Arts and Entertainment

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

 

 

 

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

Drawing from Life

 

DRAW WHAT YOU SEE
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

Renaissance Man

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Leonardo Da Vinci
Written and illustrated by Mike Venezia
(Children’s Press, 2015, New York, $29)

Artist, architect, scientist, and inventor, Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius by any standards. In Leonardo Da Vinci, author-illustrator Mike Venezia shares Da Vinci’s life, career, and art with early readers. Interspersed with Venezia’s straightforward narrative are his humorous, cartoonish illustrations about the artist’s life. In addition, photographs of Da Vinci’s paintings and sketches appear throughout the book. This allows readers to see the artist’s technique and appreciate his work. Finally, a map of Da Vinci’s Italy and a quiz about his life add to the biography’s appeal. Like the other titles in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series, Leonardo Da Vinci introduces beginning readers to one artist’s oeuvre. It also gives kids who might not be exposed to museums or art books a chance to view great art. Mike Venezia is taking art out of the gallery and bringing it into children’s lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Faces of Feminism

fightlikeagirl
Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World
By Laura Barcella
Illustrated by Summer Pierce
(Zest Books, 2016, San Francisco, $14.99)

What is feminism? Every feminist has a different definition of the concept. In Fight Like a Girl, Laura Barcella profiles fifty women, all of whom project a different image of feminism. There’s a lot to like about this collective biography for young adults: Barcella’s lively voice, Summer Pierce’s engaging black and white portraits of the book’s subjects, and the diverse array of individuals profiled. Barcella’s subjects include artists and scientists, athletes and politicians, activists and writers, white women and women of color, straight women and members of the GLBTQ community.

Still, despite these virtues, some of Barcella’s choices are questionable. In her introduction, she explains that she didn’t include Gloria Steinem and other well-known feminists because she “didn’t want this book to exist solely as a refresher course.” However, it seems unlikely that today’s teens would have significant knowledge of Steinem, Friedan, or other well-known feminists who do not appear in this book. Also, although Barcella profiles some early figures, including Sojourner Truth and Mary Wollstonecraft, others, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone, do not appear. In fact, not one figure from the American suffrage movement made the cut. Instead, Barcella celebrates pop culture icons (Beyonce, Madonna, Queen Latifah) who have spoken about women’s rights. She also includes notable women who do not necessarily identify as feminists or have connection to the movement (Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama). Had Fight Like a Girl merely been a collective biography of influential or pioneering women, these choices would have made sense. As the book exists, however, these selections seem more like an attempt to stretch the definition of feminism than to educate readers about early participants in the movement.

Fight Like a Girl purports to give young adult readers a kaleidoscope view of feminism, and it does show the diversity of the concept and its adherents. However, by spurning early activists in favor of contemporary celebrities, the collective biography inadvertently dismisses the sacrifices women made so that others could vote, own property, work without fear of harassment, and attend school. Singing a song about women’s issues may still be controversial, even in twenty-first century America. However, early activists faced social ostracization and even imprisonment. They had to be braver than today’s boldest artists. Without their efforts, the actions of today’s feminists might not be legal or possible.

– Dorothy A. Dahm

Cozy with Cassatt

GTK_Cassett_cvr2.inddMary Cassatt
Written and illustrated by Mike Venezia
(Children’s Press, 2015, New York, $29)

There are many ways to introduce children to art and art history: education, museum excursions, and stories. In Mary Cassatt, author-illustrator Mike Venezia fuses these approaches to introduce early readers to the Impressionist painter. He interposes his straightforward biography with cartoons about Cassatt’s life; these act as humorous and humanizing asides within the narrative. Finally, Venezia includes photos of Cassatt’s work with those of her contemporaries, including her friend Edgar Degas. Thus, the book allows children – including those who might not have an opportunity to visit an art museum – to see and enjoy her paintings.

Although Venezia uses simple language, his approach to Cassatt, her art, and her milieu is far from simplistic. He describes the obstacles Cassatt faced as a woman pursuing an artistic career in the late nineteenth century; he also addresses the mixed critical reception the early Impressionists received. In addition, Venezia discusses the techniques Cassatt employed, from brushstrokes to her experiments with pastels. The result is a surprisingly rich, multifaceted look at an independent woman and her art that works equally well in the classroom, library, and living room.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Garden of Surprises

9780544272200_hresIn Mary’s Garden
Written and illustrated by Tina and Carson Kügler
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $16.99)

During her lifetime, Wisconsin artist Mary Nohl produced pottery, paintings, and jewelry. However, she is most famous for her sculptures: whimsical figures, animal and human, she created from driftwood, stones, and shells and installed in the garden of her Lake Michigan cottage. The world Nohl created for herself delighted some and bewildered others, but she worked for the pleasure of creating and not for profit or critical acclaim.

In Mary’s Garden, Tina and Carson Kügler introduce young children to Nohl’s art – and show the joy of creating. The picture-book biography shows a youthful Mary defying narrow gender roles by studying woodworking, helping her father build a house, and traveling the world as a young woman. The bulk of the narrative, however, focuses on the first sculptures Nohl built from the driftwood, shells, stones, and other objects she found along the lakeshore. Her dogs, Basil and Sassfras, accompany her on these expeditions, helping Nohl locate the treasures that will comprise her creations.

