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Oct/Nov 2009 Reviews & Interviews

American Tales for the Younger Set

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! I think there is a nation-wide conspiracy that at some point in elementary school you have to learn all the states and capitals and thrilling details like who is the biggest potato producer and where is the highest mountain. I can still—thirty years later—recite the states and capitals in alphabetical order. Other than winning a few bar games and rounds of Trivial Pursuit, this knowledge has not helped me in any way. It does however send me back to the fifth grade every single time I think about it and how we had to draw the state birds and fill in maps with appropriate symbols. (I can not draw; all my birds looked like feather covered lizards—and that is being generous.) As someone still recovering from this kind of academic trauma, I was delighted to discover Sheila Keenan's Greetings From the 50 States, a book that has all the information you need and also a lot of cool factoids that will actually stay with you and make the whole process far less painless.

With two page spreads for each state and Selina Alko's muted but colorful illustrations filling the left side, Keenan provides a brief history of each state, it's nickname, and any interesting oddities that might appeal such as where on earth the term "hoosier" came from (no one really knows) and that indeed, Idaho is the "potato state". The illustrations are full of all sorts of pop culture and historic quirks—both Elvis and B.B. King are present for Tennessee while Napoleon and gumbo are front and center for Louisiana (along with King Louis XIV of course). Between figuring out what all the pictures mean and who the historic figures are (they are all mentioned in the text) and shaking your head at the oddness of some of the names, readers will find plenty here to grab their attention. This still tells kids what the teachers think they need to know but the trip is a lot more fun than the rote memorization method I had to contend with, that's for sure.

Native American history has finally moved into the mainstream in recent years with students learning more about America's first inhabitants then we did back when it was all about the Pilgrim feast and Custer's heroic idiocy. (With side trips into feeling bad about the Trail of Tears, pondering whatever truth might lie behind The Last of the Mohicans and pretty much not knowing a single thing about anything on this subject after about 1890).

Oh wait—there was also a lot of Lone Ranger and Tonto love in there too. We just couldn't help ourselves. (Can I say that John Wayne made us do it?)

DK publishes a lot of encyclopedias on a lot of subjects and it should come as no surprise that their entry into Native American history, First People, is exactly the sort of illustrated fact-filled wonder that readers have come to expect. Author David King has gathered a wealth of information and more importantly organized it in a unique and compelling matter, to make this the sort of coffee table title for middle grade and teen readers that is hard to resist. There are historic photographs, drawings and colorful collections of everything from jewelry to guns to headdresses. Best of all though are the later chapters which delve into modern life and the "struggle to survive" (featuring moments like Carlisle Indian Industrial School Founder Richard Henry Pratt's quote: "Kill the Indian and save the man." Whoa). Jim Thorpe is here, along with the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 which is likely to startle most readers, and the occupation of Alcatraz. Thus readers see the actual great swath of Native American history, from the mound building cultures of 300 BCE to the mysterious murder of Anna Mae Aquash at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1976. Casino culture and totem poles are discussed, plus strip mining the reservations, sports mascots and buffalo. First People is a book to inform and provoke; it provides answers but also sparks questions. It's a beautiful volume and one that goes far on the road away from that fabled dinner in Plymouth and into the real world, where all of us have been living together for so very long.

Chris Barton's The Day-Glo Brothers is one of those quintessential American stories that will remind readers that hard work and some serious garage (or basement) inventing is to a large degree what this country is made of. We all have heard about the American dream—heck most of us were raised on the promise of it—but finding someone who achieved it realistically (without Michael Jackson talent or Bill Gates brilliance) isn't so easy. Enter the story of Bob and Joe Switzer who took a hobby and some curiosity and invented a paint that is so ubiquitous that most of us have never given where it came from a second thought.

