Jul 28, 2013

Who Do You Trust: Sports Heroes?

This has been a tough week for Major League Baseball, and even more so for its loyal fans. Sadly, the abuse of steroids and the rationale that players must "cheat to compete" has tainted every player with suspicion in much the same way that Lance Armstrong's eventual admissions did with cycling competitors.
I've written previous posts about the need to offer young readers legitimate and significant role models beyond pop culture icons. During the Summer Olympics last year I featured biographies of  remarkable athletes whose accomplishments involved overcoming extraordinary hardships to even compete in their respective sports.
Which brings me to the question of how to approach discussions of tarnished  heroes with children. The title of this post harkens back to  Who Do You Trust, a popular 1950's game show originally emceed by Johnny Carson. Now that was a time before corruption and deceit were so pervasive (it's kind of tricky to type with my tongue lodged in my cheek). 
It's a tough question: Who DO you trust?
Perhaps some of the best advice to give kids is to avoid going "all in" when hero-worshiping current stars, saving their highest admiration for those they know the best. In many cases that means those who play a direct role in their lives, "up close and personally", to twist a familiar sports phrase into something real.
Another bit of good advice is to look back in time to those who have completed their careers, those whose lives have been scrutinized and evaluated through the lens of history. "Old school" heroes, if you will.
Picture books offer that view with an irresistible blend of immediacy, engagement, and a healthy dose of authenticated content.
Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2000
SATCHEL PAIGE, by Lesa Cline-Ransome with paintings by James E. Ransome, is one such book. It seemed particularly ironic to me that the announcement of baseball suspensions began immediately following the weekend designated to honor the Negro League teams. Leroy (that's his given name) was born with an abundance of natural gifts, as are so many sports and entertainment idols, but he devoted himself to developing those gifts through practice. He threw rocks instead of baseballs, but he also collected bottles for pennies and toted bags at the train station for tips to help his large family survive.
He swung a stick over his shoulders and hauled several satchels at once to increase his income (not to mention his strength) until his friends said he looked like a satchel tree.The name stuck. 

Perhaps his family's desperate economic conditions convinced him that some indiscretion was justified- he was caught stealing. That landed him in a reform school. There he had three meals a day, a pair of shoes, and a baseball team with an actual coach. It was a blessing in disguise.

The mystique of Satchel Paige's many baseball accomplishments is not based on hype, social media, or even statistics alone. His remarkable willingness to take what has been dealt to him (or what he may have dealt himself) and play that hand to the best of his ability is the quality that makes him a universally admired figure who transcends the realm of baseball. 
He trusted his talent to speak for itself.
Carolrhoda Books, 2013

Ransome makes the point that after decades of being excluded from Major League baseball because the color of his skin, "Satch" had little respect for the rules and rituals of the league, including pregame exercises and taking signals from the catcher. What he did respect was his own talent, and he NEVER saw a need to "cheat to compete".

I've written about this topic in earlier posts, including the 2013 release, SOMETHING TO PROVE: The Great Satchel Paige vs. Rookie Joe DiMaggio, by Robert Skead and Rob Skead, illustrated by Floyd Cooper.

Any young baseball fans who are disillusioned by the lies and rule-breaking of their current heroes need to look no further than non-fiction picture books like these and others to find role models that have already stood the test of time.  These names are remembered for their contributions to their professions and to their communities, not for flamboyance, or, worse yet, for inflicting damage on themselves, their fans, and their chosen careers.

Earlier this week Anna M. Lewis had a post on the  I.N.K. Blog(Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) with some related titles you should also check out:

Jul 21, 2013

And A Light to Guide Us By...

Have you ever had one of those days, or weeks, when your plans just slid away, slipping beyond your grasp, for no specific but about a half million incidental reasons, none of which really amount to a single thing? Sort of like the previous sentence just did?

You've never had that experience? I'd like to be happy for you but, honestly, who are you trying to kid?

This past week was another one of those for me. My best intentions to have this post written and timed to launch (pun intended) on Saturday, July 20, never came to pass.  The occasion commemorated, the author/illustrator, and the titles shared all deserve a thoughtful treatment, even if it is a day or two after the anniversary.

Makes me feel that NASA was wise in not seeking me out to participate in the execution of their wonderfully successful plans, don't you agree?

This week marks the 44th anniversary of the first Apollo Moon Landing, and the first time this date passes without it's central figure, Neil Armstrong. He died last August, at the age of 92, but his legacy continues. Armstrong and his crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were the team in the spotlight but their success was a direct result of a massive endeavor and commitment initiated by President John F. Kennedy in the first months of his presidency:
"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal,
 before this decade is out, 
of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."
That challenge was issued in May, 1961, and on July 20, 1969 Armstrong set foot on the moon.
Neil Armstrong/NASA Files
Brian Floca displays an uncanny ability to present overwhelmingly intricate and detailed information in picture books, including the story of the moon landing.
Atheneum/Richards Jackson Books
MOONSHOT: THE FLIGHT OF APOLLO 11 opens with endpapers depicting cutaways and labeled diagrams of the Saturn rocket that carried the team to the moon, along with paneled diagrams of each stage of the flight, landing, exploration, and return. The balance of accuracy and simplicity in both his illustrations and labeling  are  more than impressive and allow this book to defy a "target age" designation. The oversized format, simple fonts, double-page spreads, and lyrical text command attention.
"It climbs
the summer sky.
It rides a flapping
cracking flame
and shakes the earth,
and makes a mighty

Each page turn carries the reader along from the mundane (eating meals, toilet accommodations) to the heart-stopping (time and fuel are running out as the Eagle approaches the surface of the moon with no apparent place to set down safely). Concepts about the Moon, space travel, and the vastness of this accomplishment are developed with intrigue and inspiring appeal. Detailed back matter answers many questions for the curious and provides leads for those who want to explore further. 
Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books

Backmatter in LIGHTSHIP, another Brian Floca title, explains that the last lightship station in U. S. waters ended its service in 1983. This book tells the story of the long history of these remarkable ships and their crews in comparably spare but eloquent text and accurately detailed illustrations, both of which blend concepts, information, and inspiration. 
Check Floca's website for other titles that achieve similar remarkable effects.

I vividly recall standing in my living room watching that first Moon landing on television while the rest of my family sat perched on the edges of their seats, each of us more focused on the screen than the most avid game-player in a race for top score billing. I had to leave to work a night shift at the hospital but dreaded it, afraid I'd be en route at the moment of touchdown, one of the only people on the face of the Earth not watching. 

Then it happened. The Eagle landed. Armstrong's voice crackled from more than 200,000 miles away.
I saw that first step. Heard those first words.
Then left for work.

These days the looped replaying of everything from dance moves to a beetle mating can drive me crazy.  In a time before the internet I had seen my share of endless replays. The sixties were a decade of unforgettable and painfully historic events, including Kennedy's assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, Bobby Kennedy's assassination, the Watts riots, and countless images from the Viet Nam War. The Moon launch, landing, and safe return extended over several days, with countless replays of key scenes, much to the relief of those of us who had to go to work. What a difference there was between those uplifting, exhilarating scenes and sounds and those of tragedies and atrocities.

Floca's MOONSHOT brought back some of that excitement, thrill, and awe. Now that my life seems to be relegated to the pages of history, I'm thrilled when a picture book is able to make that history feel as immediate and alive for a new generation as it was for me. 

Jul 13, 2013

Finding Inspiration in Biographies- Again!

Sincere apologies for the consistent misspelling of Gandhi's name in the initial posting. 

