Ashley Bryan is a beloved illustrator and storyteller who has been highly honored for his work. His latest book, Freedom Over Me (Atheneum), is based on a collection of slave-related documents that Bryan acquired years ago. These documents were dated from the 1820s to the 1860s. The author chose to base his book on the appraisal of the Fairchilds’ estate that was dated July 5, 1828. Among the properties that were listed for sale were cows, hogs, cotton, and slaves. The slaves were not named. They were listed as boy, man, girl, or woman, along with their worth.
By imagining background stories for these unnamed slaves, Bryan humanizes them. He describes the Fairchilds’ plantation as having a fine reputation because of the work of the slaves who live there. For example, Peggy, the cook, is 48, and she is worth $150. Mrs. Fairchilds shows off Peggy’s skills when she entertains. John is 16, and he is worth $100. When he was eight years old, he was given as a birthday gift to Mrs. Fairchilds, and he has secretly learned to read and write.
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams has been chosen as one of this year’s Newbery Honor Books and Coretta Scott King Honor Books.
There are certain television and radio commercials with which I can identify from when I was a child. Even today, when I hear certain melodies, they take me back through the years. A recently published book, The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring (Atheneum), evokes that same nostalgia for me. Gilbert Ford wrote and illustrated this entertaining story whose subtitle is The Accidental Invention of the Toy That Swept the Nation.
In 1943, Richard James was an engineer who worked for the Navy, and his project was to invent a device “…that would keep fragile ship equipment from vibrating in choppy seas.” When a torsion spring fell off of a shelf and the coils bounced around, Richard was intrigued. Since it wasn’t the solution to his project, he took it home. He and his wife, Betty, watched their son, Tom, release the spring at the top of the stairs. They were all delighted when it seemed to walk down the stairs. Betty spent two days looking in a dictionary for a name for their new toy, and she decided on “Slinky.”
After Richard took a loan from a bank in order to produce his invention, he canvased Philadelphia, trying to convince toy stores to stock his new toy. He was repeatedly turned down, but he convinced the manager of Gimbels, a department store, to let him demonstrate his Slinky to holiday shoppers. The manager gave Richard one chance in November 1945. Richard had brought a board from home to serve as a ramp, and the shoppers were fascinated. Within ninety minutes, all of the four hundred Slinkys were sold.
Gilbert Ford’s art for this picture book biography is as ingenious as the Slinky. His illustrations were drawn, colored digitally, and then printed. Ford then assembled these illustrations into dioramas that included found objects. They were then photographed by Greg Endries.
Chris Barton’s picture book biography, Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge), encourages readers to experiment and to dream. As a child, Lonnie was always intrigued with building and inventing. His parents encouraged his creativity by allowing him to bring his parts and “stuff” into the house. Lonnie knew that he wanted to be an engineer, and he built his own robot, Linex. His challenge was to transmit commands to Linex. When he finally worked out his transmission issue, Lonnie’s team won first place in the 1968 science fair at the University of Alabama. This was remarkable because of Lonnie’s project, but also because five years earlier, Lonnie wouldn’t have been allowed to participate as an African-American.
After graduating from Tuskegee Institute, Lonnie went to work at NASA. His project was to develop a constant supply of power to the orbiter Galileo’s computer memory on the mission to Jupiter. Even though he was challenged to invent professionally, Lonnie continued to create during his free time at home. When he was experimenting with ideas for environmentally safe ways to cool refrigerators and air conditioners, he played around with water and air pressure. Lonnie’s experiment that blasted a stream of water gave him an idea for a water gun with which to play.
It took persistence in the face of many refusals for Lonnie to finally find a toy manufacturer who liked his idea. The Super Soaker was finally produced and sold, and it made Lonnie a great deal of money. Lonnie Johnson didn’t rest on his laurels. Instead, he has built his own lab and company that is working to generate electricity without polluting the planet.
On August 12, 1958, Art Kane, a graphic designer took a picture in front of a brownstone on 126th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Kane was a jazz buff, but he wasn’t a professional photographer when he suggested his idea to an editor at Esquire magazine. Esquire was preparing “The Golden Age of Jazz” as a special supplement in the magazine. Since New York City was a mecca for jazz at that time, Kane wanted to gather as many jazz musicians as possible for a photograph. While those working at Esquire assumed that the photographer would use a studio for his picture, he wanted it to be more authentic. By roaming the streets, Kane came up with a location that had the light that he envisioned.
After borrowing a camera, Kane needed to figure out how to bring together jazz musicians. After all, these musicians perform during the night, and he was planning his picture for 10:00am. By contacting recording studios, music composers, managers, nightclub owners, and Local 802 of the musician’s union, he asked that they tell any jazz musicians that they knew about his idea. The musicians were instructed to just show up without any instruments, and show up they did. Some who came were already famous in their field, others were rising stars, and still others hadn’t yet made a name for themselves. The picture captured a unique time in the history of jazz.
Author Roxane Orgill’s book of poems, Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph (Candlewick), is inspired by that famous photograph. Francis Vallejo’s acrylic and pastel illustrations suggest the light and vitality of that special day. The first poem is about Art Kane.
Early Art Kane, photographer
nobody here yet
it’s only nine
where they come from the train
where they exit a taxi
where to put them all
what if only four come
“The Golden Age of Jazz”
with five guys
a crazy request
what if nobody shows
look up will it rain
will they wilt
when the sun beats
head out for a cold beer
is that somebody
a group from the train
Lester Young cigarette dangling
that funny squashed hat
man with an umbrella rolled tight
Milt Hinton, hardly know him
without his bass
guy in a striped tie
When I was in elementary school, I remember one of my teachers telling our class that if one is called a “bird brain” that is actually a compliment. My teacher went on to compare the size of birds’ brains to all that they learn to do to survive. She also gave us a lesson on instinct and learned behavior. Pamela S. Turner takes the “bird brain” analogy even further in her new book, Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird (HMH).
The author chronicles the work of Dr. Gavin Hunt and his team on the Pacific archipelago, as they study the New Caledonian crows. Because of the knowledge that the scientists have gathered, they now compare the intelligence of crows to that of dolphins, monkeys, and chimpanzees. These crows use tools to obtain food, and they even manufacture their own tool kits.
Crow Smarts is the latest release in the outstanding Scientists in the Field Series by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Andy Comins has collaborated on other books in the series. His color photographs in Crow Smarts demonstrate his talent for bringing science to life for children and adults. The art of Guido De Filippo further enhances this informative book.
Who are you? What are You? Why are you here on this earth? Where are you going? – Coach John McLendon’s four questions for his players
One of the joys of sharing books with children and young adults is that one can introduce readers to stories about people who have made a positive difference in the world. Just before March Madness begins with the focus on college basketball, I enjoy reading Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball by John Coy (Carolrhoda Books). This year, there is a new book by the same author, Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game illustrated by Randy DuBurke (Carolrhoda Books). These titles are perfect to pair because they demonstrate the universality of the sport, and the courage of two men.
John McLendon (1915-1999) was a disciple of James Naismith, who invented basketball. (How amazing is it that we can trace the origins of this sport to one man?) John McLendon had the goal of becoming a basketball coach, and his father said that he would work and devote his life to helping him achieve that goal. McLendon’s father sent him to the University of Kansas to learn from James Naismith. The biggest hurdle that McLendon would have to face was the color of his skin. He wasn’t allowed to play basketball in college because Kansas’ varsity basketball team did not suit up a black player until 1951. There were no college or professional African-American coaches. Naismith mentored the student and stood up for him when he faced obstacles because of his race. He was instrumental in helping McLendon get his first coaching job.
Game Changer chronicles one event in John McLendon’s illustrious career. In 1944, he orchestrated a secret game between his team from the North Carolina College of Negroes and white members of the Duke University Medical School team. The Duke players didn’t know who they were going to play as they took a circuitous route to their destination. At the beginning of the game, the players of both teams were hesitant because none of them had ever touched a person of a different color. As they all became more confident just playing basketball, the white players soon realized that they were outmatched. McLendon’s team played a much more athletic and faster game. The North Carolina College of Negroes won that first game 88 to 44.
When the game ended, no one wanted to leave. The teams played a second game, but for that, they mixed up the players from both colleges and played shirts against skins. While this was an important step in battling segregation, the players, coaches, and others who found out about it, had to keep silent. There were too many who believed in segregation in the United States who would have harmed the participants.
John McLendon was inducted into the John Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame twice. In 1979, he was inducted as a “contributor”, but in 2016 he was inducted as a coach.
The following video has excerpts of McLendon describing Naismith’s influence on his life:
January is an exciting month for authors, illustrators, publishers, librarians, and fans of literature for children and young adults. The American Library Association (ALA) announces their awards for outstanding books. ALA recognizes authors and illustrators in a number of categories, and the most well- known are the Caldecott and Newbery Awards. Both of these deserve their own discussion, so let’s start with the Caldecott Medal. This specifically recognizes an artist of the “most distinguished American picture book for children”. The 2017 Caldecott Award was presented to Javaka Steptoe for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little Brown). Steptoe introduces the talented artist to elementary school students with sensitivity. He does include some of the challenges that Basquiat faced as a child, and in his author’s note at the back of the book, he mentions Basquiat’s death at age twenty-seven.
Steptoe’s illustrations are truly works of art in their own right. I always tell children that when I was a student, I didn’t read forwards or author’s notes. It wasn’t until years later, when I learned how much wonderful information can be included in them. Across from the title page in Radiant Child, Steptoe has written “About This Book”. The illustrator described his collage… Like Jean-Michel Basquiat, I used bits of New York to create the artwork for this book. I painted on richly textured pieces of found wood harvested from discarded Brooklyn Museum exhibit materials, the dumpsters of Brooklyn brownstones, and the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side.
What a testament to Jean-Michel Basquiat!
…collage is a means of survival. It is how Black folks survived four hundred years of oppression, taking the scraps of life and transforming them into art forms.” Javaka Steptoe on his website
There were four other books that were named as Caldecott Honor books. Leave Me Alone! illustrated and written by Vera Brosgol (Roaring Brook)
They All Saw a Cat, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle)
Du Iz Tak?, illustrated and written by Carson Ellis (Candlewick)
Freedom in Congo Square, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, written by Carole Boston Weatherford (Little Bee Books)
I read mostly secondary sources and scour them for juicy details that make information come alive.
Kathleen Krull has written many outstanding biographies and picture book biographies for children. It seems pertinent to share one of her “oldies, but goodies” this week, Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought). Since the book was written in 1998, she has vignettes starting with George Washington and ending with Bill Clinton. Even though the book doesn’t include George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, it contains enough anecdotes to entertain even a serious historian.
In her introduction, Krull says, “Other books discuss these men in relation to great historical events, the context of their actions, their political achievements, and public opinion rankings. This book is about the lives of presidents as fathers, husbands, pet owners, and neighbors.”
Find out who….
…dissected small animals (James Madison)
…could make the president eat food he didn’t like (Franklin Roosevelt’s housekeeper)
…fought watermelon-seed wars (Harry Truman)
…bribed dogs with candy-coated vitamins (Lyndon Johnson)
Canadian Jon Klassen is the author and illustrator of a picture book trilogy about different animals and their hats. The first, I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick, 2011), entertained young readers with a bear who is searching for his hat. When it dawns on the bear that he saw it on a rabbit, he retrieves it. Young readers are left with deciding what happened to the small, furry thief. Did the bear really do something wicked to him?
“…I haven’t seen any rabbits anywhere. I would not eat a rabbit. Don’t ask me any more questions.”
The second book This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick, 2012), is laugh-out-loud funny, and Klassen won the 2013 Caldecott Award for excellence in picture book illustration for his artwork. Young readers once again argue over what happened to the little fish who admitted to stealing a hat from a very large fish. The little fish believes that he’ll get away with his theft because only one crab knows where he will hide. The crab doesn’t keep his hiding place a secret. Did something happen to the little fish?
The trilogy ends with We Found a Hat (Candlewick, 2016) when two turtles find a hat together. Both feel that the hat looks wonderful on them, but it wouldn’t be fair for only one of them to own it. They leave the hat, but one turtle decides to go back for it when his friend is asleep. Does friendship win out over his desire for ownership?
In the second and third books, Klassen tells much of the story through the use of the characters’ eyes. The illustrations are spare, yet brilliant.
In this video, Klassen refers to a picture book by Mac Barnett, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick, 2014). Klassen received a Caldecott Honor Medal for these illustrations. He describes how to depict emotions with eyes.
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.
E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
If I were on one of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) children’s book awards committees, I would give the Newbery Medal and the Robert F. Sibert Medal to Melissa Sweet for her book, Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White (HMH Books for Young Readers). I’ll be writing about the 2017 winners of ALSC awards after they are announced on Monday, January 23 at the American Library Association mid-winter conference.
I have to admit that I am a die-hard fan of Melissa Sweet’s work. She has illustrated a number of picture book biographies that I share with our students. Before Some Writer! was published, I would have a difficult time choosing a favorite among those that she has illustrated or illustrated and written. Just before Thanksgiving, I always share Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade (See my entry on this book) which is the story of Tony Sarg and his creations during the first Macy’s Parade. Sweet’s collaboration with Jennifer Bryant produced other favorites, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. Melissa’s collaboration with other authors contributed equally fine books.
Then came Some Writer! Where do I begin? It will be no surprise that I’m a fan of E. B. White’s work, and I refuse to pick a favorite among his books for children. His talent extended far beyond that as he wrote for The New Yorker and co-authored The Elements of Style. Melissa Sweet brings E. B. White to life for readers. Her colorful and captivating collage illustrations complement her research on E. B. White. Both White and Sweet are masters of their crafts. I can’t recommend Some Writer! more highly.
(Collage from Crackingthecover.com – Our book was circulating!)