Month: February 2012

Meet the Biographers: Alexandra and John Wallner

In 2011, writer-illustrator Alexandra Wallner collaborated with her husband, artist John Wallner, on J.R.R. Tolkien,  a picture-book biography of the magesterial fantasty author. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with the Wallners about their encounters with Tolkien and their own creative process.

Kidsbiographer: What prompted you to create a children’s biography of JRR Tolkien?

The Wallners: We both have enjoyed reading THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS and also enjoyed the movies, so it seemed the next step for us would be to investigate the author himself and present that to children. John was really looking forward to playing with images that such a picture book biography would allow.

Kidsbiographer: Have you read his fiction differently since you started researching his life?

The Wallners: We knew that his writing was amongst a group of writers that were moved and changed by WW I and knew that would be part of the picture book biography we wanted to share with children.

Kidsbiographer: Alexandra, I particularly liked how JRR Tolkien introduces young readers to his creative process – how images and words inspired characters and then narratives, how his fascination with other languages helped him create his own languages and worlds. What about Tolkien’s genius or writing process most intrigued or surprised you?

Alexandra: As a writer myself, I admire how he took every day examples of communication – like Morse Code, the signal corps, etc. – and turned that into a new fantasy realm with his own personal vocabulary and sounds.

Kidsbiographer: John, I enjoyed the book’s gameboard motif, especially how it connects Tolkien’s personal journey with the quests his characters undertake. You’ve made Tolkien’s world as magical as the ones he created. How did you choose this theme, and what illustration-specific research did you do to depict Tolkien’s life?

John: First, thank you for the kind words. I wanted to illustrate something other than events and the game board idea appealed to me first off as a simple game that children enjoy, and it also gave me the opportunity to employ game cards to illustrate what Tolkien might have been thinking. In other words, I wanted to go beyond the text. As far as research, Alex provided me with archival photos of Tolkien’s relatives, homes, etc.

Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me a little bit about your creative process as a married couple and writer-illustrator team? How did you approach this project together?

The Wallners: Alex is the writer and is the first part of the process in that she supplies the platform from which John gets to work. We do encourage each other. John reads and edits Alex’s story and Alex suggests ideas for his illustrations. In some ways, the project becomes the product of a “third person.”

Kidsbiographers: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about JRR Tolkien?

The Wallners: The kids enjoy the game board which was, in truth, a last minute idea for enriching the story.

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

The Wallners: John is taking time for personal investigation into drawing and abstract paintings. Alex is currently writing a novel.

An iRevolutionary

Steve Jobs is also available as an audio book. Listen to an audio clip from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different
By Karen Blumenthal
(Feiwel and Friends, New York, 2012, $8.99)

When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died in October 2011, he left an impressive legacy: the iPhone, iPod, iPad, Pixar animation, even the very ubiquitousness of the personal computer. Without being a computer geek himself, he brought geekdom to the masses. His vision and perfectionism made computers more usable in everyday life – and his marketing strategies persuaded people to buy the new products his company pioneered. We communicate, work, and play the way we do in large part because of Steve Jobs.

In Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different, Karen Blumenthal explores the relentless drive and many contractions of the IT entrepreneur. A rebellious prankster, college dropout, and dabbler in 70s counterculture, he nonetheless determined to become a millionaire at a young age – and realized that ambition. However, though he amassed a fortune in his early twenties, money was never an end in itself: he was always more interested in developing Apple than in enjoying his wealth. And although he was notoriously difficult to work for and with – his outbursts got him exiled from Apple for years – his genius lay in understanding people and their interactions with technology. Blumenthal neither shelters nor attacks her subject: instead, she shows the various sides of his complex character and invites readers to make up their own minds.

Appropriately, Steve Jobs doubles as a history of information technology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. An accessible glossary introduces readers to various computer terminology or, at least, refreshes their memory. That DOS, floppy disks, and BASIC now seem so distant is largely a result of Jobs’ efforts.

Steve Jobs is a highly readable biography of a fascinating innovator. Adults, as well as teens, should enjoy this introduction to a figure whose influence spanned popular culture, technology, and business. Depending on their age, readers will ponder how his innovations have shaped their lives and world.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Zachary Pullen

In 2011, Zachary Pullen illustrated Rich Michelson’s Lipman Pike, a picture-book biography of one of baseball’s earliest professionals. The book became a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Children’s Book of 2011. This week, Pullen chatted with Kidsbiographer about historical research and character development.  

Kidsbiographer: Nineteenth-century Brooklyn leaps to life in your illustrations for Lipman Pike. What sort of research did you do to create this sense of place?

