Monday, May 14, 2018

Picture Book Biographies we loved reading

My young readers and I have been spending some time reading, studying, and enjoying picture book biographies. I have to confess that along with them, I have learned lots of interesting information, even about people I was pretty familiar with. We all agreed that it's always nice to learn new things. You will probably notice that this is a rather eclectic group of picture book biographies for older readers. That's because we were actually doing a genre study and these are the biographies they picked out for it.

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and her Secret School by Janet Halfmann, 
illustrated by London Ladd
Lee & Low Books, 2018, 40 pages
This is the story of an enslaved woman, Lilly Ann Eliza Cox, who learned to read and write while playing school with the children in the house where she worked in Virginia, where it wasn't illegal for slaves to read and write. Lilly Ann, in turn, secretly began to teach other enslaved children to read and write at night in the woods. When she is sold to a cotton plantation owner in Mississippi, Lilly Ann was put to work in the field, picking cotton and where it was illegal for slaves to know how to read and write. Risking a punishment of 39 lashes, Lilly Ann decided to reopen her night school in the woods and began teaching again, until she was caught seven years later. But while reading and writing were illegal, there was no law against one enslaved person teaching another, and neither Lilly Ann nor her students were punished. Once again, Lilly Ann opened her school and continued teaching for many years after. In addition, Lilly Ann had 'married' a man named Oliver Granderson and they had three children together. It was only after the Civil War that Lilly Ann and Oliver could be married legally.

Midnight Teacher is a beautifully rendered work of historical fiction based on the actual life of Lilly Ann Granderson. Lilly Ann's story is certainly one of courage, persistence, and even resistance during a period in this country's history when enslaved people were expected to be quiet, obedient, and ignorant. I think the real beauty of Lilly Ann's legacy is that the students she taught used their ability to read and write forward to teach others these important skills.

The realistic acrylic and colored pencil illustrations really reflect the story and capture the many different events in Lilly Ann's life so well. Be sure to read the Afterword for more information about Lilly Ann and her amazing life and legacy. A list of Selected References is also included in the back matter.

This is a book that should be in every home, classroom, and home schooling situation. A useful Teacher's Guide has been provided by the publisher, Lee & Low Books and can be downloaded HERE.

Silent Days, Silent Dreams written and illustrated by Allen Say
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2017, 64 pages
One of the great things about picture books for older readers is that they can make all kinds of interesting information easily accessible and available for them. Such is the case of this fictionalized biography of artist James Castle. Told from the point of view of James' nephew, Robert "Bob" Beach, he tell us that his uncle was born two months premature and profoundly deaf in 1899. Right from the start, James was afraid of movement, but fascinated by stationary things, particularly pictures. As he got older, James was compelled to drew, but lacking any art supplies, he would collect paper from the trash and using burnt matchsticks for create his pictures. Sadly, it didn't take long for people to start calling him Dummy or Crazy Jimmy, and whenever he would shriek in frustration, his father would hit him and lock him in the attic.

At age 10, James was sent to the Idaho School for the Deaf, where he never learned to read or write, but spent as much time as he could in the library or drawing. Sent home after 5 years, James continued to draw the world as he experienced it, often using nothing more than soot and spit. James made thousands to drawings while living in outbuilding on this family's various homes, but each time they moved, the drawings were left behind. Eventually, thanks to his nephew Bob, James's work came to the attention of an art teacher and an exhibition was arranged, followed by gallery shows and the sale of his drawings gave him some financial security.

This is probably one of the saddest, most poignant biographies I've ever read. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like inside James Castle's head. Never having heard anyone speak, he had no other way to express himself except through his art, yet his compulsion to keep drawing in the face of abuse, lack of materials, and a world that didn't understand him speaks volumes about the power of art as a means of expression. Castle's style, big, blocky surreal images, people with no faces, and an alphabet of his own invention, is reproduced by Say in this biography, who used the same kinds of materials Castle had at his disposal. Illustrations that reflect Castle's life not his art are done in watercolor using the same style, as if to suggest that was how James perhaps saw the world. There is some speculation that James Castle, in addition to being profoundly deaf, might also have been dyslexic.

