Month: January 2016

Bridge to Fairness

Ruby Bridges

By Simone T. Ribke
(Scholastic, Inc., 2015, New York, Library Binding $23, Paperback $5.95)

Parents of all backgrounds often struggle to explain racism and segregation to their children. Simone T. Ribke’s Ruby Bridges allows parents and educators to introduce these sensitive subjects to beginning readers. Part of Scholastic’s Rookie Biographies series, the book helps children develop reading schools even as they learn about an important figure in the Civil Rights movement.

In very simple prose, Ribke tells the story of Ruby Bridges, who, at six, became the first African-American student to attend an otherwise white elementary school in Louisiana. To put Ruby’s experiences in context, Ribke also provides basic facts about segregation. Photos, a timeline, glossary, poem, and Fast Facts also help bring Ruby’s world to life.

Ruby Bridges became a Civil Rights pioneer when she was six – the approximate age of the students who will read this book. As such, she makes a compelling and admirable subject – and an excellent way for children to start learning about the Civil Rights movement.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Garden of Surprises

9780544272200_hresIn Mary’s Garden
Written and illustrated by Tina and Carson Kügler
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $16.99)

During her lifetime, Wisconsin artist Mary Nohl produced pottery, paintings, and jewelry. However, she is most famous for her sculptures: whimsical figures, animal and human, she created from driftwood, stones, and shells and installed in the garden of her Lake Michigan cottage. The world Nohl created for herself delighted some and bewildered others, but she worked for the pleasure of creating and not for profit or critical acclaim.

In Mary’s Garden, Tina and Carson Kügler introduce young children to Nohl’s art – and show the joy of creating. The picture-book biography shows a youthful Mary defying narrow gender roles by studying woodworking, helping her father build a house, and traveling the world as a young woman. The bulk of the narrative, however, focuses on the first sculptures Nohl built from the driftwood, shells, stones, and other objects she found along the lakeshore. Her dogs, Basil and Sassfras, accompany her on these expeditions, helping Nohl locate the treasures that will comprise her creations.

The Küglers’ illustrations continue the narrative’s playful touch – and emphasize Nohl’s lighthearted approach to art. Nohl’s two dogs scamper exuberantly through spreads, pausing to gaze thoughtfully at finished sculptures. Some illustrations are collages: in the spread about Nohl’s travels, the Küglers include postcards, her sketches, jewelry, and a pencil, all of which surrounds a picture of Mary drawing an exotic-looking sculpture. Perhaps the book’s most remarkable illustration is a close-up of the items she will use to create her first sculpture: colored stones, string, a broken comb, a feather, and driftwood. Nohl’s hand holds one slate-grey stone. By showcasing these seemingly insignificant items, The Küglers allow readers to see them as beautiful and alive with potential as Nohl did.

In Mary’s Garden is more than a charming look at Mary Nohl’s life and work. It is an introduction to her creative process and to her joyful approach to life and art.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

A Walking Dictionary

9780544129832_hresNoah Webster: Man of Many Words
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion, 2015, New York, $18.99)

Although most Americans associate Noah Webster with dictionaries, writing a dictionary was not his sole contribution to American life and letters. He wrote about American history, politics, science, history, religion, and spelling, penning encyclopedia, a version of the Bible, a spelling text, and countless essays during his lifetime. He also successfully campaigned for the first copyright laws passed in the United States. Through it all, Webster sought to celebrate and encourage the existence of a uniquely American, always evolving form of English, one he hoped would unite the people of the fledgling republic.

In Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Catherine Reef paints a lively, nuanced portrait of the vigorous and quirky visionary. Although Reef’s young adult biography is sympathetic, she occasionally lends her dry wit to her subject. For example, she describes how a young Webster addressed audiences about “such riveting subjects as long and short vowels.” Readers encounter Webster as opinionated iconoclast, tireless author, and devoted husband and father. Reef also includes contextual information about politics, education, and language in his era. In addition to helping readers understand his life and work, this material also makes the book a compelling introduction to eighteenth and early nineteenth-century American life.

Noah Webster may have spent years of his life brooding over pronunciation and spelling, but he is far from a dry biographical subject. After reading Reef’s excellent new biography, both young adult and older readers will have a new appreciation for the man behind the dictionary and the dynamic nature of language.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Poll Truth

9780763665937Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box
By Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein
Illustrated by James E. Ransome
(Candlewick Press, 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts, $16.99)

Before the mid-1960s, few African Americans voted. Although adults technically held the right to vote, many Southern states and towns manufactured a variety of legal devices to keep them from casting their ballots. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act attempted to eliminate all the restrictions – notably the poll taxes and “literacy” tests – Southern states used to prevent black citizens from voting.

Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box describes one African-American family’s first experience at the polls. Soon after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, author Michael S. Bandy’s grandfather decides to vote. Although the family owns a successful farm, none of the adults and none of their neighbors have ever voted. Bandy’s grandfather dons his Sunday suit, packs a camera, and has young Michael accompany him to the polls. There, both generations discover what the law has and has not changed about their lives.

Alternately infuriating and moving, Granddaddy’s Turn is a beautifully written account of one family’s experiences with voting rights and restrictions. Bandy and his co-author, Eric Stein, employ an understated first-person narrative to introduce young readers to segregation. And although the story illuminates injustice, the picture-book also celebrates the joys of farming and family. Readers hear the “cock-a-doodle doo” of young Michael’s rooster and his beloved Granddaddy say “Patience, son, patience” when the pair go fishing.

James E. Ransome’s illustrations also reflect this tension, capturing both the menace of segregation and the beauty of country life. One spread depicts Bandy’s grandfather proudly holding his ballot while young Michael photographs the momentous occasion; a sheriff’s deputy hovers uneasily in the background. Other spreads offer bucolic views of life on the farm with chickens, ducks, and even a cow grazing near the farmhouse. One particularly striking illustration shows young Michael and his grandfather wearing straw hats and toiling side by side in a field, their silhouettes illuminated by an enormous golden sun. Life is not easy for the family, the painting suggests, but they have each other, their pride in their work, and their joy in the landscape to sustain them.

By focusing one family’s experience, Bandy, Stein, and Ransome make the struggles of countless Americans tangible to young readers. Equally potent as a teaching tool and leisure time read, Granddaddy’s Turn is a powerful and very human look at a shameful chapter of American history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm