Young Adult Biography

Angel with a Plan


Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion Books, 2017, New York, $18.99)

Long considered a founding mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale is best remembered for nursing British soldiers during the Crimean War and founding a nursing school after it. However, the “Angel with a Lamp” was also a fierce public health advocate. She argued for – and often obtained – improved medical care and living conditions for Britain’s standing army and better sanitation in India. Eventually, she became a national symbol, but she overcame societal prejudice and familial opposition to start her career.

In Florence Nightingale, Catherine Reef describes the famous nurse’s life and work. She discusses Nightingale’s accomplishments in their historical context, providing relevant information about Victorian society, medicine, and the position of women. Of special interest to Reef is Nightingale’s relationship with her sister Parthenope. Staid and domestic, Parthenope was an ideal Victorian lady – and everything Florence was not. However, Parthenope initially resented Florence’s adventures and career because they separated her from her sister. In this way, Reef explores how nineteenth-century gender roles constrained not only ambitious women like Nightingale, but also those who preferred a quieter way of life as it made them overly dependent on others. And although Reef paints an admiring portrait of Nightingale, she also relates incidents in which the ministering angel was dismissive or manipulative. Far from detracting from Nightingale’s image, these anecdotes suggest she needed a certain single-mindedness to do her work.

Inspiring and thought-provoking, Florence Nightingale is both an intimate portrait of a secular saint and a look at the world that shaped her. Like the best biographies, it asks why someone accomplished so much – and provides a nuanced answer.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Sickness and Stigma

TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARYTerrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of Deadliest Cook in America
By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, New York, $17.99)

Today, we remember Mary Mallon as “Typhoid Mary,” a healthy carrier of typhoid who transmitted the disease to others without showing symptoms herself. As a result, the New York City Board of Health compelled her to spend much of her life in quarantine. Mallon herself got lost under the moniker. An industrious Irish immigrant, Mallon had worked her way up the domestic servant ladder to become a sought-after cook for affluent households. She was also a fiercely private woman, a loyal friend, and a quick learner who later worked in health care.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Susan Campbell Bartoletti separates Mary Mallon from the urban legends that surrounded her during and after her lifetime. Although little information exists about Mallon’s early life, Bartoletti explores why so many Irish people emigrated to American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – and describes the hardships she faced as a domestic servant. Bartoletti intertwines Mallon’s story with other narratives, including that of George Soper, the sanitary engineer who first linked Mallon to a typhoid outbreak. In addition, she places Mallon’s plight in its historical context, educating readers about early twentieth-century advances in medicine and microbiology. Along the way, Bartoletti raises questions about the often dehumanizing treatment Mallon received from the Board of Health and the media. She asks readers to consider whether the Board violated Mallon’s civil rights and offers possible explanations for Mallon’s fervent distrust of the medical profession.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Bartoletti deftly mingles biography, science, and history. The result is an often gripping, always engaging look at a chapter in epidemiological history and a woman who was dismayed to find herself at the center of it.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Faces of Feminism

Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World
By Laura Barcella
Illustrated by Summer Pierce
(Zest Books, 2016, San Francisco, $14.99)

What is feminism? Every feminist has a different definition of the concept. In Fight Like a Girl, Laura Barcella profiles fifty women, all of whom project a different image of feminism. There’s a lot to like about this collective biography for young adults: Barcella’s lively voice, Summer Pierce’s engaging black and white portraits of the book’s subjects, and the diverse array of individuals profiled. Barcella’s subjects include artists and scientists, athletes and politicians, activists and writers, white women and women of color, straight women and members of the GLBTQ community.

Still, despite these virtues, some of Barcella’s choices are questionable. In her introduction, she explains that she didn’t include Gloria Steinem and other well-known feminists because she “didn’t want this book to exist solely as a refresher course.” However, it seems unlikely that today’s teens would have significant knowledge of Steinem, Friedan, or other well-known feminists who do not appear in this book. Also, although Barcella profiles some early figures, including Sojourner Truth and Mary Wollstonecraft, others, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone, do not appear. In fact, not one figure from the American suffrage movement made the cut. Instead, Barcella celebrates pop culture icons (Beyonce, Madonna, Queen Latifah) who have spoken about women’s rights. She also includes notable women who do not necessarily identify as feminists or have connection to the movement (Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama). Had Fight Like a Girl merely been a collective biography of influential or pioneering women, these choices would have made sense. As the book exists, however, these selections seem more like an attempt to stretch the definition of feminism than to educate readers about early participants in the movement.

