Month: October 2012

When the Subject is a Poet

By Catherine Reef

In May 1846, in England, a small green book appeared without fanfare. Poems, by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, received a couple of promising reviews; one critic called the book “a ray of sunshine,” and its sixty-one poems “good, wholesome, refreshing, vigorous poetry.” But the poets proved more interesting to their contemporaries than their work. Who were the Bells? Were they brothers? No one guessed that they were sisters, a clergyman’s daughters living in a godforsaken village on the Yorkshire moors. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë had hidden behind masculine pseudonyms because Victorian society frowned on women writers.

The world remembers the Brontës as novelists, as it should. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and even Agnes Grey are classics, books that have remained in print for well over a century. They continue to be read, studied, and treasured. Yet the world ought to remember, too, that the Brontës were poets first.

Part of my task in writing The Brontë Sisters was to introduce young readers to my subjects’ poetry. Carefully chosen excerpts show, for example, how Charlotte understood passion, an emotion that would guide her in literature and in life:

Some have won a wild delight,

            By daring wilder sorrow;

Could I gain thy love to-night,

            I’d hazard death to-morrow.

Other extracts convey Emily’s bold, musical style:

Come, the wind may never again

Blow as it now blows for us

And the stars may never again, shine as they now shine…

 And quotations from Anne’s poetry communicate her strong reliance on faith:

If life must be so full of care,

            Then call me soon to Thee…

I have written biographies of other poets, of Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and E. E. Cummings. As with the Brontës, in each case I wanted to give my readers a foundation for exploring the poetry on their own. This meant explaining how and why the poems were innovative and suggesting what to look and listen for while reading. It meant providing carefully chosen extracts from major and lesser-known works to illustrate the points I made in the text, and to give readers the flavor of the poetry.

In the nineteenth century, Whitman embraced “democratic America” and its people. He celebrated westward expansion and recorded the suffering and sorrow of the Civil War. So among the many lines I quoted from his work were these from the magnificent, all-encompassing “Song of Myself”:

And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers…

 And these from the exuberant “Passage to India”:

I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,

I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world…

I also chose these lines from “The Wound-Dresser,” Whitman’s heartbreaking description of his duties as a wartime nurse:

The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,

Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard…

 Whitman made sure that “the real war” – the ugly, bloody truth of battle – made it into books. He also gave voice to the nation’s sorrow following the death of Abraham Lincoln in the great poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?

And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?

 Whitman broke free from the careful rhymes and rhythms that had governed the work of earlier poets, including the Brontës, and wrote long, chanting, beautiful lines of free verse like these from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…

Poetry was forever changed.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1872, seventeen years after Whitman published the first edition of his sprawling Leaves of Grass, but he wrote in traditional forms, preferring regular rhymes and meters to Whitman’s rolling cadences. The first African American to earn his living with his pen, Dunbar wrote powerfully about what it meant to be black in the predominantly white society of his time, as some of the verses I include in my biography illustrate. These are from “We Wear the Mask”:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile…

 Dunbar often wrote in standard English, but he also composed many poems in dialect, and this caused him to fall out of favor in the late twentieth century. So much dialect poetry by white poets had deliberately presented African Americans as uneducated and perhaps comical in their ignorance that readers tended to label all dialect poetry offensive. Yet Dunbar had written his verses with affection, faithfully capturing the accents, and the humanity, of people he knew and loved. His dialect poetry deserves to be read and appreciated, so I presented my readers with excerpts, among them this one, which depicts a warm scene of family life:

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,

            Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.

What you been doin’, suh–makin’ san’ pies?

            Look at dat bib–you’s ez du’ty ez me…

 Most readers know E. E. Cummings as the poet who eschewed capital letters. This was not quite true of Cummings, however. He used capitalization (or its absence), punctuation, and the spaces between words and lines to add meaning to his poetry, to force his words to communicate more. Capital letters indicated emphasis, and parentheses allowed two images to be considered at once. Space showed readers when to pause, whereas the lack of it meant that words ran together quickly. It all makes sense when lines such as these are read aloud:

pigeons fly ingand

whee(:are,SpRiN,kLiNg an in-stant with sun-Light


ing all go BlacK…

 Can’t you just see these pigeons in flight, momentarily catching sunlight on their iridescent feathers?

