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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Biographies, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 73
1. Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough

little author“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.”  This sentence opens Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first in a series of children’s books that gave middle grade readers a glimpse into the life of America’s pioneer families. And for some–like myself–this would be the start of a lifelong desire to learn more about the real life of Laura, her sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace, and her parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls.

In a style similar to the  Little House books, author Yona Zeldis McDonough has created a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder aimed toward middle grade readers that not only helps point out the fact and the fiction behind Wilder’s classic children’s books, but also celebrates the independent mind of the Quiner and Ingalls women along the way.

McDonough’s book opens not with Wilder, but with a brief prologue discussing the life of Caroline Lake Quiner, who would one day become Caroline Ingalls. This sets the tone for the rest of this biography, as it highlights how Caroline’s mother, Charlotte, believed in higher education for girls; something Ma Ingalls also wanted for her daughters.

Told in chronological order, Little Author in the Big Woods follows Wilder’s life and the journeys she took not only with her family, but later with her husband Almanzo and daughter Rose. It talks about the hardships the Wilders faced as a young married couple and of their leaving De Smet, South Dakota to settle in Mansfield, Missouri. Readers learn about the building of the dream house on Rocky Ridge Farm and Wilder’s early career writing for the Missouri Ruralist, before moving on to the creation of the Little House series. McDonough ends with an epilogue that discusses the longevity of Wilder’s work and Michael Landon’s classic television show, Little House on the Prairie, which is based upon the books. Readers are also treated to quotes from Laura Ingalls Wilder, details on some of the games that Laura played, crafts, and recipes. Also included is a list of other writings by Wilder and a list with some of the other books about her.

While I have to admit I learned little new about Laura Ingalls Wilder as a result, I believe middle grade readers will enjoy getting to know more about her real life and the independent nature of the women in the Quiner, Ingalls, and Wilder families. With a similar writing style and design to the Little House series, readers will feel right at home with this book. Jennifer Thermes did an excellent job in capturing the essence of McDonough’s book and Wilder’s life with her beautiful illustrations. I’m thrilled to add Little Author in the Big Woods to my Laura Ingalls Wilder collection.

 

Rating: :) :) :) :) :)

Age Range: 8 – 12 years
Grade Level: 3 – 7
Series: Christy Ottaviano Books
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR); First Edition edition (September 16, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 080509542X
ISBN-13: 978-0805095425

I received a copy of this book from the author. This review contains my honest opinions, which I have not been compensated for in any way.


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2. New Books!

I treated myself to a new book right before going on vacation. I’ve wanted to read the series for a while, but only bought the first book because I got such a deal on it. I really have too many books here to justify buying more.

pretty

 

Belly measures her life in summers. Everything good, everything magical happens between the months of June and August. Winters are simply a time to count the weeks until the next summer, a place away from the beach house, away from Susannah, and most importantly, away from Jeremiah and Conrad. They are the boys that Belly has known since her very first summer–they have been her brother figures, her crushes, and everything in between. But one summer, one terrible and wonderful summer, the more everything changes, the more it all ends up just the way it should have been all along.

 

While we were away, this one arrived in the mail. I’ll be reviewing this book for the author.

little author

Many girls in elementary and middle school fall in love with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. What they don’t always realize is that Wilder’s books are autobiographical. This narrative biography describes more of the details of the young Laura’s real life as a young pioneer homesteading with her family on many adventurous journeys. This biography, complete with charming illustrations, points out the differences between the fictional series as well as the many similarities. It’s a fascinating story of a much-celebrated writer.

 

Hope you had a great week.


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3. Beyond biography

With storytelling ease and pitch-perfect pacing, the following works of narrative nonfiction for older readers bring their subjects to brilliant life, elevating the sometimes-staid genre of biography to literary art form.

woodson brown girl dreaming Beyond biographyJacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming is so immediate that readers will feel they are experiencing the author’s childhood right along with her. Born in Ohio in 1963, Jackie moved with her family to Greenville, South Carolina, to live with her maternal grandparents. We see young Jackie grow up in historical context alongside the contexts of extended family, community (Greenville, later Brooklyn), and religion — and we trace her development as a nascent writer to her realization that “words are [her] brilliance.” The poetry sings in this extraordinary portrait of a writer as a young girl. (Penguin/Paulsen, 10–14 years)

mccully ida m tarbell Beyond biographyEmily Arnold McCully creates a multilayered biography of a crusading early-twentieth-century journalist in Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business — and Won! Readers meet young Ida growing up in Pennsylvania oil country. A curious child, Tarbell’s lessons learned from scientific inquiry led to her dogged determination to get to the bottom of an issue. McCully engagingly re-creates the era’s social context for women (famously, Tarbell didn’t believe in women’s suffrage) as well as the culture and importance of print media, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about Tarbell’s positions and her times. (Clarion, 10–14 years)

fleming romanov Beyond biographyCandace Fleming’s riveting book The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia appeals to the imagination as much as the intellect. Her focus is not just the Romanovs (the last imperial family of Russia), but the Revolutionary leaders and common people as well, showing how each group was the product of its circumstances and how they all moved inexorably toward the tragic yet fascinating conclusion. An epic, sweeping historical narrative. (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 12–18 years)

paterson stories of my life Beyond biographyDemonstrating warmth, ease, and a sense of humor about herself, Katherine Paterson relates tales from her life, and from her parents’ and grandparents’, too, in Stories of My Life. The author gently ambles from story to story, looping through her youthful experiences in China and Japan, her marriage and children, and her writing. Throughout all there is a strong connection to Paterson’s childhood: “By the time I was five I had been through war and evacuation, but nothing had prepared me for the American public school system.” (Dial, 12 years and up)

From the August 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

share save 171 16 Beyond biography

The post Beyond biography appeared first on The Horn Book.

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4. The Torchlighters Biography Series: Corrie ten Boom by Kaylena Radcliff

corrie

From the Christian History Institute comes a biography from their Heroes of the Faith line. Corrie ten Boom and her family are watchmakers in Holland. When World War II erupts, Hitler’s army takes over their country and begins rounding up their Jewish neighbors. Read the story of how one family stood strong in faith against a great evil.

Recommended for ages 8 – 12, this biography shares the life of Corrie ten Boom, her sister, Betsie, and their father who hid Jewish people from the Nazi army during World War II. They would end up arrested, some going to concentration camps, and Corrie struggled to hold onto her faith in such darkness. Her amazing story is shared in this biography that is accompanied by historical photographs, illustrations that match the artwork from the associated DVD, interesting facts about the Netherlands, a timeline and a glossary of terms.

My daughter and I watched the DVD together. In spots, I had some difficulty understanding what the characters were saying, but overall the sound quality is good. Some of the images–though animated–might be disturbing for the youngest viewers; like the scene of the Nazis banging on doors with the butts of their guns and yanking people out onto the streets. Betsie is beaten with a club by a German guard in the camp and an ill-mannered nurse informs Corrie when she comes to see her sister that she is “in there with the other dead bodies.” Female prisoners are seen being carted off in trucks to the gas chambers; but while Corrie looks upon the gas chambers, it is not made apparent to young viewers what is going on there. So there is definitely historical accuracy worked into this production.

This is a moving story that will remind readers/viewers of the power of forgiveness and how leaning on faith can bring you through adversity. I am glad to add this book and DVD to our home library. It would also make a fabulous addition to a church library.

Rating: :) :) :) :) :)dvd

The Torchlighters Biography Series: Corrie ten Boom
Author: Kaylena Radcliff
Paperback: 85 pages
Publisher: Christian History Institute (May 1, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1563648733
ISBN-13: 978-1563648731
List price: $9.99

DVD

Format: Multiple Formats, Animated, Color, NTSC
Language: English
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Vision Video
DVD Release Date: October 25, 2013
Run Time: 34 minutes

I received a copy of this book and DVD from the Christian History Institute. This review contains my honest opinions, which I have not been compensated for in any way.

 

This post first appeared at the Christian Children’s Authors blog.


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5. At the Beach

corrie

We’re taking a two week break to rest and relax on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I brought some books with me, as is my usual practice. Only one of them ended up being for the youth market.

Corrie ten Boom and her family are watchmakers in Haarlem, Holland, where they give what little they have to spread God’s love and help others. But everything changes when World War II erupts and Hitler’s army takes over their country. As the Nazis round up Corrie’s Jewish neighbors and send them to deadly concentration camps, she knows that something must be done to stop them. But what can one small family do in the face of such great evil?

Read the amazing true story of Corrie ten Boom, a Torchlighter® hero of the faith, and discover how her obedience to God saved lives and continues to inspire others today.

Paperback: 85 pages
Publisher: Christian History Institute (May 1, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1563648733
ISBN-13: 978-1563648731

My hope is to blog a few times while we’re away, so don’t go far.


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6. Writing Workshops

Here is a group of fifth graders showing me the timelines they made of someone they interviewed. The timelines will help them organize their information in preparation for writing a three-chapter biography.


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7. Tales to Tell: Exploring Author's Voice Through Picture Books

When we read a truly wonderful picture book, one whose words resonate as much as the pictures themselves, we should take the opportunity to stand back and ask ourselves, "How did the author do that?" And more importantly, How can we get our students to find their own strong voices in writing?

If we recall the opening lines of some favorite middle-grade novels, we discover that the author's voice begins to take form in just the first few words. 

Consider Avi's Newbery winning The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a fantastic sea yarn in which the protagonist finds herself at the center of a mutiny:

“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.  But I was such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago.”

Or consider the ominous first lines of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied her mother. “Some pigs were born last night.”

As both novels progress, we immerse ourselves in the narrator's point of view, falling in step with the rhythm of words, the tone, and the exacting word choice.

But neither picture books nor our students' own writing has the luxury of 200+ pages to build voice. It needs to happen much sooner.Here are three picture book exemplars to get us started.

Mentor Text: Jangles: A BIG Fish Story

David Shannon's recent picture book Jangles: A BIG Fish Story harkens back to the day of the traditional Tall Tale. Tall Tales, characterized mainly by their penchant for hyperbole (that is, their tendency to exaggerate to the point of lying!) developed a boastful and boisterous voice over time, due to the fact that many of the original Tall Tales were spread orally. Each subsequent teller would add his or her own embellishments (as well as quaint colloquialisms), resulting in crowd-sourced versions of the tales that were rich in both authentic voice and vocabulary.

Jangles: A BIG Fish Story would serve as an excellent introduction to this literary genre. Author and illustrator David Shannon writes in a style that harkens to the boasts of the Tall Tale tradition:

When I was a kid, Jangles was the biggest fish that anyone had ever seen - or heard! That's right, you could hear Jangles. He'd broken so many fishing lines that his huge, crooked jaw was covered with shiny metal lures and rusty old fishhooks of all shapes and sized. They clinked and clattered as he swam. That's why he was called Jangles.

Jangles was so big, he ate eagles from the trees that hung over the lake, and full-grown beavers that strayed too far from home.

Compare that with the beginning of Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee (another Newbery Medal book):
“They say (he) was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept…They say.”

And to be sure, you'll find the "They say..." phrase in Shannon's book as well, since, while the facts of any Tall Tale might not be verified empirically, they must undoubtedly be true, since so many people agree on them.
 
The story itself is an engaging narrative, with an ending that requires a bit of inferring on the reader's part. The story also begs the question, "What would you have done in his place?" Close rereadings can reveal simile, alliteration, personification, and many other wonderful literary devices masterfully woven into the tale.

And the illustrations! Fans of David Shannon know from earlier books such as A Bad Case of the Stripes and How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball that his pictures are lush and vivid and sculpturesque. Whenever I'm explaining to my students that their own illustrations should be saturated with color, Shannon's books are among the exemplars I share.

Extensions:
  • To begin a Tall Tale unit, let children read a number of traditional retellings of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Slue-Foot Sue. Have them generate the critical attributes of this genre, explaining as well how it differs from (and yet takes cues from) legends, folktales, and myths. Find some online resources at 42explore.
  • After reading Jangles: A BIG Fish Story, challenge students to write a Tall Tale about an animal of their choosing. You might consider supplying a simple story map based upon the mentor text which can guide students in their writing.
  • Ask students to generate a list of some of their most memorable experiences (circus, baseball game, birth of a sibling, family reunion, recital, getting lost at the mall, etc.). Share the interview with the David Shannon at the Scholastic site. Discuss how personal experiences can often serve as the basis for writing fiction, and then have students choose one of their events to turn into a fictional account.
Mentor Text: Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper

Another recent picture book which features a strong voice is Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper. Author Ann Malaspina tells the true-life tale of a young girl who dreams of being the first African-American woman to win gold at the Olympics. Her medals won while competing as part of Tuskegee Institute's famous Golden Tigerettes only increase her determination to reach that goal.
Tall Tale boasting would be inappropriate for this genre, of course, because as Dizzy Dean (and others) would say, "It ain't bragging if you can do it." Instead, the prose here is more lyrical, and almost poetic:

Alice Coachman raced
down the dirt road,
bare feet flying,
long legs spinning, 
braids flapping
in the wind...

LEAP!

She sailed over
a tree branch
and kept on running.

Students will come to appreciate the power of repetition, parallel structure, and flow in such lines as:

Fields shut.
Tracks shut. 
Doors shut
to girls like Alice.
No place to practice.
No crossbar to raise.

Alice and her friends got busy.
Knotting rags.
Tying rags to sticks.
Planting sticks 
in the red Georgia clay.

Then her friends stood back 
and let Alice jump.

Illustrations by Eric Velasquez (trust me, you know this guy; we all have chapter books in our classrooms bearing his work) fill each page, providing not only energy and emotion, but historical context as well.


Extensions:
  • Check out the Teacher's Guide at Albert Whitman and Company for discussion questions, cross-curricular extensions, and ready-to-use assessments.
  • In connection with biography readings for either Back History Month or Women's History Month, encourage students to rewrite key events from a famous person's life using the lyrical style of (fellow New Jerseyan) Ann Malaspina. Existing lines from chapter books can be reformatted into parallel structures (where possible), although I'd prefer for students to adapt those events or anecdotes they find most compelling.
  • If you enjoy Malaspina's writing, which Kirkus Reviews called "spare and elegant free verse," then definitely check out Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President, another spot-on writing exemplar for young authors, with superb illustrations by Steve James. Susan B. Anthony's law-defying act of voting is little known to students, but rivals the illegal actions of such "criminals" as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks,  and Martin Luther King, Jr. See the classroom guide for this book which was named to the Top Ten of the Amelia Bloomer Project.
Mentor Text: Prairie Chicken Little
In the tradition of this age old tale, Prairie Chicken Little by Jackie Mims Hopkins chronicles the over-reaction of one prairie chicken who thinks the sky is falling, or more accurately, a stampede is coming!
Listen to this text's unique voice as the story begins:

Out on the grasslands where bison roam, Mary McBlicken the prairie chicken was scritch-scratching for her breakfast, when all of a sudden she heard a rumbling and a grumbling and a tumbling.

