiting for Pumpsie, Barry Wittenstein and illustrator London Ladd explore one fictional African-American family’s emotions as they await the day a black player will join their beloved Sox. Through the eyes of Bernard, a baseball-obsessed boy, readers experience the conflicting emotions many Red Sox fans felt: “We always want the Sox to win. But Mama says we gotta root for all the colored players, no matter what team they’re on.” Bernard’s voice feels real and timeless, while Ladd’s illustrations bring late 1950s Boston to life.

Waiting for Pumpsie is an introduction to Pumpsie Green and an important chapter in sports history. It is also a very human look at a family’s complex relationship with the sport they love.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Ticktock, Wooden Clock

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Ticktock Banneker’s Clock
By Shana Keller
Illustrated by David C. Gardner
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2016, Ann Arbor, $16.99)

An anomaly in his own time, Benjamin Banneker lived a remarkable life by any standards. Born to free African-American farmers in eighteenth-century Maryland, he learned to read when most black children were prevented from accessing education. Banneker not only became literate, but he went on to make contributions in math, astronomy, and engineering.

In Ticktock Banneker’s Clock, Shana Keller and illustrator David C. Gardner explore one of Banneker’s most impressive feats. Using a neighbor’s pocket watch as a model, young Benjamin built a wooden clock. The project took nearly two years – he drew diagrams; cut, cured, and carved wooden gears; and assembled the pieces a few times before he achieved a working timepiece. Keller’s narrative highlights Banneker’s focus and attention to detail, while providing readers with a glimpse of the rest of his life – his love for music and his hard work on the farm. Gardner’s illustrations paint a warm, idyllic portrait of Banneker and his world: young Benjamin toils on the farm, plays his flute under a tree, and draws diagrams at his desk. In almost every spread, his trusty hound accompanies him, and the seasons rise and fall around him as his project unfolds.

Ticktock Banneker’s Clock is an introduction to Benjamin Banneker and one of his many accomplishments. It is also a book about the rewards of patience and persistence and the joys of curiosity.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Angel with a Plan

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Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion Books, 2017, New York, $18.99)

Long considered a founding mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale is best remembered for nursing British soldiers during the Crimean War and founding a nursing school after it. However, the “Angel with a Lamp” was also a fierce public health advocate. She argued for – and often obtained – improved medical care and living conditions for Britain’s standing army and better sanitation in India. Eventually, she became a national symbol, but she overcame societal prejudice and familial opposition to start her career.

In Florence Nightingale, Catherine Reef describes the famous nurse’s life and work. She discusses Nightingale’s accomplishments in their historical context, providing relevant information about Victorian society, medicine, and the position of women. Of special interest to Reef is Nightingale’s relationship with her sister Parthenope. Staid and domestic, Parthenope was an ideal Victorian lady – and everything Florence was not. However, Parthenope initially resented Florence’s adventures and career because they separated her from her sister. In this way, Reef explores how nineteenth-century gender roles constrained not only ambitious women like Nightingale, but also those who preferred a quieter way of life as it made them overly dependent on others. And although Reef paints an admiring portrait of Nightingale, she also relates incidents in which the ministering angel was dismissive or manipulative. Far from detracting from Nightingale’s image, these anecdotes suggest she needed a certain single-mindedness to do her work.

Inspiring and thought-provoking, Florence Nightingale is both an intimate portrait of a secular saint and a look at the world that shaped her. Like the best biographies, it asks why someone accomplished so much – and provides a nuanced answer.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Gospel’s Royalty

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Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens
By Nina Nolan
Illustrated by John Holyfield
(Amistad, 2015, New York, $17.99)

Known as the Queen of Gospel, Malhalia Jackson brought majesty and deep joy to the religious music she performed. But her road to renown was as arduous and her hard-won triumph as moving as her voice.

In Mahalia Jackson, Nina Nolan and illustrator John Holyfield tell the artist’s story. Although Nolan acknowledges the hardships Jackson faced – poverty, her mother’s early death, a truncated education – the picture-book biography emphasizes the joy young Mahalia found in singing. Nolan’s narrative manages to be as conversational and lyrical, understated and warm as Jackson herself: “But singing in church raised her spirits. She felt like a peacock with her feathers all spread out.” John Holyfield’s paintings convey the transcendence Jackson – and her listeners – found in her singing. One striking spread shows several members of a church experiencing Jackson’s voice. Eyes closed, the congregants clap their hands, clasp their hands, laugh, and sway as the music transports them. Shadows of other jubilant congregants dot the purple backdrop. For a few minutes, they can escape their sorrows.

Mahalia Jackson is a stirring tribute to the Queen of Gospel. Like many children’s biographies, it is a story of persistence in the face of adversity; it is also a paean to music’s ability to transform lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Girl on the Bus

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She Stood for Freedom: The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Jean Trumpauer Mullholland
By Loki Mullholland
Artwork by Charlotta Janssen
(Shadow Mountain Publishing, 2016, Salt Lake City, $14.99)

The Civil Rights movement included both African Americans and their white allies. Although we typically assume these white activists were idealistic New England college students, some white southerners also participated in lunch-counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Among these courageous few was Joan Trumpauer, a university student from Arlington, Virginia.

In She Stood for Freedom, Loki Mullholland, son of Joan Trumpauer Mullholland, tells his mother’s remarkable story. The middle-grade biography follows Joan’s odyssey from child of segregation to committed integrationist. Mullholland’s narrative is not a typical biography; rather, he presents short accounts – written snapshots – of crucial moments in his mother’s childhood and youth. Readers learn how young Joan first became aware of the injustice inherent in segregation; they also join her at some of the most harrowing moments in the fight for equality. Although this episodic approach occasionally leaves readers with unanswered questions, it nonetheless conveys the full extent of Joan’s physical and moral courage as she separated herself from her family and community to join the movement. Photographs, telegrams, letters, poems, and other documents bring her world to life.

Charlotta Janssen’s collage illustrations depict significant moments in Joan’s life. In one, ten-year-old Joan and a friend walk hand-in-hand as they approach a one-room shack that serves as an African-American school. Legs appear behind sheets on clotheslines, suggesting that members of the community are anxious to avoid these white visitors to their community. Portions of the spread are in colorful pastel; others are charcoal drawings while clippings of black and white photographs are positioned over parts of the image. This childhood expedition, born of childish curiosity, is when young Joan first becomes aware that separate means anything but equal. The spread, with its discordant colors and textures, shows Joan’s uncertainty as she takes her first step toward consciousness.

She Stood for Freedom celebrates a little-know, but admirable figure in the Civil Rights movement. The episodic narrative and striking illustrations makes this timeless story especially compelling and timely.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Sickness and Stigma

TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARYTerrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of Deadliest Cook in America
By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, New York, $17.99)

Today, we remember Mary Mallon as “Typhoid Mary,” a healthy carrier of typhoid who transmitted the disease to others without showing symptoms herself. As a result, the New York City Board of Health compelled her to spend much of her life in quarantine. Mallon herself got lost under the moniker. An industrious Irish immigrant, Mallon had worked her way up the domestic servant ladder to become a sought-after cook for affluent households. She was also a fiercely private woman, a loyal friend, and a quick learner who later worked in health care.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Susan Campbell Bartoletti separates Mary Mallon from the urban legends that surrounded her during and after her lifetime. Although little information exists about Mallon’s early life, Bartoletti explores why so many Irish people emigrated to American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – and describes the hardships she faced as a domestic servant. Bartoletti intertwines Mallon’s story with other narratives, including that of George Soper, the sanitary engineer who first linked Mallon to a typhoid outbreak. In addition, she places Mallon’s plight in its historical context, educating readers about early twentieth-century advances in medicine and microbiology. Along the way, Bartoletti raises questions about the often dehumanizing treatment Mallon received from the Board of Health and the media. She asks readers to consider whether the Board violated Mallon’s civil rights and offers possible explanations for Mallon’s fervent distrust of the medical profession.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Bartoletti deftly mingles biography, science, and history. The result is an often gripping, always engaging look at a chapter in epidemiological history and a woman who was dismayed to find herself at the center of it.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Drawing from Life

 

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Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews
By Kathleen Benson
Illustrated with Paintings by Benny Andrews
(Clarion, 2015, New York, $16.99)

Born to sharecropper parents in 1930s Georgia, Benny Andrews knew grinding poverty, racism, and hard work. But he always drew his world: the fields where his parents toiled, the hot sun that beat on their backs, and the hats ladies wore in church. Later, the G.I. Bill helped Andrews attend art school, and he launched a successful career. However, he never forgot his roots. He used both his paintings and his position to advocate for civil rights and improve the lives of African Americans.

In Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, Kathleen Benson describes Andrews’ remarkable career. The narrative opens with an elderly Andrews visiting New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Andrews came to teach art to displaced children. “He knew that sometimes it was easier to tell a story with pictures than with words,” Benson writes. Fortunately for readers, Andrews’ paintings accompany Benson’s lucid prose and help tell his story. They depict farms, churches, and art galleries Andrews knew as well as the prisons where he taught art. Mostly oil and collage, they are colorful, sometimes poignant, yet always uplifting portraits of African-American life.

Draw What You See is an accomplished introduction to one artist and a reflection on art’s purposes. It also allows children – and adults – to enjoy Andrews’ work outside of the museum.
-Dorothy A. Dahm