Month: November 2011

An Entrepreneur and His Store

Mr Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man
By Karen Blumenthal
(Viking ,New York, 2011, $17.99)

Whether you love or loathe Wal-Mart, it’s impossible to deny the discount chain’s influence on American consumption. In Mr. Sam, Karen Blumenthal has written a dual biography: that of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and the retail giant he created.

Neither a heroic rags-to-riches saga nor a muckraking exposé, Mr. Sam chronicles Sam Walton’s rise from relatively humble beginnings to financial success. Walton’s energy and ambition surfaced early: he was a talented athlete and student leader during high school and college, and he scheduled his many extracurricular activities around his part-time jobs. He brought the same drive to a career in retail sales. Even as an elderly man, Walton constantly visited his stores and those of his competitors, always seeking ways to improve customers’ experiences and lower prices. Although Walton enjoyed spending money on hobbies and family vacations, he hated displays of luxury. Amassing wealth was never his goal. Instead, he thrived on the challenge of expanding his company, seemingly pursuing business for its own sake. While Blumenthal never condemns Walton or Wal-Mart, she succinctly addresses the controversies that have plagued the chain: its reluctance to promote women and minorities, its suppliers’ use of sweatshop labor, its low level of charitable giving, and the small businesses that have closed in its wake.

As well as a portrait of an entrepreneur, Mr. Sam is a cogent introduction to economics for middle-grade and young adult readers. Blumenthal explains profits, stocks, and discounting in terms kids can understand and discusses Wal-Mart’s success in the context of twentieth-century retail trends. Throughout the book, Blumenthal uses charts to illustrate the changes to the average American family’s income and expenditures over Walton’s lifetime. Educators may use Mr. Sam to supplements units on economics and history.

Sam Walton, Blumenthal admits, was a hard man to research and know. By focusing on Walton’s business career, she has captured the essence of Walton and written the sort of biography he would have appreciated.

 Dorothy A. Dahm




Beating the Odds

Lipman Pike: America’s First Homerun King
By Richard Michelson
Illustrated by Zachary Pullen
(Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2011, $16.95)

Before professional baseball leagues formed in 1871, there were little boys who loved the game. One was Lipman Pike, the son of Dutch Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. At thirteen, he began playing with a neighborhood league; at twenty-one, in 1866, the Philadelphia Athletics hired Pike at $20 per week. One of the first paid ballplayers, Pike became known for his fast running and heavy hitting abilities. He even awed crowds by beating a racehorse in a hundred-yard dash. When he retired from baseball, he opened a haberdashery in Brooklyn, much like the one his father had operated.

In Lipman Pike, Richard Michelson and illustrator Zachary Pullen tell Pike’s remarkable story. The picture-book biography opens in the Pike family’s shop, where Lipman and his brother enjoy dashing around to fill customers’ orders. Young Lip’s joy in movement soon blossoms into a passion for baseball. Despite his mother’s objections – she would have liked him to focus on his education – and the anti-Semitism he encounters outside New York, Lipman pursues the game seriously.

Although Lipman Pike is a picture book, it should also appeal to middle-grade readers. Older children will appreciate Michelson’s vivid, natural dialogue , which evokes nineteenth-century Brooklyn. Although Pullen’s figures are far from idealized –a pink nose here, a gaping mouth there – they make Pike’s eventual triumph all the more poignant. On the last double-page spread, surprise flickers in Pike’s eyes after he hits a homerun and before he takes off for first base. All he ever wanted is in that split second. Together, Michelson and Pullen capture the joy of overcoming obstacles to pursue a goal – a familiar theme that will never grow old as long as there are people who dream.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Catherine Reef

Catherine Reef has written young adult biographies of such literary luminaries as E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and, most recently, Jane Austen. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about the travails of primary research, Austen’s wit, and the joy of sharing Austen with young readers.  

Kidsbiographer: In Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, you give young adults an idea of what primary research is really like, explaining the limited and often contradictory nature of material. Which sources proved most useful while you wrote the book?

Catherine Reef: I am an outspoken advocate of tracking down primary sources, because I have learned that secondary accounts cannot always be trusted. One author speculates; another repeats the speculation as fact; a third places it in quotation marks and attributes it to a well-known figure. It’s surprising how often this happens.

Sometimes, even primary sources cannot be wholly trusted, though, and this is the case with Jane Austen. You see, Austen published her novels anonymously and only began to be famous after her death. The reading public was curious about her, so her family—the people who had known her best—responded by fashioning an idealized portrait of a saintly woman who never uttered a sharp word. Yet this image is belied by Austen herself. Her letters and fiction are full of cutting remarks, and they therefore caution us to read what her family wrote with critical eyes.