Fight Like a Girl purports to give young adult readers a kaleidoscope view of feminism, and it does show the diversity of the concept and its adherents. However, by spurning early activists in favor of contemporary celebrities, the collective biography inadvertently dismisses the sacrifices women made so that others could vote, own property, work without fear of harassment, and attend school. Singing a song about women’s issues may still be controversial, even in twenty-first century America. However, early activists faced social ostracization and even imprisonment. They had to be braver than today’s boldest artists. Without their efforts, the actions of today’s feminists might not be legal or possible.

– 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

In the Saddle

9780544455955_hresThe Cowgirl Way: Hats Off to America’s Women of the West
By Holly George-Warren
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback Edition 2015, Boston, $9.99)

What is a cowgirl? A cattle wrangler? A rebel? A fabrication of Hollywood and popular culture? In The Cowgirl Way, Holly George-Warren explores the lore and lure of this uniquely American figure: the book is, in many ways, a biography of the icon. George-Warren begins by discussing the pioneering women who found unprecedented freedom in the Old West as cattle drivers, ranchers, and even outlaws. She also explores how the entertainment industry – from Wild West Shows to rodeos to television and film – shaped and still continues to define our understanding of cowgirl culture. The Cowgirl Way should engage cowgirls as well as those interested in Western and women’s history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Portraits of the Artists

9780544252233_hresLives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (And What the Neighbors Thought)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995, Paperback 2014, Boston, $8.99)

Since at least the early nineteenth century, mainstream society has equated creativity with eccentricity. In Lives of the Artists, Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt celebrate the eccentricity, egoism, and even strangeness of nineteen artists from Da Vinci to Warhol. Krull’s brief, breezy profiles discuss each artist’s life and work – with an emphasis on the more outrageous and unusual aspects of the former. A humorous portrait accompanies each biography: Hewitt depicts her subjects as large-headed caricatures of themselves and surrounds them with details evocative of their interests and oeuvre. Her portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, for example, shows the painter dressed in signature black. She wears a hat festooned with tiny skulls, one of O’Keefe’s favorite subjects. The artist’s cloak opens to reveal a gorgeous floral pattern that evokes her famous flower paintings. Finally, a rattlesnake and a chow dog stand on either side of O’Keefe as she hunted the former and loved the latter.

In addition to household names such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso, the collective biography also introduces young readers to lesser-known artists, including Sofonisba Anguissoloa, an Italian woman who earned a living as a painter in Renaissance Europe, Kathe Kollwitz, a German artists and crusader for social justice, and Japanese-American sculptor Isamu  Noguchi, who designed work for both museums and public spaces. Lives of the Artists is a fun and engaging romp through art history; perhaps its only downfall is that it perpetuates an idea of the artist as fascinating oddball without sufficiently exploring what is far more interesting – the work itself.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


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

In Search of Fairness

9780547290928_hresIda Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business – and Won!
By Emily Arnold McCully
(Clarion, 2014, New York, $18.99)

Best known for her articles, which later became a book, about the Standard Oil Company and its abuses, Ida Tarbell was as much a historian as she was a journalist. She penned series of articles about the lives of Napoleon and Lincoln that were well known in her day and also wrote about the business practices of her era.

Ida Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business – and Won! is a thoughtful, detailed biography of Tarbell, one of the first and most notable American women to earn her living as a journalist. Author Emily Arnold McCully intertwines Tarbell’s story with that of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company. Because Tarbell addressed many sociopolitical concerns during her long career, McCully’s narrative also discusses such topics as American imperialism, women’s suffrage, and Taylorism.

A highly readable account of Tarbell’s exciting life, Ida Tarbell is also an intellectual biography of the writer. McCully shows readers the joys and frustration of the research process: an endeavor that often sent the meticulous Tarbell across continents and oceans in search of a particular source or interview. In addition, she explores some of the writer’s confounding positions on a number of issues. Tarbell, for example, may have been among the most successful women of her era, but she did not support the campaign for women’s suffrage, a stance equally astonishing to both her contemporaries and today’s readers. McCully neither condemns nor defends what social reformer Jane Addams called “some limitation to Ida Tarbell’s mind.” Instead, McCully puts Tarbell’s beliefs in their historical context and incorporates this and other irrational beliefs into her nuanced portrait of the otherwise incisive writer.

At 235 pages, Ida Tarbell is much longer than most other young adult biographies. However, McCully’s impeccable research, clear style, and balanced treatment of her subject – virtues not unlike Tarbell’s own – make the book excellent reading for teens and adults interested in history and journalism.

-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

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