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "A stampede's a comin'! I need to hightail it back to the ranch to tell Cowboy Stan and Red Dog Dan. They'll know what to do."

So away Mary ran, lickety-splickety, as fast as her little prairie chicken legs could carry her.

The onomatopoeia, the rhymes, and the word choice (such as "hightail it") combine to create a voice that matches both the book's setting and its levity. The book's fun is well supported by Henry Cole's splendid pictures. You might recall seeing his handiwork in Three Hens and a Peacock, mentioned here in a previous post.

Extensions:
  • In the event that your students are studying other ecosystems such as as rain forests or polar regions, you could adapt this idea, challenging students to create a crisis or calamity, as well as appropriate creatures who would help spread the word. It's a pretty cool way to synthesize students' collection of random facts from a unit into a creative response. Can't you just see a penguin or a toucan as the main character?
  • Fractured Fairy Tales are an all time favorite for kids to read, and they're fun to write as well. A recent post at the Peachtree Publishing blog provides some great titles to get you started.
  • Have students research any of the animals from Prairie Chicken Little. Some of the real-life critters who populate this book sport some pretty amazing features. A good place to start? The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.
Do you have a favorite picture book to teach author's voice? If so, share it below!

And if you haven't entered yet, be sure to get in on the raffle for one of three animal picture books happening on this blog (scroll to the bottom of that page).

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8. Hear Me Roar/In Numbers Too Big to Ignore

As I write, it's the Ides of March, official anniversary of Julius Caesar's deathday (44 BCE) and the 246th birthday of cantankerous  Andrew Jackson. That is, if this U.S. President No. 7 hadn't been dead for years.  But this post  goes live on Monday the 18th and seeing as I'm a nonfiction author, given to enthusiastic bouts of looking things up – man oh man, the things there are to FIND OUT.   It turns out that a Scottish MP was born 18 March 1891. And on a September night in 1954,  during Alice Cullen's time in Parliament, hundreds of her young constituents (ages 4 ~ 14) had to be calmed down, and told to take their knives and sharp sticks and leave a huge old cemetery in Glasgow.  Why were they there?  Hints: 1. Vampires. 2. Comic books, 

In any event, if you're reading this, you may well know that Black History Month grew from the strong and certain belief of such African American scholars as Dr. Carter G. Woodson and  Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois that the history of their race was a rich subject for deep academic attention.   Out of this devout certainty came Woodson's brainchild, the first Negro History Week, born in February 1926.  Why shortish, mercurial February? Because African Americans had long been celebrating Lincoln's birthday and the one which Frederick Douglass chose for himself: February 14.  In 1976, America's Bicentennial, after 50 years of progress, protests, violence, and breakthrough civil rights legislation, the week was expanded to a month's worth of study, commemoration, and celebration. 

So how is it that March was set aside for making the citizenry aware of women's history?    Because of history, as you might expect.  Or "herstory," as we might have said back in the 1970s, if it hadn't seemed so pretentious, stilted & weird.  On March 8, 1857, just a few days after James Buchanan's inauguration,  New York City needleworkers  so badly needed to work fewer hours (10 hrs. per shift) in better working conditions, that they went on strike. Heavy-handed policemen, under orders, busted it up.  Even more violent was the garment workers' strike in 1908 - on March 8, in honor of those who'd gone before. So it was that the Socialists attending their International Congress  in Copenhagen, Denmark, chose March 8, 1910 as the first International Women's Day.   So, after 60-some years of parades, protests, the Vote, the Pill, and doors forced open, a group of Californians launched an official "Women's History Week" for the week of IWD, 3/8/1978.   That week grew to an entire month, to be proclaimed presidentially and noted nationally, as of 1987, by way of a joint U.S. Congressional resolution. (It's said that a Republican and a Democrat - Orrin Hatch and Barbara Mikulski – actually co-sponsored the legislation. Those were the days, my friend; we thought they'd never end.)

I Am Woman 

Check out these books ANY time of year, but especially now, in Women's History Month,  do avail yourself of this dozen-or-so books (to name but a few) about those who came into the world as girls.

•    Ballet for Martha [Graham], by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, and Brian Floca.    •   Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt     •   Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat  and Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso, both written by Susanna Reich    •    What To Do About Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringhan   •   Write On, Mercy!: The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren and  Jeanette Rankin: Political Pioneer, both by Gretchen Woelfle   •   Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World, by Penny Coleman   •   Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly, written by Sue Macy   •   Helen's Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's Teacher, written by Marfe Ferguson Delano   •    Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women and  Rabble Rousers: Twenty Women Who Made a Difference,  both by Cheryl Harness      
By the way, if it happens that you don't read my newest, Mary Walker Wears the Pants,  DO read someone's book about this real, live, courageous, idealistic, stubborn-as-all-get-out,  high octane woman, whose history is well worth the knowing. Pretty well summed up in the subtitle: "The True Story of Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero."  DO read up on Dr. Mary Edwards Walker,  a valiant, eccentric Medal of Honor winner (only woman to whom it's been awarded), best known in her time as a cranky, outrageous  female, who was determined to free those of her sex from genteel purdah.  From steel-boned corsets and their long, heavy, unwieldy skirts and petticoats.   (Fun to wear once in a while - a reenactment deal or a school visit - like being a transvestite in a time tunnel. But every day? Just. Shoot. Me.)   

 So, regardless of their race or gender, grateful I am to those souls who braved the storms, walked the walks, and fought the fights.  They all deserve a medal.



Dr. Mary Edwards Walker









 

 


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9. Things I Love Thursday


I love reading fifth grade writing.

I recently taught a biography writing workshop with fifth graders.

They did an amazing job. 


Check out some excerpts from one of them (and they were ALL amazing):

A crisp, cold wind whistled through the treetops on February 19, 1928, and sailed past a little yellow bungalow, only stopping to hear the joyful sighs of a proud mother and father cooing over their little girl. 

Children raced along the small sidewalks of the tiny town of __, Kansas, to the few shops in the center of town. Dogs strolled through green lawns and a light frost covered windowpanes, but Mary __ was too young to enjoy it. Her little fingers were closing into little fists, and then opening, as she looked in wonder.

Are you wowed yet? Just wait till you read the ending:


 

Now living in __, Connecticut, if you stop by to listen, you might hear the crisp pages of a new cookbook turning, the microwave running, or something boiling on the stove.

If you stop a minute to smell, you might smell the aroma of spices or maybe something baking in the oven.

If you stop to peer in through the window, you might see bottles and jars out, pots on the stove, or baking sheets going into the oven.

And sometimes, you might see her lying on the couch, remembering all the fun times she had traveling before.

If you ask her what her greatest accomplishment was, she would tell you it was raising four wonderful kids.

On rainy days, she might be finding a new use for something old.

You might see her watching T.V. or reading the newspaper, or maybe trying to find out more about her Grandpa L.

I could use many words to define her: thrifty, hard-working, loving, caring, funny, helpful, a loving mother, a loyal wife, and many more, but the best thing to say is that she is a wondrous woman. 

FIFTH GRADE, PEOPLE!  

