Industry and Innovation

Ticktock, Wooden Clock


Ticktock Banneker’s Clock
By Shana Keller
Illustrated by David C. Gardner
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2016, Ann Arbor, $16.99)

An anomaly in his own time, Benjamin Banneker lived a remarkable life by any standards. Born to free African-American farmers in eighteenth-century Maryland, he learned to read when most black children were prevented from accessing education. Banneker not only became literate, but he went on to make contributions in math, astronomy, and engineering.

In Ticktock Banneker’s Clock, Shana Keller and illustrator David C. Gardner explore one of Banneker’s most impressive feats. Using a neighbor’s pocket watch as a model, young Benjamin built a wooden clock. The project took nearly two years – he drew diagrams; cut, cured, and carved wooden gears; and assembled the pieces a few times before he achieved a working timepiece. Keller’s narrative highlights Banneker’s focus and attention to detail, while providing readers with a glimpse of the rest of his life – his love for music and his hard work on the farm. Gardner’s illustrations paint a warm, idyllic portrait of Banneker and his world: young Benjamin toils on the farm, plays his flute under a tree, and draws diagrams at his desk. In almost every spread, his trusty hound accompanies him, and the seasons rise and fall around him as his project unfolds.

Ticktock Banneker’s Clock is an introduction to Benjamin Banneker and one of his many accomplishments. It is also a book about the rewards of patience and persistence and the joys of curiosity.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


By Her Own Light

9781585369553_fc-1Miss Colfax’s Light
By Aimée Bissonette
Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2016, Ann Arbor, $16.99)

For forty-three years, from 1861 to 1904, Harriet Colfax kept the Michigan City Lighthouse. She worked round the clock, fueling and refueling the light, dragging fuel up and down the lighthouse stairs, and maintaining a log of the weather and her activities. Although the work was hard, Colfax reveled in her independence – and took pride in her labor.

In Miss Colfax’s Light, Aimée Bissonette and illustrator Eileen Ryan Ewen celebrate Harriet Colfax’s life. In frugal, vivid prose, Bissonette conveys both nineteenth century constraints on women’s choices and Colfax’s determination to succeed in a man’s world. Excerpts from Colfax’s log appear in several spreads, further illuminating the harsh weather and constant toil that formed her days. Ewen’s illustrations evoke both the coziness of the lighthouse and the exhausting nature of the work. Readers see for themselves just how backbreaking the work was and why Colfax embraced this existence. An author’s note provides additional information about Colfax and includes a glossary of lighthouse terms.

Miss Colfax’s Light is a winning picture-book biography of an unconventional Victorian woman. It is also a look at a vanished way of life and a testament to the satisfaction of a job well done.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Trade Secrets

inventors-secret-hiresThe Inventor’s Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford
By Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and the phonograph; Henry Ford produced the Model T Ford, the first affordable, high-quality automobile. Together, they helped fashion modern life. However, when they first met at an 1896 dinner party, Edison was sixteen years old and far more celebrated than the younger inventor. Still, he gave Ford some much-needed encouragement – and some valuable advice. That was all the incentive Ford needed to continue experimenting with engines. Eventually, he made his Model T, and the two men developed a lifelong friendship.

In The Inventor’s Secret, Suzanne Slade and illustrator Jennifer Black Reinhardt tell the innovators’ intertwining stories. First, readers encounter both men as small boys whose curiosity leads them to perform risky experiments. As the narrative progresses and Edison’s fame grows, Ford admires him from afar and longs to equal his success. Slade describes her subjects’ creations in clear, simple prose and skillfully develops the relationship between the inventors. Cheerful and occasionally cartoonish, Reinhardt’s illustrations complement the narrative and convey the excitement inherent in discovery. At the end of the book, a timeline and various notes offer more information about the subjects and their creations.

What detracts from an otherwise delightful text is a description of an experiment young Edison performed with his family’s cats. By gleefully mentioning his efforts to understand static electricity, Slade could inadvertently persuade kids to try this at home – and hurt animals in the process. Including this information in a book for children is simply irresponsible.

