Read On!

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

The First Computer Programmer

January17

That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.       – Ada Lovelace

This quote by Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is not exactly humble, but neither were her parents. Ada’s father was the poet, Lord Byron. A month after she was born, Ada’s parents separated. Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, Lady Wentworth, retained complete custody, which was unusual in the male dominated English society. Ada never saw her father again, and Lord Byron died when she was eight years old.

Lady Wentworth always worried that Ada would become imaginative and reckless like her father. To combat this, her mother instructed Ada in mathematics. She was an anomaly because there weren’t many female mathematicians during the first half of the 1800s. When Ada and her mother toured factories, as many wealthy families did for entertainment, Ada’s imagination came alive with ideas. She called one of her first ideas, Flyology, as she imagined a mechanical horse that would take to the air.

When she was 17 years old, Ada met the inventor, Charles Babbage. He was a mathematician and engineer, and his primary project was “The Difference Machine”. Babbage envisioned a team-powered calculator that would always produce the right answer. After she was married to Lord William King, Earl of Lovelace, Ada began to help Babbage with his newest invention, “The Analytical Engine”, which was an early computer design. The Analytical Engine was based on the concept of a Jacquard loom which used hole punched cards to calculate sums. Even now, mathematicians marvel at the complexity of Ada’s work. She has been called the world’s first computer programmer.

Two picture book biographies were published about Ada Lovelace within months of each other. Both highlight the life and incredible mind of this remarkable woman. Take a look at Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science (Simon & Schuster) written by Diane Stanley and illustrated by Jessie Hartland or Ada’s Ideas (Abrams) written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson.

The Association for Women in Computing (AWC) presents the Ada Lovelace Award. “The award is given to individuals who have excelled in either of two areas: outstanding scientific technical achievement and/or extraordinary service to the computing community through accomplishments and contributions on behalf of women in computing.” (AWC)

Martin Luther King, Jr.

January11

Sooner or later, all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together.

Growing up in Atlanta, GA, Martin Luther King, Jr. experienced the unfairness of segregation on a daily basis. When he saw “White Only” signs and he wasn’t able to attend a school with white children, his mother reminded him that he was as good as anyone else. He listened to his father’s words as the elder King preached in church every Sunday. During those formative years of his life, Martin understood how powerful words could be.

In Martin’s Big Words (Hyperion Books for Children), author Doreen Rappaport shares important quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. as she narrates key incidents in his life. Bryan Collier’s colorful and detailed illustrations earned him a Caldecott Award Honor. The year it was published, this picture book biography was also named one of the best illustrated children’s books by the New York Times

From the Archives

January5

A snow crystal is a letter from the sky.”

The Story of SnowUkichiro Nakaya, Japanese scientist (1900-1962)

Nakaya’s quote shouldn’t be missed on the back endpaper of The Story of Snow. Authors Mark Cassino and Jon Nelson have written a book that will inspire young scientists and artists. Just as the authors coordinated their talents, The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder has a fine balance of text and pictures. Cassino’s photographs of snow crystals are clearly explained by Nelson’s text.

Snowflake BentleyThe Story of Snow is a perfect companion book to Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, the 1999 Caldecott Award Winner. Wilson A. Bentley was the first to photograph snowflakes to study their beauty and construction. Imagine the conversations that Bentley would have with Mark Cassino and Jon Nelson. While the technology has improved, they all would share the wonder of a snowflake.

Bentley’s words from 1925 describe the contents of The Story of Snow, a book written years later:

“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

(Taken from the website, http://snowflakebentley.com)

Elijah Pierce

December13

There are a number of families who might not have read a post that I wrote four years ago. Since this describes a special book, I wanted to share it this week.

Elijah's Angel

One of my favorite books for the holiday season (or any other time) is Elijah’s Angel by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (HBJ, 1992). This story appeals to me on so many levels. Families who celebrate Chanukah and Christmas can all relate to the meaning of their holidays. As a fan of folk art and outsider art, I enjoy introducing Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) to our students.

Elijah was a woodcarver, barber, and deeply religious man. During his lifetime, this humble craftsman was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His woodcarvings are owned privately and in museum collections.

Michael Rosen, the author, met Elijah Pierce as a youngster, and he has shared his friendship with Elijah in this story. As a young friend of the woodcarver, Michael was enthralled with Elijah’s work. However, when Elijah gave Michael the gift of an angel during the Christmas season, Michael was conflicted. He didn’t feel that he could accept it because Michael was Jewish, and his family didn’t own “graven images”. Michael’s supportive parents helped him celebrate the true meaning of Chanukah, Christmas, and friendship.

The illustrator of Elijah’s Angel also knew Elijah Pierce. Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson became his friend and student. Her illustrations are in a folk art style.

In the following trailer, Elijah describes his craft.

 

Season’s 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.

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