Month: June 2012

A Fabulous Story

Fabulous! A Portrait of Andy Warhol
Written and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen
(Henry Holt and Compan, New York, 2012, $16.99)

Many link Andy Warhol with “fifteen minutes of fame,” experimental film, celebrity parties, and The Velvet Underground – hardly the stuff of children’s books. However, in Fabulous!, author-illustrator Bonnie Christensen illuminates another side of the artist. The picture-book biography explores how a reflective, bullied little boy became a soft-spoken, hardworking man. She begins with his sickly,  often lonely childhood in working-classPittsburgh, traces his development as an art student and commercial illustrator, and concludes with the height of his popularity in 1960s New York City.

Christensen relates Warhol’s story in short, chapter-like segments with titles such as Art, The “Cockroach” Period, and Campbell’s Soup Cans. This format, along with her deceptively simple, often conversational prose, suits the artist’s style. At times, Fabulous! takes a cinematic approach to its subject. For example, Christensen employs present tense when she describes Warhol’s triumph in the 60s, thus applying a close-up to this period of his life. Christensen’s illustrations introduce young readers to Warhol’s work: some of his most famous paintings occupy the cover, the dust jacket, and the background of some spreads. Other spreads include the celebrity magazines, stained glass windows, cats, and food packaging that inspired him as a child and young adult.

In many ways, Fabulous! is a rags to riches tale: a shy, poor kid with blotchy skin finds fame and fortune in the big city. Today, given our new awareness of bullying and our cult of celebrity, Warhol’s biography seems especially relevant to kids, parents, and educators. But what makes his story remarkable is that Warhol achieved popularity and success without conforming to others’ expectations. He remained himself – and soared.

Dorothy A. Dahm




Into Thin Air

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
By Candace Fleming
(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012,New York, $18.99)

Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is as much of her legacy as her record-setting flights. In Amelia Lost, Candace Fleming alternates between a chronological account of Earhart’s life and the events surrounding her vanishing over the Pacific Ocean. This approach lends the biography the feel of a suspenseful documentary film. Although audiences may be familiar with the details of Earhart’s last flight, Fleming’s cinematic retelling creates a sense of urgency about the aviator’s dubious ending.

Amelia Lost engages readers without compromising the book’s educational value. Textboxes provide additional information about early aviation, the era’s technology, and additional chapters of Earhart’s life. Nor does Fleming idolize her subject: she includes anecdotes that illustrate Earhart’s carelessness – the pilot did not take the time to learn to use the plane’s radio before her final flight – and her desire for publicity.

Indirectly, Fleming suggests Earhart may not have been the most talented female aviator of her generation. What she had in abundance, however, were ambition and daring – and an influential husband ready to advance her career by almost any means necessary. Earhart began a friendship with publisher George Putnam while he was still married to his first wife. Because Fleming is frank about this and other unsavory details of Earhart’s life, including the couple’s possible ruthlessness, Amelia Lost often seems more appropriate for young adults than middle-grade readers. Although the biography is aimed at eight to twelve year olds, children at the younger end of that age group may not comprehend the book’s ambiguity.

Although Amelia Lost is not a worshipful biography, it is, overall, an admiring look at a woman who pioneered uncharted territory in aviation and for women. A passage from a letter she wrote before her final journey still resonates: “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Dorothy A. Dahm


The President and The Naturalist

The Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and our National Parks
By Barb Rosenstock
Illustrated by Mordaci Gerstein
(Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012,New York, $16.99)

Quiet and reflective, writer and naturalist John Muir was very different than brash President Theodore Roosevelt. However, the two had something in common: a deep, abiding love for the American wilderness. In 1903, Muir and Roosevelt spent a few days camping in theYosemite region of California. After that trip, Roosevelt became an ardent conservationist, establishing national parks and forests and championing environmental legislation.

In The Camping Trip That Changed America, Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Mordaci Gerstein imagine what might have happened during the men’s time inYosemite. By day, Muir introduces the president to the land’s marvels: ancient towering sequoia trees and cliffs formed by glaciers. At night, around the campfire, they exchange yarns about their near escapes in the wild. Rosenstock’s lively prose conveys both the men’s exuberance and the landscape’s majesty. Even Muir’s description of the region’s geological history encourages readers’ sense of wonder. Gerstein’s pencil and watercolor illustrations capture Yosemite’s  natural beauty as well as the men’s personalities. To hint at the sequoias’ grandeur, Gerstein places them on a spread readers must tilt vertically to view. Roosevelt and Muir are tiny dark figures at the bottom of the canopy: thus, readers can share the explorers’ awe. In some spreads, Gerstein uses cartoon-style drawings to illustrate the tales Muir shares with Roosevelt.

The Camping Trip That Changed America is a fascinating look at a significant, but little-known episode that changed the country’s history. It is also a moving story about how people from widely divergent backgrounds can form friendships and make a difference.

-Dorothy A. Dahm