Month: January 2012

Dream Above Par

Twice as Good: The Story of William Powell and Clearview, The Only Golf Course Designed, Built, and Owned by an African American
By Richard Michelson
Illustrated by Eric Velasquez
(Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012, $16.95)

At eight, William Powell fell in love with golf. He even ran seven miles to visit the nearest golf course. When he arrived, he asked a golfer to teach him the game. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you your kind is not welcome here?” the man replied.

It was 1924, and golf courses, like so many other American public spaces, were segregated. And in this case, there was no pretense of separate but equal: black golf courses did not exist. The only way young William could study the game or set foot on a golf course was to become a caddy. So he did.

William Powell’s principal told him he would have to be “twice as good” as his white peers to succeed in any endeavor. In Twice as Good, Richard Michelson relates how Powell took that motto to heart, pursuing the game he loved despite the obstacles he encountered at different life stages. Eventually, he purchased farmland and built Clearview Golf Course where all people were welcome. He encouraged his daughter Renée to play golf although, as an African-American girl, she faced both racial and gender barriers. Despite the prejudice Powell encountered, he never stopped playing golf or hoping for a more just world.

Together, Michelson and illustrator Eric Velasquez bring to life some of the most poignant scenes from Powell’s life. Velasquez’s paintings capture the possibility golf courses held for Powell as well as the subtle hurts and humiliations he experienced. Michelson handles the nuances of bigotry deftly: readers meet white townspeople who know and like Powell, but will not cross the color barrier to help him. When a kindhearted white man presents him with a set of golf clubs, they share his astonishment.

Twice as Good’s final illustration shows Powell hugging his teenage daughter, love and pride evident in the smile spreading over his face. Renée Powell eventually became a professional golfer, the first African-American female Class A PGA member. Sometimes, the picture-book biography suggests, working twice as hard and being twice as good aren’t enough to get us where we want to be. But they may help the next generation. It is a hard lesson, and the only thing that makes progress possible.

 Dorothy A. Dahm



Puppeteer’s Progress

Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
(Random House, New, York, 2011, $16.99)

Childlike yet sophisticated, quirky yet reassuring, The Muppets have entertained generations of children and their parents. Therefore, it’s surprising and disappointing that a picture-book biography of their creator, Jim Henson, lacks the puppets’ playfulness.

Kathleen Krull’s Jim Henson explores the puppeteer’s life from his lazy boyhood days on the Mississippi to his success as a film and television producer. Along the way, readers see young Jim discover the power of television and film and his passion for entertaining. Enchanted by the puppets he sees on television, he will do anything to pursue his interest in puppetry – even if it means being one of the few male home economics majors at his college. Soon, he has his own television show; eventually, he helps create Sesame Street and launches The Muppets franchise.

Krull’s narrative includes interesting facts about Henson; however, her language is often more suited to a middle-grade biography than a picture book. For example, she describes Sesame Street’s lessons as “weirdly appealing.” Henson might have sprung to life more had Krull included shorter, more colorful descriptions of key moments in the puppeteer’s life. Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher’s gentle paintings capture the magic behind Henson’s creations: the book’s strongest illustrations depict Henson manipulating and interacting with his puppets.

Jim Henson presupposes readers’ familiarity with Henson’s work. Muppets enthusiasts can only hope that the picture-book biography, along with the recent Muppets film, will interest a new generation in Henson and perhaps even inspire a new generation of future puppeteers.

Dorothy A. Dahm






Finding my Subjects

By Catherine Reef

A few years ago I felt ready to write a new biography, but I had no idea who my subject would be. I wanted to select a woman – so many of my books had been about men—yet it seemed that every woman who interested me was too obscure to appeal to publishers or had been written about again and again. Of course, I needed only to open my eyes, because when I did, I saw my ideal subject everywhere: on television, in movies, and in passengers’ hands on the Washington Metro. The result was my most recent biography, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed.

