Month: September 2011

The Butterfly Lady

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian
By Margarita Engle
Illustrated by Julie Paschkis
(Henry Holt & Company,New York, 2010, $16.99 )

In the early eighteenth century, German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian sailed to Suriname. There, she painted insects, flowers, birds, and reptiles. Her books were well received in Europe, attracting the attention of scientists and naturalists. When few women traveled independently or pursued careers (as opposed to work for survival), Merian did both – and in a field that combined science and art, at that.

In Summer Birds, Margarita Engle imagines Merian as a thirteen-year-old naturalist in her native Germany. The simple first-person narrative describes how young Maria catches and studies caterpillars and butterflies, among other small creatures, and learns about their development. Her patient, scientific approach contrasts with the superstitious claims of her neighbors: insects are evil beings that arise spontaneously from mud. Merian also discusses her forays into naturalist art and her desire to share her discoveries with the rest of the world. By focusing on one remarkable girl who became an extraordinary woman, Engle introduces young readers to various creatures’ life cycles, some aspects of medieval thought, and one intrepid explorer in fourteen double-page spreads.

Julie Paschkis’ illustrations capture the marvels Merian saw in nature and those she created in her art. One illustration shows Merian’s brush applying a finishing touch to a red flower where a butterfly sips nectar. Another butterfly rests on her hand as she paints, suggesting the close relationship between the woman, nature, and her art. In Summer Birds’ most striking image, a luna moth spans most of a two-page spread, its green wings brilliantly illuminated against a black background. A tiny Maria kneels in the corner and gazes up at the magnificent moth. In her hand, she holds a twig with a tiny caterpillar. For a moment, we see the world as Merian may have and we wonder with her at the moth.

Both an excellent science book and picture-book biography, Summer Birds should encourage kids’ interest in entomology and nature in general. It also invites them to see art and science not as two separate disciplines, but as two adventurous and often intertwining paths to knowledge.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Maryann Macdonald

In 2010, Maryann Macdonald wrote The Little Piano Girl with her sister, Ann Ingalls. A few weeks ago, Kidsbiographer chatted with Ann Ingalls about the picture-book biography of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Maryann Macdonald to discuss the biography’s themes in greater detail.

Kidsbiographer: The Little Piano Girl shows young Mary Lou Williams being bullied by her peers. Her neighbors and classmates mock and exclude her for her poverty, especially her shoes that don’t fit. However, your narrative never mentions racism explicitly. I’m curious: how and why did you and co-author Ann Ingalls decide not to discuss race in Mary Lou’s story?

Maryann Macdonald: The question of racism is not mentioned specifically in The Little Piano Girl because the discrimination Mary encountered in her childhood was not just from whites.  While some of the children who bullied her were white, probably an equal number were black.  Mary was very dark-skinned, which was not shown in illustrations, and, as such, was also looked down upon at that time by lighter-skinned blacks.  Most people today don’t recognize or acknowledge this kind of racism, but it did exist.  To put this in print, however, is politically incorrect.  I do discuss this question in book talks from time to time.

Kidsbiographer: There’s a Cinderella story at the heart of The Little Piano Girl – only it’s Mary Lou’s passion for music, and not her appearance, that provides her with a happily ever after. When you wrote the book, did you consider the text’s parallels with traditional fairy tales and Disney princess movies? Did you intend to present Mary Lou Williams as an alternate role model for young girls?

Maryann Macdonald: To tell you the truth, I never gave the Cinderella or Disney idea a second thought and I don’t think Ann Ingalls did, either!  We were just so excited by Mary Lou Williams’ passion and talent, and wanted her story to be better known.  I suppose part of that desire came from wanting little girls, in particular, to believe in themselves as Mary did.  There is no doubt that she was and continues to be an inspiring role model.

Kidsbiographer: Can you share some of the most gratifying feedback you’ve received about The Little Piano Girl?

Maryann Macdonald: Ann Ingalls and I have been thrilled with the response to The Little Piano Girl.  We have been asked to speak and sign books at the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Center, the Jazz Museum and even in President Obama’s daughter’s classroom in Washington!  Part of the buzz came from the fact that the book was published during the centennial of Mary Lou Williams’ birth, a fact we hadn’t anticipated.  I guess our proudest moments were hearing personally from Mary’s family about their enthusiasm for our book. 

