Apr/May 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Biographies Aimed at Young People

Review by Colleen Mondor

Author Jonah Winter and illustrator Calef Brown have chosen a most unlikely subject for a picture book biography in writer Gertrude Stein. The thoroughly delightful Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude succeeds on multiple counts however, making the writer (and her ubiquitous style) completely accessible to younger children while crafting a simply delightful story to boot. I have to admit I did not think this book would work, but wow—was I ever wrong!

Winter introduces Stein, her companion Alice Toklas, and their Parisian life in simple, direct fashion, as two people who are sitting in chairs, "staring where they are staring." And then there is Brown's illustration of so many feet climbing the stairs coming up to see Gertrude and "everybody talks." Pablo Picasso, who invented modern art, is there, and Henri Matisse, whose painting has the "bright bright very bright colors" and Ernest Hemingway who "writes novels on a typewriter. Sometimes he shaves." They come and go (along with Basket the poodle) and they talk and they laugh and they thoroughly enjoy Gertrude who writes at night while Alice is sleeping. And the next day, Alice types "pages and pages and pages and pages with words all over the pages. My goodness, what fun. What fun to write whatever words occur."

In short order readers have an image of Stein as fun loving, very social, happy writer who has the most fascinating friends and enjoys every part of Paris and the country and her life with Alice. She lives, as the cover expounds, "a fabulous life" in which creativity and intelligence and friendships are key. In the end, readers will be left with a longing for Stein as a friend of their own and an eagerness to be part of a joyful life like hers.

Winter very carefully emulated Stein's signature writing style throughout the entire book and it works quite well for children who will delight in the repetition and emphasis on certain words and phrases. Brown's quirky illustrations include words flying off Alice's typewriter, repeated focus on walking, tramping, determined feet in motion and rooms full of people at parties with Gertrude and Alice. Picasso is a muted anger of browns and tans, Matisse a bombastic collection of colors and Hemingway a strong and stately blue (in turtleneck sweater of course). Ultimately though this is a book about Gertrude and Alice and their world and Winter and Brown make them a couple of women who found a great deal of happiness in their lives. This makes Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude not only an excellent introduction to a great American writer but also a sweet peek at living a wonderful life. Nicely done.

It's rare to find a single book on landscape architecture for teens or children so to have two land at my doorstep in a short period of time was quite a surprise. Kathy Stinson's Love Every Leaf is biography for teens on the life and work of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. She is likely not a recognizable name to most readers but Stinson does an excellent job of not only introducing her subject but also using examples to show just what landscape architects do. In chronological chapters following Oberlander's career, and heavily illustrated with photographs and drawings, Love Every Leaf shows how one woman carved out an innovative career in a field that was not welcoming to her gender at the time and also completely unprepared for free thinking ideas that ultimately managed to transform her profession.

Frieda Wishinsky takes on a more familiar name with The Man Who Made Parks: The Story of Parkbuilder Frederick Law Olmsted. This slim picture book, geared towards middle grade readers, is heavily illustrated in muted color by Song Nan Zhang as it explores the life of a man who spent years searching for work he could love. In our driven world it will come as a bit of a shock to know that Olmsted worked as everything from land surveyor to sailor to farmer before making the connections that brought him to the New York City Central Park project. Through an enormous amount of physical effort he proved himself capable of serving as park supervisor as the area was cleared and then in a partnership with architect Calvert Vaux he won the competition for official designers. Wishinsky writes about that accomplishment and the park designs that followed including the grounds around the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.

I honestly can not recall a moment in all my years of school when landscape architecture was raised as a career possibility. Everyone knows that someone must design parks and gardens but how that is done and the amount of care and expertise that go into it is beyond most of us. Stinson's book in particular, which is much more detailed, has a wealth of knowledge about the details a landscape architect must consider and Oberlander's modern ideas about play spaces and resource conservation will be welcome to future environmentalists. (Olmsted's forward thinking will likely come as a surprise, considering he was born in 1822.) Both of these books are exceptionally well written and highlight individuals deserving of this special attention. More importantly though, they will be welcomed by readers who are eager to learn about careers that will keep them outside and help to transform our exterior space.