Zachary Pullen: Lipman Pike was a struggle with research.  I had a great amount of help from the publisher and the team at Sleeping Bear Press.  I sat at the computer for hours just looking up images from the era as well as costume, street life, and culture.  From there, it was on to find suitable costumes and models.

Kidsbiographer: Both Rich Michelson’s narrative and your illustrations emphasize character. How did Michelson’s prose style, especially his dialogue, influence your visual approach to Pike’s life?

Zachary Pullen: Rich is a great writer and is able to tell a story so that when you close your eyes, images just rush to the surface.  I did the best that I could to keep up.

As far as the dialogue and interaction goes… I love to illustrate the expression that depicts the mood that the author is trying to convey as well as lending my own side to the story.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of illustrating a picture-book biography of Lipman Pike?

Zachary Pullen: I’d have to say that the challenge was in the time period. This was going back further than usual and there was no comfort zone to fall into. The challenge was also the fun.

Kidsbiographer: My favorite illustration in Lipman Pike is the final double-page spread. Pike has just hit a homerun, and you capture that joyful, incredulous split second just before he takes off for first base. Which part of Pike’s life did you most enjoy illustrating?

Zachary Pullen: First, thank you.  My favorites were the baseball scenes as well.  I liked the fact that the game was fairly solitary and played for the individual enjoyment of the game. It was nice to return to the root of the game and illustrate that solitary passion.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received about Lipman Pike?

Zachary Pullen: The awards and attention that the book has gotten is great. The most gratifying feedback is signing a copy for a child that has already ripped the cover and read it over and over. There’s nothing better than that fan.

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

Zachary Pullen: I have three more books in the pipeline: The Origin of Escargot, The Bambino and Me, and The Missing Bee.

A Storyteller’s Journey

J.R.R. Tolkien
By Alexandra Wallner
Illustrated by John Wallner
(Holiday House,New York, 2011, $17.95)

Although J.R.R Tolkien was born at the end of the 19th century, he had a life worthy of a sprawling Victorian novel. Growing up in South Africa and the English countryside, he lost both his parents by the time he was twelve and endured overbearing relations and guardians. He developed a serious fever and lost dear friends in the trenches of France during World War I. Eventually, he found ordinary happiness: marriage, children, a professorship at Oxford. But Tolkien’s was an extraordinary ordinariness. With his vivid imagination and rare ability to construct other languages and worlds, he wrought The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and other works of literary fantasy.

In J.R.R. Tolkien, Alexandra Wallner and her husband, illustrator John Wallner, have crafted a picture-book biography of the author. John Wallner’s illustrations emphasize the journey motif present in most of Tolkien’s books: a yellow-brick road that resembles a gameboard winds through each double-page spread. Scenes and characters from Tolkien’s life and from his imaginary worlds flit over the road, further developing his story. Alexandra Wellner’s narrative traces his development as a writer, emphasizing the real-life places and names that stayed with young Tolkien and eventually inspired his best-known work.

Despite its magical illustrations, J.R.R. Tolkien is more a middle-grade biography with pictures than a picture-book biography. The prose is too dense and the illustrations too text-dependent for the youngest children. But for older children, those at least advanced enough to listen attentively to The Hobbit read out loud, J.R.R. Tolkien is an enchanting introduction to the writer’s life and the creative process itself.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Karen Blumenthal


In 2011, former Wall Street Journal writer  and award-winning children’s author Karen Blumenthal published Mr. Sam, a middle-grade biography of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about meeting Walton, seeing another side of the entrepreneur, and educating young people about business. 

Kidsbiographer:    In Mr. Sam’s afterword, you mention that you were once part of a Wal-Mart store tour that Sam Walton gave Wall Street analysts. What was that experience like, and what were your initial impressions of Walton?

Karen Blumenthal: In the mid-1980s, I began to write about Wal-Mart from the Dallas bureau of The Wall Street Journal and went to Bentonville, Ark., to cover the annual shareholders’ meeting. Wal-Mart had invited stock analysts and a few journalists to meet with Sam after the meeting and to attend the weekly Saturday morning managers’ meeting as well.

The whole experience was truly fun, a real insight into the careful attention Wal-Mart paid to its sales, stores, and products, and how deeply involved Walton was in every detail.

After the annual meeting, we were loaded onto a small bus and driven to a Wal-Mart in Rogers that had been newly remodeled. Sam led us on a tour of the store, pointing out changes to the aisles, which were supposed to improve sales of certain specials, and the checkout counters, which were intended to speed up that process.

From there, he took the whole busload to a nearby Kmart for comparison. It still cracks me up to think of 15 or 20 out-of-towners traipsing into a competing store behind Sam Walton, who pointed out both the good things and the less-good things that Kmart did. One of the managers greeted Sam as he went by and just looked at us as though these tours were an everyday occurrence.

