Month: April 2011

Voice of Reason

Chief Joseph: The Voice for Peace
By Lorraine Jean Hopping
(Sterling, New York, 2010, $5.95 paperback)

As a boy, Nez Perce leader Joseph played with missionaries’ children. The white and Native American kids had fun together even though they could not each others’ languages. Because of this early experience, he believed the two cultures could coexist peacefully. However, later events tested Joseph’s faith in human goodness. He saw white settlers kill innocent Nez Perce – and he saw their crimes go unpunished. He heard government officials promise the Nez Perce their land was secure and then order them to leave the same area. He saw his people, including his beloved brother, die in battle and on forced marches to reservations. But through it all, Joseph urged other Nez Perce not to take up arms, advocating diplomacy instead of violence.

In Chief Joseph: The Voice for Peace, Lorraine Jean Hopping explores the legendary leader’s life. She intertwines Joseph’s story with contextual information about the Nez Perce way of life and settlers’ attitudes toward Native Americans. When appropriate, she employs Nez Perce words, including “so-ya-pu” for white people. Hopping considers the role of religion, both Christian and Native American, in the conflict and unflinchingly relates the atrocities pioneers and government soldiers perpetrated against vulnerable Nez Perce women, children, elderly, and injured. Although Chief Joseph is informative, Hopping’s writing is always engaging and often moving, avoiding the textbook feel of many children’s biographies.

“Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars,” said Chief Joseph. He hoped, one day, “that all people may be one people.” In Chief Joseph, Lorraine Jean Hopping introduces young readers to past injustices. With any luck, she may inspire some to battle for justice today and tomorrow.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Throwing off Captivity

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave
By Laban Carrick Hill
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
(Little, Brown, and Company, New York, 2010, $16.99)

Most artists leave pieces of themselves along with their art: letters, journals, self-portraits. Dave left only his pots. Some he signed and decorated with bits of verse. In the mid nineteenth century, Dave was one of two South Carolina potters who could make pots over twenty gallons. He was also a slave. He did not have a last name, and no one knows how he learned to read, write, and throw pots.

In Dave the Potter, writer Laban Carrick Hill and illustrator Bryan Collier evoke both the beauty of Dave’s art and the agony of slavery. Both the text and the multi-textured watercolor-collage images focus on how Dave shaped a single vessel out of clay. But the realities of injustice are never distant.  Hill writes of Dave’s “chapped thumbs,” so readers remember the potter fashioned beauty out of toil and suffering as well as clay. And although Dave’s labors at the wheel occupy the foreground of Collier’s double-page spreads, careful readers will catch glimpses of his pain: African-Americans at work in the fields, faces of Dave’s relations on the bare boughs of a tree, a ship on the edge of the horizon. Art may allow Dave to transcend his circumstances, but he can never escape them.

At the end of the narrative, there is an afterword about Dave’s life. Hill includes some of the epitaphs Dave wrote. Some are humorous, others cryptic, a few heartbreaking. One of the most poignant concerns Dave’s dual identity as a slave and artist: “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/ wher the oven bakes and the pot biles.” By focusing on one person’s experiences, Hill and Collier introduce young readers to the horrors and injustices of slavery even while they celebrate the achievements of a man who happened to be a slave.

One day, over a hundred and fifty years ago, a man picked up a stick in and scribbled some lines in wet clay. He spoke only for himself, but we can’t help reading his words as a clarion call for freedom in South Carolina and everywhere.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Crossing to Victory

The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution
By Jim Murphy
(Scholastic Press, New York, 2010, $21.99)

Washington Crossing the Delaware is an iconic painting of American history, suggesting the fortitude and military brilliance Americans ascribe to their first president. That it was completed by a German artist, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, almost eighty years after the Battle of Trenton has not dimmed the Washington’s or the painting’s reputation.

In The Crossing, Jim Murphy discussesWashington’s role in the early years of the American Revolution for middle-grade readers. He highlights the modesty for whichWashington later became famous. “From the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall, and the ruin of my reputation,”Washington told a fellow patriot. During the war, the general showed courage and determination, persisting despite cold winters, an experienced enemy, and a dwindling army. (Thousands of American soldiers deserted the Continental army at a time.)Washington even faced internal opposition: Congress criticized his efforts, and two other generals vied for his position. However,Washington’s gift for ambushes surprised his allies – and his British opponents.

Murphy’s book is an excellent introduction toWashingtonand military strategy for readers already familiar with the American Revolution. Maps, paintings, and drawings bring to life the war’s battles and major players. Murphy also incorporates quotes from soldiers’ diaries and letters, making his descriptions of battles and hardships visceral. However, he misses a few opportunities to broaden readers’ understanding of war and early American life. At times, his text dismisses, even celebrates, British casualties. “The bridge looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and red coats,” said one American soldier after a Continental victory. When you consider that most British soldiers were draftees and that even voluntary recruits were usually penniless, desperate young men, it is hard to summon anything but compassion for the slain “redcoats.” And although Murphy identifies William Lee, Washington’s “slave and close companion,” he never discusses slavery or grapples withWashington’s position as a slave owner.

Kids who enjoy history, particularly military history, should enjoy The Crossing. Murphy provides a vivid close-up of the Revolution’s early days, augmenting the material students learn from their textbooks. With a more nuanced discussion of the war’s participants, his book could have been even richer and more interesting.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Tree by Tree

Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace
By Jen Cullerton Johnson
Illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler
(Lee & Low Books, New York, 2010, $18.95)

Too many people perceive an inherent conflict between protecting the environment and helping other human beings. To Wangari Maathai, the two goals are entwined. When the biologist saw how deforestation was eroding Kenya’s soil and preventing people from growing the crops they needed to survive, she knew she needed to act. She visited the country’s most devastated regions, planting trees and encouraging other women to join her. Eventually, the land revived, and in 2004, Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. She was both the first women African women and the first environmentalist to win the award.

In Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace, Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler tell Wangari Maathai’s story.  An ethnic Kikuyu, Maathai learned about the interdependence of plants, animals, and people from her mother. Johnson and Sadler’s book reflects this relationship between people and the rest of nature. “Wangari listened as still as a tree, but her mind swirled with curiosity like the currents in a stream,” Johnson writes of the young Maathai. When the girl attends school – which was rare for Kenyan girls in the forties and fifties – Sadler has letters and math problems flit over the land. Throughout the book, the women’s brightly colored, vividly patterned dresses blossom like flowers against the pages’ green backdrop.

Without being didactic, Seeds of Change should plant a seed in many hearts: the idea that simple acts can alter the world for the better. Like Maathai herself, Johnson and Sadler show that spreading an important message and creating something beautiful are one and the same.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Batting for Respect


Jackie Robinson: Champion for Equality
By Michael Teitelbaum
(Sterling, New York, 2010, $5.95, Paperback)

The first African-American to play Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson’s name is familiar even to people who don’t follow sports. During his nine-year career, Robinson accumulated honors, including Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, and he led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the World Series six times. But integrating professional baseball was a trying and often lonely endeavor. On the field, Robinson endured taunts from fans and other athletes; off the field, he and his family received death threats. On the road, in the still segregated south, he couldn’t join his teammates at restaurants or hotels.

In Jackie Robinson: Champion for Equality, Michael Teitelbaum explores Robinson’s life in clear, accessible prose. Robinson, the son of sharecroppers, was a star athlete, earning letters in four sports in high school and college. Teitelbaum addresses Robinson’s first, painful encounters with prejudice, from the racial slurs he heard growing up in Pasedena, California to the segregation he experienced in the Army. (In 1944, Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to give up his seat on a military shuttle bus.) Teitelbaum chronicles Robinson’s ascent from the Negro Leagues to the Minors to the Brooklyn Dodgers. However, the first baseman’s achievements off the field were equally remarkable. Throughout his career, he volunteered for the Harlem YMCA, sharing his love of sports with underprivileged kids. After retirement, he entered the business world and threw himself into politics, campaigning for various candidates, the NAACP, and civil rights in general. Today, the Jackie Robinson Foundation helps poor and minority students attend college.

With period photos and images of newspaper clippings and other documents, Jackie Robinson is also an attractive book. Side panels educate readers about baseball and American history without disrupting Teitelbaum’s readable, often poignant narrative. The result is a splendid introduction to the Civil Rights movement, baseball history, and Robinson himself. “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” said Jackie Robinson. Teitelbaum’s book ensures that the first baseman will influence another generation of athletes and thinkers.

Dorothy A. Dahm