By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When Ella Fitzgerald danced the Lindy Hop on the streets of 1930s Yonkers, passersby said good-bye to their loose change. But for a girl who was orphaned and hungry, with raggedy clothes and often no place to spend the night, small change was not enough. One amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ella made a discovery: the dancing beat in her feet could travel up and out of her mouth in a powerful song —and the feeling of being listened to was like a salve to her heart.
Wow! This book really brought Ella Fitzgerald to life. It was a slow build, and it was rather long, but well worth the read.
Instead of focusing on Ella’s successful career or the entirety of her life, Skit-Scat looks at her teenage years. She grew up in Yonkers and loved to dance. She and her friend Charlie would dance on the street corner where they earned a few cents. At 14 her mother died suddenly and this began a spiral downwards for Ella. She lived with an “unkind” step father (the book does not specify what that meant) and was then taken in by a cold and austere aunt. She got into some trouble with the law and was then sent to an abysmal orphan school. After two years of abuse, Ella ran away and couch surfed and lived on the street in Harlem. It doesn’t specify if or how she made money during that time, but it was the Depression and money was tight for everyone. She began trying out at amateur nights at clubs and won two contests.
Unfortunately she was rough around the edges in second hand clothes, messy hair, and dirty. This made it hard to find work with bands who expected her to be presentable. No easy prospect for a homeless teen. Fortunately her talent landed her a job with the Chick Webb Band and they saw past her exterior and helped clean her up. I was so surprised that Fitzgerald was homeless and abused. It isn’t the story you usually picture or hear about her. It breaks your heart, but her story is also very uplifting. A true rags to riches tale.
The writing, despite being long, was engaging. It has little interjections like “clink, plink, roll” and “ding a-ding a-ding” that add some of the verve of jazz in the 30s to the text. In my personal opinion, I wish the illustrations were a little more brightly colored, but Qualls’ illustrations are always lively and expressive. Definitely worth adding to a biography collection. It’s a little long for a read aloud during a storytime, but would make a great addition to a classroom curriculum that studies music, jazz, the arts, the Depression, or African Americans.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Following My Paint Brush is the story of Dulari Devi, a domestic helper who went on to become an artist in the Mithila style of folk painting from Bihar, eastern India. Dulari is from a community of fisherfolk whose occupation is river-fishing. Used to a life of hard and relentless labor, she discovered painting while working as a domestic helper in an artist’s house.
Dulari learned by doing, and very soon came to adapt artistic rules and conventions to her own expressive needs. Following My Paint Brush narrates Dulari’s momentous journey from a worker who knew no rest to an artist who is willing to go where her imagination leads her.
The art in this picture book is absolutely gorgeous. It’s bright and colorful and charming. Dulari Devi told the story of her life to Gita Wolf who simplified it and wrote it out. I think it’s one of those books that could be quite inspirational for aspiring artists. I could even see the art potentially inspiring some pen, ink and watercolor drawings (although I think that’s a fine line since it is a traditional art form).
I think this would make a nice addition to our biography collection to go alongside other picture book biographies of artists, particularly Draw What You See, The Noisy Paint Box, and also the books we have about Frida Kahlo. It would also make a nice addition to our art collection where we could showcase this traditional art form (I’ll have to think very hard about where it might get the best circulation and use).
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I try very hard to ensure that the books we have about other cultures don’t create a narrative of pity and poverty. Heads up, this book is a story about a woman who grew up very poor and uneducated in India. I will be buying the book for our collection because of the art (did I mention it’s beautiful?) and the worthwhile story, but I am also going to check our other books about India and Indians to be sure we have books that show other narratives from the country.
