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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!

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

Her Own Beat

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Dream Drum Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

By Margarita Engle
Illustrated by Rafael López
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $16.99)

Cuba has a long tradition of drumming, and until the mid-twentieth century, that tradition was male. However, in 1932, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a ten-year-old girl of Chinese, African, and Cuban descent, played the drums in Anacaona, an all-girl band formed by her older sisters. Zaldarriaga went on to enjoy a successful career as a jazz drummer: she performed with many leading jazz musicians of the day and even played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday celebration when she was fifteen.

Inspired by Zaldarriaga’s early life, Drum Dream Girl explores the obstacles the young musician overcame to even study her instrument. In free verse, Margarita Engle describes how a youthful Millo heard music in island life: “the whirl of parrot wings/the clack of woodpecker beaks/the dancing tap of her own footsteps.” Forbidden to play percussion, she practices in secret and retreats into her dreams until she is finally permitted to pursue the instrument she loves. Engle’s verse evokes both Cuba’s beauty and that of the world Millo creates for herself.

Rafael López’s gently surreal illustrations round out young Millo’s dreamscape and bring her Cuba, with its cafés, flowers, and carnivals, vividly to life. In one spread, set against a starry sky, Millo mounts a ladder of conga and bongo drums to play a timbale that is the surface of the moon. Pleased to be part of her music, the moon smiles. In another, a flamingo, small bird, butterfly, and a snake paused to listen as Millo drums beside a small pool at night. Even a fish peeps from the water and smiles up at her: all nature delights in her beats. In this way, López captures exaltation and the sense that the universe itself rejoices with the creator: a feeling familiar to all those who’ve experienced real joy, whether it is the thrill of creation or falling in love. Various motifs float through the book’s illustrations, including a small bird who appears in several spreads. With a purple body, pink wings, and humanoid legs, she seems to represent Millo’s desire for freedom.

With lyrical verse and gorgeous illustrations, Dream Drum Girl is an inspiring introduction to Zaldarriaga’s life and work. It is also a moving reflection on the human need for creative expression.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Music to His Ears

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Talkin’ Guitar: The Story of Young Doc Watson
Written and illustrated by Robbin Gourley
(Clarion Books, 2015, New York, $16.99)

Born in a two-room cabin, one of nine children, Arthel Watson lost his vision to an eye infection when he was a year old. But what sounds like the premise of a human-interest story proved anything but tragic. Young Arthel had “ears like a cat,” and he loved music: the ballads his mother sang, the hymns he heard in church, and the music he found in the wind, animal voices, and train whistles. He taught himself to play a harmonica and a homemade banjo before his father bought him a guitar. Between farm chores, Arthel practiced his guitar and began writing songs of his own. Eventually, he became Doc Watson, a folk and bluegrass artist who went on to win the National Medal of the Arts and performed until his death, at age eighty-nine, in 2012.

In Talkin’ Guitar, author-illustrator Robbin Gourley transports readers to young Arthel’s world. Her language evokes Watson’s North Carolina hills: “Yonder, where blue mountains meet the sky, Arthel Watson was born into a world of music,” commences the narrative. Throughout the picture-book biography, Gourley employs the similes Watson and his family might have used. At first, his harmonica sounds like “a wildcat howling.” Chores and guitar practice “made him sharp as a whittling knife and tough as a hickory.” Likewise, Gourley’s watercolors do not emphasize Watson’s humble beginnings, but rather celebrate the wonder young Arthel finds in his world. In a few spreads, soft blue and violet hills rise out of green meadows into a pink or orange sky. In one, a tiny church steeple peeps over a low hill; meanwhile, Arthel lounges with his cat and dog in the meadow. Around him, in small balloons, float the sounds that inspire him from the “Peep-Peep” of birds to the “Moo” of cow to the “Amen” chorus at church. Young Arthel may be unable to admire the view, but he is acutely aware of the mountains’ beauty.

Talkin’ Guitar is a lyrical introduction to Doc Watson and his music. It is also a moving journey into another’s world, a reminder that disabilities can coexist with extraordinary abilities, and a celebration of the music we encounter every day.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Standing and Singing for Freedom

9780763665319Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement
By Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Ekua Holmes
(Candlewick Press, 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts, $17.99)

The granddaughter of slaves and the child of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers, Fannie Lou Hamer always knew the cards were stacked against her and her family. She knew it wasn’t right that she had to drop out of school in sixth grade to work alongside her parents and older siblings in the cotton field. She knew the white landowners made sure sharecroppers stayed in debt and did pay them enough for their cotton. When she grew up, the state of Mississippi forced Hamer and other poor black women to undergo sterilization. But in middle-age, she became involved with the Civil Rights movement. She worked on voter registration drives, sang spirituals at rallies, and even participated in politics at the national level. For her efforts, she endured threats, a brutal beating, and even attempts on her life. But Hamer kept fighting and never lost hope.

In Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, Carole Boston Weatherford celebrates the remarkable activist. Her first-person narrative captures Hamer’s warm and direct voice: “Chile, I am proof that the Delta birthed the blues,” she tells an unidentified listener. The book offers an unflinching look at the indignities and injustices African Americans endured under Jim Crow and the violence Civil Rights workers, black and white, encountered. For that reason, as well as the length of the text, Voice of Freedom is best suited to middle grade and young adult readers, despite its picture-book package.

Ekua Holmes’ vibrant mixed media illustrations convey Hamer’s strength and vision. Yes, one painting depicts the brutal beating she suffered at police hands. However, other spreads show Hamer standing atop a sunlit hill with her adopted daughters, singing at a rally, and proudly raising her hand when she registers to vote. Despite the obstacles and cruelty she encounters, she never loses hope for the future.

It would be impossible to teach children about the Civil Rights movement without a frank discussion about life under segregation and acknowledgement of the activists’ bravery. Voice of Freedom does both beautifully – and introduces readers of all to an important figure in the struggle.

-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

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

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

 

Kidsbiographer in Boston

bcityimageKidsbiographer is coming to Boston this spring! I’ll be a member of a panel about young adult biography at the Compleat Biographer, Biographers International Organization’s (BIO) annual conference, which will take place on May 16-18th at UMass-Boston’s campus. Fellow panelists include acclaimed YA biographers Mary Martin Cowan and Kem Knapp Sawyer, both of whose books I’ve reviewed for this site; our moderator is award-winning biographer Catherine Reef. I have had the pleasure of interviewing her on a few occasions, and she has also contributed to Kidsbiographer as a guest blogger. We’ll be discussing current trends in the genre as well as the elements that make a strong YA biography. We’re eager to hear from children’s biographers, aspiring biographers, and all those interested in children’s biography.

The conference promises other delights to those interested in biography: panels on research, writing, and publishing, masterclasses on interviewing and self-publishing, and  a keynote address by  Stacy Schiff, best known for her Cleopatra: A Life, which topped the New York Times (NYT)’ bestseller list in 2010 and made the newspaper’s Top Ten Books of 2010 list.

Hope to see you in Boston this may!

-Dorothy Dahm