Month: September 2014

A Meeting of the Imaginations

9780547821849_hresFrida and Diegeo: Art, Love, Life
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion, 2014, New York, $18.99)

The most famous twentieth-century Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera also conducted one of art history’s most celebrated romances. Their highly distinctive painting styles, radical politics, Frida’s unusual beauty, her chronic health problems, Diego’s larger-than-life ego, and their explosive, unconventional marriage made their pairing the stuff of legend.

In Frida and Diego: Art, Love, Life, Catherine Reef tells the artists’ intertwining stories. She transports readers from the elite Mexico City high school where Kahlo and her friends played pranks to bohemian Paris where a young Rivera honed his craft to Detroit, where the married couple marveled at American industry. Along the way, Reef describes the artists’ work and provides contextual information about their political activities. She never sensationalizes her subjects’ lives and she has no need to: the real account holds enough drama and excitement. A selection of Kahlo and Rivera’s paintings appears at the back of the book.

The archetype of the mad, brilliant artist appeals to adolescents and adults alike. In Frida and Diego, Catherine Reef has created a captivating young adult biography of two volatile artists that is also a nuanced book about freedom of expression and the nature of love.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Emily Arnold MCully

Emily Arnold McCully has written and illustrated numerous fiction and nonfiction picture books. This summer, she published Ida Tarbell, her first young adlt biography. This week, she took time to chat with Kidsbiographer about Tarbell’s fiercely guarded privacy, her complex views on the suffrage movement, and her own upcoming picture books. portrait

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Ida Tarbell?

EAM: Tarbell left most of her personal papers and photographs to the library at her alma mater, Allegheny College, in Meadville, PA. I spent time there reading letters, looking at clippings she saved, printouts of articles, notes and so forth. The nearby Drake Well Museum possesses the letters exchanged by Tarbell and her assistant Siddall. I was told, initially, that I was the first to see them – but alas, that wasn’t the case. Still, they were exciting to hold in my hands and conveyed the real excitement both felt as they worked on the History of Standard Oil.

Smith College also has some Tarbell papers, as does the NY Public Library.

{Sam}McClure’s (Ida’s longtime editor and publisher) papers, including many wonderful photographs, went to the University of Indiana.

I read most, but not all, of her voluminous output. The big job was to condense so much material and to select what constituted the heart of it for today’s readers.

I read a great many books on the history of oil, the progressive era, Darwin, Chautauqua and the other themes in Tarbell’s life.

Kidsbiographer: During the research process, we all unearth more material than we use. What the most fascinating fact or anecdote you uncovered about Tarbell that you didn’t include in the biography?

EAM: Tarbell was not totally transparent, because she valued privacy in ways that are fast disappearing today. But there wasn’t much that surprised me, once I got to now her. I believe that I included everything of importance. Her private life was well concealed, but Kathleen Brady quotes a gentleman admirer in New York who was being transferred to Washington. He regretted the “losses,” in his move, including his hope of spending evenings in her apartment “getting better acquainted with…your cat.”

She also socialized with several prominent lesbians who seem to have had cultural influence without being identified as such. (Another feature of the privacy people enjoyed). Tarbell herself seems never to have been attracted to another woman, but other women were attracted to her. These friendships were matter-of-fact and no doubt provided career support. But Tarbell seems generally to have preferred the company of men, which most definitely meant carrier support. She was easy in her affections.

Kidsbiographer: Biographers learn a great deal about their subjects: more, perhaps, than we know about our closest friends and relatives. How did your thoughts and feelings about Tarbell evolve as the book took shape?

EAM: When I began, I knew only about her work as a muckraker. Discovering her profound antipathy toward the suffrage movement and, even worse, her prisspot attitude toward women in a series of articles purporting to analyze their role in society, forced me to try to find ways to understand, if never to sympathize with her views. Tarbell was thought of by her colleagues as “too good.” She was limited, all too human, as it turns out.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout the first half of Ida Tarbell, you alternate her story with that of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company, the subject of her History of the Standard Oil Company. How did you conceive this approach to Tarbell’s life and work?

EAM: Since they both started out in the oil regions, it seemed right to introduce JDR when he first showed up there to assess his prospects. Waiting to bring him onstage when Tarbell began writing about him would have required a major interruption of her story to bring readers up to date.

Kidsbiographer: You devote a chapter of Ida Tarbell to her opposition to women’s suffrage, a position seemingly at odds with her own remarkable and unprecedented career. What do you hope young adults will take away from this aspect of Tarbell’s life?

EAM: First of all, I hope that young women will understand what the fight for women’s rights was all about, at least in the period of Tarbell’s lifetime, how hard it was, how entrenched the opposition was, even from other women. The issues are not all behind us today, any more than regulation of business, money in politics and corruption, legal and and illegal, are behind us. Her times brought forth muckraking, which rallied the people to demand progressive reforms. Our times need the same. The fight for an equal place everywhere for women is far from won.

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

EAM: Sure! I’m working on a picture book about the first rhinoceros to tour Europe (for nineteen years) in the 18th century, when rhinos were thought be mythical beasts. She was a beguiling creature. It’s a story of the love between her and her owner, a Dutch sea captain.

I am also near the end of another YA book, a fictionalized life of Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.

Two picture books will be published in the next few months: STRONGHEART, the First Movie Star Dog and THE LIZZIE MURPHY STORY, about a girl who played on men’s big league baseball teams in the early twentieth century.