Kidsbiographer will be out of the country on an extended vacation for the next six weeks. I look forward to more exciting forays into the world of children’s biography when I return in mid-August.
Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
By Marc Tyler Nobleman
Illustrated by Ross MacDonald
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, New York, $16.99)
A special edition of Boys of Steel, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Superman’s debut, is due out in July 2013.
For generations, readers, filmgoers, and television viewers have thrilled to Superman’s strength. His powers and crime-fighting exploit satisfy audiences’ thirst for adventure and justice. But the superhero’s creators were wildly different from their creation. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were shy, myopic boys when they met in 1930’s Cleveland. Unpopular at school, troubled at home, they shared a love of the fantastic. And nothing, from a teacher’s discouragement to an editor’s rejection, stopped them from creating the Man of Steel.
In Boys of Steel, Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrator Ross MacDonald tell Siegel and Shuster’s tale. Nobleman’s text is, at times, a bit dense for the youngest readers and listeners; however, the picture-book biography’s themes – of alienation, escape, and justice – should resonate with middle-grade and even young adult readers. Nobleman skillfully blends the artists’ story with a discussion of superheroes’ place in audiences’ psyches. MacDonald’s illustrations alternate between realistic scenes of Depression-era Cleveland – executed in the style of that era – and the more dramatic tableaux of conflict and heroics that unfold in the characters’ imaginations. The latter are often rendered in a dark blue, the color of dreams, perhaps, and shadows. An excellent author’s note about the rest of Siegel and Shuster’s lives follows the narrative.
Both a homage to Siegel and Shuster and an introduction to comic book history, Boys of Steel is also a moving narrative about two people who had the courage to follow their daydreams. The illustration that graces the book’s frontispiece and end is particularly poignant. A black and white, bespectacled image of the comic’s creators stand hands on hips. Behind them is their shadow, a blue silhouette of Superman himself. The real Superman was two men, and their superpower was their imagination.
-Dorothy A. Dahm
We remember Billie Holiday, nicknamed Lady Day, for the gardenias in her hair, her battles with drug addiction, and the fragile beauty of her voice. But behind the stage presence and the scandal lurked a woman who loved soft ears, sad brown eyes, and wet noses. Holiday had many canine companions, but one was especially close to her heart: a loyal Boxer named Mister.
In Mister and Lady Day, Amy Novesky and illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton tell the moving story of the bond between the songstress and her favorite dog. Novesky’s spare, elegant prose occasionally reads like verse, as though Holiday herself were singing the text:
“While Lady was gone, she wrote letters
and knit sweaters. But she did not sing.
singing was about feeling, and she didn’t feel a thing.”
Newton’s illustrations capture both Holiday’s wistful glamour and the warmth between her and Mister. Both adorable and poignant, the pictures have the multilayered quality of a jazz standard. Lyrics from some of Holiday’s songs flit over some spreads, and bits of musical scores, letters, and various documents appear as wallpaper, on buildings, and on a gramophone. In one captivating spread, Mister and his mistress take a midnight walk in the city. They stroll over piano keys instead of pavement, suggesting the ever presence of music in Holiday’s life or, perhaps, that the love between Lady Day and her dog was worthy of a song of its own.
Mister and Lady Day is a love story, a celebration of the relationship between Holiday and Mister and the human-canine bond in general. It is also a gorgeous introduction to a gifted artist and a reminder that behind stars’ personae and tabloid snapshots are people who want to love and be loved.
-Dorothy A. Dahm
John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory
By Roberta Baxter
(Morgan Reynolds, 2013, Greensboro, North Carolina, $28.95)
Generations of chemists – and chemistry students – owe their efforts to John Dalton. His atomic theory changed the way scientists understood the nature of matter. Born to a humble Quaker family in the English Lakes District in the 1760’s, unable to attend university, Dalton nonetheless taught secondary school and college-level science. He conducted chemical experiments and meteorological research. Intellectually omnivorous, Dalton also studied the causes of color blindness, a condition he himself had, and wrote a grammatical text.
In John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory, Roberta Baxter examines Dalton’s contributions to science for young adult readers. She clearly presents his theories and those of his contemporaries; in addition, she discusses how Dalton’s ideas fit into the framework of today’s scientific knowledge. Readers with a strong interest in chemistry will particularly relish this opportunity to explore scientific history. Baxter also explores Dalton’s Quaker beliefs, the era’s educational system, and the Industrial Revolution that swept the North of England during his lifetime. Because relatively little is known of Dalton’s personal life, the narrative does not always seamlessly integrate scientific, historical and human information. However, Baxter includes enough anecdotes so that Dalton emerges as a dedicated, humble, and kind man, one more interested in advancing knowledge than his own status.
“Dalton showed that a person didn’t have to attend the most prestigious college or have the best family connections to make contributions in the field of science,” Baxter writes. John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory reminds young adults that science isn’t merely an academic discipline, a class to be passed or even aced for college admission, but a way of asking questions about the world around them.