To answer your question, however: the limited amount of material from Austen’s own pen that has survived was my most valuable resource. But remember that in addition to being a biography and an introduction to a great novelist, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed is a book about the limits of historical and biographical research. So for this reason the contradictory accounts were of value as well.

Kidsbiographer: You must have done a great deal of research about the Regency period. How did you translate that research into the tightly written historical context that teens need  to appreciate Austen’s novels and understand her life?

Catherine Reef: Jane Austen and the characters she created lived two hundred years ago, in a world quite unlike our own. Marriage, for the gentry of Regency England, was often a practical arrangement in which income and social standing mattered more than love. The laws of inheritance favored oldest sons, and education was nothing like what it is today. Boys immersed themselves in Latin and classical Greek, whereas girls mastered needlework, dancing, and other ladylike accomplishments. A woman in this society was in a precarious position. If she had no money of her own, she depended on her husband or male relatives for support (unless she wanted the hard, lonely life of a governess). As you state, I needed to weave discussion of these and other issues into my narrative if my readers were to understand Austen’s story and go on to appreciate her novels.

When writing I always consider my readers. Not only do I think about what they might know or not know, but I also think about what they are likely to find interesting, and I imagine the questions they might ask. As I put words on paper (or on the computer screen), I strive for clarity and simplicity, and I enliven my account with concrete examples and quotations whenever possible. I have enormous respect for my readers and assume they are at least my equals in intelligence.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout the biography, with the appropriate caveats about the unreliability of reports, you develop Austen’s complex character: loving but caustic, accommodating yet fiercely independent. Writers, of course, draw on their own emotions and experiences to create characters, but which of Austen’s protagonists, if any, do you think most closely resemble their creator?

Catherine Reef: Elizabeth Bennet immediately comes to mind because Austen gave Lizzy her own intelligence and brilliant wit. Lizzy grew up in a poor but respectable country-gentry family, as Austen did, and she enjoyed a close friendship with an older, more serious sister, again like Austen. Also, Elizabeth’s indifference to muddying her hem and her willingness to stand up to Lady Catherine demonstrate the independent streak we perceive in Jane Austen.

Lizzy Bennet was a creation of Austen’s youth; Anne Elliot emerged from her mind and pen in later life. Disappointment chastened Anne, as it did Austen, and as an unmarried woman, Anne subordinated her own needs and wishes to the demands of her family, as Austen often had to do. Time and experience gave Anne the resolve to follow her heart that she lacked in youth, and circumstances cooperated to allow her to demonstrate her capability and act on her resolve—perhaps a bit of wish fulfillment on Austen’s part.

What about the others, though? Austen is so good at presenting the flaws in the characters of the Dashwood sisters and Emma Woodhouse that I doubt these characters reflect her own personality to a great degree—although Emma’s need to watch her sharp tongue was probably Austen’s, too. Fanny Price, Austen’s least-developed heroine, is too one-dimensional to resemble anyone. This leaves Catherine Morland. I am fond of Catherine, as I am of all ordinary girls sensitively portrayed in literature, including Henry James’s Catherine Sloper and Daisy Miller. Henry Tilney sees Catherine’s worth, as do we, but in her very ordinariness, Catherine is no Jane Austen.

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

Catherine Reef: I would have to say that it came from my niece Bridgit, a sixth grader. Having seen Becoming Jane, Bridgit was swept away by the film’s depiction of the romance between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy, much as I was taken by the Tom-Sophia story in Tom Jones when I was close to her age. Bridgit was eager to read my book and said that she would look first in the index for the pages about Tom Lefroy. I knew she would soon discover how much of Becoming Jane was fictional, and I worried that I would disappoint her. But all was well. Bridgit loved my biography and wrote a book report on it for school. And then, even more gratifying, she went on to tackle Pride and Prejudice!

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

Catherine Reef: I am a hard worker, so you can look for three new books from me in 2012. The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne (Clarion) will be similar in format to Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, but it will tell a very different story. It’s interesting to me that only a few decades separated Austen and the Brontës, but England—and the novel—had changed so much during that time.

Leonard Bernstein and American Music (Morgan Reynolds) captures the joy and enthusiasm of the dynamic man who represented classical music to generations of Americans and wrote so many beloved songs for the stage. Nothing is more elusive than music, so conveying its sound in words is a challenge I embrace.

Finally, Poetry Came in Search of Me: The Story of Pablo Neruda (Morgan Reynolds) is a project close to my heart. Neruda gave the world so much poetry of exquisite beauty, and he worked selflessly for the betterment of humankind. He simply had a wonderful mind. It was a pleasure to immerse myself in his life and work, and it was an honor to tell his story.