I would like to share that last year we had a kindergartener who is Indian. She wears a bindi everyday. Some of the other kids in the class (white, as far as I know) asked her about it. Eventually their questions and curiosity started to sound a lot like teasing and bullying. Her teacher came to the library asking if we had books she could read to and share with the class that featured Indian or Indian American characters. There weren’t many. The thing is this little girl is not poor or uneducated and neither are her parents. I worried that the few books we did have would feed the kids another idea about this little girl and her family, namely that they were poor, uneducated and in need of pity (or worse would paint a picture of colonialism in India). I did end up finding a handful of books that were good and the teacher did share them (including Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-Ji). She also invited the little girl’s parents in to talk about an aspect of their culture of their choosing. I am not sure how the whole situation resolved or if it actually did, but that is exactly why I want to be very careful to be sure there is a variety of stories about cultures in our library.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Jazz musician Sun Ra (1914–1993) always said that he came from Saturn. Being from another planet, he was naturally intrigued by everything earthly — especially music, because music is the one thing on Earth most like the stars. Earthlings themselves confused Sun Ra, the way they sorted themselves by color and fought wars against one another. So he made music. And he traveled with other musicians and singers, calling themselves the Sun Ra Arkestra, playing, singing, and dancing for people all over the planet. Because music, he said, is what holds us all together. Join acclaimed author-illustrator Chris Raschka in celebrating a legend of the jazz world who was truly one of a kind.
I am not usually a fan of Raschka’s art (A Ball for Daisy being the exception), but I think his sketchy, spotty, messy style fits perfectly with jazz. There is color everywhere on the pages of this book in splotches, washes, and swipes. There are also pieces of musical staff paper incorporated into the art.
The writing itself is perfect for a young audience . One of my big complaints is that a lot of picture book biographies are directed toward older readers (fourth or fifth grade and up) and they are hard to get those kids to pick up. Cosmobiography is pitch perfect for first through third grade. No, it isn’t the kind of book you could use as an exclusive resource for a biography project, but personally I think we do a disservice to kids, their curiosity and their education by creating projects that use only one dry source and require only one form of expressing their new-found knowledge.
Cosmobiography does cover Sun Ra’s life from his birth to his death. It doesn’t skimp on information about the man. It’s presented in a small digestible pieces for children. Pieces that may intrigue them and encourage them to learn more or simply gain some knowledge of one jazz great. The book starts out rather conspiratorially with the reader. Raschka points out that Sun Ra believed he was from Saturn, but acknowledges that the reader may find this unlikely. He then continues the book accepting the fact that Sun Ra was actually from Saturn. It also brings up the topic of race, discrimination, and segregation.
I highly recommend this one for biography collections. I’ll be adding it to ours this year for sure.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri about 1864 and was raised by the childless white couple who had owned his mother. In 1877 he left home in search of an education, eventually earning a master’s degree. In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to start the agricultural department at the all-black-staffed Tuskegee Institute, where he spent the rest of his life seeking solutions to the poverty among landless black farmers by developing new uses for soil-replenishing crops such as peanuts, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes. Carver’s achievements as a botanist and inventor were balanced by his gifts as a painter, musician, and teacher.
This was an incredible and eye-opening book. Unsurprisingly I learned nothing about Carver in my history classes and I’m pretty sure no one is explicitly studying him in any of our current social studies curriculums. Such a shame because he was a fascinating figure. While relegated to terrible jobs on chicken farms because of the pervasive racism at the time he did some incredible research into soil science and farming. All of it was inspired by a desire to help poor black people raise themselves out of poverty and do a better job farming. Carver is best known for peanut butter, I think, but there was SO much more to his studies.
I love novels in verse and this was an wonderful way to open up the history here. Carver really came to life on the page as did the times he lived in. Nelson’s work is always worth reading, but especially this book.
A heads up: the n-word appears in one (possibly two) of the poems. In context I think it makes sense, so it isn’t gratuitous use of the word. The inclusion of the word didn’t make or break my decision not to purchase the book, either. I do hesitate, however, to have materials with slurs or with stereotyped/racist content and depictions on our shelves because our students are not having conversations around that material, particularly the materials they pick up in the library (they take them home, read them on their own, and return them). Instead of learning about the power of words (or images) and how hurtful they can be and how they can be used intentionally to hurt and oppress others, they are simply internalizing those images and words. And that is insidious. It eats away at their ability to call out racism (and other -isms) and see how it truly influences our world.
