Month: February 2013

Meet the Biographer: Jan Pinborough

©Cristy Powell 2012Jan Pinborough edits The Friend, a children’s magazine. She recently published her first children’s book,  Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, a picture-book biography of innovative children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore. This week, she spoke with Kidsbiographer about Moore and the wonder of libraries.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Anne Carroll Moore, and how did you decide to write her picture-book biography?

Jan Pinborough: It all started in 2004 when a dear friend of mine, Shauna Cook Clinger, was commissioned to paint a portrait of Moore for a children’s library at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. “You need to write a children’s book about Anne Carroll Moore,” she told me. I’m not a library historian, and I’m not from New York City, so I’d never heard of Moore. At the time I wasn’t even writing for children. But after reading Frances Sayers’s biography about Moore, I became convinced that children needed to know about this strong-minded woman who did so much to give the gift of books and libraries to children not only in the United States, but throughout the world.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most fascinating fact or anecdote you uncovered during your research?

Jan Pinborough: Oh, how could I choose just one? Here are four highlights of my research:

1.) The hours I spent in the New York Public Library poring over the Anne Carroll Moore Collection were the stuff of my dreams. I held a postcard from her friend Beatrix Potter, with a little hand-drawn Nicholas doll drawn by Potter herself; a poem written about her and typed out by Carl Sandburg, and a telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt.

2.) I got to know Marcia Brown, who wrote three of the most memorable books from my childhood, Cinderella, Stone Soup and The Three Billy Goats Gruff—and who worked at the New York Public Library (NYPL) before she launched her celebrated career as an author and illustrator. Marcia shared her reminiscences about Moore, telling me about the beautiful pink tiles from Wales that covered the floor of the Children’s Room. I felt the thrill of touching history, of talking with someone who knew Moore and the whole world of books and libraries that form the backdrop for this story.

3.) I got to know Anne Carroll Moore’s namesake, Anne Carroll Darger, whose father enlisted Moore’s help in creating a children’s library at Utah State University, and who is the guardian of “Nicholas’s treasures.” I held in my hand a Faberge egg, a minuscule elephant carved out of ivory, and dozens of other fabulous miniature toys that Moore’s literary friends sent to her puppet-doll, Nicholas. (You can see photographs of “Nicholas’s treasures” at

4.) I made a pilgrimage to Moore’s birthplace in Limerick, Maine, visiting the school she went to as a girl and the building that housed her grandfather’s law office, where she studied to be a lawyer before that terrible week when both of her parents died in the flu epidemic. I parked at the little country cemetery on the hill by the Baptist Church, where she began her wild sled rides as a child. I walked straight to her grave, guided, I’m almost convinced, by Moore’s own spirit. While in Limerick, I met a highly literate nonagenarian, who, as a young college student, worked with Moore at the NYPL.

Kidsbiographer: Both a biography of Moore and a celebration of libraries, Miss Moore Thought Otherwise also explores the changing attitudes towards childhood in the early twentieth century. Moore and other reformers in a variety of fields believed children were people – a revolutionary idea! – and that they possessed unique needs and rights. How did you develop this thread in your narrative?

Jan Pinborough: The fact that she believed in the rights and dignity of all children, and not just a privileged few, was such an important part of Moore’s story to me. I love the fact that she wanted the library to have books in many languages so children who had recently come to this country could read. I love that the library was a haven for children whose parents spent their days working to earn their livelihood in a new land. Moore used her Nicholas doll at least in part to help shy children who didn’t speak English very well feel more comfortable talking. One of my favorite photos in Sayers’s biography is called “The Constant Visitor.” I believe it’s a shot of a little girl named Aimée, who had recently emigrated from Belgium. The book’s refrain, “But Miss Moore thought otherwise,” really alludes to many opinions and attitudes that, if not totally original to Moore, were very forward thinking. Moore knew that many New York children rarely saw growing things, so she brought armfuls of roses for them to smell and dirt and little seeds for them to plant. She understood how much children need beauty to nourish their souls—the beauty of nature and the beauty of books. Moore trusted and respected children. In her early days at the NYPL, she spent time visiting schools and settlement houses and talking to children on the street to find out what their lives were like. And she had a very acute memory of her own childhood. All of this is reflected in her approach to children and to library services.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing about Anne Carroll Moore for young readers?

