Posts from the ‘Children’s Biography’ Category

The Dumbest Idea Ever

Dumbest Idea EverTitle: The Dumbest Idea Ever
Author: Jimmy Gownley
ISBN: 9780545453462
Pages: 236 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2014.

“I have tons of notebooks filled with drawings…
… but nothing I do looks right.
I wish this dumb town has a place where I could take art lessons. Or an art store where I could get decent supplies. Or at least had…
… I don’t know…
… at least something.
The truth is, Girardville is just a slate-gray scramble of row houses and rocks plopped in the middle of Pennsylvania’s coal region. It’s home to six churches…
… seventeen bars…
…zero libraries…
… and me. (10-12)

Author of the Amelia Rules graphic novels presents an autobiographical account of his coming of age and becoming an artist. Jimmy Gownley is on the top of the world, attending school with his friends, and scoring points both in the classroom and on the basketball court as their high scorer. After spending weeks out of school and missing his championship basketball game (his team loses in the final minute) due to first chicken pox and then pneumonia, Jimmy’s grades start slipping. But Jimmy is more concerned working for months on his first effort as a comic book writer and illustrator. When he shows it to his friend though, he realizes that his piece of art is a piece of junk. Will he ever get anything right again?

At the local elementary school where I work, each student has a yearlong assignment to read a set number of books of different genres. While some teachers leave biographies as a vague category, others specify one must be an autobiography, which is one of the hardest genres for that age level because so many autobiographies cover the entire life of the subject. Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands , John Scieszka’s Knuckleheads, Miley Cyrus’s Miles to Go and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Girl are the ones that immediately come to mind, and after that we have to do some real digging. So this is a must buy in my opinion for public libraries because it adds another title to the autobiography list, it is less serious in tone, and it meets that ever elusive over 100 pages criteria that is usually implemented for book reports.

If you are at all familiar with the Amelia Rules series, you’ll recognize the artwork and color scheme, but author Gownley adds something to it. When character Jimmy is sick, the illustrations turn gray and washed out, and they don’t turn bright and bold again until he enters the comic book shop for the first time, resulting in a Oz like page turn when the curtain is pulled back in a colorful landscape of possibilities. During a visit to a museum, the characters interact with famous paintings that are imitated really well. A flashback sequence featuring a childhood friend is rendered like the old Archie comics, with beige-yellow backgrounds interacting with the present day scenes. It’s done really well.

Jimmy is relatable to just about everyone. His teachers misunderstand him and he struggles with his first crush. He has one best friend who is honest with him and he also has several friends that he interacts with that rotate in and out of his life. There’s homework that doesn’t get done and class discussions that get heated. Towards the end of the novel, Jimmy and his friend are having a conversation about his comic that struck me as great advice.
“You’re not trying to get rich! There’s no way that’s why you’re doing this.”
“Well, no… of course not.”
“Then don’t pretend like it is.” (233)
If you’re doing what you love doing, isn’t it enough? As people are pursuing their life goals and ambitions, they should think about why they are doing something and try to accomplish that, not try to accomplish something they know won’t result from those efforts.

The only complaint is that while the characters noticeably age and grow, the actual amount of time passing is a little foggy. The story starts in what appears to be eighth grade, they move into high school. There are at least two summers that get glazed over pretty quickly as working vacations that Jimmy spends crafting his comic strip. Then suddenly Jimmy is attending the prom, but he’s still asking his dad for a ride to the comic book store over an hour away. Other than that though, it’s a fast read that encourages kids to follow their dreams, regardless of how many times they have to restart.

nonfiction mondayA portion of this review was cross-posted at the Nonfiction Monday blog. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Coretta Scott King Awards 2014

The American Library Association announced their Annual Youth Media Awards earlier this year, and I’ve been slowly but surely catching up on reading all the winners and honorees. The Coretta Scott King Awards are a set of three awards that honor African American authors, illustrators, and new talent of outstanding literature for children and young adults. I’ll be focusing on the Illustrator and New Talent Awards in this post, with the longer author winner and honorees in a separate post once I finish reading them. I have to say though, there were really no surprises in these categories, as the same people are continually recognized for their contributions.