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

 Maryann Macdonald:  My next book is also based on the true story of another very different but equally inspiring little girl, Odette Meyers, a Jewish child who survived the Holocaust in France during World War II by hiding in the country and “reinventing” herself.  Tens of thousands of French children were somehow able to manage this successfully. Odette, like Mary, experienced bullying and exclusion, but was also able to transcend these difficulties, partially through her love of poetry.  The story of her search for her true identity after the war is deeply touching.



Meet the Biographer: Amy Novesky

Last year, San Francisco-based Amy Novesky published Me, Frida, a picture-book biography of artist Frida Kahlo. The book focuses on a transformative trip to San Francisco that Frida took with her husband and fellow-artist Diego Rivera. Me, Frida has won awards for its illustration, and Novesky will receive the FOCAL award from the LA Public Library in January.

Last week, Amy Novesky talked with Kidsbiographer about her fascination with Kahlo’s life, her approach to picture-book biography, and the influence of art on her prose.

Kidsbiographer: What led you to write about Frida and Diego’s trip to San Francisco for young readers?

Amy Novesky: I wanted to write a book about Frida Kahlo, as I’ve always been drawn to her, fascinated by her art and her life. As with all of my books, I’m not so much interested in writing about an entire life. Others do that, and do that so well. (For example, Jonah Winter’s and Ana Juan’s book Frida is inimitable.) Instead I like to find a moment, often just a footnote, in a life. When I learned that Frida had lived in San Francisco – my city, a city that I love – and that she had painted one of her most beloved paintings here, I knew that that was the story I wanted to tell.

Kidsbiographer: Although Me, Frida is a picture-book biography of Frida Kahlo, it’s also a universal story about refusing to be overshadowed and establishing one’s own identity. How have children responded to this theme?

Amy Novesky: I think that there is nothing more important then knowing who you are, what makes you sing and shout your name from the rooftops, or in Frida’s case, the Marin headlands. I think that that idea, given that it’s a bit sophisticated, resonates more deeply with older kids and with adults. Young readers love the pink bird, looking for it on the pages of the book. But it’s all the same. This idea of flying, soaring, being free. The pink bird is a metaphor for that.

Kidsbiographer: Even without illustrations, Me, Frida is a very visual, sensual book: there’s the metaphor about Diego as an elephant and Frida as a small bird, and you describe the sounds, scents, textures, tastes, and colors Frida encounters. How did Kahlo’s – or Diego Rivera’s – art influence your prose?

Amy Novesky: I’ve always been a very visual and sensual writer, and I think that’s part of the reason I write about visual artists and rich cultures. Frida was a work of art herself. She was beautiful. She wore gorgeous hand-made clothes, silver, and semi-precious stones. She wore flowers in her hair. People stopped in the street to stare at her. She was larger than life, which makes my work as a writer very easy. She painted colorful portraits; I write them.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most difficult part of writing about Frida Kahlo’s life for children?

Amy Novesky: Frida had a very difficult life. As a child she had polio, which affected her legs – one was shorter and weaker than the other, affecting her ability to walk. (One of the reasons she always wore long, voluminous skirts was to hide her legs.) And as a young student she was in a horrific streetcar accident , which further injured her. She was in tremendous pain for most of her short life; she died at 47. It’s hard to write about Frida and the art she created without discussing her life. And kids are fascinated by it. I try to tiptoe around it: she was sick as a child; she was in an accident. Why was she sick? What did she have? What kind of accident? What happened to her? How did she die? So that can be a bit challenging.  The amazing thing about Frida is that when she was in the streetcar accident, there was a painter onboard carrying a package of gold leaf. After the accident, Frida, broken and bloodied, was covered in gold. I find that image so extraordinary. There’s a little bit of beauty in just about everything.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received about Me, Frida?

Amy Novesky: It’s been incredibly gratifying to hear all of the lovely praise for the book and for the book to be honored with awards, including being named a Pura Belpre Honor book and chosen Best Picture Book at the International Latino Book Awards. I feel incredibly lucky that David Diaz, a Caldecott Award-winner, illustrated the book. In January, I will be honored with the 2011 FOCAL award from the Los Angeles Public Library. While most awards the book has received have focused on the art, and deservedly so, this award recognizes the writing and me as the author, which is especially gratifying.

