Jul 28, 2012

Heather Lang and Floyd Cooper Launch a Winner

The 2012 London Olympic Games are officially underway!
In recent posts some notable Olympic winners of the past were featured, including Dr. Sammy Lee, Wilma Rudolph, and Michael Jordan.
A spring release from Boyds Mills Press features the first African American woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Her story is told in QUEEN OF THE TRACK: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jump Champion, by Heather Lang, illustrated by award-winning Floyd Cooper.

Alice grew up in the South in a time when race and gender defined you, restricted your options, and narrowed your horizons.

Unless you were Alice Coachman.

She shot hoops with the boys, created high jumps with sticks and rags, and succeeded far beyond anyone's expectations. Her running, jumping, nearly flying legs broke records and won championships. They also carried her  from a time and place in which water fountains and bathrooms were segregated to standing on the podium in London and shaking the hand of the King of England.
More extensive reviews of this accessible, detailed biography can be found in The Denver Post and the NonFiction Detectives blog.

I'm very pleased that both  Heather Lang and Floyd Cooper were kind enough to participate in an interview about this book. Their combined responses created a longer post than usual, but I think you'll agree it's worth it.

The timing of the release of this book is ideal- spring of the Summer Olympic season, taking place in London for the first time since Alice Coachman was there in 1948. Was it always your intention to create an "Olympics season" story?

 Heather: I wish I could say that I was super savvy and this was all planned! The truth is—the timing of the Olympics and the fact that the 2012 Olympics are in London again was just one of those happy coincidences. I began searching for a sport heroine to write about in 2008, and it wasn’t until I was well into the research and had done some writing that I made the connection. I screamed out loud and did a happy dance. And then I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t figured it out earlier.Floyd: For me, the art took about a month to complete. There were other deadlines on the plate and travel so the actual, real time was about 6 months.

Can you describe your approach to research for this project?

Heather: I first came across Alice Coachman while reading about famous female firsts. My immediate reaction was: if she’s famous why haven’t I heard of her before? She was the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She overcame poverty and discrimination. She paved the way for Wilma Rudolph. How was it possible that I’d never heard of Alice Coachman?            

I began by doing some general research online and in the library. I was struck immediately by Alice’s spirit and determination in the face of so many obstacles. I could imagine her story so well in the picture book format—running barefoot and making her own jumps out of sticks and rags. At that point I knew I had to try to contact her or her family. Her son replied to my email and agreed to help. He called his mom any time I had questions he couldn’t answer and reviewed the manuscript for accuracy. My library tracked down a copy of a privately printed adult biography about Alice. I sifted through newspaper articles and conducted historical research about the Olympics and the South. There are also some fabulous video interviews with Alice online. All of these sources helped me determine how best to focus the story.          

Then I began writing. But the research didn’t end there. New questions came up and facts needed clarifying. For example I came across conflicting information about whether the landing pit at the Olympics was filled with sand or sawdust. This was in the very early days of broadcast television, so I couldn’t verify this with video footage. Alice thought it was sand, but she wasn’t positive. This became a treasure hunt, which eventually led me to an Olympic historian in England. She got confirmation from silver medalist Dorothy Tyler that the landing pit was filled with sand.

Floyd, were you aware of Alice Coachman's story before receiving this assignment?
Floyd: I was not! That is why I love my job- it is always a learning experience. Primarily, (my research relied on) the internet. Heather Lang, the author, sent me an amazing bio book about Alice along with her story of Alice. That was very helpful.

Heather, did your research yield information that had to be left out of the biography?
Heather: Oh yes! I have a big fat binder of research. The hardest part about writing a picture book is leaving out so many golden nuggets. But if the nugget doesn’t serve the story, then it has to go. For example, Alice liked to have a lemon with her when she was jumping. She would squeeze a little juice in her mouth to quench her thirst and it wouldn’t weigh her down like other drinks would. She referred to them as her “lucky lemons.” In an early draft I included the lemons. Even though I knew deep down they were distracting, I liked them! I tried to squeeze them into this story about determination and perseverance. As soon as I acknowledged that the lemons were just clogging up the story and had to go, the story flowed much better. Luckily my publisher made QUEEN OF THE TRACK a 40-page book, so I was able to include lots of golden nuggets in the endnotes. 

