Book Review Wednesday: She Loved Baseball

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The picture book biography is a great way to get kids interested in history. (Previous reviews of PB Biographies here and here.) A good PB biography author needs a hook– a place for a young reader to access the story. This entry point is often hard to find. Audrey Vernick found a great hook, a sister’s desire to play baseball with her brothers, in SHE LOVED BASEBALL: THE EFFA MANLEY STORY.

Effa’s principal discourages her from playing with her own brothers because their skin is dark and hers is light. This scene sets the reader up for the story of Effa’s tenacious resistance to the segregation and bigotry of 1930’s and 1940’s and her love of baseball.

Effa Manley became one of the great business women in the Negro League. She cared for her players in the Newark Eagles and was eventually respected by other owners in the league. Especially interesting to me was the fact that Negro League owners were not always paid for their contracted ball players when the players were finally accepted/hired by white teams. Effa changed that with a press campaign. Later, her letter writing campaign in the 1970’s to the National Baseball Hall of Fame started the induction of Negro League players. She was posthumously honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame for her civil rights work and her work with the Negro Leagues.

Audrey Vernick’s text is well-suited to the picture book format. It is perfect for older elementary students researching on their own or for an adult read-aloud. The text and images are well-matched by illustrator Don Tate. Tate’s gestural figures and expressive faces pull in the reader into the historical period and the narrative.

Neither women’s history (March) or black history (February) need to be relegated to their  honorary months. SHE LOVED BASEBALL can be enjoyed year round.

Book Review Wednesday: Picture Book Biographies 2

This is the second installment of a book review and discussion of picture book biographies. The first one is here, if you’d like to read it or I can just catch you up. Because PB biographies are so short, it is my opinion there needs to be a focus on language, and story over biographical information. Last week I talked about the hook and through line in the Joseph Albers book An Eye for Color, as well as the wonderful language in Susannah Reich’s José! Born to Dance. Today I’m going to discuss voice, and how illustrations can be used to create character.

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We start with Lita Judge’s, Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West. In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that Lita is a dear friend but don’t let your knowledge of that fact minimize the sincerity of my praise.

An author writing a picture book biography has to, as any picture book author, leave space for the illustrator to add to the story telling. Lita is an author/illustrator so the evolution of her pictures and text happen in a more streamlined and dynamic way. Throughout the revisions, new art might change the text, new text might change the art.

In this book, the art is a key part of the characterization of Tom “Yellowstone” Moran. Moran was an artist who set up his easel in the wilds of the American West. Lita is also a plein air painter. Plein air painters paint outside catching the light and colors of the landscape moment by moment. Lita brings this skill to the book. Sweeping canyon and mountain panoramas are interspersed with framed inset spot illustrations. What does this have to do with PB biographies?

Lita’s paintings create character. Not only by what they portray but also by how she portrays the landscape. The reader understands the humility, dedication, and sense of mission in Tom Moran by the way the natural world is depicted. The text confirms this. The reader learns how Tom took a chance by leaving Philadelphia and coming out to join a scientific party with only a letter of recommendation. How he presses on through the pain of riding a horse for the first time, camping in difficult conditions, and forging new trails. Each of the inset illustration is a window into a more intimate aspect of Moran’s character. They let the reader glimpse his sketchbook, as well as quiet or difficult moments for the title character.

At the end of the book, the reader gets to see the actual 1872, Thomas Moran oil painting of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  The grandeur of the landscape literally dwarfs humankind, as Moran has included tiny figures in the foreground.

Many author’s notes in PB biographies give more facts and dates that the author couldn’t fit into the text. Lita’s author/illustrator notes relay more of her research process and personal connection to the story.

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Jonah Winter is the author of many PB biographies and is so prolific that if you have an idea for a manuscript, you should check his list of titles first. His 2008 releases include books about Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente, and Muhammad Ali. In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor and the book I’m going to talk about today, You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!

The voice of Winter’s narrator for this book is chummy and knowledgeable. He quotes players and gives the reader a VIP view from the dugout. While the narrator is never identified, he seems like the crusty old guy you happen to sit next to in the cheap seats one day, the guy who keeps score of the hits, runs, and plays. Once you buy him a hot dog, he starts to tell you about how it was back in the day when he used to play as a Dodger.