Kidsbiographer: As a fellow Jane Austen fan, I can’t resist asking you one more question. What is your favorite Austen novel?

Catherine Reef: I tried not to steer readers toward one particular novel or away from others in Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, but outside the book I will claim a favorite: Pride and Prejudice. I have quibbles with Austen about the other novels, but in Pride and Prejudice she got everything right. The opening sentence promises a fun ride, and Austen delivers it. I love the novel’s momentum and bright tone, and every character rings true. Austen was young when she wrote Pride and Prejudice, which makes the understanding of human nature that she displayed especially remarkable. In this book, Austen approaches Shakespeare.

The Novelist and her Era

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion Books,New York, 2011, $18.99)

The daughter of a country vicar, Jane Austen never married, traveled little, and spent her 41 years with her family. Despite her domestic existence, her novels still engage readers and inspire film and theatrical adaptations two hundred years after their composition. Although little information survives about Austen, scholars and biographers enjoy speculating about her life, especially her romances.

In Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, Catherine Reef uses what little information exists about Austen to create a mosaic about the woman, her oeuvre, and her world. Reef is honest about the dearth of sources and the contradictory nature of existing ones.  She informs readers that many of Austen’s letters were destroyed; also, Austen’s relatives described her personality and even appearance very differently. In this way, she shows readers both the value and limitations of primary sources.

As in her fiction, domesticity and family were central to Austen’s life.  Occasionally, Jane gets lost in the shuffle of brothers and nieces in Reef’s narrative, which feels strangely apt. A single woman of limited means, Austen may well have receded into the background as she grew older. Like Austen herself, Reef includes the little details that illustrate the joys and humiliations of the writer’s life: her reliance on male relatives if she wished to travel by carriage, the relatives who suggested she give up a favorite cabinet when they took over the Austens’ house, and the imaginative games she devised for nieces and nephews.

Reef discusses Austen’s writing in great detail. Readers see Austen evolve from a teenager entertaining her family with parodies to a thoughtful woman who tempered her vivacity with serious considerations of love and morality. Reef also includes 19th century readers’ responses to Austen’s novels. The novelist’s friends, relations, and critics weigh in on their favorite – and least favorite – novels and characters, illustrating the books’ enduring appeal and their historical context. Less successful are Reef’s extensive summaries of the novels themselves. Shorter, vaguer synopses might have introduced Austen’s fiction without spoiling the endings for new readers.

It’s difficult to write about a person who is much imagined and little known. However, in Jane Austen, Catherine Reef weaves a wistful portrait of a novelist and her era.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Choosing Voices

By Margarita Engle

When I write a historical YA novel in verse, I tend to use multiple voices.  Hoping to portray a historical figure from more than one point of view, I allow secondary voices to flow, reacting to the main character’s influence on various lives.  This is especially true if I have been able to find first person accounts from the era.  Diaries and letters help take the guesswork out of research.  I am especially happy whenever I have access to a firsthand description of emotions.  Since my poetry focuses on the personal aspects of historical events rather than the political, I feel free to omit most of the facts and figures.  I do need to understand all the background aspects myself, but I don’t want to clutter the poems.  I try to present un-crowded pages that will look inviting to readers, even the reluctant ones.  

In general, I find it most satisfying to imagine the voices of people I admire. I am attracted to the biographies of people who made hopeful choices during times that must have felt hopeless.  The voices of villains are much harder to write, but sometimes it’s necessary.  For instance, in The Poet Slave of Cuba, I based the voice of Lieutenant Death on the cold, calculating, brutal diary of a real slave-hunter.  In The Surrender Tree, the voice of Weyler the Butcher comes from documented information about Spain’s military leader, who invented concentration camps during the Spanish American War.  In Hurricane Dancers, both the pirate and the conquistador are based on sixteenth century historical accounts. 

My next young adult novel in verse is The Wild Book (Harcourt, March, 2012), inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood struggle with dyslexia.  While this can be thought of as a biographical novel, there was no research at all.  It was a unique experience to imagine the youth of someone I knew and loved when she was old. 

In the case of picture books, one voice is enough.  In order to write Summer Birds, I read everything I could find about Merian’s life, and then I imagined her thoughts.  Whether the voice in a biographical poem or story is imagined or documented, it must sound natural, so I tried to imagine the way a young girl would think about scientific observations.  I tried to step out of my adult life, and recall my own fascination with butterflies when I was little.

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a book by a Latino writer.  Her other award-winning novels in verse include The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters. Her most recent books are Hurricane Dancers (Holt, 2011) and The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012).