Month: July 2011

Observing the Observer

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps
By Jeannette Winter
(Schwartz & Wade Books,New York, 2011, $ 17.99 )

Field biologists startle us with their insights into animal behavior. But science is not for the easily distracted: behind those dramatic revelations are weeks, months, even years of painstaking observation. In The Watcher, author-illustrator Jeanette Winter introduces young readers to Jane Goodall, of the world’s most influential zoologists, and her ground-breaking chimpanzee studies.

In deceptively simple prose, Winter relates how Goodall transformed a childhood passion for animals into her life’s work. She shows readers how Goodall braved solitude, bad weather, and malaria to study chimps in Tanzania. After months of silent watching, Goodall earned the trust of one mature male: soon, his family accepted her, too. She saw the apes express a range of emotions and use tools. Although Goodall loved her research, she eventually left it to speak out against habitat loss and poaching, which threatened the species’ survival.

With simple shapes and bold colors, Winter’s illustrations evoke the wonder of Goodall’s life in Africa. Unseen by Goodall, chimps peep out of the treetops in a spread about her early field work. A few magical images depict Goodall, alone save for animals, under the green canopy and star-filled, navy blue sky. But the book’s most poignant illustrations show Goodall with the chimps. In one, a chimpanzee gently takes a banana from her outstretched hand; in another, a family gathers around her, embracing her with their nonchalance.

One of Winter’s illustrations shows Goodall sitting near the chimps in the rain. Like them, she folds her arms; like them, she accepts the rain and does not seek shelter. To learn about animals, Winter suggests, we must enter their world and become as patient as they are. Without sentimentality, The Watcher should awaken children – and adults – to the kinship between animals and humans and the deep rewards of quiet observation.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Biography of a Traitor

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery
By Steve Sheinkin
(Roaring Brook Press,New York, 2010, $19.99)

Benedict Arnold’s name has become synonymous with treason; yet few Americans know the extent of his contributions to the Revolution or his reasons for betraying it. In The Notorious Benedict Arnold, Steve Sheinkin details the first – and does his best to unravel the latter.

Teens and adults interested in military history will enjoy Sheinkin’s account of Benedict Arnold’s rise in the Continental Army. Often flouting the advice of senior officers,Arnold mounted successful offensives when other commanders would have lurked or fled. Sheinkin’s prose is vivid: readers accompany Arnoldand his troops on a long, cold, hungry march through Quebec and glimpse misery on the battlefield. Off the field, Revolutionary America springs to life: the Patriots who despise suspected Loyalists, the wealthy colonists who attend balls with British officers, the thugs from both factions who prowl no-man’s land, the ordinary citizens who “just want the war to go away.”

Through it all, the character of Benedict Arnold emerges: a brilliant general and risk-taker who, despite his intelligence, took everything, including political strategy, personally. Both idealistic and materialistic,Arnold sacrificed his first fortune to fight for independence, but later enraged Philadelphia’s Patriots by displaying his wealth. Sheinkin does not presume to state why Arnold defected to the British. He shows readersArnold’s mounting pressures and allows them to draw their own conclusions.

Like the best narrative nonfiction writers, Sheinkin employs the techniques of fiction to develop character and build suspense. When possible, he uses excerpts from diaries, letters, and memoirs to enliven his accounts of events and descriptions of individuals. Historical figures, including the boastful, bullying Ethan Allen and the cool-headed George Washington, spring to life on the page. Heightening the tension, Sheinkin alternates Arnold’s story with a very different narrative: the career of John André, the suave British officer who finally collaborated with Arnold.

As gripping as an adventure novel, The Notorious Benedict Arnold shows the complexity behind one of the most vilified people in American history. It is also a rich, multifaceted look at the man and his era.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Barb Rosenstock

In 2010, Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Scott Dawson introduced kids to the exciting world of auto-racing – and one brave woman who sped and crashed her way past gender boundaries and onto the track. An exuberent picture book, Fearless explores the life of Louise Smith, one of the first women to race professionally in the United States.

A resident of Vernon Hills, Illinois, Barb Rosenstock has also published The Littlest Mountain, a fable about the ten commandments. Earlier this week, I chatted with her about how Louise Smith still inspires tall tales – and encourages kids to rethink their ideas about gender roles.  

Kidsbiographer: When did you first hear about Louise Smith? Did you know much about auto racing before you began the book?

BR: At school visits, I tell children that I got the idea for the book at the most boring place in the world…a dentist’s waiting room. Her obituary was in TIME magazine and not only had I never heard of Louise, I never knew that women raced professionally before the 1970s. I knew next to nothing about auto racing before starting Fearless, but felt the need tell this story of a girl who chased her dreams. Learning about the early days of auto racing was just one of the benefits of researching the story.

Kidsbiographer: In Fearless, you present driving and racing as a way for Smith to escape the restrictions imposed on her as a woman in mid-twentieth century America. While you were conducting your research, did you hear much to suggest that Smith lamented the narrow role society cast for her? Or did she just cheerfully do whatever she wanted?

BR: This is a perfect example of the truth of a biography subject’s life not fitting the author’s preconceptions. When I started interviewing Louise’s friends and fellow drivers, I wanted to hear that she complained, protested and fought against the restrictions placed on women. In actual fact, although she definitely understood prejudice against women, she pretty much “cheerfully” did what she wanted and let her husband, other male drivers and society in general catch up to her. Like many athletes or others that overcome obstacles, she just let her talent do the talking. As an elderly lady, she talked about prejudice against her, about her frustrations with having to prove herself as a woman, but even then her eyes lit up and her spirit shone through every time she talked about racing. No lamenting for this lady.

Kidsbiographer: In your author’s note, you mention that, while you conducted your research, you encountered scores of Louise Smith anecdotes, all of which had different versions. How did you weave the stories together to write Smith’s biography? The text reads much like a good yarn, a tale passed from one generation to another.

BR: Thank you! Each story I heard contributed to the “legend of Louise Smith.” To me, Louise’s life seemed to have more in common with a Bunyan-like legend than average experience. I was trying to weave a picture book that read like a tall tale, yet was factual. In deciding what to put in and what to leave out, I kept the versions of the stories that I heard most often, ones from people who were closest to Louise or ones she told herself. She did change her own stories though, which I found charming and entirely in character.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing Smith’s story for young readers?

BR: As you can imagine, not all her experiences in the early days of auto racing were sunny or appropriate for children. There was plenty of fighting, cussing and drinking–some great stories that didn’t fit the audience. My biggest writing challenge was communicating her frustration with the traditional female role without showing Louise expressly complaining about the establishment. Once I found the “Fast, Faster, Flying, FREE” refrain it seemed to tie all the parts of her life together. She wanted her freedom; she found it behind the wheel.

Kidsbiographer: How have young readers responded to Fearless? Can you share the most satisfying feedback you’ve received from children?

BR: I was surprised that so many boys respond with words like “cool” and “awesome” to this book about a girl. It’s also surprising, but in a way heartening, that many children have little idea that woman used to be prevented from doing simple things like attending higher education or participating in sports. The best feedback I received is from a school that runs a yearly science project to race self-built cars. Boys typically built most of the final entries; but this year after I visited the school with FEARLESS, many entries were from girls who said they wanted to “be like Louise Smith.”  That made my week and I wish Louise were still alive to hear that.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?

BR: I have a new picture book titled The Camping Trip that Changed America, (Dial) illustrated by Caldecott-winner Mordicai Gerstein that should be out for Earth Day next year.  That will be followed by a biography William’s Windmill, published by Knopf. A fable called The Littlest Mountain (KarBen) was released this past March. I am always trying to write my first middle-grade novel, but too many picture book ideas interfere (or my brain just can’t think past 1,000 words!) I love the picture book format and have more than twenty manuscripts written or in the works to be published in the coming years. I’m glad I finally followed my own dreams too!

Meet the Biographer: Jen Cullerton Johnson

In 2010, writer Jen Cullerton Johnson and illustrator Sonia Lynn Sadler published Seeds of Change, a picture-book biography of Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai. Since its publication, the book has garnered many accolades: Seeds of Change was named a Notable Children’s Book by Smithsonian Magazine and a 2011 Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association. Sadler received the Coretta Scott-King/John Steptoe award for New Talent in Illustration.

Jen Cullerton Johnson is a writer and educator who focuses on green issues and lives in Chicago. Last week, I spoke with her about Seeds of Change and the challenges inherent in writing about injustice for young readers.

Kidsbiographer:  I think of writing picture books – both fiction and nonfiction – as an act of distillation: in short, pruning a story to its essence. Which aspects of Wangari Maathai’s life were the most difficult to simply for a young audience and why?

JCJ: In many ways Wangari’s life is complicated. When Wangari was young, she knew that many young girls did not have the opportunity to go school and earn a living. Not being able to go to school for being a girl is something some American school children have a hard time comprehending, but when we discuss issues of Civil Rights in the United States, students are able to grasp the concepts of gender and racial inequalities.

Conversations about gender, race and race, no matter how difficult allows young readers to engage in the world around them in a critical fashion. They are able to have compassion for others.

In many ways, conversation is community.

Kidsbiographer: In Seeds of Change, you don’t shelter readers from human nastiness and injustice. You describe how the Kenyan government and multinational corporations, feeling threatened by Maathai’s activism, imprisoned her. How did you decide how to approach this subject for children? After all, some well intentioned, if naive, parents and educators attempt to shield kids from any mention of cruelty or unfairness.

 JCJ: As a parent, I believe the only way my child has a chance to making the world better is if he can enter into an honest conversation about human rights. If we shelter our children from details that are “too nasty” we are giving our children a message that says we do not trust them to understand difficult information. I hope that I am able to give my son the tools of conversation and tolerance so that he may solve problems, not prolong them.

 As a writer, my purpose is to reveal what is hidden, to shed light in areas of darkness. I want my readers to experience Wangari’s life so that when they are done reading they can have critical conversations about how to treat people and the environment.

Kidsbiographer: Can you describe the creative partnership between you and Sonia Lynn Sadler? How did you collaborate to bring Maathai’s story to life?

JCJ: Normally, when you write a book, the publisher contracts the illustrator. Sometimes the write and the illustrator work together, but most often times they do not. I did not have the chance to meet Sonia until after the book was published. In fact we met at the Green Book Awards at Salisbury University. When we met, it was like fireworks on the 4th of July. She is an amazing artist. Her vision of art and its healing aspects are amazing. Since we met in April, we did a second book together called Rise: The Story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf is the president of Liberia and the first female head of state on the African contentment. Right now the book is at the acquisition stage with Lee & Low, so cross your fingers!

In addition, we wrote a grant to spearhead a project called Color on the Horizon, which explores 8 women of color contemporary artists and their art.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to share any particularly gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Seeds of Change?

JCJ: In many, many ways, Seeds of Change adds to the conversation going on about the environment and our role in saving it. Young people, especially young African American girls, like to point out themselves when they read the book. I’ve seen students say, that’s me, right? Also, they like to pick out the faces of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr (in the final illustration). What drives teachers to talk about Wangari Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement is that they want children to know there is possibility and opportunity for them. Children, as Wangari says so elegantly, are the seeds of the future. I feel very grateful to connect teachers and children with Wangari. I am blessed to be part of the conversation.

Kidsbiographer: Can you tell us about any current or future projects?

Jen Cullerton Johnson: I just submitted a children’s nonfiction book called The Town That Said No. It is a biography of a town that refused to allow a nuclear power plant to be building along the shores of Lake Michigan. The town happens to be the town I grew up in as a young girl and my parents were part of the people who said no. So writing The Town that Said No has been a wonderful experience to connect with neighbors and history of Lake Michigan as well as explore nuclear power plants.

Fast as She Can

Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith
By Barb Rosenstock
Illustrated by Scott Dawson
(Dutton Children’s Books,New York, 2010, $16.99)

Who doesn’t remember that first, exhilarating time solo drive? In Fearless, Barb Rosenstock explores the career of auto-racing pioneer Louise Smith, one of the first women to race professionally in the 1940s and 50s. To Smith, driving fast represented an escape from the narrowly restricted social roles of her day. Behind the wheel, there was adventure – and freedom.

A short preface and epilogue provide some contextual information about Smith’s life and racing history, but Rosenstock’s text is lively and conversational as though one of Louise’s friends were telling the story to a young relative. Like any good storyteller, she employs repetition and other narrative devices to build suspense: “Fast! Faster! Flying! Free!” she writes whenever Louise soars ahead. Scott Dawson’s realistic paintings add drama and humor to the biography, capturing the thrill of the race track and Smith’s easy charm. (Parents and teachers will enjoy how Smith smiles disarmingly at her husband to win his support for her career.)

The biography’s most amusing episode – and most captivating image – has seven-year-old Louise Smith starting her father’s car and careening down a dirt road on her first drive. Eyes wide with glee, she grins broadly. The drive ends with a bang, but Louise is undaunted. Whether or not readers share her taste for acceleration, Fearless shows them the delights of taking risks on and off the track.

Dorothy A. Dahm