More to the point, though, for buying this for an elementary school library, is the reading ability required to follow the narrative. The poems aren’t totally straight forward. It’s free verse, but the mix of narrators and settings made it a little harder to follow. This makes for a deep reading experience, but one that I think is above even my fifth grader’s heads. Sometimes I can make the case that strong fourth grade readers and fifth graders can handle a book that is more middle school (Almost Astronauts for example, or Moonbird), but with the verse format in Carver, I think they would really struggle.
I would have no hesitation buying this book for a middle or high school library, however. I would highly recommend it for an English and/or history class to use too. There is so much good information and history and writing here. So much!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: The true story of Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, six-time Olympic swimming champion and legendary surfer who popularized surfing around the world.
Considering our diversity numbers in our biography collection, I was surprised we had a copy of this in the library. It’s been on my TBR pile for about a year now and I decided to pick it up just before the end of school and see if it might work for our summer reading lists.
I think kids will really enjoy the story because Kahanamoku was very driven and inspiring. When he couldn’t get into the local surf club because he was native Hawaiian, he and his friends made their own. When he wanted to swim, he hopped in the water and invented a new technique to make himself swim faster. He much preferred being in the water to being in school and I think we all know kids who will relate to that! Be sure to read the notes at the back. The story of how he met his wife is both funny, touching, and surprising.
Besides being a refreshing and much needed book about a Native Hawaiian , a woefully underrepresented culture in children’s literature, that doesn’t involve the hula and coconut palms this is also a book about sports we don’t see a lot of, namely swimming and surfing. I am sure there are plenty of students in my library who, at the very least, swim and would love to see that interest in some of their books. (E.g. we have a lot of baseball and basketball and even quite a bit of football, but not many other sports on our shelves.) I can’t speak to how well it portrays Native Hawaiians, but it does address the discrimination that Kahanamoku faced particularly in sports/swimming. It isn’t unlike many of the African American sports figures from the same era and I highly recommend pairing it with books about Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and others.
I loved the illustrations in the book. Something about the technique and color palette that gives it a fun, summery feel. It is a picture book biography which means there is a fair amount of text, so in terms of reading level and attention span this is best suited to fourth grade and up but could certainly be read to younger audiences if there is interest. This is the perfect addition to any summer reading list. Not only is Kahanamoku worth reading about, but who doesn’t want to read about swimming, Hawaii, and surfing in the summer?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, César Chavez lived the hard-scrabble life of a migrant worker during the depression. He grew to be a charismatic leader and founded the National Farm Workers Association, an organization that fought for basic rights for his fellow farm workers.
This is a book we already have in our library and I’m very glad we do. Not only is it a great poetry and picture book biography, but I think in California it’s especially important we have materials on Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers.
I absolutely love Harvesting Hope by Kathleen Krull and read it out loud to my second and third grade students this past year around Cesar Chavez day. None of them were aware of who Chavez was or what he had done. They were only vaguely aware of the migrant farm workers who plant, tend and pick most of our produce. And we live in California’s Central Valley. Our curriculum does a good job of talking about and presenting slavery and even the Civil Rights Movement (thanks to our music teacher, of all people) but we don’t talk much about the struggles of people other than African Americans.
In Cesar the poems got a bit confusing in the middle of Cesar’s life, but either with a little background information (provided by the author’s notes in the back or a teacher) kids won’t have any trouble getting through. Not only does poetry let children approach difficult topics, it can also makes reading feel like a breeze. Short lines, few words on a page, and rhythm and rhyme help those reluctant and struggling readers through a whole book. And yet, it conveys so much. So much emotion and information and story.
I think Cesar is worth having in most library collections, but I would recommend making sure you have more resources about either Chavez or the fight for farm workers. I also recommend having Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh about Sylvia Mendez. All these books together, in a small strong collection, will give students a more complete picture of the struggle for civil rights and more awareness about where their food comes from.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Young Nellie Bly had ambitious goals, especially for a woman at the end of the nineteenth century, when the few female journalists were relegated to writing columns about cleaning or fashion. But fresh off a train from Pittsburgh, Nellie knew she was destined for more and pulled a major journalistic stunt that skyrocketed her to fame: feigning insanity, being committed to the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and writing a shocking exposé of the clinic’s horrific treatment of its patients.