You might assume that Kenichi Zenimura (Zeni) (1900-1968) and Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) have a few things in common with no other information than this sentence. You might note that:
  • They both have names that are non-Anglo-Saxon (at least not names most of us encounter on a daily basis).
  • They both lived in the first half of the twentieth century, meaning...
  • They both experienced very significant and historic times.
 Gandhi, of course, is an iconic and world-reknowned figure but Zenimura is less well known, if known at all. 
So here are a few more similarities to think about:
  • Both men weighed about one hundred pounds, much less than average adult women, let alone adult males.
  • Both were also shorter than most women. (Gandhi was five feet, three inches, and Zeni was only five feet tall.)
  • Both confronted powerful government forces imposing unjust restrictions on their freedoms. 
  • Both had prestigious careers before finding themselves living in meager circumstances.
  • Both inspired others through the force of their personalities and deeply held values.
  • Both provided a path of dignity and self-respect to people who were being treated unjustly.
Amazon Children's Publishing, 2013

Whether you're an expert on Gandhi's life or only vaguely aware of his accomplishments, you'll appreciate GANDHI: A March to the Sea, by Alice B. McGinty and illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. The wide format double-page spreads capture the emotional depth and intensity of the times, the luminous settings, and the vastness of the 24 day march he led along the coast of "British India" to accomplish something as simple yet politically transformative  as drawing salt from the sea. 
 I rank Gandhi among my personal heroes, as the father of  non-violent protest and civil disobedience in the quest for freedom and equality. This book frames these days in his long life with a gentle lyricism, rhythmic repetition, and enough context to draw the reader into the deliberate step-by-step process that made his protests so effective.
The values he displayed in accomplishing his goals throughout his life served as inspiration to many, not the least among them Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Henry N. Abrams, 2013
It would be hard to find any figure in history who would not be lost in the giant shadow cast by Gandhi, despite his diminutive size. The life of Kenichi Zenimuru, though, shines through.  Read BARBED WIRE BASEBALL, written by Marissa Moss and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, to see if you agree that Kenichi Zenimura displayed Gandhi's values in his own time and space.
The first time Zeni saw a baseball game he was eight years old. His family had moved from Japan to Hawaii and he was instantly determined to play. His parents called him a mouse and said he was too small. Discouraging messages followed him as he remained so small, but he achieved impressive success and even fame in professional baseball.  Through practice, determination, talent, and commitment he built a life as a player, coach, and manager in the decades that followed
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor the United States government chose to imprison Japanese Americans in "internment camps", barren desert settlements surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Rather than wallow in despair or bitterness with his wife and two sons, Zeni set about recreating normalcy for his boys and the rest of his community. 
He did that with what he knew best- baseball. He organized and led by example,  clearing, irrigating, planting, measuring and marking a baseball diamond. He scrounged and improvised, finagled and filched whatever was needed, at times even risking lives. Eventually he organized and outfitted thirty-two teams in three divisions with games scheduled every day. 
Regular readers know that I'm a die-hard baseball fan, and an even bigger fan of picture books. When these loves overlap I'm there prepared to cheer. (Type "baseball" in the blog search box to the right and find even more posts related to baseball.)
When picture books hit that remarkable sweet spot of image, text, subject matter and design, my cheers bring me to my feet. Gandhi and Zeni shared their passion and vision with others to inspire and restore dignity, earning the respect of their oppressors while achieving their goals. Books like these inspire us to learn more about history and its leaders, whether familiar or relatively unknown. 
Can you hear me cheering in the stands?

Jul 6, 2013

Not As Simple As It Seems, Is It?

In the last post I featured a variety of quality titles related to Independence Day, from light-hearted to local to Miss Liberty. Underlying themes abound within their covers. These include, but aren't limited to: patriotism, community service, international cooperation and collaboration, recognition of human rights for people of every color and background, and projects with noble intentions that never seem to reach completion.
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013

Which brings me to this week's single title, the very recent release, PANCHO RABBIT AND THE COYOTE: A Migrant's Tale, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. This award-winning book creator is also one impressive storyteller. I find myself returning to my favorite Levar Burton/Reading Rainbow quote: "But don't take my word for it..." Here's just a bit of what the Chicago Sun-Times had to say about Tonatiuh's latest creation: 