The very acts of investigation and invention suggest optimism about the world and the future. In The Inventor’s Secret, Slade and Reinhardt introduce children to two important figures in American history and focus excitement about the possibility of discovery. The picture-book biography also holds a familiar, albeit important, lesson about the value of persistence.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


One Thrilling Ride

 9780547959221_hresMr. Ferris and His Wheel
By Kathleen Gibbs Davis
Illustrated by Gilbert Ford
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, Boston, $17.99)

A staple at carnivals and amusement parks, the Ferris Wheel debuted at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. An American engineer named George Ferris designed the ride, which he hoped would rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been the principal attraction at the previous World’s Fair. However, fair authorities scoffed at his idea; they found the concept of a huge rotating wheel improbable. Nonetheless, with no funding from fair officials and amidst much heckling from the public, Ferris built his wheel. When the fair opened in June 1893, the Ferris Wheel dazzled everyone with its velvet seats, electric lights, and views of three states.

 In Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, Kathleen Gibbs Davis and illustrator Gilbert Ford reveal the ride’s history and celebrate this marvel of engineering. Davis captures the suspense of the building process even as she stealthily educates readers about various principles of engineering. Asides in small font, rather like textboxes, offer additional information without disrupting the narrative. Ford’s illustrations, particularly his depictions of the Ferris Wheel at night, are dreamscapes: illuminated by then novel electric lights, the fairgrounds might be a fairy metropolis.

 Mr. Ferris and His Wheel is an interesting look at the story behind a familiar ride. It should also encourage young readers and listeners to be curious about how things are designed and built.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Crushing through History

Historical Heartthrobs cover lo-resHistorical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes – from Cleopatra to Camus
By Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd
(Zest Books, 2014, San Francisco, $17.99)

As no human activity proves as universally absorbing as sex, many adult biographies focus on their subjects’ love lives. In Historical Heartthrobs, Kelly Murphy brings sex to the young adult biography, profiling fifty historical figures renowned for their physical appeal or personal charisma.

Murphy draws her subjects from the worlds of arts, letters, politics, sports, and fashion, including figures as diverse as Che Guevera, Coco Chanel, Ernest Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, John Wilkes Booth, Frederick Douglas, Marie Antoinette, Carmen Miranda, and Jim Thorpe. Some of her choices, such as Benjamin Franklin, may puzzle readers. She begins each profile with a brief summary of the individual’s life and accomplishments. Each entry also includes short headings about the subject’s sex life, overall significance, “Best Feature,” and “Heat Factor” on a scale from one to five. (Franklin gets a four!)

The collective biography’s focus and Murphy’s breezy, irreverent style make Historical Heartthrobs a guilty pleasure, much like celebrity gossip. But this resemblance is also the book’s downfall: while amusing and often interesting, Murphy’s assessments lack depth and, occasionally, accuracy. For example, she writes that Lord Byron’s poetry “shocked Victorian audiences,” but Byron died in 1824, thirteen years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. Murphy skates blithely over some ambiguities, including Chanel’s possible collaborations with the Nazis and Marie Antoinette’s real attitudes toward the peasantry. She also accuses writer Dorothy Parker of being shallow about appearances – a strange charge from the author of a book about attractive people. Finally, she examines her subjects’ sexual identities through a twenty-first century lens, celebrating Byron and George Sand as champions of GLBTQ rights. She forgets people of earlier eras did not think of sexuality in terms of orientation, but in acts.

None of this should detract from readers’ enjoyment of Historical Heartthrobs. However, it is a mere introduction to its subjects, and it often does them – and young adult readers – real injustice. Depending on our convictions, we admire some people for their courage and vision and revile others for theirs. When we look backwards, looks hardly matter.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Into Thin Air

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
By Candace Fleming
(Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012,New York, $18.99)

Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is as much of her legacy as her record-setting flights. In Amelia Lost, Candace Fleming alternates between a chronological account of Earhart’s life and the events surrounding her vanishing over the Pacific Ocean. This approach lends the biography the feel of a suspenseful documentary film. Although audiences may be familiar with the details of Earhart’s last flight, Fleming’s cinematic retelling creates a sense of urgency about the aviator’s dubious ending.

Amelia Lost engages readers without compromising the book’s educational value. Textboxes provide additional information about early aviation, the era’s technology, and additional chapters of Earhart’s life. Nor does Fleming idolize her subject: she includes anecdotes that illustrate Earhart’s carelessness – the pilot did not take the time to learn to use the plane’s radio before her final flight – and her desire for publicity.