The voice is so easy to listen to, the crusty old player is such a good storyteller, that the child listener/reader doesn’t even realize how long the guy has been talking. For those writers who obsess over word count, remember that first an foremost it is the author’s job to tell a good story. Winter packs the book with information from Koufax’s beginnings as an athletic teenager, to his Dodger debut, to how he sat out the World Series game that conflicted with Yom Kippur, to his surprise retirement. More information, in the form of baseball stats, peppers the pages of the book and give the info-loving kid plenty to read and memorize. A glossary of baseball terms finishes the book. The important thing here is that the voice Winter creates allows the reader to focus on story and take away those facts that seep in naturally.

If my voice sounds a little academic this week, it is because a lot of the text from the two blogs will be in my critical essay about Picture Book Biographies. Here’s a quick list of the books I’ve talked about and a few others that you may want to check out.

Bryant, Jennifer. A river of words : the story of William Carlos Williams. Grand Rapids  Mich.: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2008. Print.

Judge, Lita. Yellowstone Moran : painting the American West. New York  N.Y.: Viking, 2009. Print.

Reich, Susanna. Jose! Born to Dance: The Story of Jose Limon (Tomas Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2005. Print.

Wing, Natasha. An eye for color : the story of Josef Albers. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2009. Print.

Winter, Jonah. Barack. Katherine Tegen Books, 2008. Print.

—. Dizzy. 1st ed. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006. Print.

—. Frida. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2002. Print.

—. Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World. Schwartz & Wade, 2008. Print.

—. Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Atheneum, 2008. Print.

—. Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx. Bilingual. Atheneum, 2009. Print.

—. You never heard of Sandy Koufax?! 1st ed. New York  N.Y.: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2009. Print.

Book Review Wednesday: Picture Book Biographies Part 1

Thanks to those of you who have been nudging me to post on my blog again. Since there have been NO Book Review Wednesday’s for about a month, it is high time I get back to work. Get ready for a quick discussion of picture book biographies.

I’ve been immersed in PB biographies recently as I am working on one myself. I find that the most effective writing in this genre comes from authors who remember the importance of story and language without getting caught up in trying to relay too many facts. Thirty-two pages is not a lot of space. The author of a PB biography has to narrow her focus and find a logical and kid friendly entry point into the life she wishes to relate. In the two books below, the text is relatively simple but each book contains author’s notes or historical notes to tell the reader (or teacher or parent) more.


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First up is An Eye for Color: The story of Josef Albers. Josef Albers was an artist and designer who studied with the Bauhaus school in Germany until the Nazis closed it. Albers moved to the US and taught at Black Mountain College near Asheville, NC and then Yale. His study of color interaction using large squares of color is taught in every modern color theory class. As a child, the author, Natasha Wing, was Albers’ neighbor.  

The text for An Eye for Color gives the reader a theme for Albers life and the hook for every kid on the first page of the book, “Josef Albers saw art in the simplest things.” The rest of the book explores some these things: doors, collages made from junkyard finds, artistic accidents, and finally the squares of color that became his life’s work. The illustrator, Julia Breckenreid, takes on a large part of the storytelling responsibility by conveying the work of Albers through her illustrations. Her use of large fields of color in various geometric shapes effectively demonstrates Albers’ theories on the interaction of colors and mimics his paintings. 

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In José! Born to Dance, Susanna Reich uses lively, lyrical, rhythmic language that mimics Limon’s dance technique. Reich builds character by weaving Spanish phrases and words into the text. (A glossary appears in the front matter of the book but really the context of most phrases makes the Spanish understandable.)

Reich hooks the child reader by starting the story with 15 pages about Limon’s childhood. Instead of focusing on historic events that might seem dry to a child, Reich magnifies the feelings associated with the events: the happiness and energy of José’s dancing birth in Mexico, his quiet visits with his grandmother, experiencing new things such as theater, being scared during a bullfight, feeling left out as a new kid in America, and his feeling of inadequacy as an art student in Manhattan. Every child can relate to José’s feelings even if the events of his life are foreign. The event that changes José from an aspiring artist to an aspiring dancer takes place only four spreads from the end of the book.  Here, Reich still focuses on the emotion, José’s exuberance at finally finding the thing he was born to do.

I was wowed by the texture in the watercolor and color pencil drawings by illustrator Raul Colon. His color choices magnify the emotion in the Reich’s language.

I have a many other wonderful PB biography examples. Next week I’ll look at Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West by Lita Judge and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter and André Carrilho. If you can’t wait until then, check out this archived post about Caldecott Honor winning A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams.