Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

Seasons Readings

November29

The Nutcracker ballet is performed in hundred of venues throughout the United States during the holiday season. Yet, few fans of this beautiful ballet know the story of the three brothers who first brought this 19th Century Russian ballet to American audiences. Author Chris Barton and illustrator Cathy Gendron share the story in The Nutcracker Comes to America (Millbrook Press).

The Nutcracker did not start out as the complex ballet and orchestral piece that it is today. In 1816, German author, E. T. A. Hoffman wrote a short story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It wasn’t until 1892 that Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed the music and Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov choreographed the ballet. It was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, but it didn’t catch on. In 1919, the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet performed The Nutcracker, and the audiences were enthusiastic about it.

William, Harold, and Lew Christensen had grown up at their family’s dancing school, and the young men became enamored with ballet. They put together a vaudeville act and traveled the country in the late 1920s. William moved to Portland, Oregon and opened a ballet school. In 1934, he teamed up with a conductor, who was a Russian immigrant, and William choreographed a few dances to go with Tchaikovsky’s score. During this time, Harold and Lew were dancing and choreographing their own work in New York City.

By 1938, William (now calling himself Willam, without the “I” in his name), was the head of the ballet company in San Francisco. Willam convinced his brothers to join him there. (Lew served in the army from 1942-46.) In 1944, Willam and Harold learned more about The Nutcracker, from two friends from Russia who had performed in it there. The two brothers created the ballet which was presented only once at that time.

After WWII, the three brothers were reunited, and they presented The Nutcracker again, this time during the holiday season. Thus began the cherished tradition. Various choreographers have adapted the ballet, yet the roots of every performance still harken back to the Christensens.

In his author’s note, Chris Barton states that he first heard about the Christensen brothers when Willam died in 2001. He became intrigued by this story.

Cathy Gendron describes her illustrations in the illustrator’s note. “My paintings begin with pencil on gesso, a white base layer. Then thin oil glazes are applied, one over another f0r as many as ten to fifteen glazes per painting. The process is slow and meticulous, but the resulting rich color intensity is worth the time and effort.”

The Boston Ballet performs it every year.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne

November1

You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.
Lena Horne

Lena Horne (1917-2010) is widely known for her sultry voice and her singing career. Author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Elizabeth Zunon have collaborated on The Legendary Miss Lena Horne which chronicles Lena’s role as a civil rights activist.

Lena’s parents didn’t follow the paths of previous family members who had been teachers, activists, a Harlem Renaissance poet, and the dean of a black college. Her father was a gambler, and her mother traveled the country playing in vaudeville. Fortunately for Lena, she was often left with her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, herself a college graduate.

Cora had high standards and drilled into Lena good manners, black pride, and the value of a well-rounded education. (Weatherford)

Lena eventually went on to become a performer, and she sang with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. That’s when she began to confront racism as an adult. The black bands entered through the back doors, and they often couldn’t find a place to sleep after their performance. When Lena was one of the first black singers to perform with an all-white band, she had to sleep on the bus.

Her activism truly began when Lena landed a studio contract with MGM. The NAACP counseled her on how to stick up for herself and become a model for other black performers. She refused to be cast as a mammy or maid. When Lena sang in films, her song would be cut from the film when it was shown in southern theaters. During WWII, Lena was outraged by the rampant racism that was perpetuated on black soldiers, and she paid her own way to perform for black units. After the war, because of her associations with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, she was blacklisted and not allowed to work in Hollywood. However, Lena continued to sing in nightclubs, and when her name was removed from the blacklist, her career once again soared.

During the following years, Lena Horne became committed to working in the civil rights movement. While she earned Grammy and Tony Awards and a Kennedy Center Honor, she was most proud of her devotion to break racial barriers.

When Lena Horne appeared with Kermit the frog on Sesame Street, perhaps she was thinking of her own life when she sang “It’s not easy being green”.

 

 

Jean-Henri Fabre

October26

We have all of us, men and animals, some special gift. One child takes to music…another is quick with figures. It is the same way with insects. One kind of bee can cut leaves, another build clay houses…In human beings, we call the special gift genius. In an insect, we call it instinct. Instinct is the animal’s genius.                                                –Jean-Henri Fabre

Matthew Clark Smith introduces us to Jean-Henri Fabri (1823-1915), in Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre & His World of Insects (Two Lions), illustrated by Giuliano Ferri. When he was growing up in the 1800s, Henri, lived in the country surrounded by nature, and he roamed the countryside around his home and observed his natural world. As he grew older, Henri always exclaimed over the small wonders around him, especially the marvels of insects.

Fabri studied insects differently from the scientists of his time. Instead of examining dead, preserved insects, he observed them alive in their natural habitats. One of his first significant discoveries was about a wasp called Cereris. He read that a mother wasp laid her eggs and left a large dead beetle for her children to eat when they hatched. It made no sense to him that the beetle stayed fresh in the burrow during the gestation period for the eggs to hatch. By digging up wasps’ burrows, gathering beetles, and observing the wasps in the field, he discovered that the wasps did not kill the beetles. Instead, the venomous sting permanently paralyzed the beetle so that the meat would be fresh for their newly hatched babies. Fabri began publishing his findings, and he continued to study other species. Because of his body of work, Henri was widely acclaimed in France. He not only published scientific articles and books, but he also wrote collections of poetry. He was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1912.

Charles Darwin called Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre “that inimitable observer.” While Darwin was aware of Fabre’s work and scientific contributions, he is little known in the United States. Fabre’s childhood home in France is a museum that is joined by an education center and an insect-themed park. Small Wonders will introduce children to this extraordinary man.

That’s All Right

October18

Elvis Presley’s style of singing and performing is now legendary, but early in his life, few people understood him. Music floated all around East Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born in 1935. As Elvis attended First Assembly of God Church with his mother, he joined in singing the hymns. Life was hard for his mother, especially when Elvis’s father went to jail. The family moved around to try to make a better life. The constants in the boy’s life were his mother and music. When they moved to Memphis in 1948, Elvis found some friends who enjoyed music almost as much as he did. In high school, other students made fun of him until he entered their talent show and shared his music.

Success didn’t come overnight for Elvis. Rejections didn’t deter him, and he saved to cut a record. He sang “That’s All Right”, a Delta blues song, in his own twangy style. When he began performing in public, Elvis moved to the music, and the rest is history and legend.

Bonnie Christensen’s lyric prose evokes the poetry of Elvis’s music in Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King (Henry Holt).

 

Roosevelt and Muir

October13

It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches…but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that!  John Muir, 1901

Years ago, I took my children to Muir Woods to see the colossal redwoods. I was reminded of that visit when I read The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (Dial).

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to John Muir, a world-renown naturalist. He wanted Muir to take him on a camping trip. Roosevelt wrote “I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” Muir later wrote that he wanted to refuse Roosevelt because he was weary of giving tours to people who didn’t understand the need to protect the wild lands. Thank goodness, John Muir changed his mind, or there might not have been the Muir Woods that I enjoyed with my boys.

In the middle of May, Roosevelt and Muir traveled high into the woods and then high into the mountains to Glacier Point. While three men accompanied them as packers and cooks, Roosevelt and Muir rode and hiked alone. They slept under the trees, and one evening, they encountered a spring snowstorm.

When Roosevelt returned to Washington, D.C., he was profoundly moved by his experiences with Muir. The President designated 18 areas of land as National Monuments, that put them under federal protection. During his presidency, 55 bird sanctuaries and game preserves were also founded.

(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

A Passion for Elephants

October5

Cynthia Moss has spent almost her entire life studying elephants in Africa. Growing up in Ossining, New York, she became passionate about horseback riding. She even spent part of her high school years at a Virginia boarding school where she could ride every day. After graduating from Smith College, Cynthia worked at Newsweek magazine as a researcher and reporter. When she read descriptive letters that a friend sent her from Africa, Cynthia decided that she needed to see the continent for herself.

Once she was in Africa, Cynthia knew that she needed to stay, and she was hired by Scottish zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton. He needed a photographer to help him with his study of elephants in northern Tanzania. Cynthia then went on to start her own research project with Harvey Croze. The Amboseli Elephant Research Project is in southern Kenya in 150 square miles of protected land. The focus of the project is to learn about family relationships among elephants.

Throughout the years, Cynthia has fought to save elephants from being killed for their ivory. Her life in chronicled in the picture book biography, A Passion for Elephants: The Real Life Adventure of Field Scientist Cynthia Moss by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Holly Berry (Dial Books for Young Readers).

In this short video, Cynthia talks about elephant mothers.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

June2

Fifty years ago The Beatles released their groundbreaking album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band”.

There are some interesting children’s and young adult’s books that introduce the Fab Four to today’s audience.

How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler (Walker) is jam packed with information and photos of the group’s evolution. My two favorite picture book biographies to share with intermediate readers are Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became The Beatles by Susanna Reich (Henry Holt) and The Beatles Were Fab ( and They Were Funny) by Kathleen Krull (HMH Books for Young Readers). These two books bring the musicians to life by chronicling the early years of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

 

 

 

Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay

May4

The world sends us garbage. We send back music. – Favio Chávez

Ada’s Violin by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster) vividly narrates the story of the “Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay”.

Ada Ríos lives in one of the most impoverished towns in Paraguay. Cateura is one of the worst slums in South America because it houses the main garbage dump for Asunción. Most of the residents live on less than two dollars a day. Ada’s life and the lives of many children changed when Favio Chávez was sent to Cateura to teach safety practices to the gancheros who picked through trash at the dump. This environmental engineer was also a musician, and Favio grew to care for the pickers and their children. When he decided to offer music lessons to the children, there were few instruments for them to use. Chávez began to improvise with materials that he scavenged from the dump, and an orchestra was born.

The Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay now performs concerts all over the world. Favio Chávez began with ten children. His program now has more than twenty-five instructors teaching over two hundred young musicians. The proceeds from their concerts are returned to Cateura to help families build homes.

Ella Fitzgerald

April28

It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts. – Ella Fitzgerald

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most popular female jazz singers in the U.S. Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, VA. Shortly after her birth, Ella’s parents separated, and her mother, Tempie, moved to Yonkers, NY with Ella. Her early years were difficult, but Ella was always dancing and listening to the music that spread out into the streets. Tempie died when Ella was a teenager, and her life spiraled out of control. She dropped out of school and was homeless.

In 1934, when Ella heard that the new Apollo Theater on 125th Street had an Amateur Night on Wednesdays, she decided to try out. Wearing a pair of men’s boots that she had gotten at the Baptist church, she showed up for her tryout with the intention of dancing. The Edward Sisters auditioned ahead of her, and they danced in sequined dresses and high heels. Elle got on stage, knowing that she couldn’t compete with them, and after hesitating, she began to sing. She earned a spot, but when she went on stage to perform, Ella froze. As the audience began to get restless, the emcee prompted them to give the nervous girl a chance. Ella wowed the crowd with her rendition of “The Object of My Affection”. While she won first prize, Ella was given ten dollars, but not the chance to sing with the band for a week because of her raggedy appearance. Giving herself another chance, Ella then performed at Amateur Night at The Harlem Opera House. This time she won first prize and her week to sing with the band, and those who heard her were impressed.

Ella was singing and dancing for tips on 125th Street when she was noticed by a stranger. This man knew that Chick Webb was looking for a singer for his band. Even though Webb did not want to listen to Ella because of her raggedy appearance, he was impressed by her voice. Cleaned up, Ella sang with the band for three years. Her career took off, and she recorded over 200 albums and performed all over the world.

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald (Candlewick) by Roxane Orgill is a picture book biography about Ella, and it is illustrated by Sean Qualls.
There will be a year of events celebrating Ella Fitzgerald. Do check out the official website.

John Lewis

April19

March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions)

The U.S. Representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District is John Lewis. Long before he became a Representative, Lewis was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1959, when he was a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary, he organized sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee at segregated lunch counters. Lewis became one of the “Freedom Riders” who challenged segregation on southern buses. He was one of the principle speakers in the 1963 March on Washington. On March 7, 1965, Lewis led over 600 peaceful protestors as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. While the demonstrators intended to march from Selma to Montgomery to bring awareness to the need for voting rights in Tennessee, they never finished their march. Instead, they were attacked by Alabama state troopers who used billy clubs and tear gas on the peaceful demonstrators. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday,” as national news teams covered the event. The public awareness of the cruelty of this day helped to persuade Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

John Lewis chronicled his earlier years in the Civil Rights Movement with a trilogy for young adults entitled March. The books are written and illustrated as graphic narratives. The illustrator, Nate Powell, used black, white, and gray to evoke the somber events in striking images. While reviewers have praised the first two books in this series, March: Book Three has earned numerous awards. In 2016, it was the first graphic novel to win the National Book Award. The American Library Association recognized it this past January with a number of awards: the Corretta Scott King Book Award which recognizes an African American author, the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, and the YALSA Award for excellence in young-adult nonfiction.

Image result for john lewis with obama on selma march

(AP Photo)

Young adults need to read this book to understand John Lewis’ work and legacy. He remained and advocate for nonviolence, despite the fact that he was physically attacked and seriously injured during protests. He was arrested over 40 times. He continues to be a strong voice in our democracy. On March 7, 2015, he walked with others to commemorate the Selma march.

For our younger readers, there is an informative picture book biography, Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Ism (Nancy Paulsen Books).

John Lewis has published adult titles including Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, Wake Up America 1940-60, and Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.

 

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