Bob and Joe were set on fairly typical careers back in the 1930s: Joe as a magician and Bob on his way to college and a future in medicine. After a terrible accident however he was forced to a long recuperation in his parents' home in a darkened basement due to complications from a head injury. Joe kept his brother company while working on lighting tricks to enhance his magic. They read Popular Science, began experimenting with black light and eventually started mixing their own chemicals to make "glow-in-the-dark paints". The casual inventing became a commercial venture which exploded when they accidentally invented a new color that glowed both in daylight and ultraviolent light: Day-Glo.

Barton tells what could be a complicated story about chemicals and science in very readable manner. He also goes very far toward making science accessible for any reader—even the young or those who might have been disinterested in the subject before. I love one of the quotes he has from Joe: "If just one experiment out of a thousand succeeds, then you're ahead of the game." The whole story is about a "can do" attitude and fearless desire to find out how to improve their produce. It's clear that Barton liked the story of the Switzer brothers and his enthusiasm for his subject is contagious.

While heartily recommending The Day-Glo Brothers, I must also say a word about Tony Persiani's illustrations. Starting out in black and white with a 1950s advertising style, color slowly comes into the story as the Switzers make their discoveries. When Day-Glo makes its appearance on a billboard, the orange literally leaps off the page and from there along with yellow and green it is mesmerizing. This is a perfect marriage of subject, story and illustration and should be read by any curious child over the age of seven or eight. (Inventive teens in particular will adore it.)

Moving along, when it comes to American history, I have a thing for Theodore Roosevelt. Part of it is how his political enemies tried to trap him in a useless position (as vice president) but he accepted anyway and then when President McKinley was assassinated managed to attack his new position with verve and passion. Part of it is because of his daughter Alice (please see What To Do About Alice by Barbara McLintock) who was awesome and part of it because the man had about the most fascinating life out of politics that you can imagine. Oh yeah—and he set up permanent protections for the Redwoods which is why Ginger Wadworth's new picture book Camping With the President was a title that leapt immediately to my attention when I read it's description.

Wadsworth tells the story of Roosevelt reading John Muir's book Our National Parks and deciding to incorporate a visit with the naturalist into his planned 1903 fact-finding trip of the American West. After Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt arrived in Northern California and then went into the woods with Muir and three companions in an effort to immerse himself in the western experience. It was an unheard of adventure, even for the early 20th century, but through sheer force of personality Roosevelt accomplished what he wanted and was able to see the Redwoods and Yosemite Valley with Muir. After days described as "the best in his life" Roosevelt returned to the White House where under his leadership a great swath of America became federally protected including Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees.

Wadsworth takes this historical moment and makes it both interesting to read and quite fun. Roosevelt fairly leaps off the page with his barely contained excitement over camping and Muir's steady presence forms a sharp contrast to the more active president. Wadsworth shows how the two men "clicked" over their mutual love of the outdoors and further, through her extensive final notes, how the trip had an impact extending years into the future for both of them. Coupled with Karen Dugan's gently realistic illustrations which often present Roosevelt at center stage in scenes of utter joy, the story goes a long way towards making him less a legendary leader and more a guy who loved camping, took notes on the birds he saw and wanted to have a "bully good time". For young readers you couldn't ask for a better introduction to Roosevelt (or Muir for that matter) and the fine way Wadsworth and Dugan balance history and a playful sense of adventure is first rate. Camping with the President made me love Roosevelt even more—something frankly I didn't think was possible. Very cool!

I never cease to be amazed by the fascinating ways in which people have invented things we take for granted (like The Day-Glo Brothers). I have marveled more than once about how cameras have changed so much in my lifetime but it was only when reading It's a Snap! George Eastman's First Photograph that I truly appreciated how radically they changed from the bulky equipment of Matthew Brady's Civil War days to the brownie camera used by my family in the 1920s. (We still had this when I was growing up and I remember playing with it for hours.)

Monica Kulling recounts Eastman's life and discoveries in a straightforward way in this unusual picture book biography, explaining how he had to go to work as a teenager after his father died and that photography became a hobby years later when he held a stressful position at a bank. He discovered that while people found photography interesting, many could not afford the equipment or handle the bulky equipment. So Eastman set out to simplify the process and over time he did just that—eventually forming his own company, "Eastman Kodak". (He chose Kodak because it "...sounded like the click of a shutter.") In his lifetime Eastman transformed a segment of American society, bringing photography to the masses with the inexpensive brownie. It meant that people could now make their own memories and hold on to them forever. It's really pretty cool, when you think about it.

Kulling focuses on the personal aspects of the story to keep it interesting—Eastman is overworked and his mother suggests a hobby, friends in town are fascinated by the camera but lose interest when it takes so long for the photos to develop, children in particular flock to the popular new brownie as something that is so simple they can even operate it. Through it all, Eastman is shown as a man who tenaciously works the problem while his mother offers advice from the sidelines—and ultimately he moves her into his new impressive house and she never has to work again. This humanizing of the inventor makes him somebody any kid can identify with—and emulate. Bill Slavin's understated illustrations of the multi ethnic Rochester, New York community are icing on the cake here—they glide across the page giving readers a glimpse of another time, with the crowning picture the side of the new Eastman Kodak building, with it's logo "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest". It's a Snap is a quintessentially American success story and in this version, very fun to read as well.

Finally, for an unusual real world hero to admire, readers should look no further than Into the Deep: The Life of Naturalist and Explorer William Beebe by David Sheldon. From the title page spread, a full color look at the desk of a person in love with nature, including a feather, bird nest, journal and magnifying glass, this is a book to lose yourself in. Beebe's life was awesome—just flat out awesome—and it is recounted here from an idyllic childhood in late 19th century New Jersey (where his parents moved from New York City to encourage his love of nature) that included animal collecting, plant and rock collections and the development of his very own natural history museum in his bedroom. He followed this early love of animals to a job at the New York Zoological Park, scientific expeditions around the world and pursuit of what would become the field of scientific ecology (or studying animals in the field).

Sheldon recounts all of this while providing action-packed color illustrations. He brings William Beebe alive for readers and Beebe was so wicked cool that you never want to leave him behind. The more you read, the cooler he gets—he even started deep sea diving and eventually, with Otis Barton, designed the bathysphere which took the two men a half mile down the Atlantic Ocean in 1934—shattering all previous records. They saw things they could barely comprehend—creatures no one had ever seen before. It was the ultimate chapter in a life dedicated to learning and doing and appreciating all that nature had to offer.

Will Beebe wanted to see the world and know it and then he set out through conservation efforts to save it. He was, for sure, a real American hero and now in this moving and passionate text (and illustrations), David Sheldon gives his story to young readers who are the most likely to embrace it. How could you not want a life like his? How could you not admire what he accomplished? He was an excellent choice for a children's biography and with the additional end notes and bibliography Into the Deep would be a solid choice for older readers as well; it will get them interested just enough to want to literally dive in and take the trip of a lifetime.

Thanks Mr. Sheldon—Into the Deep is a true gift.

 

Greetings From the 50 States
By Sheila Keenan
Illustrated by Selina Alko
Scholastic 2008
ISBN 0-439-83439-2
112 pages

First People: An Illustrated History of American Indians
By David C. King
DK 2008
ISBN 0-7566-4092-7
181 pages

The Day-Glo Brothers
By Chris Barton
Illustrated by Tony Persiani
Charlesbridge 2009
ISBN 1-57091-673-1

Camping with the President
By Ginger Wadsworth
Illus by Karen Dugan
Calkins Creek 2009
ISBN 1-59078-497-6

It's a Snap! George Eastman's First Photograph
By Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Bill Slavin
Tundra Books 2009
ISBN 0-88776-881-1

Into the Deep: The Life of Naturalist and Explorer William Beebe
By David Sheldon
Charlesbridge 2009
ISBN 1-58089-342-8

 

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