For the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Book Award, the committee chose one winner and one honoree.
Nelson MandelaTitle: Nelson Mandela
Author/Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
ISBN: 978006178374
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2013.
Publication Date: January 2, 2013

The honor was given to Kadir Nelson, who authored and illustrated a picture book biography on Nelson Mandela, published at the very beginning of 2013. Nelson Mandela’s passing at the end of 2013 serves as an ironic footnote to the book’s publication and award recognition. Kadir Nelson’s name has cropped up a host of times, and his work has been recognized over an over again.
Won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
2012 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.
Caldecott Honor for Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine
Caldecott Honor for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, for which he also garnered a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and won an NAACP Image Award;
Won Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange
Won Coretta Scott King Author Award for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Are you sensing a theme here? Whenever he writes something, he gets recognized by someone! And most people will say rightfully so. In his newest book, readers see Kadir Nelson’s signature style of life-like renderings from the cover (which mimics the design of his biographies on Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr.) all the way to the end. Most striking I think is the first page, where we see a young Nelson playing with the village boys and the sun shines forth from behind the hill with such warmth your eye is immediately drawn to the contrasting shadowed silhouettes. The sparse, poetically formatted text supplements the pictures, that carry the light and dark themes throughout the book.

My one complaint about this and other picture book biographies is that very few specifics are included. Annual biography assignments for school children often have a checklist of facts that need to be contained in the books or require an inclusion of a time line. While this would be a great asset to children studying biographies, especially during February’s Black History Month, readers would be hard pressed to find specifics. Would it have been so hard to add a timeline in the back of the book along side the author’s note, or include specific dates in the text instead of “in early 1990″? Or am I the only person getting frustrated by this oversight?

Knock Knock My Dad's Dream for MeTitle: Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me
Author: Daniel Beaty
Illustrator: Bryan Collier
ISBN: 9780316209175
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. c2013.
Publication Date: December 17, 2013

More recently published Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me won the Illustrator award. Bryan Collier is another illustrator who has been recognized time and time again, with three Caldecott Honors and four Coretta Scott King Awards over the years. Collier’s collages and Beaty’s text follows a young boy as he experiences the loss of his father’s influence. The author doesn’t specify in the story that the father has been incarcerated until you read the end notes, which I appreciate because it lends versatility to the story and could be used for divorce situations in addition to incarceration. The illustrations follow the boy as he grows into an educated man and an involved father in his own right, but at the end you still see the influence his own father had on him, regardless of or maybe because of his absence.

The more symbolic structure of the illustrations lend the impression this is meant for older audiences, and I can see where this might be a recommendation for patrons specifically looking for material of this nature. Most poignant is the subtle nods to the father’s absence, such as the main character wearing his father’s tie as he peruses his dreams, and an elephant statue peeking out of his office background mimicking the child’s bedroom wallpaper. The ending picture seems slightly out of context with the rest of the story, but although overall I think the less abstract images make the most impact when reading, that last picture makes a memorable ending to a tale of perseverance.

When the Beat Was BornTitle: When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
Author: Laban Carrick Hill
Illustrator: Theodore Taylor III
ISBN: 9781596435407
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2013.

According to the ALA website the John Steptoe New Talent Award was “established to affirm new talent and to offer visibility to excellence in writing and/or illustration which otherwise might be formally unacknowledged within a given year within the structure of the two awards given annually by the Coretta Scott King Task Force.” This award is often overlooked because it’s not awarded every year.

I can understand why this book was recognized by the committee, as it sheds light on the start of Hip Hop, something that most people have never considered. The story focuses on DJ Kool Herc rise from Jamican music lover peering over the fence at party set-ups to hooking up his father’s super-sized speakers to street lamps and christening the break dance style that evolved during his days of being a DJ. While Laban Carrick Hill includes a personalized author’s note and a partial time line of hip hop in the 1970s and 1980s, just like Kadir Nelson’s picture book biography he avoids specific dates and details.

The pictures by Theodore Taylor III are well drawn, with clean lines showing children what the different break dancing moves look like. His work showcases the old technology of speakers bigger than people, boomboxes bigger than babies, and turntables plugged into one another instead of through wireless connections. It’s almost a time capsule for readers, where parents can talk about the music they used to listen to, and I wish it had a compilation CD that featured some of the “Hip Hop” beats that are discussed in the book. I especially enjoyed the scene of community where Herc is playing street parties in the park and we see people of all ages, including one gray haired woman and a small child with a jump rope, listening to the music. As someone who grew up in the suburbs and didn’t have that type of environment, I’m surprised to find myself wanting to seek out that community network.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. Check out the blog for other reviews of nonfiction books.

Knucklehead

Title: Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka
Author: Jon Scieszka
ISBN: 9780670011063
Pages: 106 pages
Publisher/Date: Viking, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, c2008.