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10. Multicultural Picture Book Biographies

Author Don Tate offers advice on writing picture books from a multicultural perspective. 

http://writermorphosis.blogspot.com/2013/05/author-don-tate-tips-on-writing.html

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11. Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman Rubin

EverybodyPaints Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman RubinEverybody Paints! The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family
By Susan Goldman Rubin
Chronicle Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8118-6984-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves February 4th

For years it was my pleasure to work in the New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room, located in the Donnell Library. The Central Children’s Room was the crown jewel of children’s literature in the city, and amongst its many treasures (which included a parrot-headed umbrella owned by Mary Poppins/P.L. Travers and the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys) were N.C. Wyeth’s original paintings from the book Robin Hood. I might be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure we owned them all. Certainly we didn’t put them all on display, but a fair number of them were available for the public and they turned out to be quite a draw for the local illustrators. Since those days the Donnell has been sold and the paintings transferred to the main branch of NYPL where they now grace the walls of the President of the library’s office. If you would like to see them it is not out of the question, but it is also not as easy as it once was. I, for my part, haven’t seen them in years. With that in mind, I think it makes perfect sense why I was drawn to Susan Goldman Rubin’s latest artistic picture book biography Everybody Paints! Not content to tell merely the story of one famous painter, Rubin dares to encapsulate the lives of three generations, with a particular focus on one painter in each. N.C., Andrew, and Jamie are presented to kids here in a clear-cut way that honestly displays their very interesting work.

NCWyethRobinHood 241x300 Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman RubinMeet the bronco buster. That’s one name you might give to N.C. Wyeth. Born to parents that thought he’d be better suited as a farmhand than as an artist, N.C. set about to prove himself. Before long he was apprenticed to the great Howard Pyle and became his star student. Wyeth became adept at cattle round-ups as well as painting scenes of action and adventure. His talents brought his lucrative illustration projects like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Robin Hood. Along the way he sired talented offspring, each of whom had some kind of talent. Andrew Wyeth pursued his art with the same fervor as his dad, but while the fine art community had never officially accepted his father, Andrew was embraced almost immediately. In his footsteps followed Jamie, a painter who could work on everything from picture books to portraits of presidents. This is their story.

Writing a biography of the Wyeths for children isn’t as fraught with potential peril as writing a biography of other artists might be. Having cut her teeth on bios about Diego Rivera (Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People) and Andy Warhol (Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter) the Wyeths must have struck Ms. Rubin as a true relief. This is not to say that there haven’t been rumors floating around them for years, but vague rumors are far easier to elide than numerous confirmed affairs and “The Factory”. The content is presented in a very nice, straightforward style. We meet each Wyeth in turn, and the narrative will slip from one to another without so much as a herk or a jerk. The sections are not particularly long. Indeed, the book itself is infinitely readable at just a scant 112 pages. That means that if a kid wants to do a bit of serious research they may need to find some additional books to cover the material more extensively. That said, Rubin provides the basic overview and allows the reader to fill in gaps on their own. Nothing wrong with that when you’re dealing with children’s book biographies.

AndrewWyethTrodden 273x300 Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman RubinIt was a Kirkus review of this book that sniffed that this particular book is “undersized and overdesigned.” The “undersized” criticism strikes me as particularly silly, perhaps in light of the fact that as a librarian I’ve seen too many art books rejected by child readers because they were “too big” to comfortably carry home. I’m a New York City librarian, so kids in my town have to lug and tote every book they take from the library themselves. There is no helpful waiting car to dump the load into. With that in mind our little patrons become quite savvy in the ways of pick up and retrieval. Imagine, if you will, that you are attempting to woo a kid with the assignment to read a book about a famous artist into reading this book. I can attest that there’s nothing worse than being cut off mid-spiel by a child who points out, quite logically, that the book is “too big”. I mean there’s no comeback to that! So yes, it’s true that the images in this collection aren’t the size that they are in real life. But that is more than made up for when it comes to the sheer number of images present.

To the second criticism, that of being “overdesigned”, the book actually one in a series of artistic biographies done in a “gift book” style. Some of you may recall the rather gorgeous Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz that came out a couple years ago by Beverly Gherman. Like this book it wasn’t afraid to play around with an eclectic design. Lots of large fonts, different colored pages, and images, images, images. In this book Rubin skillfully alternates between photographs of her subjects and their families and their paintings. To an adult, I suppose the layout of this book might feel jarring but I’m quite fond of it. It kept me awake, allowed my eye to travel from text to image and back again freely, and best of all when Rubin mentions a famous photograph it’s right there for you to look at.

JamieWyethJFK 300x172 Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman RubinYou see, one complaint I’ve heard fielded at artistic biographies is that they don’t contain enough images of their subject’s work. How are you supposed to care about someone if you can’t see what it is that they themselves cared about? When Ms. Rubin wrote Diego Rivera I adored it. Some librarians, however, wanted a lot more images. Full paintings would be described but never seen. One might point out that in an internet age it’s fairly easy to see pictures of things whenever you want to, but the point stands. A book about an artist should do its duty and give its subject proper due. With that in mind, Everybody Paints! fairly pops with pictures. I don’t know enough about the rights to reproduce painted images in the way Rubin presents them here. What I do know is that she’s done a stand up and cheer job of it. Nothing major feels like it’s missing.

In spite of the fact that there’s been a real push to promote great nonfiction books with kid readers, it can be a hard sell. Adults that are my age or older have a hard time remembering any particularly great books of nonfiction from when we were young (and no, the Childhood of Famous Americans series does NOT count). Few of us are aware that we’re in a golden age of great children’s informational titles. What Everybody Paints! does is typify this kind of book. It’s a hard subject that requires a deft hand. And with her abundance of experience in this particular area, Susan Goldman Rubin does her subjects proud. As beautiful as you would expect, and three times as fun as you might think to read.

On shelves February 4th.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

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12. Grosset & Dunlap’s “Who Was?” Series | Women’s History Book Giveaway

Enter to win a Who Was? book from Grosset & Dunlap's leading biography series. Giveaway begins March 21, 2014, at 12:01 A.M. PST and ends April 20, 2014, at 11:59 P.M. PST.

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13. Resources For Teaching About Wangari Maathai and Seeds Of Change

Jill_EisenbergJill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

Seeds of Change cover

Seeds Of Change

In honor of Wangari Maathai’s birthday on Tuesday, April 1 and upcoming Earth Day later this month, we at Lee & Low Books want to share all the fantastic resources and ideas that are available to educators who are teaching about Wangari Maathai’s legacy and using Seeds Of Change: Planting a Path to Peace.

Wangari Maathai

Seeds Of Change

Elementary School:

Seeds of ChangeMiddle School and High School:

  • Seeds Of Change won the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in Illustration in 2011. The Committee Chair and Book Jury have prepared activities and discussion questions for Seeds Of Change in the 2011 Discussion Guide for Coretta Scott King Book Awards, P. 20-21.
  • Have students read and discuss author Jen Cullerton Johnson and illustrator Sonia Lynn Sadler’s joint interview with Lee & Low, which covers the environment, their travels, and Wangari Maathai’s achievements.
  • After introducing Wangari Maathai with Seeds Of Change, delve deeper with the Speak Truth To Power human rights education curriculum, a project of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. They present an in-depth exploration on Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement, and sustainability issues.
  • In teaching standard 7 of the ELA Common Core, have students evaluate how Wangari Maathai is presented in a documentary compared to the Seeds Of Change biography. PBS’s documentary on Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, contains a classroom section full of video modules, handouts, and lesson plans.

