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Jan/Feb 2012 Reviews & Interviews

Life stories of the unique and intriguing

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! There was a host of unorthodox biographies published last year for young people on subjects that few older children and teens are aware of but should be and will certainly embrace once they learn of their existence. Rick Jacobson has written a picture book, Picasso: Soul On Fire (illustrated by Laura Fernandez), that uses bold striking colors to share the artist's life alongside reproductions of his works. The picture book format should not dissuade adults from making the title available to the ten and up crowd as it is most certainly written for them (and teens). Jacobson discusses Picasso's inspirations, his contemporaries and the different periods of his work (and how it changed over the years). Guernica is rightfully given a two-page spread, along with mention of Picasso's outrage that spurred its creation and his strong political convictions about the future of Spain. There is just enough in Picasso: Soul On Fire to prompt further study and it should be considered a primary introductory text for its subject.

Susan Goldman Rubin writes about young Leonard Bernstein in Music Was It, a book that should find a decent adult readership as well as its teen target audience. Filled with photographs and relying on numerous sources (all detailed in the end notes), Rubin gives readers not the famous conductor but rather a young man who dreamed of a life in classical music at a time when his parents were less than thrilled with the prospect and the country itself was unprepared to accept a young Jewish man assuming any position of significance in that field. (And I haven't even mentioned the whole issue with Europeans versus Americans when it comes to conducting.)

Everything about Bernstein is here—the late night piano playing with his sister, the path to Harvard, the crowning as a musical genius, the final surprising acceptance by his parents (especially his father). Bernstein's triumphant moment when he filled in for an ailing conductor and became the youngest debut at Carnegie Hall is full of all the drama you could hope for in a coming-of-age novel (I don't know why there hasn't been a movie ala Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet made around this moment). Rubin devotes a lot of space to Bernstein's friends and little to his relationships but does point out in the epilogue that he was married and had three children but still "had many romantic relationships" with both men and women. The point of the book is not Bernstein's adult life however, but how he got to it—all the training, practice, scrounging for jobs and dollars and good times and bad that led to his big moment at Carnegie Hall. Young musicians will obviously love reading Music Was It but it is an entirely satisfactory title for anyone looking for some inspiration or an unorthodox great American book report subject. (And if you need help convincing your parents that there is a career to be found in music, then this would be the perfect book to conveniently leave in the middle of the dining room table.)

Time now for a brief pause so I can say how very much I adore author Kathleen Krull. Among her many many titles she has written a series of biographies ("Giants of Science") in a snarky/serious style that manage to be funny and smart in all the right ways on everyone from Darwin to Newton to Curie. Leave it to Krull then to come up with a book called Big Wig: A Little History of Hair. Illustrated by Peter Malone, Big Wig is exactly what it claims to be and yet as obvious as it is, it's nearly impossible to describe it's awesomeness. Page by page, Krull travels around the world and through time, pointing out all sorts of oddities that have taken place on people's heads. There are wigs stiffened with beeswax in Egypt, a concoction including toasted mice to cure Julius Cesear's baldness (I'm thinking it didn't work), the invention of the "Marcel wave" in 1872 and Frida Kahlo's flower filled hair in Mexico (everything was an art form to Frida). There are rules to shave heads, rules to pile onto heads everything from model ships to boats (that would be the French) and lots of famous hair (as in Shirley Temple, the Beatles and more). The facts are clear, the illustrations cheeky and the tone is as stunned as you would expect when you are writing about bird cages perched on people's heads. Krull, thankfully, knows half of this stuff, while true, is crackers and all she wants to do is share the crazy with the curious. Read it with relish and then thank heavens you weren't born in the 1500s in Venice where baking your hair blonde in the sun was considered a good use of time. (Oh wait—that's kind of what went on in the 1970s too. Not that I'd know anything about it...)

Tundra books has an ongoing picture books series from author Monica Kulling about somewhat unknown American inventors that continues to impress me. The two recent offerings are All Aboard: Elijah McCoy's Steam Engine (illustrated by Bill Slavin) and In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps It Up (illustrated by David Parkins). It's not just that one of these books is about an African American inventor and the other about a woman (HUZZAH) but that they focus on inventions that are both ubiquitous and yet largely unexplored by the eight and up crowd. (I would particularly aim these at ten to 12-year-olds as I think they will appreciate both the information and expressive realistic illustrations.)

Kulling leads readers through straightforward presentations of her subjects' lives from childhood forward showing their early curiosity, desire for improvement and how McCoy and Knight came to develop their inventions. In both cases the inventors spent years working on their ideas until they were ready and their steadfast dedication is part and parcel of their successes. Kulling makes clear how easy it would have been for McCoy and Knight to never invent anything at all; they were not, after all, expected to do anything impressive with their lives. (McCoy was the son of slaves, Knight lived in the mid-eighteenth century when women had low expectations and little power of their own.) But these were smart people who believed in themselves and refused to give up. They exemplify the best there is about America (talk about "can do" spirit) and like the first title in the series (It's a Snap! George Eastman's First Photograph), Kulling highlights people we should know about and yet do not.

The "Great Idea Series" is exactly the sort of useful writing that belongs in every professional and personal children's library and while I certainly hope they are finding their way into schools and communities everywhere, I have a soft spot for such books and hope they transcend academic interest. Future historians need to know what they've been missing and Elijah McCoy and Margaret Knight are an excellent place to start. More please, Ms. Kulling—lots more!

 

Picasso: Soul On Fire
By Rick Jacobson
Illustrated by Laura Fernandez & Rick Jacobson
Tundra Books 2011
ISBN 1770492639

Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein
By Susan Goldman Rubin
Charlesbridge 2011
ISBN 1580893442
155 pages

Big Wig: A Little History of Hair
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Peter Malone
Arthur A. Levine 2011
ISBN 0439676403

In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps It Up
By Monica Kulling
Illustrated by David Parkins
Tundra 2011
ISBN 1770492394

All Aboard! Elijah McCoy's Steam Engine
By Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Bill Slavin
Tundra 2010
ISBN 0887769450

 

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