Through careful use of capitalization, Cummings reminded us how beautiful words can sound. He especially loved the musical letter O:

mOOn Over tOwns mOOn…


less creature huge grO


And what other poet could make letters hop around–“r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” “PPEGORHRASS,” “gRrEaPsPhOs”–to describe the action of the insect whose name they spell: grasshopper.

I hope the examples I provided in this book have enabled readers to find meaning and joy even in Cummings’s most abstract poems. I hope, too, that my readers will value poetry by Cummings and others throughout their lives and share their favorite poems with others.

Sharing a poem is like giving a gift. In Paul Laurence Dunbar: Portrait of a Poet I shared with readers with the complete text of Dunbar’s aching, powerful “Sympathy.” Today I give it to you:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!


I know why the caged bird beats his wing

    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   

For he must fly back to his perch and cling   

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!


I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

The Man Behind the Dictionary

Noah Webster and His Words
By Jeri Chase Ferris
Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012, New   York, $16.99)

The man whose name has become nearly synonymous with dictionaries also helped establish American English as a distinctive form of the language. Noah Webster, best known for Webster’s Dictionary, also penned a speller and a grammatical text. Although many words had multiple spellings in the eighteenth century, he insisted that all Americans use a single form of each word. Along the way, Webster also taught school, practiced law, wrote other books, and founded a magazine and newspaper.

In Noah Webster and His Words, Jeri Chase Ferris and illustrator Vincent X. Kirsch paint an affectionate portrait of the opinionated grammarian. Ferris’s narrative lends itself well to reading out loud. The book starts and ends on the same humorous note – “Noah Webster always knew he was right” – implying that a biographical subject, even a clever, well-intentioned one, is as prone to human pitfalls as any picture-book character. Kirsch’s illustrations bring the same sense of fun to the story. Webster’s large, smiling head suggests the extent of both his intellect and his self-regard. If the lively text and illustrations exemplify today’s picture books, the typeface, which dates from the 1770s, links the past with the present, much like Webster’s Dictionaries do today.

The picture-book biography also plays homage to Webster’s most famous creation. Whenever Ferris uses a word that may be unfamiliar to beginning readers, she inserts a dictionary entry for the word, complete with part of speech, syllable count, and definition, thus introducing kids to both new vocabulary and the dictionary itself. While adults may find this tactic disruptive, it should engage young readers. Noah Webster and His Words is a playful look at a towering, though little studied, figure in American history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm






Meet the Biographer: Gary Golio

An artist and musician in his own right, Gary Golio has penned picture-book biographies of rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. In Spirit Seeker, he draws on his experiences as an addictions therapist to write about another music icon: jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. This week, Golio chatted with Kidsbiographer about his love of Coltrane, Coltrane’s oeuvre, and picture books for older readers.

Kidsbiographer: I’m curious about your experiences with John Coltrane’s oeuvre. When did you first encounter his music, and how has writing Spirit Seeker changed the way you listen to A Love Supreme and his other work?

GG: I bought my first Coltrane record as a teenager, probably because I thought jazz was supposed to be cool and I wanted to be cool. (Sigh.) Listening to it, however, required that I grow bigger ears, and there’s no one like Coltrane to make that happen. In my mind, he has this amazing ability to take you on far-reaching musical adventures – sometimes way outside of your comfort zone – and bring you back safely, but hopefully changed by the experience. As for listening to A Love Supreme now, knowing about Coltrane’s childhood and his lifelong search for meaning makes it a different experience every time. That’s a piece of music—fortunately – that I can never get a full grasp on, because it’s so very expansive. ALS is also very much about Coltrane’s gratitudefor having recovered from drug use and emotional pain, and been given the chance to develop and share his talents. As for the rest of Coltrane’s work, I am continually amazed by his range, from swing to bebop-like moments, to classic jazz, and as far out as you can get at times. Yet there’s always that Coltrane heart at the core, and that’s why his music remains so alive and powerful.