What did we miss? Let us know how you are using Seeds Of Change in your classroom!

 

 


Filed under: Curriculum Corner Tagged: African/African American Interest, biographies, CCSS, children's books, common core standards, diversity, Educators, ELA common core standards, environmentalism, History, holidays, lesson plans, Reading Aloud, reading comprehension, ReadyGEN, Wangari Maathai

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14. Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus

GrandfatherGandhi 287x300 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusGrandfather Gandhi
Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus
Illustrated by Evan Turk
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon and Schuster)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-1-4424-2365-X
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

Are you familiar with the concept of booktalking? It’s a technique librarians developed to get people interested in books they might otherwise not pick up. The whole concept is to develop a kind of movie trailer style talk that gives a sense of the book’s allure without giving up the plot. Typically booktalking is done for middle grade and young adult works of fiction, but enterprising souls have had a lot of luck with nonfiction as well. Now with an increased interest in nonfiction in our schools it’s more important than ever to make the books we hawk sound particularly good. It doesn’t hurt matters any when the books actually ARE good, though. Now let’s say I’m standing in front of a room of second and third graders with a copy of Grandfather Gandhi in my hands. How do I sell this book to them? Easy peasy. Some books practically booktalk themselves. Here’s how you sell it:

“Have any of you ever heard of Einstein? Yes? He’s the guy that was a total genius. Now imagine you’re his grandkid and you’re not that smart. Okay now, have any of you heard of the Beatles. Yes? Well imagine you’re one of THEIR grandkids . . . and you’re bad at music. Now here’s the big one. Has anyone heard of Gandhi? He was a great guy. He managed to free his country and stop a lot of oppression and he did it without any violence at all. Martin Luther King Jr. got some of his ideas from Gandhi about nonviolence. All right, well, now let’s image you are Gandhi, the most peaceful man IN THE WORLD’s grandson. What if you get mad? Can you imagine what it would be like to have everyone whispering every time you got a little steamed about something?”

So there you go. Quick. Simple. To the point. I’ve met a fair number of picture book memoirs in my day, but Grandfather Gandhi may well be my favorite. Smartly written with an unusual hook and art that will just knock your socks off, this is one title you are going to have to see firsthand for yourself.

GrandfatherGandhi2 300x258 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusWhen young Arun and his family first arrive in his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s village, he’s mighty shy around his incredibly famous relative. Yet right away Grandfather is warm and welcoming to them, and when he praises Arun for walking the distance from the train station the boy swells with pride. Unfortunately, having Gandhi as your grandpa means having to share him with the 350 followers who also live in the village. Arun struggles with his lessons in Gujarati and the fact that there are no movie theaters around, but there are upsides to village life too. He’s pretty good at soccer with the other kids, and occasionally Grandfather will take him for a walk just mano a mano. But then, one fateful day, Arun gets into a skirmish on the soccer field and his anger is overwhelming. Shamed that the grandson of Gandhi himself would react in anger he confesses to his Grandfather immediately, only to find the man isn’t angry or disappointed in him in the least. Anger, Gandhi explains, is like lightning. You can use it to destroy or you can use it to light the world, like a lamp. Which will you choose?

I think it’s fair to say that there have been a fair number of children’s picture books from family and relatives of famous peacemakers. Most notable would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s clan, where it sometimes seems like every son, daughter, niece, and nephew has his or her own spin on their infinitely famous relative. Gandhi’s a bit different. One wouldn’t expect his own descendants to have much in the way of access to the American publishing industry, so biographies of his life in picture book form have concentrated occasionally on his life and occasionally on The Great Salt March. When I saw that this book was co-authored by his fifth grandson I expected the same sort of story. A kind of mix of “this guy was fantastic” with “and I knew him!”. Instead, Hegedus and Gandhi have formulated a much more accessible narrative. Few children can relate to having a famous relative. But what about controlling their anger in the face of injustice? What’s fascinating about this book is that the authors have taken a seemingly complex historical issue and put it into terms so child-friendly that a five-year-old could get the gist of it. That Gandhi’s anger went on to become what spurned him to make lasting, important changes for his people is the key point of the book, but it takes a child’s p.o.v. to drill the issue home.

GrandfatherGandhi3 300x176 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusAbove and beyond all that, this is a book that advocates quite strongly for peace in all its myriad forms. Hardly surprising when you consider the subject matter but just the same I sometimes feel like “peace” is one of those difficult concepts without a proper picture book advocate. I went to a Quaker college where PAGS (Peace and Global Studies) was a popular major, and it was in making Quaker friends that I learned about picture books dedicated to the concepts embraced by that particular religion. Books like The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor, Thy Friend, Obadiah by Brinton Turkle, and more. I’m sure that many is the Quaker household, or really any household that believes that peace is a practical and attainable solution, that will embrace Grandfather Gandhi as one of their own.

It’s been a long time since I ran across a picture book with as long and lengthy a list of materials used in the illustrations as I have here. On the publication page it reads, “The illustrations for this book are rendered in watercolor, paper collage, cotton fabric, cotton, yarn, gouache, pencil, tea, and tin foil. Cotton hand spun on an Indian book charkha by Eileen Hallman.” Phew! You might think that all that “stuff” might yield something clogged up or messy, but that would be doing Mr. Turk a disservice. Observing how well he gives his pictures depth and texture, life and vitality, you might be shocked to learn that Grandfather Gandhi is his first picture book. From the spinning wheel endpapers to montages of sheer explosive anger, Turk makes a point of not only adhering to some of the more metaphorical aspects of the text, but finding new and creative ways to bring them to visual life. To my mind, the materials an artist uses in his or her art must, in the case of mixed media, have a reason for their existence. If you’re going to use “cotton fabric, cotton” and “yarn” then there should be a reason. But Turk clearly did his homework prior to doing the art on this book. He doesn’t just slap the images together. He incorporates the fibers Gandhi knew so well and turns them into an essential aspect of the book’s art. The art doesn’t just support the text here. It weaves itself into the story, becoming impossible to separate from the story.

GrandfatherGandhi4 300x213 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusIt’s Arun’s anger that proved to be the most visually interesting aspect, to me, in the book. Turk deftly contrasts the calm white thread produced by Gandhi’s spinning with the tangled black ones that surround and engulf his grandson whenever his feelings threaten to break free. The scene where he’s tempted to throw a rock at the boy who shoved him down is filled with thread, Arun’s magnificently clenched teeth, and black shadow figures that reach out across the field to the soccer net, dwarfing the three other little figures below. Later you can see the negative space found in cut paper turning from a representation of lightning into a thread of cotton in the hands of Gandhi illuminating a passage about making your anger useful. Yet Turk doesn’t just rely on clever techniques. He’s remarkably skilled at faces too. Arun’s expressions when he gets to see his grandfather alone or makes him proud are just filled with wide-eyed eager hope. And his frustrations and anger pulse off the page from his features alone.

