Nov 28, 2016

Women (and Girls) and Glass Ceilings: Awesome Icons

Alfred A. Knoopf, 2016
When it comes to icons, perhaps no young girl has inspired as many people as Anne Frank. At a time when many people are Clinging to hope that these challenging, even threatening times will ever improve, we can turn to Anne as an example of hope in the face of hardship. 
Author Jeff Gottesfeld has explored Anne's source of inspiration and hope in 
THE TREE IN THE COURTYARD: Looking Through Anne Frank's Window
The focus is on the glorious and stoic chestnut tree outside the annex building in which Anne and her family hid before their eventual capture. Visible day after day, month after month, through the only window was that tree. Throughout their long exile in that hidden space, throughout seasons of change and  increasing threats, the tree's view of events is personified by the author. From the point of view of the tree the author emphasizes the universal humanity of Anne and her family by referring to them as "the girl", "the father", a "woman helper", and "men in gray uniforms". 
The chestnut tree's life eventually ends, but not without a concerted effort to support, sustain, and rescue the tree from eventual death. Lines like this are powerful without being maudlin:
"The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl."

Both the girl and the tree passed on, and both live on. Anne's story is universally known, but this book shares the less-well-known story of Anne's inspiring chestnut tree's legacy. Seeds and saplings now grow in New York City where the Twin Towers once stood, and other chestnut tree offspring grow in significant memorial spaces around the world, along with this excerpt from Anne's diary: 

"The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew....
and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn't speak."

Illustrator Peter McCarty enhances this portrayal of Anne's family as representing universal humanity with muted details and facial features, minimal backgrounds, and grainy sepia monochrome on off-white pages.
* * *
Simon & Schuster BYR, 2016
While Anne Frank was hiding, then losing her life in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, another young Jewish girl was growing up in Brooklyn, New York.  Ruth Bader, daughter of a Russian immigrant, was raised among a city of immigrants with vastly different cultures, but a common understanding:  Boys could do anything, but girls got married. 
That, her mother believed, was foolish. Ruth's childhood was filled with contradictions: books about inspiring female leaders and signs like "No Dogs or Jews Allowed". 
Following her mother's example, Ruth disagreed, spoke out, dissented, and argued when confronted with injustice- toward her, her gender, her religion, or anyone else's, for that matter.
I DISSENT: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark is a biography that humanizes the iconic side of Ginsberg while presenting her childhood story as one kids today can emulate. 
Author Debbie Levy's narrative is as straightforward and energetic as her subject, enhanced by colorful and dramatic book design that expands and magnifies repeated key words. The narrative reveals the heartfelt core to Ginsberg's  will of iron. 
Elizabeth Baddeley's illustrations play a significant role in allowing young readers of either gender to recognize and respect that Ruth Bader Ginsberg confronted challenges, even welcomed them, despite her very human fears and heartbreak. 

In the midst of uncertain and even frightening times for many young people (and others!) these are stories worthy of reading and rereading, inviting discussion and questions. During any year I'd recommend both titles, but this year they feel especially deserving of our attention.

Nov 23, 2016

Women (and Girls) and Glass Ceilings: Part Three

Sometimes it's all too easy to moan, groan, and despair of ever establishing a level playing field, whether that relates to gender, race, age, physical status, or socio-economic resources. Sometimes it feels like the deck is stacked against you. 
Sometimes it is.
But when the right person steps up, works to rise above the stacked deck, the results can be amazing.
Earlier posts on this topic included a young girl's historic first steps toward equal education rights (in Part ONE) and women in journalism (in Part TWO). 
Simon & Schuster BYR, 2016

In ADA'S VIOLIN: the Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, written by Susan Hood and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, the challenge faced is oppressive poverty. Ada and her younger sister are born into a loving family in a town built on an active landfill. Cateura, their town, is the main garbage dump for the capital city of Asuncion, Paraguay, in South America.

Tons and tons (literally, tons and tons) of garbage arrive daily. No sooner is it dumped atop a mountain of trash than ranchers (recyclers) tear into it with long-handled hooks, snatching up anything that can be reused, recycled, or sold.

It sounds like a miserable life, but Ada's family surrounded her with music and stories and laughter and love. Even so, Ada recognized the empty future that faced her and her sister and the other children. When  an opportunity to learn to play an instrument a beam of hope entered her life. 

In a community of scavengers, actual instruments would disappear overnight. The only way Ada and her friends could learn to play is by converting the detritus of the landfill town into instruments whose value was only in their ability to make music. Illustrations that combine graphic-design, abstractions, realism, and contrasts of shadow and vibrant light to perfectly reflect the complexity of those instruments, Ada's community, and the wide-ranging emotions and dreams of her world. 

Ada and the others would have impressed and inspired if their efforts stopped at the edge of their town. They had innovated, created, studied and practiced. When they played together they entertained and uplifted their community. 
But there was more to come. The eventual stunning success of the Cateura youth orchestra required the same dedication and commitment of any musicians who aspire to greatness. 
They became the LandFill-Harmonic Orchestra and perform around the world.

That required something more. For them to achieve such success they had to first dream it, and that meant seeing beyond the limits of life in a landfill. 

That required choosing hope over despair. 
Action over acceptance. 
If that's not an inspiration to the rest of us, I don't know what is. 
You can watch/hear the real Ada and her orchestra here.

This is a book for everyone but will be of special interest to music lovers, recyclers/up-cyclers, "makers", and anyone (which should be everyone) who believes in the capacity of humans to rise above apparent limitations and soar.

Nov 15, 2016

Women (and Girls) and Glass Ceilings: Part Two

Gwen Ifill
Gwen Ifill, a widely respected reporter, moderator, and political commentator, died of cancer in recent days.  The barriers she pushed past, overcame, and excelled far beyond were many, including those related to both race and gender. 
Apart from her many accomplishments, her colleagues and friends have praised her genuine character, determination, and decency. Here is a quotation from Gwen:

I'm a preacher's kid, and we were always told,
Act right all the time, because someone's always watching.
- Gwen Ifill
And this is a quotation she reportedly appreciated:
Whatever you do, do with kindness.
Whatever you say, say with kindness.
Wherever you go, radiate kindness.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie
Gwen Ifill's success in a field nearly exclusive to men, and white men at that, was remarkable by any measure. At the time she was born (1950) there were certainly barriers aplenty to limit a young girl's dreams. 
But by 1950 Mary Ellen Garber (born 1916) was already surpassing barriers, six years into a sports reporting career that only a war could have provided. The full story is told by award-winning nonfiction author Sue Macy and illustrated by C. F. Payne in MISS MARY REPORTING: The True Story of Mary Garber.
Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016
Growing up in North Carolina, a "tiny bit of a girl", she played tackle football with the boys as the quarterback of her team. She learned to love and understand the minutia of sports at her father's knee. At an equally young age she preferred writing her mandatory updates to grandparents in the form of a newspaper, the Garber News, without digital tools or templates to pave the way. 
By her mid-twenties she was earning her living as a reporter. Relegated to the society pages, she dragged a fashion-minded friend to events to avoid complaints from the debutantes about misnamed designers and style choices. 
As proud as she was to have a job as a newspaper reporter, the sports reporting assignments she craved remained a laughable impossibility until the last male sportswriter on staff joined the navy during WWII. When that door opened, Mary Garber marched on through and never looked back.
But when the war ended, reporters returned, and she was reassigned to the news desk.
Even then, within a year she made her way back into sports, reporting on Jackie Robinson's move from the Negro Leagues to the all-white Dodgers. His determination, courage, and maturity made him a role model for Mary.
Author Macy infuses details of Mary's incredible career with direct quotations revealing humor, insight, and decency. In the segregated South Mary was determined to report high school sports for all-black schools rather than only those with all-white attendance. 
She earned the respect of fellow sportswriters, players, and readers. She worked at the career she loved for more than fifty years, even after retiring, and was voted into many different sportswriters' halls of fame.
The author's note, timeline, and resources include sources for the many direct quotes. Payne's caricature-illustrations and Macy's engaging text bring Mary's colorful, appealing personality to life on the page. This is one "tiny bit of a girl" who overcame apparent limitations to achieve, inspire, and break new ground for all girls/women who followed. 
That includes other reporters, like Gwen Ifill, and anyone who sets out to learn, play fair, and make dreams come true on her own terms. This is a nominated title I had somehow missed along the way while keeping an eye on 2016 releases. I'm grateful to be participating in this Cybils panel so that it crossed my path.
As is so often true when  it comes to books, they manage to find their intended readers one way or the other. Let's help this one along to find many more young readers and celebrate the amazing life of newspaper legend, Mary Ellen Garber.
Check back to the first of this series of posts, here. Stay tuned in coming days for reviews of other outstanding books in which young girls are depicted rocking the boat, making waves, rattling at doors, pushing envelopes, and otherwise cracking, sometimes breaking, those glass ceilings.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.