Jun 1, 2013

Diving into a Powerful Biography- of a Mermaid!

Before I finally took the plunge and dove into the blog-o-sphere about eighteen months ago, I thought long and hard about what I could add to the conversations about books that would be unique. In recent months I find that as I discover new picture books (or new to me), I'm so eager to share the titles and my thoughts about them that I rush to share a review and urge readers to check them out. 
That's not a bad thing, to be sure.

In this case, though, I'm steering myself back toward my original intent, which was to share my reflections on the broader, deeper role of picture books in the world of children's literature. 

There's POWER in picture books, of every type and for every age. So, returning to my first sentence, let's take the plunge and dive into one of the best, most powerful picture books, one especially suited to summer reading.
Scholastic Press, 2009
MERMAID QUEEN: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame is written by Shana Corey and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. On first glance you might think this non-fiction biography about an Australian woman born in 1886 seems an obscure choice even for middle grade readers or for Women's History Month.  
You would be wrong. 
It offers oceans of benefits, beginning with a colorful and history-making character, insights into cultural standards in different countries and different centuries, backmatter to fill in details on Kellerman's life and accomplishments, and documentation of the many quotations so effectively interspersed throughout the narrative. It reflects the finest standards of research.

Yet it has the narrative and illustration quality of a fiction offering with the benefit of truth. It's inspiring that Annette's swimming accomplishments overcame not only her own disability but also the societal restriction and biases toward females, even little girls, of her time. Her determination to push back at the limits she confronted while gaining praise and admiration instead of disdain is captured well. Anyone who has ever suffered an anxiety attack when contemplating swimsuit season will marvel at her spirited defense of the value of swimming in suitable attire in court! I particularly enjoyed the ballet-like timeline of swimsuit design in the back pages.

This was a woman of power, and this is a picture book that transcends its "academic" target audience through the design and execution of its  joyful presentation. From the vivid swirling endpapers through each bold, exuberant double spread, the somewhat comically exaggerated figures will attract readers of any age. The alternating sizes and styles of fonts, action-packed scenes, and shifting perspectives always capture Annette Kellerman's contagious spirit: "Annette Kellerman loved to make waves."

 This amazing woman, who made her waves without the benefit of Title IX or other official support, is in the International Women's Swimming Hall of Fame. She paved the way for women to fully participate in water sports, invented water ballet, challenged endurance records, performed high dives, and appeared in movies.

Now that's power.

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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.