Month: June 2014

A Girl from Oklahoma

9781419708466Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America
By Tonya Bolden
(Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014, $21.95, New York)

In 1911, oil drillers found their quarry on a parcel of land in Oklahoma. One of the many homesteads allocated by the U.S government, the property technically belonged to Sarah Rector, a nine-year old African American girl. As a result, Sarah instantly become very wealthy – newspapers proclaimed her America’s richest black girl. Suddenly, a child from an ordinary background became the subject of controversy. Journalists, black and white, took stances on her position. Some proclaimed she was exploited; others questioned her right to prosperity. Then, for a time, Sarah seemed to be missing. Rumors about her whereabouts exploded. In the media frenzy, Sarah’s real story got lost.

In Searching for Sarah Rector, Tonya Bolden examines this strange chapter in America’s history.  She devotes much of the book to explaining the history behind the Rectors’ presence in Oklahoma. Readers will be surprised to learn that some nineteenth-century Native Americans owned slaves, whom they took West with them. The Rectors were descendents of these slaves.  She also explores the government’s practice of allotting land to citizens and the various media controversies Sarah’s case inspired. Documents, photographs, and text boxes supplement Bolden’s narrative. However, nearly every page of Searching for Sarah Rector contains supplemental background information accompanied by an image; sometimes, this information appears before Bolden has introduced the particular topic. Although these pictures and text boxes make the book visually appealing, their near-ubiquity makes an otherwise engaging narrative somewhat disjointed. Readers can never quite settle into Sarah’s story; the book’s very format constantly jolts them out of it.

Searching for Sarah Rector introduces readers to some little-known aspects of American history. It also raises questions about the nature of media controversies. Educators should use the book to encourage teens to think critically about the veracity of stories the media just won’t drop.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Gretchen Woelfle

G WoelfleGretchen Woelfle has written fiction and nonfiction books about Jeanette Rankin, William Shakespeare, and revolutionary-era writer Mercy Otis Warren for young people. Recently, she published Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, a picture book about Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman in eighteenth-century Massachusetts who fought for her freedom.

On June 28th, Ms. Woelfle will be signing copies of her books at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas. She’ll be available to sign copies of Write on, Mercy! from 11-12 at Boyd’s Mill Press. From 2-3, she’ll be signing copies of Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence at Lerner.

This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about finding Elizabeth Freeman and researching her life.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Mumbet and what made you decide to write about her remarkable life?

Gretchen Woelfle: My research for one book has often led to my next book. While researching my first book, The Wind at Work, a history of wind energy, I found a dramatic event that became Katje the Windmill Cat. Researching Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Warren, a Revolutionary era heroine, meant delving into women in 18th century America – and I discovered Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman. While researching her life and times, I found many more amazing African Americans … and that’s your final question.

Kidsbiographer: In your author’s note, you mention that little is known of Mumbet’s life. Can you describe the research you conducted to write Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence?

Gretchen Woelfle: I ended my book with Mumbet winning her freedom, but she lived a long and productive life after that.  She became the housekeeper to her lawyer’s family, the Sedgwicks, and second mother to their seven children.  Mumbet was illiterate, so we have none of her writings. But Katharine Sedgwick became a well-known essayist and novelist and recorded some events in Mumbet’s life. I read Katharine’s essays and journals, as well as scholarly articles written about Mumbet’s legal case, books on the Ashley and Sedgwick families, and books on slavery in the North.

I always begin my research by reading several biographies (if they exist) of my subject. Then I look at the bibliographies and footnotes of those biographies and read books and scholarly articles cited. It’s important to establish context for young readers, so I read relevant political and social history as well.

In the midst of writing my book, I learned that two historians were close to publishing an adult biography of Mumbet, so I contacted one of them. He answered questions and read my manuscript for historical accuracy.

I traveled to Massachusetts to visit Mumbet’s home at Ashley House and met with historians there. I’ve always found experts to be generous with their time and resources. They have been eager to talk to a fellow enthusiast although it’s important to have a good grounding of your subject matter before you approach them.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, you frequently compare Mumbet and her desire for freedom to mountains and rivers. What inspired you to choose this very potent simile?