Ideas are everywhere, inside us and all around us. I learned this lesson in the 1990s, while reading about nineteenth-century America. Whether my research took me to the slave markets of New Orleans, the hospitals of Civil War Washington, or the mountain railroad passes of the West, I kept bumping into the same bearded, dreamy-eyed fellow. Walt Whitman would be there to meet me, chronicling his century in exquisite free verse. I grew curious about this “Good Gray Poet.” And when I discovered, to my great surprise, that a young adult biography of Whitman had yet to be written, I had the idea for a book. Whitman was so conscious of his future readers that I felt his presence constantly as I studied his life and work. He remains one of my favorite writers long after Walt Whitman was published, in 1995.

I have always had favorites, though, because I have always read. Recalling myself as a young reader led me to write two biographies, John Steinbeck and E. E. Cummings: A Poet’s Life. Steinbeck was the first author I read when I felt ready to tackle novels written for adults. He appeals to adolescents and teens because he never lost his youthful idealism – he never sold out. And fortunately for me as a writer, Steinbeck’s story is entwined with history, so telling it let me present the Great Depression from a unique viewpoint.

Cummings first called to me when I was a little older, in high school. Like my literary-minded friends, I wrote poems in the Cummings style, as teenage poets still do. Cummings’s work embodies playfulness, irreverence, and rebellion – all youthful qualities – perhaps because he never really grew up. I knew next to nothing about Cummings the man when I began his biography, so plunging in was a great adventure. Luckily for me, his life was an eventful one that included imprisonment in France during World War I and a daughter resulting from an adulterous affair. I had a singular story to tell.

By fall 2005 I had finished my work on Cummings and wanted to write another literary biography. I had yet to settle on a subject when I received a telephone call from an education specialist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, inviting me to speak on a panel there. In the course of our conversation the specialist mentioned that the library houses the Hemingway Collection – Ernest Hemingway’s many letters, manuscripts, photographs, and miscellaneous papers. Such a wonderful resource was impossible to resist, so I wrote next about Hemingway. I knew that presenting his suicide to young readers would be a challenge, but challenges force writers to grow. Hemingway proved to be a fascinating, complex subject, although his story is a sad one in which death is a constant presence, so once Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life was written, I looked for an antidote.

I found it in Leonard Bernstein, a man who joyfully embraced life. Bernstein was one of the fortunate ones among us who know what they want to do from an early age. He was born to make music and to share his love of music with the world. He was dynamic, enthusiastic, and charismatic, and although he never managed to channel his enormous talent in any one direction, he made lasting contributions to classical and popular music. Bernstein had his low moments, of course, but he was great company for a biographer. Also, writing about Bernstein offered the challenge of writing about music. Nothing is more elusive than music, so how does a writer capture it in words? Readers can see my approach when Leonard Bernstein and American Music is published later this year.

Finally, travel can lead biographers to their subjects. In 2003 I visited Chile, and in the curious port of Valparaiso, I toured La Sebastiana, an eccentric house built into a hillside that had been home to poet Pablo Neruda, who died in 1973. Neruda was a born collector who had filled the house with curios and clocks, colored glass, a ship’s bell, and a carousel horse. More marvelous than the house, though, is the way Chileans from all walks of life revere Neruda for his breathtaking contribution to poetry as well as for his tireless humanitarian work. He represented the poorest Chileans in the national senate, rescued thousands of refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and became a defender of freedom when it was threatened in Chile. Neruda seemed an ideal subject for a young adult biography, but several years would pass until I felt ready to write one – until I had the confidence needed, I guess, to immerse myself in Latin American poetry and to plunge into source materials available only in Spanish. But what an honor it was to write Poetry Came in Search of Me: The Story of Pablo Neruda, another book that will be published in 2012.

Those of us who write biographies for children and young adults need to keep in mind such practical matters as curriculum tie-ins and marketability when choosing our subjects. But we also must trust our curiosity. It leads in unexpected directions!