-Dorothy A. Dahm
Glenn Stout has written many sports biographies for young people, including the Good Sports series, a group of collective biographies with inspiring stories about athletes who have oversome adversity or shown resilence. He also edits The Best American Sports Writing. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about the latest edition to his Good Sports series, From Hardships to Championships, a collective biography of baseball players from tough backgrounds.
Kidsbiographer: You’ve been a sports writer and baseball fan for some time, so you were probably quite familiar with the men you profiled for From Hardships to Championships. However, research can uncover new angles on even familiar figures. During your research, which new facts or anecdotes about your subjects most surprised you?
Glenn Stout: I was most surprised by Ron Leflore’s story. I knew he had served time in prison, but I had no idea just how much he had to overcome. He grew up in terrible circumstances, immersed in crime and substance abuse from a very young age, and was on a path that, without baseball, probably would have resulted in his incarceration for life. But in prison, he started playing ball, enjoyed some success and was encouraged when he was told he had a future in the game. What is so sad is that the kind of prison sports program that saved Leflore are very rare these days. Due to lacks of funds and overcrowding, those opportunities don’t really exist anymore.
Kidsbiographer: The book’s biographies contain a lot of difficult subjects: poverty, abusive parents, drug abuse, mental illness, crime. Which of these topics did you find hardest to present to a middle-grade audience, and how did you approach it?
Glenn Stout: They are all difficult, but I’ve found the best way to write about them is to be very straightforward, very direct. Kids can tell when you are glossing over something, and they are very sophisticated. I was particularly aware of this in regard to Joe Torre’s abusive father. His abuse to Joe wasn’t physical as much as it was mental and emotional, and I wanted to communicate Torre’s anxiety in a very real way, to show his fear, and show kids that’s not right.
Kidsbiographer: From Hardships to Championships contains several remarkable stories of perseverance and success in the face of almost unimaginable odds. Which of the athletes’ stories did you find most compelling, and why?
Glenn Stout: Torri Hunter’s story really gets me because it is so immediate to so many kids today who grow up in a gang environment. His story contained some very practical lessons in how to negotiate that background, what steps to take to free yourself from that path, and, just as importantly, how he now sees his role and helps others choose a better way through education. That’s a huge problem and his story and his approach is very instructional.
Kidsbiographer: If you could have written a longer version of this book, who are some of the other baseball players you would have included?
Glenn Stout: Oh, there are so many. Sadly, I could have had done another 20 books like this about baseball players alone, and a similar number from other sports. But if I ever do another baseball volume, I think I would be sure to include the story of Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, who has had to overcome the impact of sexual abuse. In the wake of the Penn State scandals, that’s an enormous issue and kids need to feel empowered to talk about abuse to responsible, caring adults, and help stop that cycle.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope kids will take away from From Hardships to Championships?
Glenn Stout: That no circumstance is hopeless, and there are ways to succeed in spite of your background and upbringing. Sports is only one of many paths that help, but it is one that is familiar and available to almost everyone. It doesn’t mean you have to be a professional, or be any good – you just have to spend your time doing something positive. They don’t realize it, but that’s what reading is doing as well; every minute a kid is reading, is a minute he or she is not getting in trouble or being abused. Add up those minutes, and you’ve started a path to a better future.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Glenn Stout: I’d love to continue this series, but as of the moment, despite the fact that 5 of 6 titles have been JLG selections, critical response has been terrific, the titles have sold well, and fit into the “common core” being put into place, its future is uncertain. Everyone says we need books like this, particularly for boys, but if the major retailers don’t stock them, they are hard to sustain. You know, if we include the 39 Matt Christopher sports biographies that I wrote, I’ve probably sold more than one million books to this age group. Yet major retailers and publishers don’t seem to recognize that. It’s mindboggling.
At the present, I am spending most of my time editing long-form sports journalism, and continuing my work as series editor of The Best American Sports Writing.
Catherine Reef has written young adult biographies of writers, including The Brontes, Jane Austen, and Ernest Hemingway, and composers William Grant Still and George Gershwin. This year, she published Leonard Bernstein and American Music, a biography of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Earlier this week, she spoke with Kidsbiographer about the challenges and joys of sharing his life and work with young people.
Kidsbiographer: Can you discuss your personal relationship with Bernstein’s music and the musical research you did to write Leonard Bernstein and American Music?
Catherine Reef: Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up watching Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. In fact, my fifth-grade teacher showed them to our class so often that my parents joked about her having a crush on Leonard Bernstein. She certainly admired him. His enthusiasm, his handsomeness, and his resonant bassoon of a voice made him a captivating figure.
The first music by Bernstein that I came to know well was the score to West Side Story. It was discordant and thoroughly contemporary, but it could also be achingly melodious and reminiscent of Beethoven. As I grew older I was intrigued by Bernstein’s Mass. Composers had been creating musical settings of the Roman Catholic liturgy for centuries, but Bernstein incorporated guitars, synthesizers and other modern elements to remake the form. I also grew to love the music from Candide, especially the breathless, exhilarating overture. Who else could have written it?