Gretchen Woelfle: My focus on the physical setting came from my visit to Sheffield and Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Mumbet lived. I always try to visit the home territory of my subjects. Landscape plays a significant role in all of our lives – and includes social setting, demographics, architecture, climate, geography, and more. I toured Ashley House in Sheffield on a bright, cold day in January and saw where Mumbet worked and slept.  The Housatonic River flows by the bottom of the meadow near the house. Mumbet had a view of the Berkshire hills from the windows. It was easy to imagine that she saw the free-flowing river and solid strength of the mountains as symbols for her own situation.

Kidsbiographer: In one of my favorite parts of the book, Mumbet serves her owner, Colonel Ashley, and his friends refreshments as they discuss the coming war with Britain and their desire for freedom. Although Mumbet remains silent, as her situation compels her to, she wonders about the relationship between their rhetoric and her own enslavement. How did you conceive this marvelous scene?

9780761365891fc (1)Gretchen Woelfle: Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence is, strictly speaking, historical fiction for I relate some thoughts and conversations that were not recorded by Catharine Sedgwick. But nearly all the scenes are based on historical evidence.  In 1773, the leading men of Sheffield met to discuss the revolutionary rumblings coming from Boston and drafted the Sheffield Resolves, which supported the protests of the Boston patriots.

John Ashley was the richest and most influential man in town, and so it is likely that the meetings leading up to the Resolves were held at his house, upstairs in his study. Mumbet would certainly have served them refreshments and probably even heard their impassioned voices from the kitchen downstairs. Mumbet’s thoughts about her status as a slave were recorded by Katharine Sedgwick, and I chose to express such thoughts while she heard Ashley and his colleagues discussing liberty and natural rights.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence?

Gretchen Woelfle: I would like readers to see Mumbet as a victor, not a victim. John Ashley had a legal claim to her labor, but she always and ever displayed a fiercely independent mind and spirit. She owned that. This strength of character and intelligence led her to challenge not only her powerful owner, but the entire legal system of Massachusetts.  In doing so, she freed not only herself and her daughter, but also all the 5000 slaves in the state, and ended slavery there.  I’d like young readers to realize that whatever challenges and limitations they face in the world, their minds and imaginations are free to transcend those limitations and perhaps act to overcome them.

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

Gretchen Woelfle: Related to your first question, as I researched this book, I came across many more African Americans who were inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution.  Some of these people are well-known, others less so, and some have never been written about for children.  I chose thirteen people and tell their stories in my next book, Answering the Cry for Freedom: African Americans in the American Revolution (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2016). Mumbet is one of the thirteen subjects in the book and I expand on her life after freedom. So to get her full story, stay tuned.


Meet the Biographer: Mary Cronk Farrell

1386116620A former journalist, Mary Cronk Farrell has published both fiction and nonfiction books about strong women for middle grade and young adult readers. This week, she spoke with Kidsbiographer about her latest book, Pure Grit, a collective biography of American Army and Navy nurses who experienced POW camp in the Philippines during World War II.

Kidsbiographer: You were only to able to speak with one of the nurses mentioned in Pure Grit; you interviewed the relatives of others to learn about the women’s experiences during World War II. What was the greatest challenge of working with your subject’s family members during the research process?

MCF: The most difficult thing was finding the relatives! I felt like a detective on the internet following any clues I could find as to the names and locations of the nurses’ children and grandchildren, and then trying to locate them.

Kidsbiographer: Pure Grit contains information not only about the nurses’ experiences, but about the war in the Pacific. What sort of research did you do to learn this chapter of military history?

MCF: To learn the facts of the military history surrounding the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and the following battles, I mainly relied on books. There are a lot of books written on the topic, as well as some articles.

Kidsbiographer: While writing Pure Grit and combing through letters, diary entries, and interviews, you must have unearthed all sorts of interesting – and disturbing – tidbits and anecdotes. What was the most intriguing story that didn’t make it into the final draft?

MCF: One of the stories that had to be cut from the final draft of the book was indeed disturbing. It showed all too graphically the inhumane conditions the nurses endured in prison camp. The prisoners at Los Ban᷈os were slowly dying of starvation, and yet they could see bananas and other edible plants right outside the fence.  One young man had been sneaking out at night to get food. When the Japanese guards caught him returning one morning, crawling back under the fence surrounding Los Ban᷈os, they shot and wounded him. Though camp leaders argued that according to international law a prisoner could not be executed if returning to camp, only is caught trying to escape, the Japanese soldiers would not allow doctors or nurses to give the wounded man medical aid. They held everyone back for an hour and a half while they left the young man bleeding on the ground. Then they dragged him off to a clump of bamboo and executed him.