Nellie Bly became a household name as the world followed her enthralling career in “stunt” journalism that raised awareness of political corruption, poverty, and abuses of human rights. Leading an uncommonly full life, Nellie circled the globe in a record seventy-two days and brought home a pet monkey before marrying an aged millionaire and running his company after his death.
I actually picked this up to see if it might work for our lower school biography collection and I think it might. The length isn’t bad (we have longer, drier biographies on the shelf) and there isn’t anything particularly shocking in it (Bly is asked at one point if she is a nightwalker, but it’s such a brief mention that it will probably pass most younger kids by). Really, though, the book is just so gripping I can totally see some of my older students getting sucked in. We have a picture book biography of Nellie and she’s a fascinating female character that rather broke with convention in her time. I think this would be a good place to go from that picture book if the kids are interested in learning more.
There is the issue of the care of the “insane”. This is Nellie’s reason for becoming a madwoman. She wanted to write an expose on how female patients were treated in the facilities that “cared” for women that were deemed insane. These women were abused. Many were not insane at all, but did not fit within societal expectation. It’s not a pretty scene that Nellie shows the world and while this is clearly written for children, it’s not a pretty scene that readers will discover. Kids will love to feel the outrage that Nellie felt over the conditions she reported on. Lucky for Nellie she was always going to get out. The book could certainly open up a lot of conversations about treatment of the mentally ill (something we are better at to be sure, but are still sadly lacking in) and unfair restrictions and expectations placed on women.
There is a lot about Nellie Bly in this book. Information about her childhood and her career. Nellie herself struggled with the low expectations for women of her era. She chaffed against them, but she was also able to rise to the challenge and find ways to make a living and buck convention. She was really quite interesting and I’m sure her story will fascinate any reader who picks this book up. A good one for an upper elementary and middle school biography collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Benny Andrews loved to draw. He drew his nine brothers and sisters, and his parents. He drew the red earth of the fields where they all worked, the hot sun that beat down, and the rows and rows of crops. As Benny hauled buckets of water, he made pictures in his head. And he dreamed of a better life—something beyond the segregation, the backbreaking labor, and the limited opportunities of his world. Benny’s dreams took him far from the rural Georgia of his childhood. He became one of the most important African American painters of the twentieth century, and he opened doors for other artists of color. His story will inspire budding young artists to work hard and follow their dreams.
This is exactly what a picture book biography should be for younger audiences. It uses the artist’s art as more than just a bit of decoration and the text is short, to the point, and very understandable.
One of my favorite parts of the book is that it uses Andrews actual art to illustrate it. Obviously you can’t do that with every picture book biography, but in this case Andrews drew the world he saw around him and in a way that is accessible to children. It makes the book feel very much like an intimate glimpse into his life.
To me one of the really appealing aspects of his art is the lighting he uses. It looks very bright, almost harsh. This has the effect of making the colors pop, which I think children will find very appealing. I’ve said this at other times and I understand that great art is not actually easy to create, however there is a child-like look to Andrews art and I think kids like to see art that they think they could recreate or that looks like their art. His pictures also have an element of collage to them and that makes them feel a little more three dimensional instead of flat paintings.
The text itself isn’t long. There is a short paragraph on each two-page spread with a piece of Andrew’s art. This does mean that you don’t get an exhaustive look at Andrew’s life, but for younger readers (second and third grade) it’s perfect. Not enough text to turn them off and not too little to feel too young. You get enough information that you have a sense of who Andrews was and what he accomplished and, if you find him interesting enough, a desire to learn more. Sometimes I think picture book biographies try to present too much information for the format and it ends up feeling taxing to read. Almost a bait and switch- you think you’re getting a shorter picture book and you end up slogging through something much longer and more involved. It’s a turn off for kids. Draw What You See balances text and pictures very well and then includes a note at the end, a timeline, and some resources. Kids can decide if they want to seek out more at the end.