Floyd, was anything particularly satisfying or frustrating while working on this project?
Floyd: Creating the art itself was “particularly satisfying” for me, knowing that I was helping to depict for many new readers the story of one of America’s heroes and contribute to her incredible legacy.

Heather, you shared this photo of Alice Coachman and you. Would you tell us something about that meeting?

Heather: It was a thrill to finally meet Alice in June. Her family generously invited me to join them for a few days in Albany while she was being interviewed and photographed for Time Magazine and the New York Times. During our time together, we sat and looked through the book together and talked further about some of those memories. We discussed her days in Albany and London. She is a very special lady with a great spirit and a wonderful sense of humor.   

The book jacket notes about each of you noted background in track and field-related activities. Did you find your emotional/physical experiences participating or competing affected your approach to this project?

Heather: As a child I played almost every sport and was very competitive. Some of that came from having a twin brother who I always wanted to beat. Like Alice, I played sports with the boys at recess, and in high school I played on the volleyball, softball, and tennis teams. I loved the thrill of competing, and winning was fun, too. These experiences and emotions allowed me to relate to that part of Alice’s emotional journey.
Floyd: I did not rely too heavily on any such experiences as I have blocked this particular torture from memory! 

I'm sure readers would enjoy hearing any take-away thoughts you'd share about working on this project.
Heather: While most of us will never face the adversity that Alice Coachman faced, I think we can all relate to having dreams and facing obstacles. Her story teaches us all to dream and to never give up on those dreams. As an unpublished writer who had received plenty of rejections, she inspired me to keep on going. I followed her advice as I worked on her story: “When the going gets tough and you feel like throwing your hands in the air, listen to that voice that tells you ‘Keep going. Hang in there.’ Guts and determination will pull you through.” 

Floyd: Alice Coachman’s life story reminds us of the power of determination and perseverance when applied to the pursuit of our dreams.  

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the Alice Coachman Foundation. Could you tell us more about that? 
In order to give back, Alice Coachman and her family created the Alice Coachman Foundation. Its mission is to provide support to deserving and proven young athletes in their track and field careers. The Foundation also set up the Alice Coachman Scholarship for student-athletes at Albany State University. I am honored to donate fifty percent of my royalties to the Foundation and Scholarship.

Thank you both for sharing your insights about creating Alice Coachman's biography. It deserves the current attention it is receiving due to the Olympic/London connection, but I am confident it will continue to appeal, inform, and inspire for decades to come.

Heather Lang's website offers a complete personal profile, but in summary she says: 
"I never gave much thought to what I wanted to be when I grew up until fourth grade when I read HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh. That's when I decided I wanted to be a spy. That's also when I started writing. I kept a top secret journal, just like Harriet. Since then I have always loved research and writing. For that reason I'm not surprised I initially chose law as a career. Honestly I never thought of being a children's book author until I started reading books with my kids. Once I started down that path, I knew it was my dream job. It combines all the things I have always liked--research, writing, and spying!
I also volunteer and write web articles for the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance's website.

Floyd's bio link offers many interesting details, too. His illustration awards are extensive, but his note about creating books for children is even more impressive to me: 

"Giving kids a positive alternative to counteract the negative impact of what is conveyed in today's media is a huge opportunity."

Last week's Time Magazine and a New York Times Sports feature this week on the 1948 American Olympians, including, of course, Alice Coachman. This title was included in the People Magazine's summer picks for kids.

Jul 22, 2012

Olympic Stories, Dreams, and Inspiration

Olympic fever is building.

I mentioned in the last post that I'll be a member of the virtual audience, but no less enthusiastic about the competition and stories than if I were in the seats in London. I'm certain, though, that my excitement will be minuscule compared to that of the competitors from each and every country in each and every event. Along with the various contests, I'm eager to follow the personal stories of individual participants and the dreams, preparation, and obstacles overcome in achieving the honor of participating.

Just as Dr. Sammy Lee and Wilma Rudolph spent years and years preparing for their moments of Olympic success, so did Michael Jordan. His name and accomplishments may be more widely known for everything from shoes to NBA records, but his childhood definition of success in basketball was being on the US Olympic team.