Picture books for kids about dealing with their anger tend towards the fictional. There’s Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry and Robie H. Harris’s The Day Leo Said, “I Hate You”. These are two of the good ones. Others veer towards the preachy and paternalistic. Imagine if you started using something like Grandfather Gandhi instead. More than just a memoir, the book offers a broad look at the benefits of channeling your anger. Better still, it’s a true story. Kids respect the true. They’ll also respect young Arun and his uncomfortable position. Fair play to author Bethany Hegedus for hearing him speak more than 13 years ago about this moment in his life, knowing that not only was there a picture book story to be had here, but a lesson kids today can grasp. As she says in her “Note from the Authors” at the end, “We world we live in needs to heal – to heal from the wars that are fought, to the bullying epidemic, to mass killings by lone gunmen, to poverty, to hunger, and to issues that contribute to internal anger being outwardly expressed in violent actions.” Gandhi’s message never grows old. Now we’ve a book that helps to continue his work for the youngest of readers. A necessary purchase then.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

  • ReaderKidZ speaks with Ms. Hegedus about the book.
  • Meanwhile Kirkus interviewed the two authors and the illustrator here.

Misc: This is a book with a very nicely maintained and updated website of its own.  Some of my favorite posts include this one from Evan Turk on how he got access to the spun cotton fiber featured in the book.  I also light his piece on Light & Shadow and this one on how he chose his art.  Arun even has posts up containing family Gandhi stories that would make an excellent follow up books should the need arise.  Be sure to read the one on pumpkins and eggs when you get a chance.

Video:

One of the top best book trailers I’ve seen in a really long time.  Accomplished and it does a brilliant job of highlighting Turk’s art.

llustration & Animation by Evan Turk

Music: “Ambwa” used by permission of artist Ustad Ghulam Farid Nizami
Voices: Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus
Sound: Evan Turk, Carrington MacDuffie & The Block House, Justin Yelle & Kaotic Studios, and William Dufris & Mind’s Eye Productions.
Project Management: Curious City

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15. Biographies for Young Readers: Dip into the Minds of the Greats

There's a fine art to turning a great life into something digestible for a child. The art lies in finding the essence, an almost haiku-like writing that condenses, getting only the most salient details on the page. Each of the following biographies rises to that fine art.

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16. Review of the Day: It Jes’ Happened by Don Tate

It Jes’ Happened
By Don Tate
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Lee & Low Books
ISBN: 978-1-60060-260-3
Ages 5-9
On shelves April 1st

Teaching kids about outsider art feels like a no-brainer to me. Which is to say, why doesn’t it happen more often? Perhaps there’s a feeling that educating kids on the self-taught is ultimately self-defeating. Can’t say as I agree, of course. Seems to me that learning about the great outsider artists could give a kid a kind of hope. This is particularly true in the case of Bill Traylor. Here you have a guy who lived a whole life, discovered an artistic calling near the end, and remains remembered where before he might have been forgotten. It makes for an interesting lesson and, to my relief, and even more interesting book. In It Jes’ Happened Don Tate and R. Gregory Christie pair up for the first time ever to present the life and art of an ordinary man who lived through extraordinary times.

He was born a slave, Bill Traylor was. Around 1854 or so Bill was born on a cotton plantation in Alabama. After the Civil War his parents stayed on as sharecroppers. After he grew up Bill ran a farm of his own with his wife and kids, but when Bill turned eighty-one he was alone on the farm by himself. With cane in hand he headed for Montgomery. It was there that he started drawing, for no immediately apparent reason. He’d draw on cardboard or discarded paper. After a time, a young artist took an interest in Bill, ultimately showing off his work in a gallery show. Bill enjoyed it but for him the drawing was the most important thing. An Afterword discusses Bill’s life and shows a photograph of him and a piece of his art.

When you’re writing a picture book biography of any artist the first problem you need to address is how to portray that person’s art in the book. If you’re the illustrator do you try to replicate the original artist’s work? Do you draw or paint in your own style and include small images of the artist’s original work? Or do you show absolutely none of the original art, trusting your readership to do that homework on their own? There is a fourth option, but I don’t know that I was aware of it before I read this book. You can hire an illustrator whose style is similar enough to the original artist that when the time comes to reference the original art they make their own version and then show the artist’s work at the end.

Now I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that I’ve never really been a huge fan of R. Gregory Christie’s style before. It’s one of those things I can appreciate on an aesthetic level but never really personally enjoy. Yet in this book I felt that Christie was really the only person who could do Traylor’s tale justice. I had initially wondered why he had been chosen (before reading the book, I might add) since author Don Tate

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17. Julia Child for Kids - Serious AND Funny

"True stuff doesn't have to be all solemn and serious and sedate," wrote Roz in her postlast week about humor in nonfiction picture books. If ever there was a biographical subject who was NOT solemn and sedate, it was Julia Child, who would have turned 100 this year. Serious is another matter, however.

Fun in the kitchen
On TV, Julia had a natural, relaxed attitude that belied her seriousness about French cooking. Of crucial importance were fresh, high-quality ingredients, prepared with classic techniques that had been developed over centuries. Fortunately, Julia's serious approach was always tempered by an earthy sense of humor. At heart an educator, she knew that learning goes down easiest when you're having fun. Above all, she would say, are the pleasures of sharing a delicious meal with family and friends. For Julia, relationships came first.

In my new picture book, Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat (Abrams), all these facets of America's most beloved chef and cookbook author are on the table. The challenge for me as an author was to find the right balance of seriousness and playfulness, and to do it in a way that kids would enjoy.

Flowers for Julia Child's
80th birthday party,
complete with kitchen whisk.
A Julia fan since childhood, I'd wanted to write a book about her ever since we met when I designed the flowers for her 80th birthday party, at the Rainbow Room in New York. But I struggled to find a way to make the subject child-friendly. Would six-year-olds really be interested in fancy French food?

Then I learned that Julia got her first cat, Minette, when she and her husband Paul lived in Paris in the late 1940's. This fortunate French feline ate meals lovingly prepared by the future Queen of Cuisine. In return, Minette brought Julia little tokens of affection—in the form of fres

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18. Before and After

I'm recycling a post from back in 2007 because a) I like it and b) I'm a cheater:


I think one of the best ways to help kids understand specific writing techniques, such as "Show, Don't Tell" - is to present them with examples of before and after revision.


Over the years, I've collected some great samples of revisions done by fifth graders that illustrate their grasp of the "Show, Don't Tell" technique.


Check these out (from workshops in which the kids - fifth graders - write biographies of a parent or grandparent):


Before: Bob wasn't happy when his father told him they were moving.


After: Bob's father came in and announced, "We're moving." Bob groaned when he heard the news.




Before: John loved to play baseball with the kids in the neighborhood.


After: As soon as John got home from school, he dashed back to his room to grab his baseball mitt, then hurried to meet his friends in the vacant lot next door.




Before: She was good at swimming.


After: Swimming medals covered her bedroom wall.




Before: Sam loved to go to the Cape every summer with his family.


After: Sam counted the days until his family would load the beach chairs and boogie boards into the car and head for the Cape.




Before: He hated doing chores, like vacuuming, washing dishes or raking.


After: He groaned when he had to vacuum. He whined when he had to wash dishes. He grumbled when he had to rake.




Before: His favorite subject was geography.


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19. Biographies

A question and answer chat with author Joanne Mattern about writing biographies for children. 

http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/tr01/joannemattern2012.shtml

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20. Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Redux


Yesterday morning there was an article in the NY Times that touched on my former subject, Mary Sullivan. Although the article (in case the link doesn't work it's called

100 Years After a Murder, Questions About a Police Officer’s Guilt) 

 doesn't mention Mary, she had a minor roll in the case, though not in solving it (one of the many reasons I, sob, dropped the book). Seeing it there in the paper, I had a pang and so I decided to re-post this blog from early last year. If we weren't posting old blogs, I probably would have written an entire blog about my newly adopted dog, Ketzie. I guess I'm lucky because I am such a doting new parent I would have embarrassed myself by writing thousands of words about her and showing you a picture. OK. Since you asked. I'll show you a picture.



and one more just so you can see what she really looks like:




Now on to the "real" blog post, the repeat:

If it were up to me, you'd listen to this song while reading this post.