Indirectly, Fleming suggests Earhart may not have been the most talented female aviator of her generation. What she had in abundance, however, were ambition and daring – and an influential husband ready to advance her career by almost any means necessary. Earhart began a friendship with publisher George Putnam while he was still married to his first wife. Because Fleming is frank about this and other unsavory details of Earhart’s life, including the couple’s possible ruthlessness, Amelia Lost often seems more appropriate for young adults than middle-grade readers. Although the biography is aimed at eight to twelve year olds, children at the younger end of that age group may not comprehend the book’s ambiguity.

Although Amelia Lost is not a worshipful biography, it is, overall, an admiring look at a woman who pioneered uncharted territory in aviation and for women. A passage from a letter she wrote before her final journey still resonates: “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Dorothy A. Dahm


An iRevolutionary

Steve Jobs is also available as an audio book. Listen to an audio clip from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different
By Karen Blumenthal
(Feiwel and Friends, New York, 2012, $8.99)

When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died in October 2011, he left an impressive legacy: the iPhone, iPod, iPad, Pixar animation, even the very ubiquitousness of the personal computer. Without being a computer geek himself, he brought geekdom to the masses. His vision and perfectionism made computers more usable in everyday life – and his marketing strategies persuaded people to buy the new products his company pioneered. We communicate, work, and play the way we do in large part because of Steve Jobs.

In Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different, Karen Blumenthal explores the relentless drive and many contractions of the IT entrepreneur. A rebellious prankster, college dropout, and dabbler in 70s counterculture, he nonetheless determined to become a millionaire at a young age – and realized that ambition. However, though he amassed a fortune in his early twenties, money was never an end in itself: he was always more interested in developing Apple than in enjoying his wealth. And although he was notoriously difficult to work for and with – his outbursts got him exiled from Apple for years – his genius lay in understanding people and their interactions with technology. Blumenthal neither shelters nor attacks her subject: instead, she shows the various sides of his complex character and invites readers to make up their own minds.

Appropriately, Steve Jobs doubles as a history of information technology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. An accessible glossary introduces readers to various computer terminology or, at least, refreshes their memory. That DOS, floppy disks, and BASIC now seem so distant is largely a result of Jobs’ efforts.

Steve Jobs is a highly readable biography of a fascinating innovator. Adults, as well as teens, should enjoy this introduction to a figure whose influence spanned popular culture, technology, and business. Depending on their age, readers will ponder how his innovations have shaped their lives and world.

Dorothy A. Dahm

An Entrepreneur and His Store

Mr Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man
By Karen Blumenthal
(Viking ,New York, 2011, $17.99)

Whether you love or loathe Wal-Mart, it’s impossible to deny the discount chain’s influence on American consumption. In Mr. Sam, Karen Blumenthal has written a dual biography: that of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and the retail giant he created.

Neither a heroic rags-to-riches saga nor a muckraking exposé, Mr. Sam chronicles Sam Walton’s rise from relatively humble beginnings to financial success. Walton’s energy and ambition surfaced early: he was a talented athlete and student leader during high school and college, and he scheduled his many extracurricular activities around his part-time jobs. He brought the same drive to a career in retail sales. Even as an elderly man, Walton constantly visited his stores and those of his competitors, always seeking ways to improve customers’ experiences and lower prices. Although Walton enjoyed spending money on hobbies and family vacations, he hated displays of luxury. Amassing wealth was never his goal. Instead, he thrived on the challenge of expanding his company, seemingly pursuing business for its own sake. While Blumenthal never condemns Walton or Wal-Mart, she succinctly addresses the controversies that have plagued the chain: its reluctance to promote women and minorities, its suppliers’ use of sweatshop labor, its low level of charitable giving, and the small businesses that have closed in its wake.

As well as a portrait of an entrepreneur, Mr. Sam is a cogent introduction to economics for middle-grade and young adult readers. Blumenthal explains profits, stocks, and discounting in terms kids can understand and discusses Wal-Mart’s success in the context of twentieth-century retail trends. Throughout the book, Blumenthal uses charts to illustrate the changes to the average American family’s income and expenditures over Walton’s lifetime. Educators may use Mr. Sam to supplements units on economics and history.

Sam Walton, Blumenthal admits, was a hard man to research and know. By focusing on Walton’s business career, she has captured the essence of Walton and written the sort of biography he would have appreciated.

 Dorothy A. Dahm