Jan Pinborough: As I said, I’m not a library historian, but I feel that whenever we are writing history we’re treading on sacred ground. I also knew that in some ways Moore is a slightly controversial figure. I didn’t want to overstate her contribution to children’s library services because surely many others played important roles across the country. I just wanted to tell the story truly and accurately — and in a way that children would find interesting and engaging. That’s a delicate balance.

Kidsbiographer: What messages do you hope young readers will take away from Miss Moore Thought Otherwise?

Jan Pinborough: I had two goals in writing the book. One was to encourage “otherwise-thinking” children to value their unconventionality and to pursue their individualistic ideas — and thus to make their unique contributions to the world. The second was to prompt children — and others — to appreciate that indispensable and yet much-taken-for-granted gift, the public library. My grand vision for this book was that it might encourage people to not only remember and appreciate libraries, but to support them. Many libraries have fallen on hard times, and some people are even questioning their value. In an increasingly digital age, I think we need to support this great democratizing institution and make sure that all children, not just the privileged, have access to lots and lots of the best books! To this end, people who visit my book’s  website will soon be able to post their own memories of important books and libraries.

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

Jan Pinborough: I love the picture-book biography genre. I’m currently working on another project—and incubating a third.

Meet the Illustrator: Debby Atwell

miss moore_back flapDebby Atwell has written and illustrated various picture books, including Pearl, The Warhog’s Tail, and Thanksgiving Door. Recently, she illustrated Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, a picture-book biography of pioneering children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore, which is due out next month. This week, she caught up with Kidsbiographer about character creation, archival research, and the joys of collaboration.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate Miss Moore Thought Otherwise?

Debby Atwell: I used the archives of the New York Public Library. I found pictures of Anne Carroll Moore on the job! The picture of Taft visiting the library was drawn from a photo of the library’s opening day. I used also used photos to paint Anne’s house in Limerick, Maine and the town’s library at that time. Photos are very helpful. If I draw from photos, I can enjoy the details, instead of worrying about them.

Kidsbiographer: In Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, you employ a lively folk art style of painting. Why did you select this approach for this picture-book biography?

Debby Atwell: The stories I like to illustrate pertain to American history and folklore. These primitive images – the sort that a precocious child might produce – are easy for children to grasp. The story can predominate supported by simple images – not cute, folksy, or sentimental, all of which I like to avoid.

Kidsbiographer: One of the most enjoyable aspects of Miss Moore Thought Otherwise is the way text and picture interact. For example, in the page that describes Anne’s college education, a small image of her accepting her diploma from a library school dignitary appears in the upper right hand corner, beside the text. At the bottom of the page, an oval illustration depicts Miss Moore waving to young patrons in front of her first library. In a later spread, children circle the text as they line up to greet the King and Queen of Belgium, guests of the library. How did you compose these spreads, and what effect did you hope to achieve by arranging the illustrations this way?

Debby Atwell: When I work on a story, I don’t like to leave a child in the lurch about the tale’s progression. Throughout the project, my editor, Ann Rider, was a very flexible and helpful guide. She allowed me a great deal of freedom. These developments, in terms of the arrangement of text and image, often happen at the end when you’re immersed in a book. And after I’d handed work in, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s ArtDepartment often came up with even more exciting delivery. I didn’t do it all by myself, and I’ve discovered that I prefer sharing work. It makes for a better book.

Kidsbiographer: In many of the book’s illustrations, Miss Moore wears a blue suit with a matching hat: in others, she wears blue dresses or skirts. Can you describe how you created her as a visual character?

Debby Atwell: I learned early on that you don’t want to confuse a child, so I made her quickly recognizable. Kids don’t have to struggle to find her in every spread. I chose to dress her in blue because I like to paint in yellows, oranges, and golds; she stands out when she’s wearing blue. Also, blue complements human skin tones.

Kidsbiographer: The book’s back cover shows Miss Moore exchanging a knowing look with a lion statue atop a plinth – one of New York City’s best-known landmarks. What’s the story behind this illustration, which reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon?

Debby Atwell: Inspiration came at the very end of the project. I needed something for the back flap. The lions outside the building have a tremendous impact on a child going to the library. When you see them, you know you’re going someplace special. I wanted to be playful and show that the lions were proud of Miss Moore and what she had accomplished.

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

Debby Atwell: I have a few irons in the fire right now, but at the moment I’m really enjoying how Miss Moore Thought Otherwise is being pre-received, especially how librarians are really embracing the book. Given the status of libraries and children’s services in the U.S., it’s a very timely book as well.

The Composer and The Choreographer

when stravinsky met nijinsky_hresWhen Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot
By Lauren Stringer
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 2013, Boston, $16.99)

Think orchestra music and ballet are genteel diversions? Imagine their audiences always sit silently with rapt attention? Think again. In 1913, composer Igor Stravinsky and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky premiered their ballet, The Rite of Spring, for Parisian audiences. Far from being a sedate event, the performance, with its discordant music and movements reminiscent of Russian folk dances, stunned the crowd. Some spectators celebrated the new sounds and sights; others expressed their dismay – loudly. Soon, fighting broke out between the two factions in the aisles and outside the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Scholars often cite the riot provoked by The Rite of Spring as a seminal moment in musical and cultural history.

In When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky, Lauren Stringer introduces young readers and listeners to the famous partnership. Far from a dry musical history lesson, the book uses rhyme, alliteration, and metaphor to bring the artists and their work to life. Stringer writes of Nijinsky’s dance, “His torso trumpeted a melody, / his arms and legs sang from strings, / and his feet began / to pom-di-di-pom like timpani.” This is not your typical picture book in verse; Stringer’s poetry is as surprising as the music and dance it evokes. And while the book celebrates collaboration and innovation in art, Stringer’s tone is playful, rather than reverential. She enjoys the fact that Stravinsky rhymes with Nijinsky and encourages readers to do the same. Stringer’s illustrations echo this spirited mixture of admiration and whimsy. Dancers and musical notes caper over some spreads; others seem to implode with color, just as Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s work burst upon their first audience. In her author’s note, Stringer describes how some of her illustrations reflect the work of Matisse, Picasso, and other visual artists of the era: she hopes to convey the rapid changes in all of the arts during the early twentieth century.

When Stravinsky met Nijinsky offers something for readers of all ages. But Stringer never forgets that a picture book must engage children. Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s animals – a dachshund and a ginger cat, respectively – scamper and twirl over most of the book’s pages. Their presence suggests that creating art, even the most startling and unconventional, is a fun process.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Kathryn Selbert

photo (1)Illustrator Kathryn Selbert has just published her first children’s book, War Dogs, a picture book about Winston Churchill’s bond with his miniature poodle. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about sketching poodles and introducing young readers to history.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Churchill’s bond with his poodle, and how did you decide to write this extraordinary story?

Kathryn Selbert: At the time, I was frequently dog sitting a miniature poodle and was hoping to find a poodle related topic I could focus a book on, while using the dog as a reference for the illustrations. There are a lot of anecdotes about the breed and their intelligence. Poodles are and were often used as circus dogs because of their great memory and ability to learn tricks and as aquatic retrieval dogs. Their coats were clipped in a distinctive fashion to make swimming easier.

Along with this information, I found a few small quotes about Churchill and his poodle Rufus. I loved the recollections of Churchill interacting with his poodle: Admiring the landscape of Chartwell with his fractious poodle; watching Oliver Twist with Rufus and covering his eyes while Bill Skyes was drowning his dog; Churchill having a place set for Rufus at the family table and no one eating until he was served.

The idea of the two of them walking around London, exploring the Blitz bombings was really striking. I decided to try and focus a book on that image and their companionship.

Kidsbiographer: In addition to images of Churchill and Rufus, War Dogs includes depictions of wartime London, battle scenes, and Churchill’s underground office. Can you discuss the research you did to write and illustrate this book?

Kathryn Selbert: There was a period of time in-between the creation of my initial book dummy and me actually starting to work with a publisher. I had a lot of time to research and correct what I had written. The time gave me a chance to read as many books on Churchill and the war rooms as I could in preparation to understand what the war rooms would look like and Churchill’s attitude. While I didn’t end up using all of the research in the book, I found it helped me portray war time London in a more accurate way. I was also more able to collect the quotes from Churchill we used on most pages. Originally, I had written some dialogue for Churchill and Clementine, but we decided in the end that it would be more faithful to use his own words.

The book Churchill’s Bunker: The Cabinet War Rooms and the Culture of Secrecy in Wartime London by Richard Holmes was the most helpful for discovering Churchill’s daily routine and what life in the war rooms was like. Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham is also an excellent book to get an idea of what Churchill’s political interpersonal relationships were like during the war (I unfortunately read it after I finished War Dogs).

Kidsbiographer: War Dogs is written entirely in the present tense, reflecting both Rufus’s perspective as a dog and the sense of immediacy Churchill would have felt as a wartime Prime Minister. How did you decide to structure the narrative this way?

Kathryn Selbert: The book was originally a more intimate portrait of Winston and Rufus’ daily life together, but overtime grew to be a more broad view of wartime in London and the history of the war. My editor, in one of the first passes of the draft, decided that to match this urgent atmosphere, a present tense structure would give the book a more pressing and engaging tone. I agreed.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout War Dogs, winsome illustrations of Rufus are juxtaposed with grim depictions of the Blitz’s devastation. What are some of the challenges inherent in representing such different moods and scenes in a single book?

Kathryn Selbert: While writing and illustrating War Dogs, I was very concerned about keeping a balance between the benefits one gains from a canine companion and the historical atmosphere of the war. I didn’t want the book to be too scary for kids, but for it to be an introduction to WWII, I needed to show some of the more frightening realities of the war – not just Churchill’s day-to-day meetings and speeches. Focusing on those subjects wouldn’t really show the gravity of the situation. When I was little, it took me so long to understand WWII because the events of it weren’t really revealed to me until high school. We learned a little about the Holocaust and the war was referenced, but never really discussed, probably because of its complexity. I wanted to introduce the subject in a gentle, meaningful way while helping open the door to history for kids a bit earlier.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout this picture-book biography, you insert apt and stirring quotes from Churchill in the various spreads: these appear as bits of paper tacked onto the illustrations. I’m curious to learn the story behind this clever incorporation of language and design: how did these spreads evolve?

Kathryn Selbert: Originally, I wanted the text to be separate from the illustrations so that they would seem more serious. As we decided to feature his quotes, the book’s designer suggested they feature in separate blocks visually. I think I suggested having those blocks resemble the look of the notes on the global map in the main war room that features in the book. The designer of the book took care to find the exact font of the Churchill’s typewriters that may have been used to create the notes on that wall. The notes fit really well, I think.

Kidsbiographer: What lessons or thoughts do you hope young readers will take away from War Dogs?

Kathryn Selbert: I only hope to pique a love of history and an appreciation of friends.

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

Kathryn Selbert: I’m working on a few new kids’ books at the moment, but the one I’m working on the most feverishly is about Roald Dahl. Too early to really talk about it but it’s going to be a lot of fun!



The Library Lady

miss moore thought otherwise_hresMiss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children By Jan Pinborough
Illustrated by Debby Atwell
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Boston, 2013, $16.99)

Once upon a time, libraries did not offer story hour. In fact, children were not allowed to borrow books – and in some cases, kids were not even permitted inside the library. Young people, librarians believed, would only abuse books and disturb other patrons. In any case, many believed that reading wasn’t very important for children anyway, especially girls. But change was in the air. In the early twentieth century, a young librarian named Anne Carroll Moore pioneered the children’s library as we know it in New York City: story hour,  kid-sized furniture, cheerful artwork, and a variety of books to entertain and engage children of all ages. Moore created a space in which children could ask questions, explore ideas, and begin a lifelong love affair with reading. She acquired children’s books in a variety of languages and used dolls to put shy children, especially recent immigrants, at their ease. She also wrote book reviews to elevate the status of children’s literature. When she retired, she traveled around the country, helping other libraries improve their children’s sections.

In Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, Jan Pinborough and illustrator Debby Atwell tell Moore’s story. The picture-book biography starts with her free-spirited childhood in small-town Maine and concludes with a musing on the nature of libraries today. Throughout Pinborough’s delightful narrative, Miss Moore thinks “otherwise” about the role of women, libraries, children, and retired people.  Atwell’s illustrations are reminiscent of folk art: her paintings’ lively use of color, simple forms, and busy composition suggest Moore’s delight in books and the world around her. In one of the book’s most striking spreads, the island of Manhattan seems to glow with light. Boats of all sizes circle the island, horse-drawn carriages fill its streets, and tiny forms occupy its docks and alleys. Above it all, a grinning Anne Carroll Moore appears in a ray of light: this is the adventure Moore saw in her adopted city.

In many ways, Miss Moore Thought Otherwise is a celebration of today’s libraries in all their openness and inclusiveness. In the age of e-readers, it is easy to take libraries for granted: however, the idea that anyone can select any book and borrow it for free is still exhilarating and perhaps even revolutionary.

Dorothy A. Dahm

20 Rulers

Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels, and What the Neighbors Thoughtlives of extraordinary women_hres
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Sandpiper, 2000,   New Paperback 2013, Boston, $12.99)

So often historical figures and even present-day leaders appear remote and one-dimensional. In Lives of Extraordinary Women, Kathleen Krull and illustrator Kathryn Hewitt bring twenty women leaders, from Cleopatra to Guatemalan human rights advocate Rigoberta Menchu, to life. This collective middle-grade biography consists of short pieces about each woman; an imaginative portrait accompanies each entry. These biographical sketches succinctly summarize their accomplishments and offer human details about the women: their animals, hobbies, attire, and vulnerabilities. At times,  given the book’s audience, some adults may wish for less detail: Krull includes juicy gossip about the women’s affairs and presents a violent legend about Underground Railroad rescuer Harriet Tubman as fact. Hewitt’s portraits use humor to build character without ever resorting to real caricature. For example, Marie Antoinette wears a layer cake of a gown topped by two pugs, one of which has nibbled on the elaborate confection. The cards, wineglass, and candelabra in her hands suggest gaiety; however, the girl’s eyes are wide with the desperate anxiety the young queen often felt at Versailles. A lively introduction to some memorable figures, Lives of Extraordinary Women should pique readers’ curiosity and encourage further reading.

War Woofs

WarDogs_300War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus
Written and illustrated by Kathryn Selbert
(Charlesbridge, 2013, Boston, $17.95)

Anyone who has ever loved an animal can testify to their ability to help humans through hard times: their cheerful, loving companionship allows us to temporarily forget our woes. In this respect, the most powerful are no different from the rest of us. The company of Rufus, a loyal miniature poodle, sustained British Prime Minister Winston Churchill through World War II and the London Blitz. In War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus, author-illustrator Kathryn Selbert tells the story of this extraordinary friendship – and, in the process, educates young readers about both Churchill and the Blitz.

War Dogs is a charming picture-book biography: Rufus, the small, brown, bright-eyed poodle, sniff the prime minister’s papers, shares his tea, and struts jauntily, tail held high, through city streets. But juxtaposed with the warmth of their bond is Churchill’s worry over the fate of a city, a nation, and the world. Readers see him pouring over maps in underground bunkers; they also see neighborhoods obscured by smoke or reduced to rubble. Most spreads include a Churchill quote, all of which exemplify his eloquence and his ability to rally his fellow Londoners through a period of unimaginable fear, uncertainty, and death. A timeline of World War II and biographical notes about Churchill and his love for animals should help adults and older children put the narrative in its historical context.

With War Dogs, Kathryn Selbert offers more than an engaging introduction to a historical figure. Her picture-book biography not only humanizes Churchill; it highlights both the devastation that war causes and the hope people can sustain with the help of a great leader – and a great dog.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Beneath the Waves

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle
Written and Illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
(Frances Foster Books, 2012, New York, $17.99)

To study the world’s oceans and their inhabitants, Sylvia Earle has donned diving gear, lived beneath the water for two weeks, and climbed into submergible apparatuses worthy of nineteenth century science fiction. During her ventures into the deep, the oceanographer has encountered curious clownfish, glowing coral reef, and friendly marine mammals. Earle has also written extensively about the wonders of the ocean and the pressing need to protect them and the panoply of life they hold.

In Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, author-illustrator Claire A. Nivola introduces children to both Earle and the marvelous worlds she explores. The picture-book biography transports readers from Earle’s childhood as a budding naturalist through her scientific career. However, the narrative falters a bit in one spread in which Nivola enumerates Earle’s major accomplishments. This information, although fascinating, would be better suited to a timeline or an afterword.

The book is strongest when Nivola reveals the wondrous things Earle discovered under the sea. Reading this picture-book biography is like accompanying Earle on a deep sea journey. Along the way, readers touch blue coral, marvel at the tiny, delicate creatures of the deep, and swim around schools of highly individualized fish. In one especially startling illustration, a tiny Earle swims up to an enormous humpback whale, who gazes back at her. Here, both the youngest listeners and adult readers should find themselves mesmerized by the whale’s size and consciousness.

Life in the Ocean should engage young listeners and middle-grade readers alike; the audiences will reap different rewards from Nivola’s lyrical narrative and expansive, often luminous, illustrations. The book is more than a simple account of Earle’s life and career. It is a window into the world that has transfixed her for a lifetime.

-Dorothy A. Dahm