So. It's been a very, very long time since I broke up with a sweetheart, given that I've been married for almost 30 years. (In  my culture, you get married at 11.) And I don't intend to ever break up with him. But there comes a time in every writer's life when she has to break up with a topic. Actually, many times. Usually the break-up comes early on in the project. At least for me. I work on something for a short time and realize that there's just no there there, or that it's not for me. Or someone or something else pulls at me, grabs my attention. ("Oh you over there, come hither...")

But sometimes, it seems, you go out with someone for a very long time before you realize he or she was not your bashert. This has just happened to me. It was a long relationship, but it was going nowhere. It just took me a very long time to realize that because I thought... I was sure...though I had niggling doubts...that I was in love.


But breaking up really IS hard to do.

(By the way, I also like this version of the song. My friend Judy Blundell votes for the  2 Comments on Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Redux, last added: 7/17/2012
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21. Why Helen Keller? Selecting Subjects for Biographies

By Deborah Hopkinson, for The Children’s Book Review
Published: September 9, 2012

Recently I had the opportunity at my day job (I’m vice president for advancement at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon) to take the popular “Strengths Finder” test.   My top strength turned out to be “Learner.”

I’d have to say that’s a fairly accurate description.  It also explains much about how I choose the subjects I write about in my nonfiction and historical fiction for young readers.  I have wide-ranging reading interests (I like to read with my story antennas up).  When I’m learning something new, I’m engaged, enthuse, and happy. And then there are those magical moments when I come across something extraordinary that makes me sit up and say, “Wow!  How come I never knew that before?”  Whenever this happens, there’s a good chance I want to write about it.

That’s certainly true with my new nonfiction picture book, Annie and Helen, illustrated by Raul Colon.  Like most people I knew the general outlines of Helen Keller’s life, and I was familiar with the iconic moment at the water pump.  But I knew very little of Annie Sullivan, or the details of her actual teaching methods. What I found was astonishing – so astonishing I wanted to share it with young readers.

When I first began researching this book, I actually focused more on Annie Sullivan, whose early life was fraught with hardship.  After her mother’s death, she and her little brother were put in an almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, where her brother later died.  Annie, who’d become almost blind herself from trachoma, was able to go to the Perkins School for the Blind when she was 14. Operations partially restored her sight and she graduated in 1886 at the top of her class.  The next spring, not quite 21, she set off alone from New England by train to take her first job: teaching a young deaf and blind child in Alabama named Helen Keller.

Annie Sullivan invented her own teaching methods, and that’s what I ultimately decided to write about in Annie and Helen.  The book includes excerpts from Annie’s letters to her friend and former house mother, Mrs. Sophia Hopkins.  The letters chronicle Helen’s progress and show how inventive and resourceful Annie was as she helped Helen make sense of the world through language.  That spring must have been exhilarating for both teacher and student: by July, Helen had mastered enough skills to write a simple letter.

Illustration © 2012 by Raul Colon

Annie and Helen is not a “cradle to grave biography.”  Instead, it covers the period of March-July 1887, when teacher and pupil forged their incredible relationship. While I have written traditional biographies for very young readers on John Adams and Susan B. Anthony, and on Charles Darwin for slightly older readers, I often prefer to focus on a specific incident or a time period in order to illuminate someone’s life.  Keep On! focuses on  Matthew Henson’s early life and Arctic explorations, A Band of Angels is about Ella Sheppard’s experiences as a Jubilee Singer,  and A Boy Called Dickens shows Dickens at age 12, when he was working in a blacking factory.

My books also include both nonfiction and historical fiction.  My 2012 title, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is nonfiction.  But rather than write a biography of Dr. John Snow, the pioneering epidemiologist who proved that cholera was spread by water, I chose to fictionalize the story in my forthcoming middle grade novel, The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel.  Hopefully readers will enjoy the story, and also there’s a long author’s note included if they want to know more.

I hope I will also be a reader who wants to know more.  And perhaps that’s also a reason for choosing to write about Helen Keller. What better inspiration for the love of learning could there be?

To find out more about Deborah Hopkinson’s books, visit: www.deborahhopkinson.com

You can also discover more by following along on the Annie and Helen Blog Tour

September 1st:  Watch. Connect. Read

September 1st:   SharpRead

September 2nd: Nerdy Book Club

September 3rdBakers and Astronauts

September 4th: Two Writing Teachers  

September 5th: Cracking the Cover  

September 6thTeach Mentor Texts  

September 7th: Nonfiction Detectives

September 8th: Booking Mama

September 9thChildren’s Book Review  

September 10thRandom Acts of Reading

September 11th7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Original article: Why Helen Keller? Selecting Subjects for Biographies

©2012 The Childrens Book Review. All Rights Reserved.

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22. Review of the Day: The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markel

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau
By Michelle Markel
Illustrated by Amanda Hall
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
$17.00
ISBN: 978-0-8028-5264-6
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

I’m not ashamed to say it, though perhaps I should be. Still, it’s true. Though I grew up in the middle class with a good education and a stint at a liberal arts college there are huge gaping gaps in my knowledge that have consistently been filled in over the years by children’s books. I know that I am not alone in this. When I worked in NYPL’s Central Children’s Room we had any number of regular adult patrons that would come in seeking children’s books on a variety of different topics so that they could learn about them in a non-threatening fashion. At its best a children’s book takes a complex subject and synthesizes it down to its most essential parts. Simple enough. But if you’re dealing with a picture book biography, it then has to turn a human life in a cohesive (child friendly) story. No mean feat. So when I saw this picture book bio of the artist Henri Rousseau I was immediately arrested by its art. Then I sort of came to realize that when it came to the man himself, I knew nothing. Next to nothing. I may never win a Jeopardy round or a game of Trivial Pursuit but thanks to great books like this one I may someday attain the education of a seven-year-old. There are worse fates in the world. These days, seven-year-olds get all the good stuff.

Your everyday average forty-year-old toll collector doesn’t usually drop everything to become a painter, yet that’s exactly what one did back in the 19th century. His name was Henri Rousseau and though he never took an art course in his life (art lessons aren’t exactly available on a toll collector’s budget) he does his research, looks at art, sits himself down, and begins to paint. He’s incredibly excited after his first big exhibition but his reviews say mostly “mean things” about his art. Still, he clips them, saves them, and continues to paint. Over the years he meets with very little success but is inspired by greenhouses and the lush topiary found inside. He can’t afford to ever see a jungle of his own so he makes them up. Finally, after decades and decades, the new young crop of artists takes note of his work. At last, he is celebrated and appreciated and his naïf style is seen for what it truly is; Simultaneously ahead of its time, and timeless.