I think this would be a great book for any library with a biography collection. It’s completely appropriate for younger and older audiences, too. It should draw in those kids just coming to picture book biographies, but it could very easily pique older reader’s interest in the artist. Again, another that is on my first list of purchases for next year. We need more diversity in that collection and here is a book that is both interesting and high quality.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In this fast-paced, courageous, and inspiring story, readers adventure with Charlotte Parkhurst as she first finds work as a stable hand, becomes a famous stage-coach driver (performing brave feats and outwitting bandits), finds love as a woman but later resumes her identity as a man after the loss of a baby and the tragic death of her husband, and ultimately settles out west on the farm she’d dreamed of having since childhood. It wasn’t until after her death that anyone discovered she was a woman.
This one could actually be a chapter book based on it’s length, larger format, and the pictures scattered throughout. The reading level is a 720L, which isn’t especially high.
Beware a horse dies right at the beginning. It’s not overly dramatic or gory or anything. She just dies of a fever, but for those tender-hearted readers this may be difficult.
Okay I included the description which I got off GoodReads, but assume came from the publisher. But it’s so far off the mark. All that stuff about finding love, having a baby, resuming her identity as a man- NONE OF IT IS IN THE BOOK. Not even in the author’s note where Ryan gives a little more history of Charley. Did the publisher not read the book? I’m confused.
The book follows Charlotte through her years at the orphanage where she is put to work and treated poorly. When her best friend, Hayward, is adopted she decides to run away and make a new life for herself. In forming the plan, she realizes she’ll have better prospects and more safety if she travels as a man. After hopping the stage coach Charley, as she renames herself, finds work as a stable hand and works her way up to being a stage coach driver. This job takes her from Rhode Island all the way out to California where she loses an eye and has to relearn driving “six-in-the-hand”. Eventually she saves up enough money to buy land and horses. She also decides to vote since everyone believes her to be a man.
Ryan has taken a story that is already very interesting and compressed it’s timeline to make it more accessible to younger readers. Riding Freedom is not a biography, but a fictionalized account of Charlotte’s life and I think it would really appeal to third and fourth grade readers. It’s not exactly packed with facts, but there is a good story and enough that I could see it inspiring kids to want to explore more about Charlotte, women’s rights and the Gold Rush.
Charley/Charlotte Parkhurst was an interesting woman/man. From my limited research, I can’t tell if she was dressed and passing as a man because she wanted better opportunities or if she genuinely felt like she was male. Either way, she was fascinating. Here’s the Wikipedia page about her which provides a little more information than the author’s note at the end of the book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Hailing from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. A prodigy, he was leading his own band by age six, and today this Grammy-nominated artist headlines the legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Along with esteemed illustrator Bryan Collier, Andrews has created a lively picture book autobiography about how he followed his dream of becoming a musician, despite the odds, until he reached international stardom.
I just love this book. The illustrations are gorgeous with lots of fun details that make them pop off the page (like the cover). The story has rhythm and how can you resist the picture in the Author’s Note of Troy Andrews, who looks to be about three feet tall, with this ridiculously long trombone?
Music definitely infuses the story, from the repeated refrain “Where y’at? Where y’at?” to the great analogies he uses to describe how he made music. Music was always in his home and in his neighborhood.
The message of the next generation carrying on the musical tradition of New Orleans is also very appealing. I think stories that are positive and encourage kids to both keep their roots and forge ahead are very inspiring. They tell children that they have something of value to offer the world and I don’t think that message is given out very often. Plus Andrews has such a can-do attitude about music. It was just in him and he sought out opportunities to make it and enjoy it. He and his friends made their own band and their own instruments and . The fact that he didn’t need much, or any money and things, to get started following his dream is incredibly refreshing and inspiring. Especially with this generation of children that are so heavily marketed to.
A great addition to any biography collection and a great read aloud for kids of all ages.