Dan Yaccarino's bold animated style lights up his new biography, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau. From the first glimpse of the popping colorful endpapers, Yaccarino makes it clear that this is going to be one electrifying story. He follows Cousteau's famous life in chronological order, covering all the major discoveries and journeys over the years and peppering each doublefold with a quote from his subject in a different colored bubble. But as enlightening and informative as the text is, it is the illustrations that truly make this biography unforgettable. The 1930s aesthetic is alive and well in Yaccarino's work and it gives Cousteau a playfulness and makes his life that much more accessible to young readers. The strong use of so many colors across the pages, and the fluid graceful lines in his figures, are entrancing. This just might be the perfect marriage of artist and subject. The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau should be on many award lists next year and on the shelves of every admirer of creative and innovative work.

After only a few weeks of studying European history in junior high most of us realize that the royals were a bloodthirsty (and sometimes flat-out crazy) bunch. Carlyn Beccia recognizes that extreme history—the folks who stand out in all sorts of good and bad ways—is an excellent pathway to getting readers interested in studying the past, and so she goes full force into all that royal nuttiness with The Raucous Royals. Set up as a series of rumors both debunked and certified as truth, Beccia looks into the lives of Romania's Vlad the Impaler, Richard III (murderous impulses) and whether or not Louis XIV took baths—like any baths—ever. Henry VIII receives pages of attention, as do several of his wives and his more famous daughter, Elizabeth (and her long feuds(?) with both her half sister, "Bloody Mary" and her treasonous cousin, Mary Queen of Scotts). Beccia deviates from her subjects to answer a few questions on other interesting topics like "signs you might be a witch in the sixteenth century" and the fact that in the seventeenth century mercury and lead were key ingredients in makeup. The book is set up as a sort of wandering encyclopedia—lots of entries, lots of subjects and pages full of colorful illustrations set off by multiple typographies and boxes highlighting quizzes and trivia. In the end, readers will likely have a whole new appreciation of just how difficult life was in previous centuries because clearly the people running many of the countries were distracted by some bizarre personal issues (example one: Henry VIII). If you want to actually get a middle grade reader interested in this subject, then Beccia is the person to turn to. She gives the royals their due and makes sure that readers will want to know just who did what and why hundreds of years ago.

Kingfisher issued two very attractive biography collections last year written by Clive Gifford and illustrated in an eye-popping manga style by David Cousens. Both Ten Leaders Who Changed the World and Ten Explorers Who Changed the World follow expected formats: focusing one at a time in four- to six-page chapters on various significant historic figures and providing brief overviews of their lives with special emphasis on what they did that "changed the world." There are some nice surprises here, especially in the explorers book which includes Alexander van Humboldt, Richard Burton and Roald Amundsen (as well as predictable choices like Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo). The leaders book goes in a much broader direction than most with Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler (and Fidel Castro!) included along with more commonly acknowledged leaders like Churchill and FDR.

The books are beautifully designed, full of Cousens's colorful illustrations as well as maps and "life links" which show how one man was involved (however tenuously) to the next. My only complaint—and it is a bit of a big one—is these books are 100% about the boys. Both include final spreads with paragraph entries on other famous explorers or leaders and there is where you will find Mary Kingsley and Margaret Thatcher, but otherwise, there are no women highlighted at all. While I certainly understand a desire not to simply include females for the sake of including them, I have to wonder why, for example, Castro should be considered more significant than Israel's Golda Meir. But really, the problem with focusing primarily on men is that girls just might not be so interested in these books and that is a shame because they really do present a lot of good information in a very accessible way. Reading them as a woman though, I felt a bit gypped. We will never learn about significant woman explorers and leaders (Freya Stark, for example, and Gertrude Bell) if general collections such as these fail to include them. The lack of any attempt at balance stands out strongly here and might limit their otherwise strong appeal.

Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude
By Jonah Winter
Illustrated by Calef Brown
Athenum 2009
ISBN 141694088X

Love Every Leaf
By Kathy Stinson
Tundra Books 2008
ISBN 9780887768040

The Man Who Made Parks
By Frieda Wishinsky
Illustrated by Song Nan Zhang
Tundra Books 2009
ISBN 9780887769023

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau
By Dan Yaccarino
Knopf 2009
ISBN 9780375855733

The Raucous Royals
By Carlyn Beccia
Houghton Harcourt 2008
ISBN 13: 9780618891306

Ten Explorers Who Changed the World
By Clive Gifford
Illustrated by David Cousens
Kingfisher 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7534-6103-7

Ten Leaders Who Changed the World
By Clive Gifford
Illustrated by David Cousens
Kingfisher 2008
ISBN 0-7534-6104-4


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