Meet the Biographer: Rich Michelson

As well as a poet and art gallery owner, Rich Michelson is also an award-winning children’s book author. In 2011, he published Lipman Pike, a picture-book biography of one of baseball’s first professionals. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Michelson about baseball history, dialogue in nonfiction, and the value of picture books for readers of all ages.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Lipman Pike, and what made you decide to write about him for young readers?

Rich Michelson: A few years ago, I was asked to write a children’s book called  A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet. My task was to narrow down all of Jewish knowledge into 26 letters. Takes a bit of chutzpah, but I agreed to try. For instance D is for King David, and under this letter I was able to write about the Biblical King, but also the Jewish traditions of poetry – since David is traditionally considered to have authored the Psalms. At one point K was for Koufax, and I intended to discuss sports heroes. In the research process I came across the name Lipman Pike.   I asked many of my sports-crazy friends, and no one had heard of him. How could this be?

Lipman Pike was the first “professional” ball player—the first player, that is, accused by the League, when it was still supposedly all amateur—of illegally accepting payment. Of course, many players were taking money “under the table,” but Lip, as the only Jew on the team, was the one charged, so he became known as the first player “paid to play. Partly because of this incident, the next year, in 1871, the league changed the rules and formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Lip went on to be baseball’s first home run king and first superstar, yet he remained proud of his Jewish roots. He was a man who followed his dreams and yet remembered where he came from. How could I not want to share his story with young (and older) readers?

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Pike’s story? What were some of the most surprising discoveries about baseball’s beginnings?

Rich Michelson: There isn’t much published information, so I read the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper (Walt Whitman was for a time, a reporter on their Base Ball beat) for any mention of Lip, as well as to give myself a feeling for the times. I also read a number of books about the early days of baseball, and consulted with experts in the world of 19th century baseball, as well as Jewish life at the time.

In many ways, the early game resembled today’s competitive softball. Since catcher’s mitts didn’t exist (and fielders who wore handball-like fingerless gloves were looked down upon as not tough enough) the pitchers pitched underhand. Other rules were also evolving. At one time most games were timed, so whoever was ahead after an hour or two was declared the winner—similar to basketball rules today. Innings sometimes consisted of one rotation through the batting order.

Kidsbiographer: With a few lines of a dialogue, Lipman Pike brings 19th century Brooklyn to life. The scenes at the Pikes’ haberdashery in particular establish both the warm relationships between members of the family and their customers. How did you create voices for the book’s characters and establish that sense of place?

Rich Michelson: Many of my books use “invented” dialogue to create a sense of time and place. This is, of course, a controversial technique for those of us writing non-fiction. But I took the risk, to make the story more immediate. If we are going to communicate history in a picture book, you need a poet’s wordplay and a fiction writer’s tools: narrative, description, plot, tension.

Kidsbiographer: Although Lipman Pike is a picture-book biography, its vivid characters, realistic dialogue and illustrations, and treatment of difficult topics make it equally appropriate and enjoyable for middle-grade readers. While you wrote the book, how did your awareness of your audience shape the way you handled your subject and his world?

Rich Michelson: I do not generally write with my audience in mind. Of course, I am aware that picture books have certain conventions, but I rue today’s tendency toward shorter and shorter word counts. I do not believe picture books are only for very young children, and I wish, as a society, we didn’t have the attitude that kids will “grow out of picture books.” In fact, I wish more middle grade and adult books included pictures.    

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying response you’ve received from young readers about Lipman Pike?

Rich Michelson: Although I have spoken about my book at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Lipman Pike has not been inducted, and a number of young readers have written letters to the HOF asking that he be considered next year when “old timers” are up for a vote. I find that enthusiasm very gratifying.

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

Rich Michelson: My next book will be out in February 2012. It is titled Twice as Good: The story of William Powell and Clearview Golf Course, the only golf course designed, built and owned by an African American. When Bill Powell was not allowed to play on the “whites only” private courses, he began building his own public course, literally by hand, where everyone was welcome to play. This was in 1946, a year before the great Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers. And while I have even less golfing than baseball experience in my past, I think William Powell belongs in our pantheon of civil rights heroes.