"Dora the Explorer never took a trip like this."
"The author, 28-year-old Duncan Tonatiuh, says he isn’t following the current immigration bill in Washington and didn’t write the book as a political statement. Tonatiuh, whose previous children’s book on Mexican painter Diego Rivera earned an award from the American Library Association, says he just wanted to give young illegal immigrants living in the United States a bedside story they can relate to.
'I wanted them to see that people that go into the U.S. like this face an incredibly dangerous journey,' says Tonatiuh, who was born and raised in Mexico and has dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship. 'But I also wanted to show the longing between families, the fact that there are a lot of children in Mexico who don’t see their fathers for years.'
Earning starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus Review, and Publishers' Weekly, the story works as a traditional tale and also as an allegory for the lives of countless Mexican and South American migrants facing a lose-lose decision when it comes to survival for themselves and their families.
I'll return to that aspect soon, but first let's take a closer look at the art of the book. Backmatter includes this brief statement: "The illustrations are hand drawn, then digitally collaged". I examine the art in picture books very closely on a daily basis, but I'll admit I had no idea how Tonatiuh accomplished this until reading that, and I'm mightily impressed with the process and the end results. 
Viking Press, 1999
The various textures, weaves, and components are intriguing and impressive, reminding me a bit of the elaborate collage production of Caldecott-winning JOSEPH HAD A LITTLE OVERCOAT by Simms Taback. And yet Duncan's book is utterly distinct and fascinating, a truly original style. 
As for the narrative, the cycle of Coyote's promises, "reasonable" demands, and eventual betrayal could be right out of the pages of a medieval folk tale, or from the pages of a twenty-first century newspaper report on immigration issues.
Tonatiuh addresses both levels of the story in the back matter, offering a Spanish glossary and author's notes, referencing the dual connotations of "coyote" as both a legendary trickster and as an illegal immigration border escort, every bit as unreliable and potentially deadly as the character in this story. 

Whatever your position may be on the current attempts to modernize and revamp the immigration laws in the Senate and the House, you should read this, including all the supplementary materials. It may not change your mind, and it was not written to espouse a political position. What it just might do is to humanize the issue, despite the fact that Pancho and his family are portrayed as rabbits. 

Reflecting on the themes explored briefly in last week's post, I can't help but wonder how the deeply entrenched constituencies on this topic would each claim identical aspects of American values, as listed in the opening paragraph above. How is it that patriotism, community service, international cooperation and collaboration, recognition of human rights for people of every color and background, and dissatisfaction with projects having noble intentions but an inability to reach completion can lead to deadlock? Aren't these values the prerequisites for and foundation of reasonable debate and constructive compromise? 

Shouldn't we demand that simplistic and rigid positions be jettisoned in favor of open minds and a willingness to compromise? I'm not presuming to say that reaching compromise would be simple, but it should not go unfinished.

Is it so hard to imagine that there's more thought-provoking truth in a picture book like this one than in the endlessly rehearsed and restated positions of pundits?

Jul 3, 2013

Ways to Celebrate Independence Day-- with Books!

Until last fall I was very satisfied with my name. My mother was determined to give us names that would not be "nicknamed". She accomplished that with my older sibs, at least until they moved into the tweens/teens when pals determined what they would be called. 
With my name, though, there was no fighting the fact that Sandra became "Sandy" before I could have anything to say about it (or about anything, for that matter, since I wasn't yet speaking!) Other than a brief burst of protest in my teens during which I insisted my name should be spelled "Sandi", I've felt more than satisfied with my name. 
Paul J. RIchards/AFP/Getty images
Via www.NPR.org

"Sandy", to me, conveys a generally appealing beachy impression, with enough implied grit and irritant that my personality doesn't come as too big a surprise once people get past the name. 
And then Super Storm Sandy co-opted my name. Compared to the havoc it wreaked on the east coast, I certainly shouldn't gripe about a simple name corruption. Even though I'm a midwesterner, my deep sympathy goes out to the millions who were affected, and my gratitude goes out to those who helped them in ways large and small.  This Fourth of July, just in time for fireworks, the Statue of Liberty reopens for the first time since SSSandy blew into the Big Apple.

Traditional Fourth of July celebrations range from local to legendary, from neighborly to national. For more than a decade I lived in a small town where the parade drew everyone (really, EVERYONE!) to participate, spectate, or both. It was composed of tractors, combines, a few flatbed floats, decorated bikes, squads of marching Little Leaguers and VFW members, and about two dozen fire trucks, ambulances, and squad cars. The parade was timed so that all the equipment from a dozen surrounding townships could be used in each community in sequence, starting as early as 8:00 AM and ending late afternoon just in time to settle in for music, food and  fireworks at each home town park. 
Now I live in a suburban community with at least ten times the budget and a century-old tradition of much the same kind: parade, talent show, music, food, and fireworks. The surrounding suburbs mirror that effort and spirit. Our suburbs encircle a major metro area perched on Lake Michigan, which offers a massive, bank-funded celebration on July Third. That allows everyone to enjoy the extravaganza and their own community confabs on the fourth.

So what does this have to do with picture books? Easy-peasy, can't you guess? 

Exactly! Picture books can be just as varied, just as reflective of different communities, and just as perfectly suited to a single theme, despite their differences. So let's look at a few.
Clarion Books,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013

It's a safe bet that "Yankee Doodle" will be played and sung in all the above celebrations, but Tom Angleberger's recent release, CRANKEE DOODLE, is getting almost as much attention. Illustrated by the author's wife, CeCe Bell, this is a comical, cartoonish deconstruction of the song by an upbeat pony and the bored, argumentative Yankee. The premise is a hoot, including the last pageturn punchline. The pony's back page monologue clarifies the origin and interpretations of the lyrics. Kirkus gave it a starred review, and Books for Kids Blog raved about it as well. 

My advice? Squeeze in a trip to the library or bookstore and take this pony for a ride.

Henry Holt and Company, 2005
The New York City celebrations and harbor fireworks are viewed by millions, locally and on television. It is always a thrill to see the Statue of Liberty sllhouetted during the concert and under the celebratory night lights. It's perhaps the most universal icon of America and freedom, with its reopening for the holiday restoring a sense of normalcy to the beleaguered coastline. 
LIBERTY RISING: The Story of the Statue of Liberty is written  by Pegi Deitz Shea and illustrated by Wade Zahares. There are any number of titles portraying the story of the statue's creation, gifting, and transport from France intended for audiences of all ages. This version hits the picture book sweet spot, combining enough text to tell the story effectively with easily interpreted illustrations. The intense color, dramatic scale, and abstraction ramp up the tension, even though we know the story well. The double fold-out spread of the mounted statue and the timeline backmatter enhance this non-fiction selection further.

National Geographic Children's book,
MASTER GEORGE'S PEOPLE: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation is written by Marfe Ferguson Delano with Mount Vernon with photography by Lori Epstein. The opening endpapers display the Declaration of Independence, whose public announcement we celebrate each Fourth of July. The final end papers display Washington's handwritten last will and testament, which reveals his transformed frame of mind about the Declaration's inspiring but misleading words, "that all men are created equal". 
Washington and most of the other signers were slaveowners, believing that the words only applied to white males. This major non-fiction work offers appealing photos for younger viewers but demands more from those seriously curious about Washington's change of heart.
Check it out at the Mount Vernon site.

Candlewick, 2012
Finally, consider this story about another New York City icon, the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. As the backmatter says, it has two nicknames, "Big John" and "Saint John the Unfinished". The cornerstone was set  back in 1892 and it is still under construction. ME and MOMMA and BIG JOHN, by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by William Low, tells this remarkable story through a fictional family based on real New Yorkers. How does this fit with the Fourth of July? Think about that line in the document Washington signed: the right to the pursuit of happiness. 
Work on this massive cathedral was halted to divert funds to the ever-present needs of the neighborhood community, to those who lacked the means for survival, let alone pursuing happiness. Eventually the need for trained workers and the need for jobs coalesced to produce an apprenticeship program for craftsman to complete the construction. This book wins the trifecta of story, story-telling, and visual power.

The bottom line is a simple search-engine prompt will lead you to an unlimited list of titles about Fourth of July celebrations. Amid the flood of suggestions, take the time to find, read, and share those with the staying power to appeal all year long, and for years to come. 
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.