As far as I can tell the picture book biography can go in a certain number of directions when it comes to its interior art. It can seek to emulate the original artist, mimicking their style with mixed results. Or it can eschew the original artist altogether and only show their paintings as images on walls or in the notes at the book’s end. Artist Amanda Hall takes a slightly different take with her art, inserting Mr. Rousseau into his own works. As she says at the end “Instead of my usual pencil crayon and watercolor technique, I used both watercolor and acrylics for the illustrations, as I wanted to get close to the feel of Rousseau’s own paintings. I decided to break the rules of scale and perspective to reflect his unusual way of seeing the world. For some of the illustrations I drew directly on his actual paintings, altering them playfully to help tell the story.” That right there might be the book’s difference. I think that for many of us, the joy of an Henri Rousseau painting lies not in the composition necessarily (though that is a plus) but the sheer feel of the piece. Rousseau’s jungle scenes do not look or feel like anyone else’s and Hall has done a stellar job capturing, if not the exact feel, then a winning replica of it for kids. The endpapers of this book are particularly telling. Open the cover and there you find all the usual suspects in a Rousseau landscape, each one creeping and peeking out at you from behind the ferns and oversized blossoms.

A poorly made picture book bio will lay out its pictures in a straightforward dull-as-dishwater manner never deviating or even attempting to inject so much as an artistic whim. The interesting thing about Hall’s take on Rousseau is that while, yes, she plays around with scale and perspective willy-nilly, she also injects a fair amount of whimsy. Not just the usual artist-flying-through-the-air-to-represent-his-mental-journey type of stuff either. There is a moment early on when a tiny Rousseau pulling a handcart approaches gargantuan figures that look down upon him with a mixture of pop-eyed surprise and, in some cases, anger. Amongst them, wearing the coat and tails of gentlemen, are two dogs and one gorilla. Later Hall indicates the passing of the years by featuring three portraits of Rousseau, hair growing grey, beard cut down to a jaunty mustache. On the opposite page three critics perch on mountains, smirking behind their hands or just gaping in general. It’s the weirdness that sets this book apart and makes it better than much of its ilk. It’s refreshing to encounter a bio that isn’t afraid to make things odd if it has to. And for some reason that I just can’t define . . . it definitely has to.

But to get back a bit to the types of bios out there for kids, as I mentioned before Hall inserts Rousseau directly into his own painting when we look at his life. Done poorly this would give the impression that he actually did live in jungles or traipse about with lions, and I’m sure there will be the occasional young reader who will need some clarification on that point. But in terms of teaching the book, Hall has handed teachers a marvelous tool. You could spend quite a lot of time flipping between the paintings here and the ones Rousseau actually created. Kids could spot the differences, the similarities, and get a good sense of how one inspired the other. Near the end of the book Hall also slips in a number of cameos from contemporary artists, and even goes so far as to include a key identifying those individuals on the last few pages. Imagine how rich an artistic unit would be if a teacher were to take that key and pair it with the author bios of THOSE people as well. For Gertrude Stein just pull out Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude by Jonah Winter. Pablo Picasso? A quick look at The Boy Who Bit Picasso by Antony Penrose. Lucky kids.

Just as the art of a picture book biography can go any number of directions, the storytelling is in the same boat. You want to tell the life of a man. Fair enough. Do you encompass everything from birth to death, marking dates and important places along the way? Do you synthesize that life down to a single moment and then use your Author’s Note at the end to tell why that person is important at all (many is the Author’s Note forced to do the heavy lifting). Or do you just zero in on what it is that made that person famous in the first place and look at how they struggled with their gift? Author Michelle Markel opts for the latter. A former journalist, Markel first cut her teeth on the author bio with her lovely Dreamer from the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall. Finding that these stories of outsider artists appealed to her, the move to Rousseau was a natural one. One that focuses on the man’s attempts to become an artist in the face of constant, near unending critical distaste. Markel’s gift here is that she is telling the story of someone overcoming the odds (to a certain extent . . . I mean he still died a pauper an all) in the face of folks telling him what he could or couldn’t do. It’s inspirational but on a very gentle scale. You’re not being forced to hear a sermon on the joys of stick-to-itativeness. She lands the ending too, effortlessly transitioning from his first successful debut at an exhibition to how he is remembered today.

I remember having to learn about artists and composers in elementary school and how strange and dull they all seemed. Just a list of dead white men that didn’t have anything to do with my life or me. The best picture book bios seek to correct that old method of teaching. To make their subjects not merely “come alive” as the saying goes but turn into flesh and blood people. You learn best about a person when that person isn’t perfect, has troubles, and yet has some spark, some inescapable something about them that attracts notice. A combination of smart writing and smarter art is ideal, particularly when you’re dealing with picture book biographies. And The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau is nothing if not smart. It typifies the kind of bios I hope we see more of in the future. And, with any luck, it will help to create the kinds of people I’d like to see more of in the future. People like Henri Rousseau. Whatta fella. Whatta book.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Interviews: With Michelle Markel at I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids)

Misc: Read what Ms. Markel has to say about the book herself when she writes the guest post at Cynsations.

Videos:

A nice little book trailer exists as well.

There’s even a director’s cut.

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23. David Ritz: ‘Write the book you would want to read, not the one you believe you should write’

David Ritz has had a successful ghostwriting career, collaborating with everyone from Ray Charles to Joe Perry, and written quite a few novels too. In the latest installment of Mediabistro’s Hey, How’d You Do That? series, the prolific writer tells how he landed some of his biggest clients, and how gives tips for aspiring ghostwriters.

“When I first met Ray Charles, I didn’t know about ghostwriting; I was just going to do a biography of him,” Ritz recalled. “And then his agent asked me, ‘Which book would you be more interested in reading: a book about Ray Charles written by an egghead or a book written in his own voice?’ I told him that I would much rather read the book written in his own voice, and he told me, ‘You should write the book you would want to read, not the one you believe you should write.’ And that was a big turning point for me.”

For more, read Hey, How’d Do You Build a Successful Ghostwriting Career, David Ritz? [subscription required]

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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24. Picture Book Biographies and Story Arcs

Not all picture book biographies fit neatly into the standard story arc structure. 

http://donnabowmanbratton.blogspot.com/2011/07/do-nonfiction-picture-books-always-have.html

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25. Teaching Revision


I teach a lot of writing workshops with elementary school students.

One of the best ways to teach revision is by modeling. To teach the writing technique of "show, don't tell," I read the students before and after versions. A LOT of them.


After hearing the before and after versions, the students absorb the technique like sponges.

Over the years, I've collected some impressive examples of Show, Don't Tell revisions that were done after I had read the students oodles of before and after examples. 

I shared some of them a while back.


 Click here to have a look.

This week, I collected a few more from fifth graders. (Note: These students were writing biographies of someone they had interviewed.)

Before:  Her favorite subject was history.

After: She especially loved hearing stories about the past and how places were discovered.


Before: His favorite subject was English.

After: He was never late for English class.


Before: He and his best friend, Wes, got in trouble a lot.

After: He and his best friend, Wes, often spent time together in the principal's office.


Before: The kids in her neighborhood were close.

After: The kids in her neighborhood were like brothers and sisters.


Before: He loved football.

After: He loved the feeling of making tackles and running for touchdowns.


Before: He was shy.

After: He didn't start conversations and tried to stay unnoticed.


Before: Linda was shy and quiet but a good student.

After: Linda didn't talk much but her hand was always up for the answer.


Before: She loved algebra.

After: She counted the minutes until algebra class.


And my favorite:

Before: John's favorite teacher at boarding school was Mr. Logan. His least favorite teacher was Mr. Willis.

After: John groaned to himself when he had to go to biology class with grumpy, frowning Mr. Willis. But he had a bounce in his step when he was heading for the class of silly, fun, creative Mr. Logan.      

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