DREAM BIG: Michael Jordan and the Pursuit of Olympic Gold, by Deloris Jordan, illustrated by Barry Root was released this spring. It is the story of Michael as a boy who grew up loving basketball and dreaming of representing the USA in the Olympics. Told by his mother, it's filled with  the voices that shaped his widely admired work ethic and determination: his mother's, his brothers', and his coaches'. I can imagine how often he heard some of the lines in this book: "homework before play", "it's one thing to want something, it's another to work for it", "keep your promise to yourself", and "with hard work anything is possible".
One rainy day Michael and his brothers watched the Olympic basketball game in which the USA lost to USSR with a score of 51-50, which only fired his desire to grow up and compete for his country.
Michael first led the USA team to a gold medal in 1984 when only amateurs could compete. Then in 1992 he earned a second gold medal as a member of "The Dream Team" when professional players were allowed to compete. His lifetime of accomplishments fill record books and web pages, but I have no doubt that memories of that first Olympic gold medal hold a special place in his heart.

An earlier title about Michael, written by his mother and sister, describes his desperate desire to be taller. SALT IN HIS SHOES: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream, by Deloris Jordan and Roslyn Jordan is illustrated by the award-winning Kadir Nelson and was featured in a previous post.

For even greater inspiration,  explore the stunning profiles of paralympic athletes. In many cases  elite athletes benefit from physiques and constitutions well-suited to their sports. Yet birth and life events  that make one's height, build, health, or circumstances  less than ideal have been overcome time and again to allow for record-making success. The common ingredients appears to be unstoppable determination and heart.
This site links to thirty incredible Olympic success stories. Tabs on this resource site will also take you to the stories of others with impressive  potential to watch for in the weeks ahead.

Whether an Olympian's personal story is depicted in a television profile, website feature, news article, or picture book, it most certainly should be heard. With few exceptions the privilege of representing one's country in the Olympics can be traced back through years of dreams, preparation, successes and setbacks. Some  benefited from privilege, community support, and unlimited resources. Others struggled against discrimination, poverty, and unrelenting obstacles.

Whatever the case, their stories can and should inspire all of us, most especially the Michael Jordans, Sammy Lees, and Wilma Rudolphs of tomorrow.

Schedules of events for the paralympic competitions can be found here.

Jul 15, 2012

Olympic Inspirations

With much of the country sweltering through the hottest summer in memory, and many of us enduring a punishing drought, it's refreshing to turn our thoughts to London and the summer Olympics. The opening ceremonies are less than two weeks away, and I still haven't packed. 

Oh, that's right, I'll be viewing the events and festivities virtually, so I have plenty of time to prepare with picture books, instead.

The last time the Olympics were held in London, in 1948, Sammy Lee was 28 years old. By then he had fulfilled his father's dream by becoming a doctor and was working in the US Army medical corps. The story of how he overcame racial discrimination and restrictions to achieving his own dream of becoming a championship diver is told in SIXTEEN YEARS IN SIXTEEN SECONDS - THE SAMMY LEE STORYby Paula Yoo, illustrated by Dom Lee.
Dr. Sammy Lee won the US National diving gold in 1946 and qualified to represent the USA in London in 1948.
Yoo and Lee do full justice to Lee's inspiring story of personal vision and persistence, with additional information about Dr. Lee's further accomplishments provided in the author's notes. He continued diving, repeating his ten meter gold medal in 1952, and coaching notable divers to win gold medals, including Greg Louganis. Scroll down this link to view a video of the ten meter platform dive by Louganis in the 1988 Olympics. Notice the final frames in which Dr. Lee congratulates him on his win.

An excellent and detailed review, additional links, and a video interview with Dr. Sammy Lee can be found at Maw Books Blog. Apart from the remarkable sports achievements of Dr. Lee, the story is even more inspiring in depicting the discrimination and restrictions that he experienced and overcame without giving up, retaliating, or reflecting back the hatred he experienced. Instead, he used those barriers as motivation to prove his father's words true: "In America, you can achieve anything if you set your heart to it."
**Winner of the 2005 Lee and Low New Voices Award.

WILMA UNLIMITED: HOW WILMA RUDOLPH BECAME THE FASTEST WOMAN IN THE WORLD, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz, was featured in a post earlier this year, but deserves mention here in connection with outstanding Olympic achievements, overcoming limitations of health and society, and service to her community. (In addition, if think you're feeling overheated, the Rome Olympics in which she won her medals took place during a record heat wave.) This title was also featured on the Sports Heroes blog, where you can click to read the text in Spanish.