Sam also took us to an outlet of a small grocery chain he had invested in that was meant to be very low cost. Goods were displayed in their shipping boxes and stacked way to the roof, sort of like you see at Sam’s Clubs now. Sam predicted groceries would look like this in the future—but that didn’t fly with customers. I’m glad our grocery stores are quite a bit neater and more attractive than he envisioned.

It was a memorable afternoon and it was clear Sam was a something of a control freak, but also a master marketer. There was no small talk or chitchat—he was all business, and all about making Wal-Mart better.

Kidsbiographer:  How, if at all, did your perception of Walton and Wal-Mart change while you researched Mr. Sam?

Karen Blumenthal: Because I had followed Wal-Mart and Walton so long, nothing in my research terribly surprised me. But I came to see a more human side of Sam to go with the businessman I already knew.

I ran across a few instances where his other executives described their children running up to Sam to get a hug or climb into his lap. Toward the very end of the project, I even saw a photo of him holding and hugging a grinning Chelsea Clinton, when she was a little girl.  I never saw this side of him—and I really wish I had—but I hope he came across as someone capable of being like that.

I also hope readers come away with a different perception of Sam. Wal-Mart has been criticized so much in recent years for various things that many people assume Sam was somehow evil. I hope those who read the book will have a broader view of the man and what drove him.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite parts of Mr. Sam is the Our Money charts, which show how Americans’ income and personal expenditures evolved during Walton’s lifetime. Where did you obtain these numbers, and how have kids and adults responded to this feature?

Karen Blumenthal: I’m so glad you asked about the Our Money charts! I was very excited to include them.

In 2006, The New York Times wrote about a report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics called “One Hundred Years of U.S. Consumer Spending.” The study tracked spending in New York and Boston and compared it with the entire U.S.  I found the study online and bookmarked it because it included some estimates of consumption of alcoholic beverages, and I thought it might be useful for the prohibition book I wanted to write.

When I actually started working on Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition, I realized the consumption numbers weren’t that helpful. But I was fascinated by the spending changes and got excited about using them in Mr. Sam. I was able to update the study with more recent data from the BLS.

I was really concerned when one reviewer called the charts irrelevant, but have been pleased that many people have since said they enjoyed them and found them enlightening.

 Kidsbiographer: Can you describe the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young people in response to Mr. Sam?

Karen Blumenthal: The most gratifying feedback I’ve gotten from young people is that they liked the book and found it very readable. I didn’t know what to expect—many of them know Wal-Mart, but not Sam, and there is a LOT of business information in the story.  But I shared it with several of my favorite young people and they told me they truly enjoyed it—and I’ve even got a little bit of fan mail, which doesn’t happen very often with nonfiction.

Kidsbiographer: Books about business, finance, and economics for young people are relatively rare, and so are classroom units on these topics. During my first twelve years of schools, in the 1980s and 90s, we only addressed economics twice: a short unit in 9th grade social studies and even briefer coverage in 10th grade US history. As a Wall Street Journal writer and an author of books about finance, what sort of curricula would you like to see schools develop about these subjects?

Karen Blumenthal:I would hope students would get some understanding of economics and how business works all the way through school. Perhaps we were spoiled, but my daughters got a pretty good dose of it in the Richardson Independent School District here in Dallas. In the second grade, they formed little book companies, writing books and selling them for $1, and then tallying up their sales and costs. In the fifth or sixth grade, they spent a day at a wonderful place called Enterprise City, a mock city in one of the elementary schools, where everyone either ran a business or worked at one, or took a government job. They received paychecks and got to spend them, and the most profitable businesses got an award.

There was a lot of preparation for this experience and the kids thoroughly enjoyed it. Their experiences made me think all schools had some of these lessons and my books would fit right in.

I hope that readers of all of my books for young people get a better sense of basic concepts like supply and demand and how the world of money works without even realizing those ideas are in there.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects, especially those for young readers?

Karen Blumenthal: Thanks for asking! My next book, Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different, is out February 14, and I think this book and Mr. Sam would make a very interesting combination for teachers and librarians.

Jobs and Walton were of very different generations, in very different businesses, and served very different consumers. Walton wanted to give us necessities like toothpaste and underwear at the lowest possible price, and Jobs gave us way-cool technology at premium prices.  Walton talked in dollars and cents; Jobs liked to quote Dylan and The Beatles.

But as two of the greatest entrepreneurs of the last century, they were also very similar in their drive, ambition, and utter dedication to their businesses, and I found the similarities both striking and fascinating.