Read On!

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

James VanDerZee (1886-1983)


Being an artist, I had an artist’s instincts. You can see the picture before it’s taken; then it’s up to you to get the camera to see. James VanDerZee

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Keith Mallett (Lee & Low Books)

The Harlem Renaissance is an important era in our artistic, intellectual, and social history. The era is primarily recognized as taking place in Harlem in New York City. Some describe it as spanning from 1918 through the mid 1930s and also occurring in other areas of the United States as well as Paris, France. However, it was the African-American culture in Harlem that spawned this rich movement. One of the leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance was James VanDerZee, a musician and photographer who chronicled the era through his lens.

James was born and raised in Lenox, Massachusetts which even then was a summer vacation destination for the wealthy. More importantly, it was a multicultural town that James’ parents had purposely chosen to raise their family. As he grew up, James played the violin and piano and he painted. When a professional photographer passed through town and took family portraits, James became intrigued and got his first camera. He not only learned how to take pictures, but he also developed them in a darkroom in his home. When he was in fifth grade, he became his school’s photographer. Visiting aristocrats enlisted him to take their pictures.

In 1906, when he moved to the New York City area, James used his musical talent to play with two well-known orchestras. He began his own group, the Harlem Orchestra. At the beginning of those years, he was an assistant in a portrait studio. James went on to establish his own successful studio, and he took photographs of daily life in Harlem as well as those of prominent African Americans.

In the Afterword of her book, Andrea Loney describes James VanDerZee eloquently:

During his lifetime James VanDerZee created thousands of portraits, took more than 75,000 photographs, and created more than 125,000 plates, negatives, transparencies, and prints. Each image shared an extraordinary story about the people of Harlem, the quiet beauty of their everyday lives, the grandeur of their hopes and dreams, and most of all, their inherent dignity and pride.

James VanDerZee was truly a Renaissance man.

(Credit: Wikipedia – Photo of James VanDerZee)




Chef Roy Choi


Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, illustrated by Man One (Readers to Eaters)

It’s not uncommon to visit certain neighborhoods in Boston and enjoy purchases from a food truck. Roy Choi’s name is synonymous with the founding of gourmet food trucks in Los Angeles.

Born in South Korea, Roy’s family moved permanently to the United States when he was a young child. Choi’s parents tried their hands at a variety of businesses. The one that made the biggest impression on him, and foreshadowed his future career, was when they owned a Korean restaurant.

After struggling to find his way, Roy became inspired by Emeril Lagasse’s cooking show, Essence of Emeril. He became so obsessed that he enrolled in culinary school. Roy went on to cook in top restaurants, especially in Los Angeles. In 2008, Choi and a partner established their own company, Kogi, and they launched their food truck business.

Roy Choi calls himself a “street cook”. In Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee describe his cooking style.
Sohn maash is the flavors in our fingertips. It is the love and cooking talent that Korean mothers and grandmothers mix into their handmade foods.

The Illustrator, Man One, is a pioneer in the graffiti art movement. He has exhibited his art all over the world. This is the first children’s book that he has illustrated, and the pages are full of color and images that represent Choi and Los Angeles.

Mary Blair (1911-1978)


Mary Blair’s Unique Flair: The Girl Who Became One of the Disney Legends by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Amy Novesky (Disney Press)

Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Brigette Barrager (Atheneum)

We are artists, dear, in love with art and each other. We must make these loves coincide and melt into a beautiful, happy and rich life – that is our future…we’ll live to be happy and paint to express our happiness.                                 Mary Blair

Mary wrote those words in a letter to her husband, Lee, in 1933. How prophetic they were because she went on to become one of the most influential artists for Walt Disney and his enterprises.

Mary Browne Robinson loved art as a child, and her parents supported her interest and budding talent. When the family moved from Texas to California, she kept her sketchbook with her during the journey. When she was in school, Mary drew all over her textbooks. After college and art school, she married Lee Blair and began to work at the Walt Disney Studios. There, she worked on some of the classic movies including Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp. Mary’s greatest contributions to the Disney movies were when she was responsible for the color styling for Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.

After resigning from Disney and working on projects for many other companies, Walt Disney sought her out to help him with his newest attraction, “It’s a Small World”. This attraction was one of Mary’s ultimate artistic accomplishments as she shared her colorful world.

Mary Blair’s favorite color was white, the color of possibility.

Check out the website, Magic of Mary Blair, which is owned by Mary’s nieces.

DJ Kool Herc


When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Evolution of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III (Roaring Brook Press)

Hip hop is the voice of this generation. Even if you didn’t grow up in the Bronx in the ‘70s, hip hop is there for you. It has become a powerful force. Hip hop binds all of these people, all of these nationalities, all over the world together.   Kool Herc

Clive Campbell was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Growing up, he heard the sounds of dance parties in the streets. Even though he was too young to go to the evening parties, he liked to hang around the DJs when they were setting up their equipment. That’s when his fascination with music began. He never formed a band, but he became a very different kind of performer.

When he was 12 years old, his parents moved to the Bronx in New York City. In high school, he was good at basketball, and his friends called him Hercules. Eventually, he became known as Kool Herc. He and his sister began hosting parties in the recreation room of their apartment building. They charged people to come, and Kool Herc especially liked to play albums by James Brown.

Before one of Kool Herc’s dance parties, he came up with the idea of using two turntables to play with the instrumentals of the albums. He created longer breaks for dancing. His friends and other party attendees enjoyed it when he began calling them out in ways that went with the music. Soon his parties became so large that he took them to the streets. That’s when his fans began to breakdance in the street.

Kool Herc is credited as a pioneer of hip hop. He influenced many DJs and performers who emulated his style.

Author Laban Carrick Hill and illustrator Theodore Taylor III produced a picture book biography that introduces this musical innovator to readers of all ages.

Yayoi Kusama


Our Earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.                                                Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity by Sarah Suzuki, illustrated by Ellen Weinstein with reproductions of works by Yayoi Kusama (Museum of Modern Art)

Yayoi Kusama is a fascinating Japanese contemporary artist. At the age of 91, she continues to create and exhibit her work worldwide. Throughout the years, she has experimented with her avant-garde style in many mediums in the world of art, writing, and fashion. Some of her work, especially her performing art, has pushed boundaries. Author Sarah Suzuki has written a fascinating picture book biography that describes Yayoi Kusama’s life and work without including details that would be difficult for young readers to grasp. Suzuki is a Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Ellen Weinstein’s accompanying illustrations are playful and colorful.

Yayoi Kusama recently wrote a poem about Covid-19.

Though it glistens just out of reach, I continue to pray for hope to shine through
Its glimmer lighting our way
This long awaited great cosmic glow
Now that we find ourselves on the dark side of the world
The gods will be there to strengthen the hope we have spread throughout the universe
For those left behind, each person’s story and that of their loved ones
It is time to seek a hymn of love for our souls
In the midst of this historic menace, a brief burst of light points to the future
Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
Let’s go
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love and I hope to fulfil that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
To COVID-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up
My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.

Revolutionist of the world by the Art From Yayoi Kusama

e.e. cummings


April is poetry month, and what better way to celebrate than with a picture book biography about e.e.cummings? enormous SMALLNESS: A Story of E. E. Cummings is written by Matthew Burgess (Enchanted Lion Books).

Edward Estlin Cummings enjoyed a childhood where he was nurtured and praised for his keen observation and love of words. Growing up in Cambridge, MA, his mother wrote down his poetry, even before he could write his poems himself. Called Estlin by his family, as a student, he always remembered his favorite teacher, Miss Maria Baldwin, who taught him
 anything is possible,
    as long as you are true to yourself
and never give up, even when the world
    seems to say, stop!

When Estlin graduated from Harvard, he spoke to the audience about “The New Art” of Gertude Stein, Paul Cezanne, and Igor Stravinsky. He moved to New York City, served as an ambulance driver in France in WWI, was imprisoned as a spy, and finally returned to the United States. Then, Cummings wrote and wrote, and he developed a style all his own. He put lowercase letters in place of capitals and played with punctuation. His name began to appear with little e’s. When he first began to break rules, readers didn’t know what to make of it, but they soon became enthralled with his images. e.e.cummings has become one of our premier American poets.

The Sky Was

can    dy    lu
pinks shy
greens    coo    1 choc

un    der,
a    lo
tive        s  pout

Enjoy his descriptive language as the poet himself reads “in Just spring”.

Tomie dePaola, 1934-2020


Reading is important because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.        – Tomie dePaola

Strega Nona – How many children and adults smile with instant recognition when they read or hear that name! Tomie dePaola created this magical character in 1975, and she is still a Grandma Witch whom millions enjoy today. Big Anthony, Strega Nona’s helper, thinks he knows the secret to her pasta pot when he watches her sing. He fails to see that she blows three kisses to stop the pasta from multiplying. When Strega Nona goes out of town, Big Anthony uses her pot, but he can’t stop the pasta from expanding and taking over the town. Fortunately, Strega Nona returns and uses her magic. She tells the townsfolk and Big Anthony that “The punishment must fit the crime…So, start eating.”

This talented author/illustrator went on to write many more tales about Strega Nona and Big Anthony. He wrote board books, big books, picture books, chapter books, and fact books. He wrote about families, magic, holidays, legends, folktales, and non-fiction topics. He not only created Strega Nona, Big Anthony, and Bambolina, but also Bill and Pete, the Barkers, and many folklore characters. He even collaborated with the Jim Henson workshop and produced some delightful tales with them. Some of dePaola’s finest books are his memoir series where he describes growing up. Children and adults alike are entertained with his vivid and endearing descriptions. (Photo from the New York Times)

Tomie began doing art when he was four years old. Growing up in an Irish/Italian family in Meriden, CT, his family encouraged his talent. In interviews, Tomie often said that his family’s stories became such a part of the themes of his books. After earning a Master’s Degree in Fine Art and then a doctoral equivalency, this talented artist was a college professor at a number of California and New England Schools. In the 1970s, he retired from his formal teaching responsibilities and concentrated solely on writing and illustrating children’s books.

During an interview with the Boston Globe in 2007, Tomie was asked about having studied the master artists. He answered, “Matisse is my favorite because he didn’t want the viewer to see the hard work that went into his painting. He would start out with a rendering, then simplify and simplify. I try to be as clear and simple as I can be in my illustrations so that the child can tell what is going on and what the emotions are.” For me, Tomie even resembled Matisse a bit, both physically and in the sophisticated simplicity of his art.

Tomie dePaola was a master.

Do check out his website to learn more about his books.

Hedy Lamarr


People seem to think because I have a pretty face I’m stupid…I have to work twice as hard as anyone else to convince people I have something resembling a brain.                    – Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu (Sterling Children’s Books)

During the 1940s and 1950s, Hedy Lamarr was known as one of the world’s most beautiful women. She was in many movies as the glamorous leading lady. Few people had any idea that this attractive star was also a self-educated scientist and inventor.

Born in Austria to Jewish parents, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was curious about science as a child. When she was five years old, she wanted to understand the mechanism of her music box, so she took it apart. Another interest that turned into a passion was her desire to act, and Hedy had her first minor role in a movie as a teenager.

Hedy’s first husband was a Viennese arms and munitions dealer who had ties to Adolph Hitler. She attended many science and military conferences with him, and those events reignited her interest in science. In 1937, Hedy left her marriage and her fears of Germany’s rise to power in Europe. She met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios, and she was signed to an acting contract in the U.S. where she soon became a star. Mayer suggested changing her name, and from then on, she became Hedy Lamarr.

While Hedy’s vocation was acting, her avocation was inventing. She devoted an entire room in her home to be used for experiments, and she had a wall of engineering and science reference books. After meeting George Antheil, a music composer and former weapons inspector, Hedy investigated the problem that the military was having with torpedo guidance systems. The two friends came up with the concept of frequency hopping, and they were awarded a patent for their invention. The navy didn’t put any resources into building the system but they classified it top secret. When it was declassified years later, the patent had run out. The basis for the technology is used today as a means of securing wireless communications for cell phones and computers.

Emily Warren Roebling


In all, several thousand people took part over fourteen years…They worked a ten-hour day, six days a week, and they were all men – with the sole exception of Emily Roebling.
David McCullough, Brave Companions

How Emily Saved the Bridge: The Story of Emily Warren Roebling and the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrations by Natalie Nelson (Groundwood Books)

During the mid to late 1800s, many New Yorkers knew who Emily Warren Roebling was. Author Frieda Wishinsky introduces this bright woman to young readers in How Emily Saved the Bridge. Without Emily, the Brooklyn Bridge might be far different than it is today.

Few women received any formal higher education when Emily Warren was growing up in the 1850s, especially a girl from a family of twelve. Fortunately for Emily, one of her older brothers, Gouverneur Kemble (G.K.), believed in her capabilities, and he enrolled her in a school in Washington, D.C. There she studied math and science as well as French and geography. In 1864, Emily visited G.K. where he commanded Union troops. There, she met Washington Roebling who was an engineer on her brother’s staff. They soon married.

Washington Roebling’s father was nationally famous as a bridge-builder, and he designed the plans for the new construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. During the preliminary building of the bridge, John died as the result of a construction accident. Emily encouraged Washington to take over as the chief engineer in his father’s place. All went well for Washington until he became very sick from the bends which occurred when he worked on the caissons for the bridge. With her husband bedridden, Emily began to bring his instructions to the project. During that time, she kept the construction records and learned everything that she could about the engineering details. Through constant study, she learned more about the bridge construction than anyone else on the site.

In 1883, when the bridge was opened, Emily Warren Roebling was the first to cross in her carriage. The workers and audience cheered for her as she carried a live white rooster. Emily said that “the rooster was a symbol of victory and good luck.” For many, this would have represented the crowning achievement of their lives, but Emily went on to law school and became an attorney when she was 56 years old.

In 1931, the Brooklyn Engineers Club put a plaque on the Brooklyn Bridge that honored Emily Warren Roebling for her contributions to the construction of the bridge.

1843 – 1903 
1837 – 1926 
1805 – 1869 

Thurgood Marshall


Thurgood by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Schwartz & Wade Books)

Growing up in Texas, Jonah Winter heard racial epithets on a daily basis, and he observed the segregation that was accepted in society. As an adult, he began writing picture book biographies about personalities who faced that bigotry and prejudice and worked to eliminate it. One of Winter’s most recent books is Thurgood, and he chronicles the life of the first black Supreme Court Justice.

The grandson of a slave, Thurgood Marshall devoted his life to fighting racial injustice by changing the immoral laws that allowed it. The landmark case that Marshall won for his client was Brown vs. The Board of Education, but he struck down Jim Crow laws with many other cases also. Because of his advocacy, the Supreme Court decided in his favor in twenty-nine out of the thirty-two cases that he brought before the justices.

• After he represented Donald Gaines Murray who wasn’t allowed into The University of Maryland law school, the Supreme Court ruled that the school must accept black students. The University of Maryland had denied Marshall entry years before the case.
• After he represented Lonnie Smith who wasn’t allowed to vote in a Texas primary, it became a law that the voting rights of all citizens are protected.
• After he represented Irene Morgan who was arrested for not giving her seat to a white woman, it became illegal to deny black people the right to sit where they please.
• After he represented Ethel and J. D. Shelley who weren’t allowed to purchase a house in St. Louis because they were black, it became illegal to refuse to sell a house to a person of color.

Thurgood Marshall earned the nickname “Mr. Civil Rights.” He took on one racist law at a time, as he fought for equal protection of all citizens that was part of the U. S. Constitution.

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