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

Amy Novesky: My next book, due in February, is Georgia in Hawaii, about Georgia O’Keeffe’ travels in theHawaiian Islands. As in Me, Frida, I wanted to write about a lesser-known moment inGeorgia’s life. When I discovered that this famous painter of flowers and landscapes had painted in Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places on earth, and a place I have a personal connection to, I knew that that was the book I would write. Yuyi Morales illustrated the book, and it is gorgeous. I can’t wait to share it.

I also have a book about Billie Holiday and her beloved dogs called Mister and Lady Day, illustrated by Vanessa Newton, due out next fall. She was an extraordinary singer, and I can’t believe that there are no picture books about her or that no one has written this book. But, like Frida, Billie Holiday is not an easy person to write about for kids. She was an alcoholic and drug addict. She went to prison, and she died young.  That she loved dogs was my way into the story. And, when I learned that her favorite dog was named Mister, well, the story had a title. I think it is my best story yet.

Meet the Biographer: Matt Tavares

In 2010, author-illustrator Matt Tavares published Henry Aaron’s Dream, a picture-book biography of baseball legend Hank Aaron. The book concentrates on Aaron’s childhood and early career and highlights the obstacles – including racism – he overcame to achieve his goals.

This week, Kidsbiographer chatted with Matt Tavares about biography from the author- illustrator’s perspective – and the difficulties of talking to kids about racism.

Kidsbiographer: Telling Hank Aaron’s story necessitates tackling difficult subjects, including segregation and bigotry. In Henry Aaron’s Dream, you confront these realities honestly, including the epithets hurled Aaron’s way and showing the face of a hateful fan in the stadium crowd. How did you decide to approach these painful topics for young readers?

MT: In writing this book about a young man who grew up in the deep south in the 1930’s and 40’s and faced unspeakable racism and hatred as he pursued his childhood dream of becoming a big-league baseball player, I wanted to tell his story in the most honest, straightforward way I could. As you know, the n-word appears twice in Henry Aaron’s Dream. That word, I felt, was a terrible part of the story.  I considered replacing the word with “bad names” or “terrible names”, but any other way I tried to write those two sentences sounded softer and gentler than what really happened. And in trying to describe what Jackie Robinson endured in 1947 in just a few lines of text, and what Henry Aaron endured when he broke the color barrier in the South Atlantic League in 1953, I didn’t want to minimize it or sugar-coat it by making it sound not quite as bad.

The fact is, when Henry Aaron was a 19-year-old kid trying to pursue his dream of being a baseball player, he was subjected to hearing that word, that most vile word in the English language, shouted at him on a daily basis. They didn’t just call him “bad names”, or “terrible names.” They called him the worst name of all. And I believe that fact helps illustrate the incredible courage that this young man showed just by taking the field each day and following his dream.

I might have handled this differently if this were a book for preschoolers, but I thought of Henry Aaron’s Dream as a book for middle elementary students. I think that if kids are ready to learn about some of the darker aspects of our nation’s history, they can handle reading that word and putting it in historical context. I know some people will avoid the book because of the word, but I also know that there are kids who appreciate the fact that I’m telling them the real story, and not the baby version.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you, as an illustrator, do to bring Aaron’s early life and career to life?

MT: I read every book I could find about Henry Aaron, including his excellent autobiography, I Had A Hammer. Much of Henry Aaron’s Dream takes place before he is a professional baseball player, so there weren’t a lot of photographs or newspaper articles to rely on (his family was poor and certainly didn’t have a camera), so I based much of the early illustrations on descriptions from his book and others, as well as historical photographs of different places from his youth, like Jim’s Billiards where he used to listen to Dodger games on the radio when Jackie Robinson was playing. Once he started playing in the Negro Leagues, he made it into the papers and had his picture taken more frequently, so that helped me know what he looked like at different ages. I also found pictures of the different ballparks where he played, his uniforms, etc.

Kidsbiographer: My favorite illustration in Henry Aaron’s Dream shows Aaron and two African-American minor league teammates eating dinner in a restaurant kitchen. They are not allowed to join their white teammates in the main dining room, and yet the picture’s atmosphere is warm and convivial. They joke with the kitchen staff, who are also black, and generally make the best of an unfair situation. Does this picture reflect how Aaron coped with segregation and prejudice during his early career?