Kidsbiographer: How did jazz in general and Coltrane’s music in particular influence your stylistic choices in Spirit Seeker?

GG: The story I’ve written is meant to reflect the depth and tenderness of Coltrane’s life and struggles. There’s nothing particularly jazz-like about the format, but it does run the spectrum of emotional color – in dealing with both the bright and dark parts of Coltrane’s life. For me, that’s akin to what jazz players like Billie Holiday and Coltrane do in certain songs, when they refuse to shy away from the pain and heartache, but still give voice to the joy and beauty. Rudy Gutierrez’s paintings, similarly, embrace the full experience of color, and they’re very jazzy in their spontaneity and balance of elements.

Kidsbiographer:  What was the most surprising fact or insight you discovered about Coltrane while conducting your research?

GG: I was surprised by how successful Coltrane was before he recovered from alcohol and drug use. In the Spring of 1957, at the age of 30, he had already played with some of his musical heroes (Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges, among them), and was then part of Miles Davis’ band, at the top of the jazz ladder. When Miles fired him, Coltrane had to rethink everything he was doing, and fortunately, his passion for music and deep connection to his spiritual side won out. Remarkably, once he was sober and clearheaded again, he began playing – really studying – with the great Thelonius Monk, and then went back to Miles (for Kind of Blue). Once he composed and recorded all the pieces for Giant Steps, he had really made some giant personal leaps himself, and it was all up from there.

Kidsbiographer: As I point out in my review of Spirit Seeker, the picture-book biography is not appropriate for the youngest readers; Clarion is marketing the book for children aged nine and over. I know I would have loved this book in my early teens, the period when I first became interested in many of its themes: music, world religions, and social justice. As a reviewer, I encounter a number of picture-book biographies that are not suitable for the youngest readers because of subject matter, length, or complexity. Do you think readers and editors are becoming more receptive to picture books that are not for preschoolers and early elementary students? Is there a place for shorter, illustrated works that tell a story for older children or even adults?

GG: It’s always seemed odd to me that pictures and text, joined together, are often intended only for children. The Japanese know better (they have for a long time), but Americans are only beginning to appreciate the beauty of graphic novels, animated movies with adult content, and so-called “picture books” (illustrated stories/novels) that are read and enjoyed by teens and adults. Clarion chose at the outset to make Spirit Seeker a 48-page book for readers who are middle-grade and older, with illustrations – paintings by the great Rudy Gutierrez – that were both challenging and exquisite in their emotional and visual content. Because of its length, and because of its themes, Spirit Seeker is not for a young picture book age audience, but kids who are 8 and older can definitely understand Coltrane’s struggles, and how a person who’s lost his way can find it again. Hopefully, there are more and more editors like Lynne Polvino of Clarion, who see the need for enlarging our vision of the so-called picture book.

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

GG: That Rudy Gutierrez’s  illustrations are mind-blowing, with incredible color, symbolism, and a striking balance of the realistic and expressive, all in service to the text. For me as the author, he was a godsend.

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

GG: I’m not one for passing up on a little self-promotion! A few months ago I sold a picture book text called Bird & Diz, about the creators (Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker) and creation of Bebop, which will be illustrated by Caldecott-winner and friend Ed Young. I also just submitted a picture book manuscript about Charlie Chaplin – and his London childhood – to my agent, who’s shopping it around. As for what I’m working on now, let’s just say that thinking inside of the box can be a lot of fun….




