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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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