MT: Thank you.  I originally drew that illustration as a more somber scene, but found that the image is actually much more powerful with them just playing cards, laughing and joking with the kitchen staff. I think it captures the absurdity and the unthinkable injustice of that era. The fact that they’re just playing cards shows that this is nothing out of the ordinary for them. This sort of treatment was part of young Henry Aaron’s daily life, and while it certainly bothered him, he tried to focus on playing baseball and tried to ignore as much as he could. This does reflect how he handled the prejudice at this point in his life. Later in his career he started speaking out about racism in baseball. But in 1953, he was a quiet, shy 19-year-old kid. There were times when the racism he faced every day made him want to quit, but at that point he didn’t speak out

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about the biography?

MT: I think my favorite feedback from kids regarding this book is when they just can’t believe how stupid and crazy it is that Henry wasn’t allowed to play on any of the fields in his hometown, or that he had to sleep on the bus when he played in the Negro leagues, or he wasn’t allowed at his own team’s victory party because he was black. Most kids who read Henry Aaron’s Dream have already been introduced to these topics on some level, but I think that by telling the story from the point of view of someone they can relate to – a kid who wants to be a baseball player – the ridiculous injustice of it really seems to sink in. I’ve also heard from kids who connect with the story in terms of obstacles they face in their own lives, and that is incredibly gratifying. Henry Aaron’s story is truly inspiring, so I’m honored to be able to share it with young readers.

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

MT: One I’m really excited about is called There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, which I wrote and illustrated. It will be published by Candlewick in February, 2012. Ted Williams was my father’s childhood idol and I’ve always been fascinated by him. Of all the books I’ve made so far, I think this one might be my favorite. I’ve also got a Babe Ruth book in the works.

Meet the Illustrator: Scott Dawson

In 2010, Scott Dawson illustrated Fearless, Barb Rosenstock’s picture-book biography of auto-racing pioneer Louise Smith. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Witchita-based Scott Dawson about the special challenges of biographical illustration, including drawing real people and being historically accurate.

Kidsbiographer: In addition to Fearless,  you’ve also illustrated biographies of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. How does illustrating a biography differ from other illustration projects?

Scott Dawson: Research is the biggest difference. I wouldn’t want to illustrate, say, the wrong car (as in Fearless), or even the right car but wrong year. That could easily happen. I remember when I was working on sketches for Fearless, I included a man using a power mower off in the distance. I wasn’t thinking, I guess. They didn’t even use power mowers yet. Luckily, the editor caught it, and I changed it to the push/rotary type.

Also, illustrating actual people – rather than made up – is certainly another difference. Getting a good likeness can be critical, assuming there are reference photos from which to work. Sometimes I have needed to illustrate a famous person, but at an earlier age than we know them and have any photo reference from. Then you need to become a kind of ‘police sketch artist and just do the best you can to imagine what they might have looked like. This is all assuming the If stories may be folklore, well, you probably have a bit of leeway visually on how you depict things, even if they are purportedly true stories.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate Louise Smith’s life story? What sorts of visual resources were particularly valuable?

Scott Dawson: Initially, the publisher sent over quite a few photos via email. Some of the publisher’s photos I found on web search sites as well… some of them I didn’t. I did a lot of my own research online. I wanted to get the cars right. I also wanted to get the “environment” pretty accurate:  race tracks, clothing styles, etc.

One thing I found, and I’m not sure I remember where I initially saw it, was a collection of 4 DVDs about the history of NASCAR. I ordered the DVD set and it was really nicely done. Came in a round tin. Very cool. I still have it sitting on my TV stand, mainly because it so attractively packaged. It had a ton of info to get the wheels turning. Pun intended!   

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received for this project?

Scott Dawson: There has been a lot of great feedback, happily. The author, Barb Rosenstock, was very pleased. The publisher was also very pleased. There have been many favorable reviews mentioning both the writing and the illustration since last October, when the book came out. Those are very nice to read. I also heard, through the author, that some of Louise’s living relatives saw the finished product and were happy about how it represented her. That was great to hear, as well.

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

Scott Dawson: I have just finished illustrating the interiors for the 5th of a 6-book series called I Survived, published by Scholastic. It is a historical fiction book series. They are written about actual events in history, likePearl Harbor, the Titanic, Hurricane Katrina, etc. but involve fictional characters that live through these events. The author, Lauren Tarshis, writes from the viewpoint of the main character, which is a different adolescent boy in each book. She really knows boys’ minds well. She has several sons, who, she told me, give her some insight into boys’ ways of thinking.