Fielding for Fairness

Silent Star: The Story of Deaf Major Leaguer William Hoy
By Bill Wise
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
(Lee and Low Books, 2012, New York, $18.95)

It is hard to imagine a silent baseball game: the crack of the bat, the cheers of the crowd, and the umpire’s calls are integral to most people’s experience of the sport. But one early pro demonstrated that hearing is not necessary for success. In the late nineteenth century, a deaf outfielder named William Hoy, set records in stolen bases, assists, and double plays, some of which persist today. After retiring from the major leagues, the resilient Hoy worked as a dairy farmer and personnel manager and served as a coach and umpire in deaf leagues.

In Silent Star, Bill Wise and illustrator Adam Gustavson tell William Hoy’s inspiring story. The picture-book biography follows Hoy from his boyhood in rural Ohio through his triumphs in the majors to his busy retirement. Wise’s clear prose conveys both the thrill of the game and the poignancy of certain moments in Hoy’s life, especially his victories on the field. Silent Star has too much text for the youngest readers and listeners, but it should engage early middle-graders. Gustavson’s oil paintings capture both the same excitement and restrained emotion. In one spread, a young Hoy retreats from a group of smirking boys, who have been bullying him for his deafness; his mouth is firm and his eyes wistful. In another, Hoy stands at home plate and signs a greeting to a pitcher: for the first time in his career, he is squaring off against a deaf opponent

Silent Star will alter the way both hearing and deaf children regard ability, disability, and competition. It is also a remarkable tale of one person’s persistence and success in the face of extraordinary odds – a familiar theme that can never be overdone.

-Dorothy A. Dahm





A Life Supreme

Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey
By Gary Golio
Illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez
(Clarion, 2012, New York, $17.99)

Behind John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was supreme suffering. At twelve, the jazz saxophonist lost his beloved father, grandfather, and grandmother; his uncle died the following year. As a black man in America, he experienced poverty and encountered racism. He struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism during his twenties. What saved Coltrane was a strong belief that he could communicate the divine through music. Through this conviction, not founded in any particular religion, he was able to free himself from addiction and compose his best music, including A Love Supreme.

In Spirit Seeker, Gary Golio and illustrator Rudy Gutierrez chronicle Coltrane’s travails and transformation. Golio’s prose, like jazz itself, alternates between the straightforward and the vivid, occasionally achieving almost transcendental heights. At one point, Golio describes young Coltrane’s feeling of oneness with his instrument: “He loved the clicking of the keys, the feel of the mouthpiece between his lips and teeth, the shine of the brass, and the way it sat on his chest, close to his heart.” Gutierrez’s illustrations echo this unison between man, music, and instrument; in some spreads, the saxophone and Coltrane seem to have melded as one. Gorgeous and almost overwhelming, the acrylic paintings and mixed media spreads are as much depictions of Coltrane’s consciousness as his life: religious images, the faces of friends and loved ones, and serpentine swathes of color that seem to represent music itself swirl about the musician’s head.

With its themes and word count, this picture-book biography is not suitable for the youngest children. Clarion is marketing Spirit Seeker for ages nine and up;  an author’s note puts Coltrane’s drug use in its appropriate context.  But for older children and even adults, Spirit Seeker is a thing of beauty, a reminder that the arts can help us transcend our circumstances and view something bigger than ourselves.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Illustrator: Julie Downing

Julie Downing has illustrated fairy tales, animal stories, and realistic children’s fiction for noted authors, including Ursula LeGuin and Linda Sue Park. This year, she collaborated with Beverly Gherman to produce First Mothers, a collective biography of the presidents’ mothers. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about the project’s evolution, her admiration for Lillian Carter, and Martha Washington’s bossiness. Click here to view a PDF that shows how she conceived the layout for the project and how she turned visual research into an engaging book about the presidential moms:  Kidsbio

Kidsbiographer: Illustrating First Mothers must have entailed a great deal of research. Can you describe some of the visual research and reading you did to paint the presidents’ mothers?

Julie Downing: Research is one of my favorite parts of any projects, and I love discovering information in all sorts of different places. I do use traditional sources, such as the library, for books about costume, period furniture, and domestic interiors. Many mothers spent a good deal of their time in the kitchen, so magazine advertisements for Whirlpool, Kenmore, and Singer Sewing Machines provided great visual reference for changing appliances. I wanted to find as much visual reference of the actual homes of the presidents, but wasn’t able visit all of their birthplaces, so I relied on Google images to give me a clue about where the presidents grew up.

I did visit Washington D.C. and Colonial Williamsburg and was able to get a good sense of everyday life for the early mothers. Williamsburg has a wonderful museum for ordinary objects, and I sketched and photographed spinning wheels, ink pots, quills and samplers.

The biggest challenge was finding actual images of the mothers. The wealthy mothers, such as Mary Washington and Abigail Adams, had portraits painted of themselves, but Betty Jackson and Maria Van Buren were too poor to afford a portrait, so I relied on written descriptions of these women. For example, Andrew Jackson said he inherited his red hair from his mother. After the Civil War, photography came into fashion, and most of the mothers had a least one very stern photo of themselves, and my portraits are based on those photos. And, of course, by the time Eisenhower was elected, there was an abundance of photo reference available. My research not only gave me insight into the mothers, but also showed how important pictures and visual images became in the race for president.

Kidsbiographer: One of the most engaging aspects of First Mothers is the inventive layout. The women, in cartoon fashion, interact with each other, sometimes across generations. The opinionated Mary Ball Washington, in particular, acts as a sort of Greek chorus, invading other profiles and commenting on the women and their sons. And some of the short biographies include short cartoon strips about the mother-son relationship in question. How did you devise this layout, and how did Beverly Gherman’s text inform your choices?

Julie Downing: The layout is one of the pieces of the book that changed the most during the process. When Bev and I started the project, I knew I wanted the book to be a combination of images, but I wasn’t sure how the pieces would go together. We tried a number of versions including small spots illustrations and a timeline before we settled on the combination of cartoons and portraits. I was lucky to be able to really collaborate with Beverly. Most of the time, I receive an author’s finished manuscript and then I do the illustrations, but in the case of First Mothers, Bev and I worked closely together. She researched the mothers and wrote biographies for each; then we would get together and look over the information and decide which facts could be shown through the illustrations and which through the text. Often, we passed the text back and worth, editing and rewriting, and Bev looked at all the cartoons and illustrations as well. It is an unusual way for the author and illustrator to work, but I really enjoyed the collaboration.

Credit for the creative way of showing the basic information such as birth and death goes to my wonderful critique group, comprised of 4 very talented illustrators: Ashley Wolff, Lisa Brown, Katherine Tillotson, and Christy Hale.

As far as Mary Washington, she practically inserted herself into the artwork. I was amazed when I learned that she was highly critical of her son and more than a little self centered. As a mother myself, I know that sometimes parents can be a teeny bit competitive about their children, and I kept picturing what Mary Washington would have to say about the other mothers and their children. In the beginning, I just doodled pictures of Mary on the corners of my sketches and soon realized she should actually appear in the finished art. After Bev showed me the text for Sara Roosevelt and it became obvious how bossy she was, I imagined she would not allow Mary Washington to be the only one to comment, so she joined the chorus.

Kidsbiographer: And here come the inevitable questions about challenges and favorites. Which First Mother was most difficult to illustrate and why? Also, which presidential mom did you most enjoy depicting and why?

Julie Downing: I found the mothers of the post Civil War presidents, such as Malvina Arthur and Ann Cleveland, to be the most difficult to illustrate. To begin with, there was not a huge amount of information available about these mothers, and they were remarkably similar. I think many women from this time period were devoutly religious, and it was difficult to find any spark in their personalities that inspired an illustration.

Even though Sarah Taylor, Phoebe Fillmore, Anna Pierce and Elizabeth Buchanan never actually sat down together, I enjoyed depicting the four mothers at the table. When working on a book with so many subjects, I wanted to vary the art so each page was different. It still makes me smile when I think of such different personalities having tea together.

