Month: November 2010

Grounded in History

Johnny Appleseed: “Select Good Seeds and Plant Them in Good Ground”
By Richard Worth
(Enslow Publishers, Berkeley Heights, NJ, 2010, $ 31.93)

Every American student studies John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, possibly because he is one of the least controversial figures in American history. Born in Massachusetts just before the Revolution, Chapman later moved west. He started nurseries throughout western Pennsylvania and Ohio, selling apple trees to settlers. Sometimes, he bartered seedlings for food and clothes; when pioneers couldn’t pay; Chapman gave them trees outright. Chapman’s eccentricity and selflessness were legendary even during his lifetime. He cared nothing for appearances, wearing ragged garments and giving his clothes away to those in need. He was a vegetarian before a vegetarian movement existed. Chapman also preached the teachings of Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed in the sacredness of all life, to the early settlers.

In Johnny Appleseed, Richard Worth attempts to bridge the gap between the few known facts and many folktales about Chapman’s life. Because historians know relatively little about Chapman, Worth scrambles to meet his required word count. Background information about the American Revolution and the War of 1812 comprises entire chapters when a couple paragraphs would have sufficed. Children may forget that they’re reading a biography as Johnny Appleseed often reads like a history textbook. The book is most engaging when Worth includes settlers’ memories of Chapman, poignant anecdotes that illustrate his gentle, unassuming nature. Without the lengthy digressions into military history, Johnny Appleseed would have been a much stronger, albeit shorter, biography.

Biographers must decide whether they want most to inform, inspire, or entertain readers. Johnny Appleseed certainly educates kids about early American history, but Worth fails to engage readers about Chapman himself.

©Dorothy A. Dahm

Commander in Chief

Barack Obama
By Stephen Krensky
(DK Publishing, New York, 2010, $14.99)

 By now, most Americans know the touchstones of Barack Obama’s life, related so eloquently in his memoir Dreams from my Father. Born in Hawaii to a white American  woman and a Kenyan father, Barack Hussein Obama has lived a varied life. His childhood took him from Hawaii to Indonesia and back again. After college, he worked as a community organizer in an underprivileged side of Chicago before attending Harvard Law School and practicing civil rights law. He was an Illinois state senator and a candidate for the US Senate when he attracted national attention at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. From there, it was a swift climb to the 2008 presidential campaign – and the presidency.

In Barack Obama, Stephen Krensky has penned a personal and informative biography of the current president for middle-grade readers. Through the book’s many color photos, kids travel to the significant places in Obama’s life: from Hawaii’s beaches to Kenya’s Great Rift Valley to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States. As an educational biography, the book educates readers about the key people and places in Obama’s life and about the political process. The last chapter summarizes the 2008 race, introducing kids to the presidential and vice-presidential candidates as well as the election’s main issues. But Krensky never loses sight of his subject’s humanity. He describes how Obama felt out of place during his childhood and youth and relates how the freshmen senator made time for his family despite his busy schedule. Krensky also explores how working with disenfranchised people in Chicago and visiting his family in Kenya made Obama determined to make a difference in others’ lives.

Writing objectively, yet sympathetically about a living person is difficult. In Barack Obama, Stephen Krensky has created both a human portrait of the commander in chief and a measured, yet hopeful, view of the positive change politics can bring.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

The Top of the World

Captain Mac: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer
By Mary Morton Cowan
(Calkins Creek, Honesdale, PA, 2010, $17.95)

Donald Baxter MacMillan, known affectionately as Captain Mac, spent almost fifty years exploring the Arctic. During his time in the Far North, he studied minerals, plant life, animals, and the language and customs of the various Inuit people. His knowledge of northern coastlines helped the United States during World War II. Traveling hundreds of miles by dog sled across the ice, he braved hunger, hypothermia, and charging polar bears and walruses. He formed strong friendships with Inuit hunters and their families and even, briefly, adopted a polar bear cub.

In Captain Mac, Mary Morton Cowan captures both the high adventure of MacMillan’s life and his cheerful, resilient character. She introduces readers to nautical terminology and the Inuit language MacMillan studied, incorporating both sailing and Inuit vocabulary into the text. Orphaned at young age, the sea captain’s son worked his way through college, never daring to hope he might one day attain his dream of exploring the Arctic. A chance meeting with polar explorer Robert Peary led to his first expedition. Cowan describes MacMillan’s easy leadership style, which allowed him to maintain control of his ship while befriending his crew. On his many journeys, he organized athletic contests, concerts, and even film nights to boost his crew’s morale through the long, bleak winters. Finally, Cowan relates one of Captain Mac’s less well-known, but equally dramatic battles: his efforts to ensure that Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer who reached the North Pole with Peary, received recognition.

At 181 pages, Captain Mac is much longer than most middle-grade and young-adult biographies. But MacMillan’s life was anything but tedious, and neither is Cowan’s narrative. Her account of MacMillan’s adventures, coupled with the explorers’ own photos, bring the Arctic to life. After finishing Captain Mac, imaginative readers will dream of a land of ice and sky and think about settling sail on a few voyages of their own.

©Dorothy A. Dahm

Chilly Latitudes

By Janice Weaver
Illustrated by David Craig
(Tundra Books, Ontario, 2010, $22.95)

Somewhere between history and folklore lies the story of Henry Hudson. Like most early seventeenth-century explorers, he sought a passage to the East Indies – and the spice wealth such a discovery would bring. But Hudson never found the passage or the fortune it promised. Impatient with his meandering persistence, his crew mutinied. They abandoned him and other sailors, including his son, in Hudson Bay. None of the castoffs were ever seen again. Did the men die of exposure or starvation? Did Inuit people help them? Their remains have never been found, so no one will ever know. However, Hudson’s legacy endures: in North America, his name graces a river, a strait, and the bay in which he disappeared from history.

Relatively little information about Henry Hudson has survived the last four centuries, a fact that Janice Weaver admits freely in Hudson, her biography of the doomed explorer. At the book’s conclusion, she describes how she used old journals, ship logs, and court records to tell the story of Hudson’s voyages. Text boxes illuminate scurvy, whaling, mermaids, navigation, and other facets of seafaring life. Weaver’s vivid description of scurvy may have a tertiary benefit, persuading picky eaters to consume fruits and vegetables once and for all.

Hudson is also a striking picture book. David Craig’s illustrations capture both the romance and danger of seafaring as well as the bleak beauty of the Far North. Period illustrations and maps and older portraits of Hudson teach readers about the seventeenth century and the traditional view of Hudson.

An unusual biography, Hudson is more than a famous person’s life story or an account of Hudson’s voyages. By highlighting Hudson’s mysterious end and discussing her own use of old documents, Weaver introduces young readers to historical research – and invites them to share her excitement.

© Dorothy A. Dahm