The first time I heard the name Knucklehead, it wasn’t being used as a particularly good name. I think it was my dad, finding that his toast tasted like melted green plastic army man, who first asked the question, “What Knucklehead put an army man in the toaster?”
The answer was Jim. He was trying to get one of his riflemen to aim a little higher. But that didn’t seem like the best answer. So Jim, me, Tom, Greg, Brian, and Jeff all said, “I don’t know.”
Over the years, there were a lot more questions. (105)

Since he grew up in Flint Michigan, I tend to count Jon Scieszka as one of “our” authors, even if he doesn’t live in the state anymore. So I have a soft spot for his work and his accomplishments. His autobiography of his time in Michigan growing up as one of six brothers is a laughable account. Proof that biographies don’t have to be about stuffy old dead people, Scieszka instead relates tales of boyish high-jinks like making money by charging your siblings and friends for various things, getting in trouble for using bad words, and all aspects of sibling rivalry and one-upmanship including Halloween costumes, grades, and sharing your room.

This is one of my go-to books for parents who are serving as guest readers in the upper elementary schools. Filled with dozens of very short stories, most kids and especially the boys find quite a bit to laugh about, and parents can read as many or as few as necessary to fill their time slot. Teachers and librarians should take a look too.

Amelia Lost

Title: Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
Author: Candace Fleming
ISBN: 970375814989
Pages: 118 pages
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House, c2011.

The fear in Earhart’s voice made Leo Bellarts’s skin prickle. “I’m telling you, it sounded as if she would have broken out in a scream. . . . She was just about ready to break into tears and go into hysterics. . . . I’ll never forget it.”
Seconds turned into minutes. Minutes became an hour. But the sky above Howland Island remained empty.
And in the radio room, Leo Ballerts and the other crew members sat listening to the “mournful sound of that static.” (5)

Amelia Earhart is probably one of the most well-known female pilots due to her unsolved disappearance. During her flight over the Pacific Ocean, she lost radio contact and was never heard from again. Rather than entertain ideas of what might have happened after that assumed fatal flight, Fleming instead focuses on Amelia’s accomplishments and the reports of what was heard over the radio.

I’ve read quite a bit regarding Amelia Earhart’s flight, so I already knew a few of the more interesting tidbits. I already knew that Eleanor Roosevelt was friends with Amelia Earhart, and they had taken a flight together. I knew that Earhart was inexperienced with the plane and the radio systems on the plane when she planed to fly around the world.

But Fleming was still able to provide infrequently revealed information and her research skills impressed me. Like did you know that people as far away as Florida picked up Amelia’s voice on the radio? And that Amelia Earhart had 5,000 stamp covers in the nose of her plane that she refused to jettison because it was a financial fundraiser for the flight? It’s these fascinating aspects of the flight that really bring Amelia Earhart to life and will encourage readers to find out more. What also impressed me about this book was that Fleming was not afraid to portray Amelia’s flaws. She brings up the less than flattering and questionable purchase of an airplane with funds that were donated to Earhart’s “Fund for Aeronautical Research” for developing “scientific and engineering data of vital importance to the aviation industry.” (85)

I would have liked to have seen more details regarding her early life, but overall, it’s an intriguing look that tries to dispel the myths from the truth and set the record straight for students.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. For the entire round-up of all the bloggers who participated, check out Tammy Flanders over at Apples With Many Seeds .

Soar, Elinor!

Title: Soar Elinor!
Author: Tami Lewis Brown
Illustrator: Francois Roca
ISBN: 9780374371159
Pages: Picture Book
Publisher/Date: Farrar Straus Giroux, c2010.

Six-year-old Elinor Smith took her first airplane ride in 1917. Less than fourteen years later, she had become the youngest licensed pilot in the United States, male or female. A successful and acclaimed pilot in her own right, she was “voted the best woman pilot in the United States by the nation’s fliers, selected over Amelia Earhart as well as other women aviators.” (author’s note) This picture book biography focuses almost exclusively on her successful attempt at flying under not one, but all four of the bridges spanning New York’s East River.

While I really would have appreciated more concrete information regarding this widely unknown pilot, the information that is given is presented in a straight-forward manner. Brown provides the background information needed to put the flight in perspective, such as that flying under the bridges was both dangerous and against the law. While younger readers might get confused by the actions of the government, who “issued her a short suspension from flying [then] asked Elinor to name the plane in the city’s honor,” older readers and adults will realize the internal conflict and struggle of recognizing her bravery and skill along with her unlawful actions.