The Küglers’ illustrations continue the narrative’s playful touch – and emphasize Nohl’s lighthearted approach to art. Nohl’s two dogs scamper exuberantly through spreads, pausing to gaze thoughtfully at finished sculptures. Some illustrations are collages: in the spread about Nohl’s travels, the Küglers include postcards, her sketches, jewelry, and a pencil, all of which surrounds a picture of Mary drawing an exotic-looking sculpture. Perhaps the book’s most remarkable illustration is a close-up of the items she will use to create her first sculpture: colored stones, string, a broken comb, a feather, and driftwood. Nohl’s hand holds one slate-grey stone. By showcasing these seemingly insignificant items, The Küglers allow readers to see them as beautiful and alive with potential as Nohl did.

In Mary’s Garden is more than a charming look at Mary Nohl’s life and work. It is an introduction to her creative process and to her joyful approach to life and art.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Young and Fabulous in Liverpool

FabFourFriends jkt des3 hiresFab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles
By Susanna Reich
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
(Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2015, New York, $17.99)

The Beatles remain one of the most popular and enduring bands of all time, but the group’s success once appeared unlikely. All four members hailed from humble beginnings in Liverpool, England, where their shared love of music helped them overcome grief and loss. John Lennon lost his mother as a teenager, and Ringo Starr spent three years in the hospital.) At first, no London producer would even listen to the four Liverpudlians play. Then one did – and Beatlemania soon followed.

In Fab Four Friends, Susanna Reich and illustrator Adam Gustavson tell the Beatles’ stories. Both a collective biography and an account of the band’s origins, the book contains sections devoted to each musician. Reich celebrates the band’s wit and high spirits, incorporating their quips and various Britishisms into her narrative. Gustavson’s oil paintings bring the musicans’ world to life, evoking both domestic life in post World War II England and the excitement of performing – and hearing – rock n ‘roll in crowded clubs.

Although it is a picture book, Fab Four Friends’ long and complex narrative is more suited to middle-graders than the youngest readers and listeners. Kids already familiar with the Beatles will enjoy learning more about the band. Parents and educators, on the other hand, will be only too happy to share their enthusiasm for the Fab Four with a new generation of fans.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Portraits of the Artists

9780544252233_hresLives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (And What the Neighbors Thought)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995, Paperback 2014, Boston, $8.99)

Since at least the early nineteenth century, mainstream society has equated creativity with eccentricity. In Lives of the Artists, Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt celebrate the eccentricity, egoism, and even strangeness of nineteen artists from Da Vinci to Warhol. Krull’s brief, breezy profiles discuss each artist’s life and work – with an emphasis on the more outrageous and unusual aspects of the former. A humorous portrait accompanies each biography: Hewitt depicts her subjects as large-headed caricatures of themselves and surrounds them with details evocative of their interests and oeuvre. Her portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, for example, shows the painter dressed in signature black. She wears a hat festooned with tiny skulls, one of O’Keefe’s favorite subjects. The artist’s cloak opens to reveal a gorgeous floral pattern that evokes her famous flower paintings. Finally, a rattlesnake and a chow dog stand on either side of O’Keefe as she hunted the former and loved the latter.

In addition to household names such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso, the collective biography also introduces young readers to lesser-known artists, including Sofonisba Anguissoloa, an Italian woman who earned a living as a painter in Renaissance Europe, Kathe Kollwitz, a German artists and crusader for social justice, and Japanese-American sculptor Isamu  Noguchi, who designed work for both museums and public spaces. Lives of the Artists is a fun and engaging romp through art history; perhaps its only downfall is that it perpetuates an idea of the artist as fascinating oddball without sufficiently exploring what is far more interesting – the work itself.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

A City’s Hero

StoneGiantStone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
By Jane Sutcliffe
Illustrated by John Shelley
(Charlesbridge, 2014, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

Although Michelangelo’s David is nearly synonymous with Florence, Michelangelo was not the first artist to attempt a sculpture of the biblical hero in the Tuscan city. For almost forty years, a large block of marble occupied a cathedral yard as a succession of sculptors attempted to elicit David from it. All gave up quickly. Then, someone invited Michelangelo, a young Florentine artist, to tackle the project. Over three years, he worked feverishly. The result was the athletic, formidable David who still awes Florence’s visitors.

In Stone Giant, Jane Sutcliffe and illustrator John Shelley communicate both the arduous nature of Michelangelo’s task and the wonder of his vision. Along the way, young readers and listeners learn something about sculpture, Renaissance art, and the creative process. Shelley’s illustrations invite a few trips through the book. His scenes of early 16th century Florence are warm and human; in one spread, a crowd of Florentines, their faces curious, eager, or skeptical, their attire and features distinct, gather around the work-in-progress; in another, a cat naps in a shop window. Others depict the sculptor intent on his work or stooped with exhaustion from his labors. On some pages, Shelley flirts with neoclassical themes and motifs – an approach touch considering the influence Greek and Roman artists had on the Italian Renaissance. For example, on a page that describes Michelangelo grappling with bad weather, Shelley arranges small images of the sculptor at work inside a wheel. The page’s corners show personifications of the weather – a cherub sprinkles snowflakes while a Zeus-like figure presides over a raincloud. Thus, Shelley provides some context for the sculptor’s work without words.

Stone Giant concludes with the public presentation of Michelangelo’s David. Citizens of Florence marvel at the sculpture. But, instead of celebrating Michelangelo’s new acclaim, Sutcliffe tells readers the artist “saw his David.” The artist’s reward is not wealth or even praise, but the simple satisfaction of a dream realized.

-Dorothy A. Dahm