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).

 

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.

The Queen of Magic

May26

Many readers have heard about Harry Houdini, and they know some details about him as one of the most famous escape artists who ever lived. Few people know a magician who greatly influenced Houdini, and that magician was a woman, Adelaide Herrmann. Adelaide lived from 1853 to 1932, and to this day, magicians call her the Queen of Magic.

As a young woman, Adelaide was traveling from Europe to the United States on an ocean liner, and she became enamored with a young magician who was known as Herrmann the Great. Before they docked in New York, Adelaide proposed to him, and Adelaide and Alexander Herrmann were married by the mayor of New York City in 1875. She began to assist and appear in Herrmann’s shows, and Adelaide became an important part of each performance. When Herrmann died unexpectedly, Adelaide was determined to keep their traveling show alive. She became the main performer, but Adelaide knew that to attract audiences, she had to become special. One trick that she perfected was the bullet catching trick, and the audiences were amazed. Over her sixty-five years of performing, Adelaide created many magic tricks of her own. She encouraged girls and women to learn magic, and Adelaide was always “Anything but Ordinary”.

Author Mara Rockliff and illustrator Iacopo Bruno explore the Queen of Magic’s life in Anything but Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic (Candlewick).

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.

The Slinky

March3

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.

Super Scientist

February24

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.

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