Month: July 2014

Dancing for Freedom

By Patricia Hruby Powell
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
(Chronicle Books, 2014, San Francisco, $17.99)

Famous for the bananas she wore, the Charleston she danced, and her comedic flair, Josephine Baker is synonymous with Paris in the twenties and thirties. But there was much more to Baker than her flamboyant performances and lifestyle. In Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrator Christian Robinson celebrate Baker’s style and substance. This picture-book biography transports readers from the entertainer’s humble beginnings in St. Louis to her international renown: along the way, Powell explores Baker’s civil rights activism and her work with the French Resistance. Powell incorporates the artist’s words with her own narrative, which, at times, flirts with verse echoing the jazz Baker danced to: “RAGTIME MUSIC – / raggedy black music – / gotta-make-the-rent music – / lift-my-soul music – / GOLDEN-AGE music.” Although Robinson’s childlike, folk-art inspired paintings seem, at first, diametrically opposed to Baker’s glamour, they nonetheless convey the star’s dynamic stage presence. In fact, the stage is a motif throughout Josephine; spreads depicting open curtains announce each new chapter of Baker’s life. Although Josephine is a picture-book biography, it is longer than most picture books and works well for older readers: that alone makes it a fitting tribute to its larger than life subject.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Slow Ride to Freedom

UnderFreedomTreeUnder the Freedom Tree
By Susan VanHecke
Illustrated by London Ladd
(Charlesbridge, 2014, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

One night in May 1861, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory rowed across Hampton Roads Harbor in Virginia. All were enslaved men toiling for the Confederate Army for Fort Monroe, the Union-controlled northern portion of the harbor, where they hoped they would find freedom. Although the Fugitive Slave Act required him to return the men to the Confederate forces, General Benjamin Butler demurred. Instead, he declared the men enemy property and allowed them to live at the Fort. There, they –  and about ten thousand other men, women, and children who followed them – set up small communities and performed manual labor for the Union Army. All the time, they awaited their fate: would real freedom ever be theirs?

In Under the Freedom Tree, Susan VanHecke and illustrator London Ladd tell the story of the people who flocked to Fort Monroe to be contraband. VanHecke’s verse narrative avoids both cloying rhyme and bloated free verse, using a mixture of rhymed and unrhymed stanzas of varying lengths, often with the repeated refrain of “the old oak tree.” In this way, VanHecke evokes the form of earlier eras while bringing a modern sensibility to the subject. Ladd’s acrylic paintings capture both the drama of the men’s escape and the promise that awaited them. In fact, all the illustrations that depict the Confederate camp are night scenes while those at Fort Monroe are light.  In one especially luminous spread, a missionary teaches a group of children beneath the oak tree itself. Sunlight beams down on her and her open book and on the children who sit at her feet, suggesting the hope that education will bring them.

Under the Freedom Tree is a moving book about a little-known aspect of the Civil War. Readers of all ages will contemplate the desperation that drove ten thousand people to seek “enemy property” status and celebrate with them as they move, slowly, toward true freedom.

A Naturalist’s Ramble

9780763664701John Muir: America’s First Environmentalist
By Kathryn Lasky
Illustrated by Stan Fellows
(Candlewick Press, 2006, Paperback Edition 2014, Somerville, Massachusetts, $4.99)

Best known as the naturalist behind the creation of Yosemite and other national parks and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir explored some of America’s wildest places on foot. In John Muir: America’s First Environmentalist, Kathryn Lasky and illustrator Stan Fellows invite middle-grade readers to wonder with Muir at the land’s marvels.

The biography spends relatively little time on Muir’s landmark accomplishments, focusing instead on the various journeys he undertook as a younger man. Lasky’s lyrical prose illuminates the beauty the naturalist observed on his quests. For example, when a weary Muir rests in a cemetery, she writes, “But this graveyard was filled with birdsong and with grand old trees draped in long skeins of silvery moss…And so in this place of the dead, he found more life than he ever thought possible.”  Lasky also exposes readers to Muir’s scientific hypotheses: the threats he observed from overgrazing and logging and his ideas about glacial movements. Fellows’ paintings capture the grandeur of the mountain ranges Muir explored as well as the organisms – the flowers, insects, and birds – he saw. Many of the book’s spreads include small insets, sketches of the sort Muir himself would have produced on his rambles or miniatures of the birds, insects, and snowflakes he loved.

John Muir is not only a biography of the naturalist; it is a celebration of the adventure he lived and the land he loved. It should inspire young readers to explore and protect their own patch of greenery.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


A Joyful Noise

J9780763658564ubilee!: One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace
By Alicia Potter
Illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press, 2014, Somerville, Massachusetts, $16.99)

In 1869, against much public skepticism, bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore gave a concert in Boston. But this wasn’t a typical concert: it involved a chorus of twenty thousand children, among other choruses, thousands of musicians, forty bells, twelve cannons, and a giant pipe organ built especially for the occasion. Gilmore wanted to commemorate the end of the Civil War and the nation’s newfound peace with a large, loud musical extravaganza.

In Jubilee!, Alicia Potter and illustrator Matt Tavares celebrate a little-known event in American musical history and the extraordinary bandleader who organized it. Potter’s narrative transports readers from Gilmore’s boyhood in Ireland, where he fell in love with music, to the battlefields of the Civil War. There, as a bandleader and stretcher-bearer, he saw firsthand how music could lift people’s spirits. The picture-book biography is, in many ways, a celebration of sound: musical words, such as “toot” and “la-la-laaa” float over Tavares’ depictions of musicians and singers. And the book also rejoices in the music of everyday life: in one remarkable spread, readers see Patrick in the middle of a crowded city street, reveling in his plans for the jubilee and the sounds that surround him. A cat “meows” from a window, horses “clomp – clomp,” and a streetcar “screeches” and “dings” overhead.

Today, multi-day music festivals are commonplace. Jubilee! reminds readers this was not always so even as it rejoices in music’s ability to bring people together.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

One Girl’s Courage

Malala_front_coverMalala Yousafzai and the Girls of Pakistan
By David Aretha
(Morgan Reynolds, 2014, Greensboro, North Carolina, $ 27.45)

The world knows Malala Yousafzai as the Pakistani teenager who defied the Taliban in order to advocate for education for women, the brave girl who faced an assassin’s bullet for gender equity. In Malala Yousafzai and the Girls of Pakistan, David Aretha gives young adults a closer look at the courageous young woman. He introduces them to Malala’s region of Pakistan with its beautiful mountains and complex political history and its tumultuous present, focusing especially on the trials facing women, including child marriage, domestic abuse, and sexual assault. In addition, Aretha considers the movement Malala inspired and the controversies it provokes in both Pakistan and the West. Although Aretha’s biography is as much about Malala’s homeland and advocacy as it is about her, some poignant details bring the teenager to life. With breathtaking and often disturbing photos of Malala and Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai and the Girls of Pakistan is a succinct, nuanced, and highly visual introduction to an inspiring young activist.

-Dorothy A. Dahm