The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India and a Hidden World of Art 
by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
Candlewick Press, 2018, 48 pages
Nek Chand loved living in his village of Berian Kalan in the Punjab region of India before the Partition of 1947. He especially loved listening to the ancient stories that were always being told there by the whole community. As a child, Nek began to build a world of his own based on the stories he heard along the river back, using rocks, sticks, and other materials found in nature. But, in 1947, when Punjab was split into two countries, India and Pakistan, Nek and his family were forced to leave their home - they were Hindu and their village was now in Muslim Pakistan. Fleeing at night, they walked for 24 days to the new Indian border.

The family traveled to the newly created city of Chandigarh, where Nek found work as a government road inspector, but he never felt at home in this new modern city. When he discovered a few acres of scrubland in northern Chandigarh, he began clearing it away and bringing all kinds of materials he might need to create a new world of his own in miniature again. After seven years of secretly collecting, Nek was ready to begin building.

Nek managed to keep is kingdom a secret for 15 years, until one day, the government began clearing the area and found his secret. They wanted it all destroyed, including the small building Nek had illegally been living in, but then the people of Chandigarh heard about what he had built and began to visit by the thousands. Nek's kingdom made everyone happy, and soon stories were once again being told. Luckily, they managed to convince the government not to destroy Nek's creation, and instead provided protection for this incredible piece of folk art.

 This is a beautifully written, fascinating story of how one man's love of his childhood home drove him to turn his nostalgia into a kingdom made up of recycled materials and the stories he had heard as a child. The lyrical text compliments the folk art style watercolor and gouache illustrations, each capturing those aspects of India that Nek loved and the disruption due to the Partition. Nek's story is topped off with a four page pull-out spread of photographs of just some of the parts of the real secret kingdom. Included in the back matter is an Author's Note describing more about Nek, his childhood dream, and what has become of his kingdom, as well as an extensive bibliography. This is an enchanting biography of a true folk artist.

Listen: How Pete Seeger Got American Singing by Leda Schubert, 
pictures by Raúl Colón
Roaring Brook Press, 2017, 40 pages 5-9
I was introduced to Pete Seeger by my Welsh father, who loved American folk music, and I've never stopped listening to him. In her biography of this great American folk singer and activist, Leda Schubert really captures the commitment Pete Seeger had to his music, his fan, and his political beliefs. She deftly shows that while the country was willing to participate by singing along with him, and the two musical groups he was a member of (the Almanacs and the Weavers), it was his politics that got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee, who questioned whether or not he was a true American (which made me wonder if they had ever listened to the words of "This Land is Your Land"). Pete was indicted and blacklisted by the committee, and work really dried up for him for four years before his conviction was overturned. Pete went right back to singing and activism, joining the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to fight racism, and later, protesting the Vietnam Wars, and always emphasizing the importance of people's participation. Woven into Pete Seeger's life story are the names of the songs he wrote at each juncture, songs were have been singing ever since in school, in camp, and inside our heads after hearing them played somewhere, which I consider a testament to their appeal.

Schubert includes one of Pete's passions that many people don't know much about and that was his love for the Hudson River and his efforts to clean up the pollutions caused by years of chemical waster dumping in it. Now, anyone who has recently driven over the Tappen Zee Bridge or the Bear Mountain Bridge can readily see how his efforts have paid off.

Raúl Colón's soft, textured watercolor and colored pencil illustrations really capture the spirit of Pete Seeger's beliefs and music, and the power they held for his audiences wherever he played. Schubert writes that Pete "cared about justice, peace, equality, and  people everywhere" and what could be more inspiring for young readers, especially in today's world.

Back matter includes an Author's Note, a Timeline of Pete's life, Endnotes, a Selected Bibliography, a list of books Pete wrote for children, and recommended recordings. Sadly, my dad's old crackly Pete Seeger 78 RPM records didn't survive they were played so much, but that's OK, I know all the words by heart and have passed them on to my Kiddo and my young readers.

Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing by Kay A. Haring, 
illustrated by Robert Neubecker
Dial BFYR, 2017, 40 pages 5-8

Even though this book is a little young for my readers, I picked it because I have a real soft spot for Keith Haring. I was in college, living on East 7th Street in the East Village when Keith hit the streets of NYC with his art. And it was everywhere. Each morning I would leave for school and there would be new Keith Haring art wherever you looked. Now, Keith's younger sister Kay has written a moving biography about here brother's too-short life. 

Even as a boy, Keith drew everywhere - on paper, on tests, in his clubhouse, and in his room as a teenage while listening to loud music. In high school, after winning first prize for his art, he was offered money by someone who wanted to buy the winning drawing. Keith refused the money and told the person they could just have it. That's who he was - someone who felt everyone should be able to enjoy his art - a belief that never wavered when he went to art school in Pittsburgh, and later, when he moved to New York City in 1980. After drawing his signature figures all over the city - on sidewalks in chalk, on garbage cans in paint, on discarded furniture, on the sides of buildings and in subway stations - Keith began to be noticed and his art became a world wide phenomena.

It's clear his sister really loved her brother very much and knew him well. The repetition of "he just kept drawing" almost begins to feel like an understatement when you look at the illustrations depicting the preponderance of his art on so many different surfaces. I loved Robert Neubecker's complimentary illustrations of Keith's life, done without imitating his style, but keeping to the same kind of humor and lightness found in Keith's art (and yes, Mr. Neubecker, I also have fond memories of the 1980s downtown art scene).

The 1980s was indeed an exciting time in NYC, but it was also a time of tragedy with the AIDS epidemic that took so many creative people. So, be sure to read the Author's Note and additional information in the About Keith Haring section to learn about his early death from AIDS-related complications and the Keith Haring Foundation he established in 1989. This pat of Keith Haring's life was difficult to explain to my young readers, who had a hard time grasping the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic. 

When Paul Met Artie: The Story of Simon & Garfunkel by G. Neri, 
illustrated by David Litchfield
Candlewick Press, 2018, 48 pages 9-12
Using the titles of songs that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel wrote and recorded together, and written to look like poetry or the lyrics to songs, G. Neri looks at the friendship of these two favorites who couldn't be more different from each other. Sure, both grew up in middle class Jewish homes in Kew Gardens, Queen, both were looking for a friend, and both loved music, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. And they didn't really know each other until they were cast in a school production of Alice in Wonderland. Artie had perfect pitch and was a musical natural, Paul wanted to sing and had to work at learning how to play the guitar. But they stuck together and eventually ended up on American Bandstand, and the singing team of Simon and Garfunkel was born.

But even as things were looking up though they were still in high school, Paul decided to record a solo record and their harmonic friendship came to an end when Artie found out. There was no Simon and Garfunkel as they both went off to college - Artie to Columbia University, Paul to Queens College. It was the 1960s by then, and the times they were a changin'. Artie headed to Berkeley, California, Paul to Europe.

Three years later, the pair met again while walking across the 59th Street bridge and began talking again. Pretty soon, they're singing again, cutting an  album called Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., which includes the song "The Sound of Silence".  It was at first a failure, until people start requesting it on the radio and it climbed to the top of the pop charts, the first of many.

As much of a fan as I've always been, I knew nothing about the personal lives of Simon and Garfunkel and their early career together, so this book was basically new information for me, as it was for my young readers. I had no idea this duo had so many ups and downs to it. Perhaps because of the three column format, it felt like Neri was able to include a lot more information than most PB bios, particularly about what was happening musically from the late 1950s onward.

Litchfield's digitally created illustrations are perfectly in tune with this biography. What they are a duo, Paul and Artie are illustrated together, and when they have split up, they are depicted on opposite pages with the text in between. The illustrations are colorful and especially detailed in their slightly oversized book, and my young readers had fun combing over them.

Luckily, I have a Simon and Garfunkel playlist that I often listen to so I was able to play it for the kids, most of whom never heard of them before. I'm not sure now what they liked better - the book, the music, or maybe both equally.

We also studied another Picture Book Biographies that were written in verse, but that's for another day soon.

1 comment:

  1. I am so happy that your students chose my book Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School to include in their study unit. I'm so hoping that one day the name of this brave and dedicated teacher will be a household word! She so deserves it!


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