Kidsbiographer: Although Pure Grit contains plenty of facts, the book unfolds at a clipping pace. How did you structure the narrative to make it as gripping as it is informative?

MCF: Creating the outline for the book proposal was actually the most difficult part of the project, as that is when I worked out how I was going to structure the book. Though I presented the material in a straightforward linear fashion following the historical timeline of events, I wanted the book to have a narrative story arc, which I laid out in the outline. In the writing, I worked hard on the flow of words, sentences, and paragraphs to keep the narrative alive and moving.

Kidsbiographer: What is the most gratifying response to Pure Grit you’ve received thus far?

MCF: The most gratifying response has been from relatives of the nurses who have loved the book. In addition, I received a wonderful compliment from a man whose father had been one of the men captured in the Philippines and spent the war in prison and slave labor camps.

He wrote: “You tell the stories, particularly your use of short, simple sentences, much like the diaries of the noble souls who wrote in small characters on small pieces of paper when time and ink and life itself was starved of all beauty and abundance.  Yet there is beauty in your narrative because it is the same beauty that remains when life is starved of everything: the beauty of faith and hope and charity, the beauty of courage and determination. Most people will never have an opportunity to converse with someone who endured the ordeal you have written about, but the tenor of the captives’ experience and the way they usually describe it (when they can bear to talk about it); indeed, the way they also survived the ordeal of life after liberation resonates through your narrative.”

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

MCF: My next book, its working title Fannie Never Flinched, is due out in February 2016.  It’s another amazing true story about courage and dedication, this time a biography of one women, Fannie Sellins, who was an incredible labor organizer in the early 1900’s garment industry, coal fields, and steel mills. Like the POW nurses, her strength was imbued by her compassion. Unfortunately, she did not survive, but died in a hail of bullets on the picket line of a Pennsylvania coal strike.

Fare for a King

HotDogHot Dog!: Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic
By Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by Victor Juhasz
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2014, Ann Arbor, Michigan, $16.99)

First Lady, humanitarian, columnist, and later United Nations ambassador, Eleanor Roosevelt was also a hot-dog enthusiast. When, in 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the United States, Mrs. Roosevelt held a picnic in their honor. Hot dogs were, naturally, on the menu. This was the royal couple’s first encounter with the American staple, and the picnic proved the beginning of a long-standing friendship between the two couples and nations.

In Hot Dog!: Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic, Leslie Kimmelman and illustrator Victor Juhasz paint an affectionate portrait of America’s most famous First Lady. Readers see Mrs. Roosevelt advocating on behalf of Americans affected by the Great Depression and worrying about the trouble brewing in Europe; they also glimpse her coveting hot dogs, doing sit-ups, and delightedly planning her picnic. Kimmelman’s lively style and Juhasz’s playful illustrations capture Eleanor Roosevelt’s warmth and her husband’s energy.

Sometimes, the best introduction to a historic figure is a story, a narrative that shows the person’s character. In Hot Dog, Kimmelman and Juhasz illuminate Eleanor Roosevelt’s empathy and approachability, the unassuming friendliness that allowed her to communicate with people of all backgrounds – and share her love of ballpark fare with monarchs.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Illustrator: Cátia Chien

9780547875071_hresCátia Chien illustrates picture books and paints in her studio in Southern California. This week, we discussed her work in A Boy and a Jaguar, conservation biologist Alan Rabinowitz’s picture book about his struggles with stuttering and his passion for helping animals.

Kidsbiographer: A Boy and a Jaguar contains depictions of the Great Smokey Mountains and Central American rainforest. What sort of research did you to paint these landscapes?

Cátia Chien: It was very simple actually, I researched online and found great images that helped me understand the look and feel of the Great Smokey Mountains and of the jungles in Belize.

Kidsbiographer: The picture-book biography’s spreads show the animals in Alan Rabinowitz’s life. They appear friendlier than most of the book’s human faces, a direct reflection of the ease and acceptance young Rabinowitz felt in their presence. However, you achieve this effect without descending into anthropomorphism. How did you find this balance?

Cátia Chien: I don’t think it is ever necessary to use anthropomorphism to create animals that are friendly. An animal’s eyes and body posture can say a lot about how they feel. In the book I made the animals friendly by giving them softer eyes and a friendly stance.

Kidsbiographer: You employ different styles of illustration throughout A Boy and a Jaguar. Although most of the spreads use a more approach, some flirt with surreal or expressionist elements. For example, when the text describes what Rabinowitz did to control his stuttering, you show young Alan, his expression pained, his mouth open. Letters, some distinct, some nebulous, some upside down, float out of his mouth and hover in the reddish background. How did you compose this remarkable and unsettling picture?

Cátia Chien: I knew I wanted to frame in his face without distraction because it was such an emotional moment in the story. I also knew that I wanted the painting of him to convey a feeling of being overwhelmed by words. So, in the end, it made sense to have a profile of him with unintelligible words streaming out. The color red suggests a sense of frustration.

Kidsbiographer: In the book’s most climatic spread, a now grown-up Rabinowitz faces the jaguar who has been following him through rainforest. However, he does not look like the successful biologist he is or even an adult. In this beautiful moment, he becomes once again the little boy who marveled at the jaguar at the zoo. Can you describe how you composed this spread?

Cátia Chien
: I love your interpretation. It gives this page a whole new meaning! I didn’t intend Alan to look young, but can see how he can be seen that way. I composed this spread with a couple of things in mind: I wanted the eye line of the jaguar and Alan to be at the same level to express respect. I also wanted there to be a sense of openness to reflect how both Alan and the jaguar were in the moment. This I expressed by using light and space with trees, creating a halo around the characters on each side. Lastly, I wanted a sense of ease, so I had the jaguar sitting facing Alan: the ears are soft and not pulled back. And Alan is painted here smaller in comparison to the jaguar. In this way, by making these specific decisions, I wanted to, in the best way I could, create an image that truly captured the moment Alan shared with the jaguar – a mutual sense of awe, respect, and gratitude.

Kidsbiographer: What is the most gratifying response you’ve received so far about A Boy and a Jaguar?

Cátia Chien: The most gratifying response I’ve received is to be told that by my editor and art director that my images do justice to Alan’s story. It is truly an honor.

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

Cátia Chien: I’m finishing a picture book called Things to Do and a comic book story for an upcoming anthology. I’m also writing and illustrating a new picture book and creating a series of paintings for a gallery show later this year.

Striding toward Freedom

NelsonNelson Mandela: “No Easy Walk to Freedom”
By Barry Denenberg
(Scholastic, 4th Edition 2014, New York, $6.99)

Much mythologized in both Africa and the West, the late Nelson Mandela was often called the father of his country. It should come as no surprise, then, that a biography of Mandela should also be a history of South Africa. In Nelson Mandela: No Easy Walk to Freedom, Barry Denenberg has created a riveting biography of Mandela and his nation for young adults. The most recent edition contains information about the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg and Mandela’s final years.

To give readers some context about Mandela and his struggles, Denenberg tells South Africa’s story from the beginning of white settlement through the present day. He does not avoid controversy; he explores such difficult subjects as the intraracial violence that pervaded some factions of the anti-apartheid movement, Mandela’s friendship with world leaders who opposed U.S. military and economic hegemony, and the economic disparity and allegations of political corruption that have plagued post-apartheid South Africa. Occasionally, however, Denenberg oversimplifies conflicts. For example, he presents Afrikaners as those most interested in maintaining white supremacy, implying that whites of English descent, even the earliest settlers, supported equality. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the British Empire will know that British colonialism depended on racial stratification.

Although Nelson Mandela is full of facts about South African history, Denenberg also delivers a compelling personal portrait of Mandela. Readers will marvel at the sacrifices he made to dedicate his life to others and the inner strength that allowed him to maintain his dignity – and an exercise regimen – during his twenty-seven years in prison. To illustrate Mandela’s eloquence, Denenberg includes excerpts from Mandela’s many speeches. Here is a quote from a statement Mandela issued in 1985 when he refused to accept the release the government offered him: “Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.” In those lines are the selflessness and conviction with which Mandela has become synonymous. The biography should move teens and adults alike.

-Dorothy A. Dahm