Although I had some familiarity with Bernstein’s music, I had much to learn before I could write about it with any kind of authority. I did a lot of listening—to his three symphonies, the Chichester Psalms, On the Town, and other works. I also did a lot of reading to find out what knowledgeable listeners had to say about Bernstein’s music, as well as what the composer himself had to say. Then I listened some more and thought about how to present everything I had absorbed in a way that would have meaning and value to my readers.
Kidsbiographer: What was the most interesting anecdote you unearthed about Bernstein during your research?
Catherine Reef: As a biographer, I love anecdotes because they help me to bring a subject to life, to give readers glimpses of the subject at home with family and friends or at work in the larger world. One such story is of Bernstein as a teenager staging a comic version of Carmen and other musical productions with his friends in Sharon, Massachusetts, where his family had a summer home. This brief look at young Lenny leading rehearsals and donning a red wig to play a leading role reveals something about Bernstein that is really true of many people. The interests and inclinations that direct our course in adulthood are often present in childhood.
Something that surprised me was the degree to which Bernstein’s Jewish heritage informed his life and work. Jewish themes inspired such compositions as his Jeremiah and Kaddish symphonies, for example, and throughout his life he was a strong and visible supporter of Israel. When Bernstein was launching his conducting career, his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, urged him to change his name to one that disguised his Jewish background. Koussevitzky worried that anti-Semitism would hold his protégé back. But to Bernstein, making this change would mean denying who he was, and this he refused to do. “I will have to make it with the name Leonard Bernstein or not at all,” he said. This anecdote reveals not only his identification with Jewish culture and faith but also his refusal to bow to prejudice. Acceptance—achieved through understanding—is a theme that runs through his life.
Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing Bernstein’s story for young adults?
Catherine Reef: Describing music for young readers is a big challenge. There is nothing more elusive than music, so how does a writer convey its sound or its meaning in words?
One piece I paused to describe was Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, Age of Anxiety, which was completed in 1949. This is a programmatic piece in that it follows the progress of a poem by W. H. Auden with the same title. Auden’s poem delves into the unconscious mind, the seat of our deepest thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. I therefore pointed out how Bernstein suggests this venture into psychological territory with a series of descending low notes played on a piano.
Both the poem and the symphony were written in response to the horrors experienced and witnessed during World War II. At the time, many people questioned the existence of God in a world that permitted millions to be murdered. I explained that this is why Part 2 of Bernstein’s symphony begins with a dirge. But Bernstein could never be satisfied with a rejection of faith. Affirmation was more in keeping with his nature, and for this reason his symphony ends in rich, full tones.
It is also a challenge to decide how extensively to write about a piece of music, because I don’t want to say too much. I like to give my readers a foundation on which to base their own listening, because I hope they will make their own discoveries and form their own opinions. They should not be too influenced by what I say of think.
Kidsbiographer: Leonard Bernstein and American Music was written for the educational market; however, it’s also a very personal biography. How did you approach educating young adults while introducing them to Leonard Bernstein as a person?
Catherine Reef: A biography is a literary creation, a portrait in words of a well-known man or woman, a life story shaped into a cohesive narrative. Very simply, each of my biographies is my effort to understand an individual on the basis of his or her experiences, achievements, and words, as well as the observations of people who knew the subject, and then to communicate what I have learned to the reader. My approach is the same regardless of the publisher; I can’t conceive of writing a biography any other way.
When I write for young people about a creative person such as Leonard Bernstein, though, I want my book also to serve as an introduction to the subject’s work. I therefore present his or her most important contributions and discuss in some detail the works’ significance, how they were received, and how they were innovative. I place them in historical and artistic context, so readers can see how they reflected their time and how they measure up against pieces by other composers that preceded them.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Leonard Bernstein and American Music?
Catherine Reef: I would like my readers to gain awareness of a man who had a huge impact on our culture—on our world, really—in the twentieth century, and whose influence endures. I also hope they become familiar enough with Bernstein’s music for it to continue giving them enjoyment throughout life. Finally, I hope readers will be left with the satisfaction that comes from having read a good book.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Catherine Reef: Readers can look forward to two new books from me in the coming year. In the fall, Morgan Reynolds plans to release the long-awaited Poetry Came in Search of Me: The Story of Pablo Neruda. I feel fortunate to be introducing the famed Chilean poet and humanitarian to children in the United States. With its simple language and vivid imagery, much of Neruda’s poetry is accessible to young people, so I hope readers will go on to explore it further on their own. Then, in spring 2014, Frida and Diego: Art, Love, and Life will be out from Clarion. This book delves into the lives, marriage, and work of two remarkable Mexican painters. And right now I am busy with two challenging projects. The first is a biography of Noah Webster, the author and teacher remembered best for writing the first comprehensive American dictionary of the English language. The second is a book on slavery in North America during the colonial years. Although the use of African American slaves was to become a strictly southern practice, slavery existed in every one of the thirteen English colonies.