Jul/Aug 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Fascinating People: Interesting Biographies for Kids & Teens

Review by Colleen Mondor

Oddly enough, I am constantly reminded while reviewing picture books of how little I know about so much. I have a vision of all of these amazing so-called children's books I have read in the hands of everyone from the age of eight to eighty who is perpetually curious about everyone and everything. I wish sometimes I could take adults by the hand in a bookstore and lead them to the children's section so they could learn some of the wonderful things I have in the same delightful manner. I doubt anyone would believe me however if I told them that Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese was one of the clearest and easiest to understand math books I've ever read in my life. If only it had been placed in my hands in junior high I might have been willing to ask a lot more questions, to care about the answers and to actually find math worthwhile.

I guess I should confess right now that I barely passed Trigonometry and Calculus was a nightmare that still revisits me in my sleep. But I wish it hadn't been that way and reading about Fibonacci reminded me that once upon a time math was fun.

Accompanied by John O'Brien's detailed illustrations comprised of fine patterns of swirls, lines and dots, Blockhead is a classic biography about a young man who was pushed to be something he did not want to be (a merchant like his father) but always gravitated instead toward what he loved: mathematics. Dismissed as silly and stupid at a young age because his methods were unorthodox, Fibonacci persevered as a mathematical hobbyist and was particularly set on fire when he discovered the simplicity of Hindu-Arabic numerals. As an Italian, he had labored under long Roman numerals and saw how the Hindu-Arabic system would make calculations so much easier. His open-minded attitude led him to many discoveries and as D'Agnese shows he ultimately developed the "Fibonacci Sequence" a blueprint literally for life itself. He was an incredibly smart and interesting character and the author takes his big ideas and channels them into a story that any child could understand and math-addled adult would embrace. Even the Fibonacci Sequence is illustrated in a basic fashion that invites more exploration but leaves few questions. By the final page (and explanatory note), readers will feel confident about Fibonacci and eager to learn more. I can not imagine a better way to quick start the math doldrums or fire up a reluctant learner who wishes someone would make the subject interesting. Well done!

I first read about the seventeenth century scientific artist and explorer Maria Merian in the adult biography Chrysalis by Kim Todd. When I came across a picture book version of her story I was delighted, especially when I discovered it was written by Margarita Engle author of several exquisite verse novels about Cuban history. Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian suits both author and subject perfectly. Merian's painstaking research proved the existence of metamorphosis; the process of change that had been unknown previously and even caused many to come to fearful conclusions about animal and insect behavior. Maria, Engle assures her readers, was not afraid. She made observations, she took notes, and she believed what she observed. This made her not only a woman ahead of her time but a child with more wisdom than her elders. Maria Merian was thus one amazing kid—and the perfect choice for a picture book biography.

As well written and direct as Engle is, I must point out the exuberant colorful illustrations of Julie Paschkis. She takes Maria's interests—butterflies, frogs and lizards and gives them colors that the young artist enjoyed. She makes them leap off the page just as Maria drew them and easily captures reader attention. It's gorgeous stuff, compellingly written and wonderfully observed. Maria was quite the role model and determined observers of any age would do well to live by her marvelous example.

Barbara Kerley writes the most delectable history books for children—fascinating biographies that focus on the quirky bits of a person's life while also providing the necessary information. She has also paired with two dynamic illustrators: Brian Selznick (see The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and have your mind blown by how outstanding a picture book bio can be) and lately Tim Fotheringham. Their recent title about Teddy Roosevelt's indomitable daughter: What To Do About Alice? is now followed up with The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Suzy).

Kerley uses an interesting gambit here: the actual biography written about Twain by his then thirteen-year old daughter. In an author's note she explains how she discovered the unfinished biography and what it showed not only about Twain but Suzy as well. With the very funny daughter as a guide (and her determination to show what her famous father was really like), Twain becomes way more accessible, especially for readers who will likely be encountering him here for the first time. It also introduces the notion of a child biographer which will likely spawn all sorts of creative dreams for many.

Fotheringham's big color-filled illustrations are, as usual, a delightful accompaniment to the text—he excels at making faces expressive (rolling eyes, etc) and they certainly spice up the story. It's also a nice touch to see actual excerpts from Suzy's journal in many of the pages as small bound inserts designed to look like an actual diary. As a peek into how Twain lived the life of a famous working writer this is an interesting inside look at the writing life—another relatively uncommon subject for picture books and should have broad appeal. I would have no problem offering The Extraordinary Mark Twain to readers up to twelve, and beyond that, Twain fans of any age will certainly be amused.

Of all the historical figures that really should be taught in school but are not, Sybil Ludington has got to be near the top of the list. While pretty much every kid can recite the facts of Paul Revere's famous ride (while completely forgetting William Dawes who was out there doing it that same fateful night) nobody knows about Sybil's later accomplishment. Karen Winnick addresses this history crime with Sybil's Night Ride which gives young readers a peek into the reasons why Sybil embarked on a dangerous trip for her father and the patriotic movement.

With big detailed paintings (that almost look as if they are canvas on the page), Winnick explains how in 1777 Sybil's father returned home from the Battle of White Plains (where he was an aide-de-camp to George Washington) and quickly found himself embroiled in a British attack on the nearby town of Danbury. Desperate to gather the local militia he sent sixteen-year old Sybil out into the stormy night while he formed the regiment as they arrived. Sybil rode over forty miles in the wind and the rain, going from farmhouse to farmhouse, door to door, telling patriots to assemble at her family farm. She also had to dodge Loyalists who were eager for any sign of movement so they could alert British forces. In the end Sybil was successful and so was her father—the British were pushed back and out of the area.

As Winnick notes in a brief closing explanation, tourists can follow Sybil's ride through historic markers and see a statue of her and her horse in Carmel, New York. Through her book though, she successfully lifts this local heroine beyond regional history and Sybil's Night Ride further shows how children could be just as critical to the Patriot cause as their elders. For my money, Sybil is way more appealing than Revere (not that anyone would ever want to ignore his ride, or course) and her ride is certainly impressive. Winnick earns kudos for not only bringing her out of the past but telling her story so strongly and effectively. It was a truly wild ride, and the read is just as stirring.

The name Noah Webster will likely be vaguely familiar to most young readers (although in the age of google a dictionary might be more of a relic than I realize) but Pegi Deitz Shea's biography Noah Webster: Weaver of Words proves there was much more to this great American then the reference book that bears his name. (She also reveals why creating a dictionary is a lot tougher than you might think.) Webster came of age during the American Revolution and attended school through the hard work of his supportive parents who gave him opportunities usually reserved for only the wealthy. He abandoned his studies for a period to serve in the Hartford militia during the war but soon returned and dedicated himself to pursuing a career. As Shea explains however, his decision to work in public education was soon eclipsed by a drive to "establish a national language as well as a national government."

In the many years that followed the formation of the United States, Webster worked to standardize the American language and record it for students who previously had been learning from books based on the English language which ignored much of American nomenclature and history. Young readers will be especially intrigued by the examples of Webster's work Shea provides such as an attempt to remove silent letters and make "bread" into "bred" and "give" into "giv." Some changes that he was successful with include "plough" to "plow", "musick" to "music" and "colour" to "color" (thank you Mr. Webster!) Including these words was a smart writing choice on the author's part—they make Webster more relevant to readers and show how his work directly affected our lives. That passage is likely also to make them wish he had been more successful in his efforts as the mystery of words like "mean" versus Webster's choice of "meen" and "laugh" versus "laf" continues to plague generations of young spellers.

Shea makes it clear that Webster worked hard on his spelling books and later dictionary and that his decision to work American history and culture into reference titles was a big shift from the European method. More importantly however, she shows how formation of a national government is only one part of making a nation—a blending of cultures is also crucial into the development of national identity. Daniel Webster didn't just create a dictionary, he created an American dictionary and his work had far reaching implications about who we are and how we see ourselves separate from our former mother country. Coupled with Monica Vachula's realistic paintings, Shea has created a valuable entry into the literature of America's social history. This is an unusual picture book from the Revolutionary War era; about a patriotic hero who contributed greatly to who we are without engaging in battle but rather research. Librarians everywhere should rejoice in its arrival!

Finally, there is no shortage of books about Abraham Lincoln but Martin Sandler's interesting approach to the American icon is not to be missed. Lincoln Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Shaped an Extraordinary Life looks at the President's life and death through the photographs taken of his life and times. In two page spreads he describes the circumstances behind a photo and the person who took it and then often reaches beyond Lincoln himself to discuss the larger events of specific place and time. It's an interesting take on a man who long ago achieved mythic status and goes a long way toward removing him from the standard juvenile biography which focuses on stories of log cabins and Ford's Theater. There are some historical discoveries, surprising coincidences and dramatic revelations in the hundreds of pictures that Sandler has pulled together. We all learn about Lincoln—we all need to learn about Lincoln—but it has been a long time since I've seen someone write about him for young people in a fresh and exciting way. Marketed as a middle-grade title (ages 10-14) I would say Lincoln Through the Lens has a much broader shelf appeal. I envy the teens who get a peek at this president through Sandler's eyes; they are in for a treat vastly superior to the dull textbook studies I was stuck with in junior high.

And that brings me back full circle to my complaint about junior high math in the first paragraph if this review! Wow—I had no idea the seventh grade could have such a lasting impact!


Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian
By Margarita Engle
Illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Henry Holt 2010
ISBN 0-8050-8937-0

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci
By Joseph D'Agnese
Illustrated by John O'Brien
Henry Holt 2010
ISBN 0-8050-6305-9

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Suzy)
By Barbara Kerley
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
Scholastic 2009

Sybil's Night Ride
By Karen Winnick
Boyds Mill Press 2010
ISBN 1-59078-771-7

Noah Webster
By Pegi Deitz Shea
Illustrated by Monica Vahula
Calkins Creek 2009
ISBN 1-59078-441-9

Lincoln Through the Lens
By Martin Sandler
Bloomsbury 2008
ISBN 0-8027-9664-2
96 pages


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