I also just finished my 6th book cover for a series by Guideposts. There is potential for as many as 25 titles, depending on response. The series is called Mystery and the Minister’s Wife and is a compilation of books by several different authors, but involving the same characters. These covers depict mostly scenery in a fictional town called Copper Mill in theSmokyMountains.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Me, Frida
By Amy Novesky
Illustrated by David Diaz
(Abrams Books for Young Readers,New York, 2010, $16.95)

Before Frida Kahlo became a famous artist in her own right, she was known as the wife of Diego Rivera. A big man, a larger-than-life personality, a painter of huge murals, Rivera dwarfed most of his contemporaries, including his young wife. But a fateful trip to San Franciscochanged that. In Me, Frida, Amy Novesky relates how being away from her native Mexico in a strange city strengthened Kahlo’s sense of self. She embraced her Mexican heritage, wearing traditional dresses to evening parties, and she began painting the deeply personal self-portraits for which she later achieved recognition.

Me, Frida is not a traditional picture-book biography. Instead of exploring Kahlo’s childhood or artistic career, Novesky focuses on a formative period in her adult life. However, children will relate to Kahlo’s desire to develop her own identity apart from Diego’s. Most kids, after all, feel overshadowed by a parent, sibling, or friend at some point, so Kahlo’s feelings – and eventual triumph – will be familiar.

As befits an artist’s biography, Me, Frida is beautifully written and illustrated. While simple, the language evokes both Kahlo’s complex emotions and her evolving artistic sensibility. At one point, Novesky describes Kahlo gazing across San FranciscoBay from a cliff: “From there, she could see the entire glittering city and all it held, including Diego. It was small enough to fit on the wing of a bird.” For once, Kahlo puts herself in the foreground. David Diaz’s remarkable acrylic, charcoal, and varnish illustrations with their bold colors and motifs (kids will enjoy finding the pink bird that appears in almost every double-page spread) introduce young readers to elements of Kahlo’s style.

An introduction to two important twentieth-century artists, Me, Frida is also an uplifting story of personal transformation. In this way, Novesky and Diaz remind us that, like fiction, the best biography does more than enlighten or entertain: it enlarges our empathy.

Dorothy A. Dahm



Tall and Proud

Stand Straight, Ella Kate
By Kate Klise
Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
(Dial Books for Young Readers,New York, 2010, $16.99)

Children – and adults – are curious about physical differences. In Stand Straight, Ella Kate, writer Kate Klise and illustrator M. Sarah Klise appeal to that curiosity while respecting those who pique our interest. A fictionalized biography of nineteenth-century giant Ella Kate Ewing, the picture book describes how her size brought her both pain and great rewards.

Being much larger than her peers made life difficult for young Ella Kate in ruralMissouri. At school and community events, people of all ages stared and jeered at her. For a few years, her parents even kept her in seclusion to shield her from harassment. But by her late teens, Ella Kate had reached eight foot – and word of her height reached the big city. One day, a man from Chicago offered her a good-paying job. All she had to do was stand tall and let people look at her. Despite her parents’ misgivings, Ella Kate accepted the position. She participated in traveling shows, saw much of the world, made many friends, and gave her parents and herself a comfortable life. Her size was no longer a social liability, but a passport to adventure.

Stand Straight, Ella Kate is a charming, nuanced tale about the conflict between protecting oneself and being open to adventure. The first-person narrative suits Ella Kate Ewing perfectly: it sounds like a yarn an amiable Midwestern lady might spin for a young audience. Kate Klise’s Ella Kate uses regionalisms, including “fine and dandy trick” and “I hope I didn’t give him too much of a fright,” that evoke her time and place. M. Sarah Klise’s illustrations, while cheerful, convey just how much callousness Ella Kate had to endure. Round faces gape, point, and even glare at the mild-mannered young woman. The illustrator shows the character evolving, too: as Ellsa Kate enters show business, her face expresses uncertainty, restraint, and, finally, a growing confidence.

A thoughtful meditation on “freak” shows and exploitation, Stand Straight, Ella Kate is especially timely in an era when schoolyard bullying has become an epidemic. It is also a timeless children’s story with a familiar and timeless theme. As Ella Kate herself might have expressed it, whatever makes you different will come in useful some day.

Dorothy A. Dahm