Kidsbiographer: I particularly enjoyed the portraits on the cover and dust jacket of First Mothers as well as your “motherly” version of the presidential seal on the frontispiece. Can you tell about the creative process for this small, but very delightful piece of the project?

Julie Downing: I love the fact that you noticed my version of the presidential seal. I came up with the idea for the seal when I was drawing the presidential wallpaper for the books’ cover. I realized the mothers needed their own seal and had fun thinking about what would be included on it.

The portraits on the dust jacket were originally designed to appear on the end papers and include bits about the actual presidents. Although I was surprised when I received the proofs for the book and discovered the change, I thought it was such a wonderful decision. Many people don’t realize how collaborative the process of producing a book actually is. We were so lucky to work with a wonderful editor, Daniel Nayeri, and art director, Sharismar Rodriquez, who is really responsible for the final design of the book. I gave her some rough layouts, but she put them together and often had to make decisions that really improved the overall design of the book. It was a huge job for her, but I am so happy with the final result.

Kidsbiographer: Based on your research, which First Mother’s parenting style did you most admire?

Julie Downing: I thought Lillian Carter was a terrific mother, warm, no-nonsense, energetic, and independent. She and her husband had a happy marriage (not true of all the mothers), and even though they were not wealthy, had a happy family life. A number of the mothers impressed me with how hard they worked to make sure their sons were educated and got ahead. Betty Jackson, Maria Van Buren, Polly Johnson, and Hannah Nixon sacrificed a great deal to make sure their sons became successful. By the time I finished the book, I did feel that anyone can become president.

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

Julie Downing: I loved nonfiction books when I was a child, especially books that showed the ordinary side of extraordinary people. I recently visited a school and shared the book with a group of 4th graders, and the students loved learning about the president’s mothers. One boy was really impressed that Barbara Bush had to take her son George to the principal’s office. After seeing the cartoon, this student declared that maybe there was a chance he could be president one day, too.

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

Julie Downing: I am currently working on a bedtime book for Creston Books, a brand new publisher located in Berkeley, CA. I have a wonderful book, written by Jane Feder, who is also my agent, coming out next year with Scholastic. I was a huge reader of nonfiction when I was young and am researching a few new nonfiction ideas for other books as well.

Want to learn more about Julie Downing‘s research and creative process? Click here to view a PDF about how she developed the spreads for First Mothers:   Kidsbio

The Man Behind Middle-Earth

Cover Illustration by Brad Weinman

Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien
By Anne E. Neimark
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 1996, 2nd edition 2012, New York, $12.99)

For years, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have enthralled children and adults alike. In Mythmaker, Anne E. Neimark tells Tolkien’s story for middle-grade and young adult readers.

Tolkien’s life lends itself well to biography as his truth was nearly as spellbinding as his fantasies. Growing up in South Africa and England, he was orphaned at a young age and endured a repressive guardian, poverty, dreary boarding houses, a nearly tragic romance, and the trenches of World War I before becoming a professor of ancient languages at Oxford. Tolkien was as much a world-builder as a novelist: he invented languages and even alphabets for his Middle Earth characters. In The Silmarillion, he created a mythology that supported his other works.  What is most remarkable is that Tolkien led an active life – raising four children with his wife, publishing scholarly works, mentoring students, even serving as an air raid warden during World War II – while weaving his Middle Earth tapestry.

Neimark often employs the techniques of fiction in her biography. At times, this approach allows her to connect the storyteller with his work and to vividly portray certain significant moments in his life. Mythmaker begins with three year old Tolkien scampering away from his African nurse on a quest of his own: in this scene, Neimark conjures his South African childhood and his early love of adventure. Occasionally, this novelistic approach backfires, especially when she uses stilted dialogue to convey information about Tolkien’s life.  However, Mythmaker is a readable and often poignant introduction to a man who loved fantasy for its ability to show us “light and high beauty for ever beyond” the shadows in our own lives.

-Dorothy A. Dahm