Posts tagged ‘biographies’

El Deafo

El DeafoTitle: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Color: David Lasky
ISBN: 9781419710209
Pages: 242 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS, c2014.
Awards: Newbery Honor (2015)

I wake up every morning happy and relieved to be home. I stay close to Mama, no matter where she is. But suddenly, I lose her. Where is she? I call out but she doesn’t answer me! When I finally find her, I know that everything is different. I think she knows it, too. I can’t hear. (11-12)

As a result of meningitis when she was four, Cece spent some time in the hospital. When she got back home, her parents and her realized that there was something wrong. She had become deaf. After being fit with hearing aids, Cece attends a special school to adapt to her lost hearing, but a family move means she leaves behind the welcoming environment. A new school means she needs to adapt to kids not understanding what the hearing aids do and how to react and interact with her.

The idea of portraying the people as bunnies was an inspired choice on the author’s part. Deafness seems more pronounced when exhibited by an animal with such pronounced ears, and that makes real the anxiety that the author feels when trying to hide her defining characteristic. I had a classmate with a similar hearing device that Cece wears and uses in school, and it’s interesting to see the world from that perspective. Cece’s reluctance to learn sign language was surprising to me, but her reasoning makes sense. She is trying so hard to not appear different that she is isolating herself because she can’t change her differences. It’s when she finally embraces her differences and uses them to the class’s advantage (like a super power) that she makes friends. But honestly, I’m glad she made friends like Martha, who didn’t care about her hearing aids, either as a positive super power or a negative disability.

Most of the feelings of acceptance are universal, they are simply amplified by Cece’s difference. Fans of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will probably enjoy this graphic novel with a similar story line. These books are important to have to teach acceptance to children and share unique perspectives, but some may be turned off by the continued emphasis of the differences and the primary role they play in the plot.

The Family Romanov

Family RomanovTitle: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
ISBN: 9780375867828
Pages: 292 pages
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.
Awards: Sibert Honor (2015), YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult Finalist (2015)

Now, learning from advisers that the palace guard had deserted, he finally grasped the situation. There was, he concluded, no other choice. He would have to give in and appoint a government acceptable to the people. He immediately telegraphed Rodzianko with his offer. Minutes later, Rodzianko answered: “His Majesty . . . [is] apparently . . . unable to realize what is happening in the capital. A terrible revolution has broken out. . . . The measures you propose are too late. The time for them is gone. There is no return.” (173-174)

There was no return for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. For years the Russian nobility had turned a blind eye to the crippling poverty overwhelming the populace. Instead of consulting with his advisers, he relied heavily on the advice of his wife, Empress Alexandra, a foreigner who married him under the dark mourning cloud of the former emperor’s death. She in turn was driven by “a deep belief in the miraculous and mystical” and consulted a questionable character named Rasputin, who was also looked upon with suspicion by everyone except the royal family (28). It didn’t help that the heirs were isolated, and the only son’s illness was kept a secret. Breeding suspicion and discontent among the famine, frustration, and fear of the first World War, those feelings soon followed the royal family into hiding, but the worst was yet to come.

Anyone who has seen the movie Anastasia is at least partly familiar with the story of the last Russian Tsar and his family. I had the refrain of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” stuck in my brain through most of my reading. Most people probably never realized how inaccurate the plot of the movie was to history. As always, Fleming’s research is thorough, quoting extensively from the diaries and correspondence that have been miraculously saved for all these years. The details were surprising, including first hand accounts of what happened when the murders took place and a photograph of the room where the deed took place.

It’s an intentionally disheartening read, almost like when reading about the Titanic, because history tells you that this is not going to end well for the family. I found myself shaking my head in amazement that Tsar Nicholas II could be so out of touch and purposely naive regarding his responsibilities, to the point where he stopped opening telegrams from his advisers and took the word of his wife over his generals. Probably the best decision that Fleming made was to include the final chapter regarding life after the Tsar, the rumors of survival, and the final nail on the coffin so to speak when the bodies were revealed, 25 years after their initial discovery. A fascinating read, this one will intrigue and inform.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Draw What You See

Draw What You SeeTitle: Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews
Author: Kathleen Benson
Illustrator: Illustrated with paintings by Benny Andrews
ISBN: 9780544104877
Pages: 32 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, c2015.

Benny started to draw when he was three years old. Once he started, he never stopped. (6)

This picture book biography summarizes the life of Benny Andrews, an African-American artist born in the 1930s and living long enough to teach children displaced by Hurricane Katrina how to express their emotions through art. While I enjoyed the use of his actual works to illustrate, rather than having an illustrator mimic his style, I was somewhat disappointed that the majority of the pieces selected were from his later years. For someone who has lived and painted as long as he had, I expected a broader selection, although I found myself enjoying his later pieces (done in the last decade of his life) more than the very few earlier works that were included. A detailed time line pairs years with the information in the narrative, but they highlight works that are not included in the book. Back mater also identifies each of the images, and cites sources and resources, although most of them are not easily accessible as they are movies and exhibition catalogs. The narrative portrays racism in easy to understand vignettes, including walking to school, missing school due to work, and being unrepresented in museum exhibits. It’s important to enlighten children that there are other, more modern artists, rather than always falling on the classics (Van Gogh and Picasso). For that reason alone this book should be included in the collection, but it will have to be publicized as Benny Andrews is not someone most kids will search out and you may find yourself withdrawing it due to low use in just a few years.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingTitle: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
ISBN: 9780399252518
Pages: 337 pages
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Group, c2014.
Awards: National Book Award (winner), Coretta Scott King Award (winner), Newbery Medal (honor), and Sibert Award (honor)

Each day a new world
opens itself up to you. And all the worlds you are–
Ohio and Greenville
Woodson and Irby
Gunnar’s child and Jack’s daughter
Jahovah’s Witness and nonbeliever
listener and writer
Jackie and Jacqueline–

gather into one world

called You

where You decide

what each world
and each story
and each ending

will finally be. (319-320)

Jacqueline Woodson’s poetic memoir focuses on her childhood. Born in Ohio, her parents were divorced and she, her mother, and her two older siblings had moved down south to live with her grandparents before she even began to walk. She loved living with her grandparents, even when her mother left for Brooklyn, but they soon joined her and their new younger brother in the north again. Living in both hemispheres of the country, Jacqueline talks about the civil rights movements that she witnessed on television and in real life. As life revolves and revolutionizes around her like a merry-go-around, and even as she struggles with reading fast enough for her teachers, she begins to write down her story, so she and others can remember.

Woodson’s poems match her portrayal of herself. They are slow, reflective, and precise. She talks about how she doesn’t know the time of her birth, which is something unheard of for today as everything gets recorded, from height, weight, date and time to what you ate for breakfast. I imagine that might be one reason she became a writer, so she wouldn’t have to rely on “other people’s bad memory.” (18) There are a number of poems that appear multiple times, with numbers after their title. I wish the names of the poems had been included in the Table of contents at the front of the book. Read together, they paint their own story, especially the ones titled “How to Listen”. When she talks about growing up in the south, she and her siblings are identified by their relations “Sister Irby’s Grands / MaryAnn’s Babies”, which I could relate to being described that way countless times at family reunions and introductions. (45)

It’s readers ability to relate to Woodson’s life experiences that draws readers into the story. We may not have grown up in the same state or at the same time, but we sense what she is feelings. As an adult, I really understood when she described her mother’s dissatisfaction with moving her family back in with her parents. “Everyone else / has gone away. / And now coming back home / isn’t really coming back home / at all.” (46-47) Woodson also has that longing to identify with the people that surround her, whether it’s making up stories about her absent father, wanting to be smart like her brother, the joy she feels when she finds a book featuring an African-American character, or imitating the Black Panthers on television by proclaiming “I’m Black and I’m Proud”.

Middle school students are always coming into my library looking for biographies and/or autobiographies. While it’s light on specific facts and I’m frequently finding it in the poetry section because of the format, this would fit most assignment criteria. Woodson might agree, write this one down and don’t let it be forgotten.

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.

Bill the Boy Wonder

Title: Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman
Author: Marc Tyler Nobleman
Illustrator: Ty Templeton
ISBN: 9781580892896
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Charlesbridge, c2012.

Bob told Bill that Bat-Man would be published and asked Bill to write it–without credit. Because such an arrangement was fairly typical, and because writing gigs were tough to get, but mainly because Bill was an agreeable sort, he said yes.
With that, Bill took on his second secret identity.
However, he would soon realize that he had been blind about this Bat.

I’ll be the first to admit that while I know slightly more than the uninitiated about comics, I do not follow them religiously like some people I’ve met in my journey. I can have a conversation about the movies, but whether or not they follow the “cannon” or the comic books is beyond what I know. So I was somewhat comforted to find out in my reading this book that MOST people wouldn’t know about this secret second creator of the superhero who become Batman. It’s incredible to think that this story first came to fruition 1939 and is still, over 70 years later, going strong and attracting new followers.

While Nobleman makes a valiant effort to present the facts in an impartial manner, you can tell that this lack of recognition sticks in his craw. Bob Kane hired Bill to do the writing and other artists to do the drawings, and insisted they all work anonymously. Nobleman reveals that even after word got out that Bill wrote the stories and at the very least contributed to the creation of Batman (although it was never proven how much), Bob still would not amend his contract “requiring that he always be listed as the sole creator of Batman.” And then, readers find out in the extensive author’s note that Bill’s only granddaughter wasn’t receiving any of the few royalties that Bill could claim for his contributions to such an iconic piece of our culture. Nobleman’s passion for this topic really shows by the work, and he strongly suggests that the only reason DC Comics hasn’t added Bill’s name is that their hands tied by legalities.

Templeton’s artwork is very eye-catching, and distinctly suited for a story revolving around the early age of comics. With very minimal shading, the bright and bold pen drawings use vibrant colors that really draw readers into the story. The layout also mimics panels of a comic book, although understandably the text boxes are larger than what you usually find in a comic.

The author’s note reveals the research that went into writing this book, with references to interviews, published articles and books, and containing previously unknown photos of Bill. And just like Batman, Nobleman’s research ultimately resulted in “writing” a wrong. While he can’t do anything about the legal side or the past, Nobleman has ensured that future generations will know the truth behind the mask. A definite point of interest considering all the recent Batman movies, this book could serve as a possible bridge for comic book fans to pursue non-fiction titles.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. For the entire round-up of all the bloggers who participated, check out Lizann Flatt over at The Flatt Perspective.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 112 other followers

%d bloggers like this: