Middle Grade Biography

Singing for Justice

StandUpSing_final_9780802738127

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

 

 

 

Girl on the Bus

shestoodforfreedom

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

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

Rising Up

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Cesar Chavez
By Josh Gregory
(Children’s Press, 2015, New York, $6.95)
Cesar Chavez is best known for organizing California farm workers in the 1960s. Inspired the peaceful dissent of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez led a large grape worker strike and fought for the right of farm workers to unionize. In Cesar Chavez, Josh Gregory introduces early middle-grade readers to the activist. In simple, straightforward prose, he describes the injustices laborers faced and the hardship inherent in their struggle for better wages . Photos of Chavez and his contemporaries as well as photos of union posters and buttons make his story more tangible. Although the lives of farm workers may seem distant to many children, with Cesar Chavez, Gregory brings one chapter of labor history vividly to life.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Under Sea Adventurers

9780547207131_hresProject Seahorse
By Pamela S. Turner
Photographs by Scott Tuason
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback edition 2015, Boston, $9.99)

With equine heads, monkey-like tails, and kangaroo pouches, seahorses seem like characters from a fantasy novel. Add facts about their reproductive lives – pairs usually mate for life, males give birth to fully formed live young, and mates regularly perform courtship dances – and seahorses appear more fantastic than ever.

In Project Seahorse, Pamela S. Turner and photographer Scott Tuason bring readers into the coral reefs where these marvelous fish live. On this journey, readers also encounter the scientists who study and protect seahorses as well as the people who make a living from catching seahorses and other fish. Turner and Tuason capture the beauty of the coral reefs and their inhabitants, the adventure of field biology, and the great challenge of conservation: balancing human needs with those of other species and entire ecosystems. Above all, they allow readers to glimpse of one of nature’s most improbable and elusive creatures, encouraging curiosity and wonder.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

By Her Own Light

9781585369553_fc-1Miss Colfax’s Light
By Aimée Bissonette
Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2016, Ann Arbor, $16.99)

For forty-three years, from 1861 to 1904, Harriet Colfax kept the Michigan City Lighthouse. She worked round the clock, fueling and refueling the light, dragging fuel up and down the lighthouse stairs, and maintaining a log of the weather and her activities. Although the work was hard, Colfax reveled in her independence – and took pride in her labor.

In Miss Colfax’s Light, Aimée Bissonette and illustrator Eileen Ryan Ewen celebrate Harriet Colfax’s life. In frugal, vivid prose, Bissonette conveys both nineteenth century constraints on women’s choices and Colfax’s determination to succeed in a man’s world. Excerpts from Colfax’s log appear in several spreads, further illuminating the harsh weather and constant toil that formed her days. Ewen’s illustrations evoke both the coziness of the lighthouse and the exhausting nature of the work. Readers see for themselves just how backbreaking the work was and why Colfax embraced this existence. An author’s note provides additional information about Colfax and includes a glossary of lighthouse terms.

Miss Colfax’s Light is a winning picture-book biography of an unconventional Victorian woman. It is also a look at a vanished way of life and a testament to the satisfaction of a job well done.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Trade Secrets

inventors-secret-hiresThe Inventor’s Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford
By Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and the phonograph; Henry Ford produced the Model T Ford, the first affordable, high-quality automobile. Together, they helped fashion modern life. However, when they first met at an 1896 dinner party, Edison was sixteen years old and far more celebrated than the younger inventor. Still, he gave Ford some much-needed encouragement – and some valuable advice. That was all the incentive Ford needed to continue experimenting with engines. Eventually, he made his Model T, and the two men developed a lifelong friendship.

In The Inventor’s Secret, Suzanne Slade and illustrator Jennifer Black Reinhardt tell the innovators’ intertwining stories. First, readers encounter both men as small boys whose curiosity leads them to perform risky experiments. As the narrative progresses and Edison’s fame grows, Ford admires him from afar and longs to equal his success. Slade describes her subjects’ creations in clear, simple prose and skillfully develops the relationship between the inventors. Cheerful and occasionally cartoonish, Reinhardt’s illustrations complement the narrative and convey the excitement inherent in discovery. At the end of the book, a timeline and various notes offer more information about the subjects and their creations.