If you are weathering the summer heat under a shady tree, a breezy porch, a blistering beach, or an air-conditioned library, here are more links with inspiring Olympic stories and other sport titles you'll enjoy:
You can view a video biography which includes interviews with Dr. Lee.

As always, I welcome comments about what inspires you, especially if it is in a picture book!

Jul 13, 2012

August Picture Book Workshop: Openings Available

Time is running out, but openings are available for my August Picture Book Workshop. If you are in the SE Wisconsin area, are a teacher, librarian, instructional aide, home school teacher, or otherwise interested in improving the quality of literacy instruction, this may be just the thing for you. Further details are included on the link.

(If clicking on the link below doesn't work for you,  copy/paste into a new page.)

UWM Education-Outreach Summer Workshop: 
Unpacking the Power of Picture Books
Here’s what past participants have said:
“Thanks for sharing so much information. This class/course was the best way to spend $50.00 and increase my knowledge.”  MPS Teacher
“I know I’ll use these ideas in the classroom.”
“I came away excited and with many great resources.
I will recommend this workshop to colleagues!”
Improve and increase your use of quality picture books to generate and practice powerful reading strategies across elementary levels: 
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
August 6, 7, 8, 2012
Times: 9:00-4:00 (lunch not included)
Core session- Monday
Comprehension/Fluency/Vocabulary- Tuesday
Science/Math/Social Studies/ Skills- Wednesday
Location:  New Berlin Public Library, Community Room
Enroll for all sessions- $50, or daily sessions priced individually.
For more information, contact Sandy Brehl:   sbrehl.workshop@yahoo.com
Register NOW through UWM Education Outreach by phone: 414-227-3200

Please forward to others who might be interested.  Thank you!
 Sandy Brehl 


 Using Picture Books to Improve Learning 

 Affiliated with UWM Education Outreach

Jul 8, 2012

Dirty Dogs and Cowboys

If you've already read this post, skip to the end for another featured title, last but not least.

Whether you're dealing with summer drought, flooding rains, or typical seasonal conditions (and where would that be in this strange weather cycle?), if you have a dog, it gets dirty. Just how dirty can vary, but dirty dogs need baths.
Most dogs do not like baths. HARRY THE DIRTY DOG, by Gene Zion, pictures by Margaret Bloy Graham, agrees with them. 
There are good reasons why this classic, originally published by Harper Collins in 1956, has been reissued many times and is still in print. It is accessible and appealing for early readers, stands up to repeated reading, and is cute without being cloying.

Most of all, it stars irresistible Harry, the dirty dog.

Harry's personality continues to shine through after half a century. This little pup personifies a protagonist who takes charge of his life, his challenges, and generates his own solutions- while learning from his mistakes.
Here's the plot: Hates baths, hides brush, takes off, gets dirty, goes home, no one recognizes him, digs up brush, gets bathed, happily returns to family life  (and figures out a wiser brush solution).

A simple story, illustrated with lots of white space and  spare lines and color, but each page spills over with action and emotion.

In fact, even though the media and techniques are quite different, Harry reminds me of Daisy, star of A BALL FOR DAISY by Chris Raschka, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Award.

Harry has enough personality to fill several other titles, including HARRY BY THE SEA and

I can't resist contrasting Harry's personality and plot to the storyline, dog, and cowboy in THE DIRTY COWBOY, by Amy Timberlake, illustrated by Adam Rex.

This is a cleverly written and illustrated story about a cowboy whose filth level eventually triggers the need for a bath. He instructs his faithful dog to guard his clothes while he bathes in the river, but when he returns for them the dog doesn't recognize him- no trail smells! The ensuing battle for the clothes restores sufficient natural odors to allow recognition, but by then the clothes are ripped to shreds. Boots and hat are his only garb on the trip home.
The intricate language and visual detail combined with the remarkable "fig leaf" artistic strategies to engage and entertain readers of any age. 

For a taste of the lively online debate that raged last spring about this title, search "censor Dirty Cowboy".

  • The plot flips Harry's story on its head: The human wants a bath, takes a bath, then is not recognized by his dog without his surface layer of filth and smells. 
  • The dog, like Harry, is resourceful and determined, but is as ominous as Harry is adorable. 
  • Harry's text is basic and minimal, while Cowboy's text is intricate, colloquial, colorful, and layered with figurative language.
  • Illustrations in these two books are polar opposites with the common trait being humor and heart. 
  • Harry is an "antique", a classic, but could take place in any family today. Cowboy is a twenty-first century publication depicting life long past.

When it comes to the power of picture books to engage readers, stimulate discussion, and entertain, each of these titles stands strong on its own. When combined for purposes of comparing and contrasting, their power increases exponentially.

And I'm willing to bet that once you read them, you'll never forget the characters or their stories. 

I just got my hands on this  mid-June release by Tatyana Feeney, SMALL BUNNY'S BLUE BLANKET. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) For a summary read this Kirkus review. This is not the typical "lost blanket" story, but instead addresses the struggle to recognize a beloved companion when its look, scent, and feel have been washed away.  Small Bunny surely understands the confusion and stress of Harry, Cowboy, and Dog.

Jul 1, 2012

Independence = Freedom to Dream

Politics, debates, polls, and protests are ubiquitous these days. (Sorry- I couldn't resist linking to an earlier post on both the word and the amazing book with that title.) When we celebrate Independence Day this Fourth of July, it calls to mind that the same conflict and turmoil existed in that historic revolutionary period, and in almost any other period in a robust democracy.

Rather than focus on the struggle and rancor that preceded our noble Declaration of Independence, I'll celebrate the results of  those struggles: a society in which girls and boys can aspire, can explore, can DREAM of any future of their choosing.

MY NAME IS NOT ISABELLA: Just How Big Can A Little Girl Dream? by Jennifer Fosberry, Illustrated by Mike Litwin. 2008.

Isabella's spends her otherwise routine day imagining herself as Sally Ride, Annie Oakley, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Mommy. She tucks in at night with the full intent of exploring possibilities even further in the coming days.

MY NAME IS NOT ALEXANDER: Just How Big Can A Little Kid Dream? Also by the Fosberry/Litwin team. 2011.

Alexander's day finds him inhabiting the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Chief Joseph, Fred Astaire, Jackie Robinson, and Daddy.

In both cases short biographic summaries of the names of historic figures are presented with photo images, vocabulary, bibliography, and website links. 

ISABELLA, GIRL ON THE GO, also by the Fosberry/Litwin team, is a 2012 sequel from Jabberwocky Books in which Isabella helps with common household chores while her imagination takes her around the world.

Check out some of the other  colorful and energized titles by illustrator Mike Litwin. And take a look at this YouTube video showing the progress of the illustrations for My Name Is Not Isabella: Just How Big Can A Little Girl Dream? 

There are several other related videos on the SourceBooks resource page.

Among Ben Franklin's many wise quotations, this one seems aimed directly at Isabella, Alexander, and every other child, past or present:
"The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself."

Children living in lands without guarantees of freedom still dream. I believe that with all my heart. The legacy I celebrate, though, is that despite any vitriol, rage, or prejudice to which children in the USA may be exposed, they are also free to pursue their dreams, their happiness, to catch it for themselves.

In the interest of sharing some titles more directly associated with the period and players of the Revolutionary era, Ben Franklin offers a fine starting point.

BEN FRANKLIN: His Wit and Wisdom From A to Z by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by John O'Brien. Blending all the best features of an alphabet book, non-fiction text that is both informative and entertaining, quotes from Franklin's Almanacs, illustrations that extend content and generate laughs, this book works on every level. If you don't want to take my word for it, check out this Kirkus review. In fact, it would make an ideal handout at the political conventions later this summer. Perhaps it would inspire others to strive for more wit, wisdom, and eloquence in public discourse.

Here's hoping you'll find yourself hooked on picture books as you chill out on a scorching day. If so, look for other titles by Alan Schroeder,  Author of MINTY:A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, or consider this NYTimes review of this and other Americana titles.

When the physical or political temperatures rise to uncomfortable levels this summer, take a step away from the heat to reflect on our past and the heroes who built our country. Then take comfort in the     enthusiasm and energy of youth, trusting, as I do, in the promise of tomorrow. You won't need to go any further than the pages of good picture books to find them.

Any favorite titles you care to share? Comments always welcome.

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.