The pictures, by Francois Roca, provide a wonderful perspective. Readers alternately feel as if they are either in the plane with Elinor or watching the plane fly towards them. Her brilliant, bright red plane literally pops from the page. The graphics are engaging and beg for a second look or a lingering gaze.

As a big fan of Amelia Earhart’s, it’s become apparent to me that she is simply the most well known due to her untimely disappearance. Amelia Earhart was not the only female pilot during the years she flew, and it’s amazing how many stories are still relatively unknown. The author’s note in the back sets the record straight and provides photos of Elinor and her flight. Brown also sites her sources, although most of them seem to be intended for adults.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. For the entire round up of all the bloggers who participated, check out Anastasia Suen over at Picture Book of the Day where — ironically enough — she also is featuring Soar, Elinor!.

Wonder Horse

Title: Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World’s Smartest Horse
Author: Emily Arnold McCully
ISBN: 9780805087932
Pages: Picture Book
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, c2010.

Born Bill Key a slave on a plantation in 1833, “Doc” Key’s way with animals soon became well-known. An Arabian mare that he saved from a circus whipping soon gave birth to a homely horse. Named Jim Key, Doc recognized how smart his horse was after he opened the drawer the apples were kept, ate them all, and then shut the drawer. Curious how smart the horse really was, Doc taught him to recognize letters, colors, and simple math. Wanting to spread his message that animals have feelings and require kindness, Doc took his show on the road and had Jim perform for audiences. But was it all a hoax, as one newspaper questioned, that an uneducated former slave could teach an animal all these things?

I had never heard of Jim or Doc Key, and I thoroughly enjoy finding these unknown stories to share with others. Caldecott Award winning author and illustrator Emily Arnold McCully expounds on what few facts we have regarding this story in an author’s note after the story. Featuring a photo of Doc and Jim, you see how accurately she portrayed the couple in her artwork. I thought she did a great job of combining the stories of Doc and Jim, although that makes it difficult to put it in the biography section. This book is an African-American biography that doesn’t hit you over the head with African-American rights, slavery, or prejudice, something that I really appreciate and might make it suitable for younger readers. Horse nuts are also sure to pick it up with that cover and title, although they might be a little suprised by the first few pages that focus on Doc before Jim.

Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix

Title: Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix
Author: Gary Golio
Illustrator: Javaka Steptoe
ISBN: 9780618852796
Pages: 32 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2010.

The cover should give you a clue that this picture book just explodes with color! At times, the double page spreads are a little overwhelming, but they are also so engaging that you sometimes forget to read the text. Is it collage? Is it painted? Is it wood, paper, paint, or a combination of the three? Whatever it is, and however it was done, it is very cool.

The text is also accessible for the intended audience, which I feel is probably early elementary students. Beginning the story when Jimi Hendrix was 14, it talks about how he started playing his “one-string ukulele”, could “imitate guitars and trumpets with his mouth and hands”, bought his first used guitar for five dollars, upgraded to the cheapest electric guitar after joining a band, and finally “played for audiences far and wide.” It handles very few details in the text, saving them for the “More About Jimi Hendrix” which follows the text. Instead, it stresses how Jimi grew up observing the world and trying to infuse his music with the life, color, and vibrancy he found around him.

For older readers, there is an author’s note that details how Jimi Hendrix died of an overdose and what effect the drug use might have had on his career. Personally, I think this portion of the book was a little over the top. The author informs readers “As a clinical social worker who has worked with hundreds of teens and adults suffering from addiction problems, I have seen how alcoholism and substance use often follow physical or emotional abuse, depression, childhood poverty, and the loss of one’s parents at an early age.” It sounds like he is diagnosing or evaluating Jimi Hendrix, which I don’t think fits the tone of the rest of the biography. The added resources regarding substance abuse, while nice to have, seem like overkill. People are not reading this book for a “told you so” tale of substance abuse. The illustrator’s note talks about his inspiration, but offers little information about how the engaging pictures were produced, simply stating that he “used plywood [he] found at The RE Store in Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood.” and that he “layered and used bright colors” Don’t miss the very last page, which offers a list of sources and resources.

A solid interpretation of this musician’s life, the pictures alone are worth a look at this book. The lyrical text ends the story with Jimi Hendrix’s own words: “Don’t let nobody turn you off from your own thoughts and dreams.” In January, the book became a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. Don’t feel too bad for illustrator Javaka Steptoe, since he’s already previously won the award.

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