What detracts from an otherwise delightful text is a description of an experiment young Edison performed with his family’s cats. By gleefully mentioning his efforts to understand static electricity, Slade could inadvertently persuade kids to try this at home – and hurt animals in the process. Including this information in a book for children is simply irresponsible.

The very acts of investigation and invention suggest optimism about the world and the future. In The Inventor’s Secret, Slade and Reinhardt introduce children to two important figures in American history and focus excitement about the possibility of discovery. The picture-book biography also holds a familiar, albeit important, lesson about the value of persistence.

-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

 

Grappling with Nature

john-muir-wrestles-a-waterfall-hiresJohn Muir Wrestles a Waterfall
By Julie Danneberg
Illustrated by Jamie Hogan
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

John Muir, writer, explorer, conservation advocate, and founder of the Sierra Club, delighted in nature. Marveling at both the delicacy of a snowflake and the power of an earthquake, he spent years living in California’s Yosemite Valley. There, he lived in a sawmill he built himself; through the window, he could see the awe-inspiring Yosemite Falls. One night, in April 1871, Muir decided to get very close to the falls: an experience that simultaneously uplifted him and nearly cost him his life.

In John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall, Julie Danneberg and illustrator Jamie Hogan recount this chapter in Muir’s life. Danneberg’s lyrical, present-tense narrative transports readers to the rocky outcropping behind the falls. Hogan’s pastel illustrations bring Muir’s Yosemite to life. The book’s most striking spreads depict Muir behind the waterfall; these pictures capture both the falls’ mesmerizing quality and Muir’s wonder, allowing readers to share his excitement. What detracts from an otherwise compelling package are short, informative paragraphs that appear on some of the earlier spreads. Although they provide useful context, they would have been more effective in the book’s afterword.

In an essay about the adventure, Muir wrote that he was “better, not worse, for my wild bath in moonlit spray.” John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall encourages children to view nature as something wonderful to experience and protect – even if that force also poses danger.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Poll Truth

9780763665937Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box
By Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein
Illustrated by James E. Ransome
(Candlewick Press, 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts, $16.99)

Before the mid-1960s, few African Americans voted. Although adults technically held the right to vote, many Southern states and towns manufactured a variety of legal devices to keep them from casting their ballots. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act attempted to eliminate all the restrictions – notably the poll taxes and “literacy” tests – Southern states used to prevent black citizens from voting.

Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box describes one African-American family’s first experience at the polls. Soon after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, author Michael S. Bandy’s grandfather decides to vote. Although the family owns a successful farm, none of the adults and none of their neighbors have ever voted. Bandy’s grandfather dons his Sunday suit, packs a camera, and has young Michael accompany him to the polls. There, both generations discover what the law has and has not changed about their lives.

Alternately infuriating and moving, Granddaddy’s Turn is a beautifully written account of one family’s experiences with voting rights and restrictions. Bandy and his co-author, Eric Stein, employ an understated first-person narrative to introduce young readers to segregation. And although the story illuminates injustice, the picture-book also celebrates the joys of farming and family. Readers hear the “cock-a-doodle doo” of young Michael’s rooster and his beloved Granddaddy say “Patience, son, patience” when the pair go fishing.

James E. Ransome’s illustrations also reflect this tension, capturing both the menace of segregation and the beauty of country life. One spread depicts Bandy’s grandfather proudly holding his ballot while young Michael photographs the momentous occasion; a sheriff’s deputy hovers uneasily in the background. Other spreads offer bucolic views of life on the farm with chickens, ducks, and even a cow grazing near the farmhouse. One particularly striking illustration shows young Michael and his grandfather wearing straw hats and toiling side by side in a field, their silhouettes illuminated by an enormous golden sun. Life is not easy for the family, the painting suggests, but they have each other, their pride in their work, and their joy in the landscape to sustain them.

By focusing one family’s experience, Bandy, Stein, and Ransome make the struggles of countless Americans tangible to young readers. Equally potent as a teaching tool and leisure time read, Granddaddy’s Turn is a powerful and very human look at a shameful chapter of American history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm