So, you gotta pick a “famous person” to write about for a book report. Who’s it gonna be? Don’t even tell me Martin Luther King or Helen Keller. Booorrriiinnng. Listen, your teacher has been there, done that about a million times. Most high school teachers have MEMORIZED the lives of the presidents and civil rights leaders forward and backward by now. Give yourself and your teacher a shot in the arm by picking someone off the beaten path of history. The titles below are not just good for book reports, they’re also just really fun to read. I’m a dedicated fiction-aholic, and biography is one of the few areas in the ocean of non-fiction into which I am willing to dip my big toe. The great thing about biography is that not only are you reading a fantastic story, but it is ALL TRUE!! In the hands of a good writer, some biographies are better and stranger than fiction. So kick back, relax, and find out what inquiring minds want to know…trust me, it’s better than a tabloid.
In the late teens and early 1920’s, many young American women were thrilled to find paying work outside the home in factories that sprang up in the wake of WWI. Two of these factories, Radium Luminous Materials in Newark, New Jersey and the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, manufactured glow-in-the-dark wristwatches. The factories employed young women, many of them starting when they were teenagers, to delicately hand paint the watch faces with incandescent paint made with radium powder. Though scientists knew that the radioactive element could destroy human tissue and it was used in the fight against cancer, it was also considered a wonder drug that could cure anything from “hay fever…to constipation.” While the girls were elated just to be in the presence of the expensive substance (which sold for $120,000 a gram), it didn’t hurt that the jobs also paid handsomely. Because the radium powder was so expensive, the girls were admonished to use it sparingly. But the powder scattered everywhere when they tried to mix it with the paint, settling on their skin, clothes and hair, which all glowed in the dark when they got home. They also got paint in their mouths from licking the thin brushes in order to make them fine-tipped enough to paint the tiny numbers. It was fun when their clothes and teeth shone in the dark, and with all the money they were making, they could afford the latest stylish clothes, go to parties after work and enjoy being young. Until, one by one, they all began to sicken…and die, many before they reached thirty.
This is the true story of several of the women who fatally suffered from radium poisoning the 1920’s and their efforts to sue the companies that not only made them sick but refused to admit that radium was poisonous. Kate Moore‘s poignant, sympathetic work reads like a legal medical thriller as she dives deep into the lives and families of the women who were affected and chronicles their heart breaking attempts to hold the companies accountable. Shockingly, one of the companies didn’t even consider testing the ill women until the first MALE scientist died as a result of radium poisoning. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, another tragedy where workplace safety was compromised when it came to female laborers. Radium Girls is for anyone interested in women’s history, medical mysteries, labor laws or courtroom dramas, because this story has it ALL!
Not being a big fan of weddings in general, it took me awhile to pick up Lucy Knisley‘s charming graphic memoir about her own wedding experience. What I should have remembered is that Knisley has a knack for drawing me in to whatever she’s drawing (pun intended)–whether it’s food, travel or family, and Something New was no exception. In her usual small, tidy trademark style, Knisley lovingly chronicles the year leading up to her wedding in upstate New York, warts and all. She details arguments with her mom, worries about the budget and ambivalence towards the whole idea of a traditional wedding. She also describes her shining love for her fiancé, John, the thrill of finally finding the right, simple dress and the joy of making your own decorations. What I liked best about this book was Knisley’s honest examination of conventional wedding components and her pleasure in subverting each one. In the end, Knisley created an heartfelt account of her unique experience that also managed to feel universally human. Teen peeps, while you may not be at the point of planning a wedding yourself, you can still enjoy Knisely’s quirky adventures in dress shopping, family drama and DIY reception crafting. And it also makes a great gift to bring to all those weddings you’re going to be dragged to this summer!
Vincent and Theo, Theo and Vincent. More than friends, more than brothers, these steadfast siblings kept each other alive through their devotion to art and to each other. Theo was the prosperous younger brother, becoming a profitable art dealer at a young age due to his savvy business sense and sharp eye. Vincent was the tempestuous older brother, moody and unpredictable, discarding a number of odd jobs before settling on painting as a profession. Then as now, pursuing a career in the arts wasn’t the most lucrative pursuit, but Vincent was able to perfect his signature impasto technique because of his brother’s steady financial support. Theo longed for romantic love, while Vincent craved commercial success so he could repay Theo, but neither brother ever put anything before their relationship with each other. While most people have heard of famous painter Vincent Van Gogh, few understand how completely vital Theo’s support was to Vincent’s success. In this intimate biography, rich with direct quotes from the brothers’ letters, author Deb Heiligman chronicles the ups and downs of the siblings as they navigated success, failure, loss of friends and family, love and marriage. My favorite passage concerns a parcel that Vincent was determined to carry himself. How Heiligman uses that story as a metaphor and weaves it through the entire biography as way of illustrating the brothers’ relationship is beautifully and subtly done, and provides readers with an insight as to which brother was emotionally carrying the other at different points in their lives. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2017.
Never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Welcome to the club. Luckily for those of us not in the know, National Book Award finalist Patty McCormick has penned a fascinating biography of the little known German Lutheran minister who was a big part of an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a traditionally trained and educated theologian, philosopher and pastor who came of age just as Germany was gearing up for WWII. After his beloved brother was killed during WWI, Bonhoeffer dedicated his life to God and the pursuit of peace. He traveled around the world, including the United States, where his beliefs were challenged and influenced by other religious cultural practices. He read and was inspired by the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and soon become convinced that “the church wasn’t a historical institution; it was a living community that could transcend national, ethnic, class and even religious boundaries. The ‘church’ was not a building or an organization; it was a force for good, alive all around the world.” As Hitler rose to power in Bonhoeffer’s native Germany, and Bonhoeffer’s Jewish friends began to suffer, Bonhoeffer knew that despite his avowed pacifism, he had to do everything in his power to bring about the end of this evil man. So he joined together with his brother-in-laws in a secret conspiracy to rid Germany of the Fuhrer. Bonhoeffer’s part was to sneak damning evidence of Nazi atrocities out of Germany to other European nations to convince them to overthrow the dictator. In fact, Bonhoeffer was the first person to send documented proof from Germany to Geneva, Switzerland about Hitler’s plan to exterminate the German Jews. How successful was Bonhoeffer in his efforts and how close did the men come to realizing Hitler’s murder? That is the compelling, page turning true story McCormick tells in this slim volume that you could probably finish in a weekend (like I did!).
Sometimes you come across a book on your bookshelf that you read so much ABOUT that you’re convinced you also READ the book. I read so many reviews and accolades for Deborah Heiligman’s award-winning book about the life and marriage of Charles and Emma Darwin (first published in 2009) that somehow I believed I had also read the book itself. But in looking over it again, I realized I had never actually cracked the spine, which I rectified immediately and was delirious with delight when I did. You might think that the story of a 1800’s marriage between a full on science nerd and his whip smart brainiac cousin might be a little, well, boring. YOU WOULD BE WRONG. Charles and Emma’s relationship, while a loving one, was replete with comedy, tragedy and the on-going debate that fueled their marital discourse their whole lives: science vs. religion. Charles was the famous scientist who wrote Origin of Species, while Emma was a renowned novel reader who steadfastly believed in a Christian afterlife. How these two found common ground is the basis for this intriguing biography, which provides readers with an intimate portrait of a couple that on paper (Charles even made a pro/con list for marriage) shouldn’t have worked but did, and did so marvelously. That didn’t mean that there weren’t hardships along the way. They suffered through the deaths of more than one child, and Charles worried constantly about how his controversial theory was going to be received by a largely God-fearing public. But through it all they sustained each other, and their marriage is one of the greatest love stories you never even heard of. So don’t be like me! Get this fascinating non-fic post-haste from your nearest library, bookstore, or e-reader.
Employing a similar technique in nonfiction that Nick Hornby used in fiction, motivational speaker and Paralympic skier Josh Sunquist goes back to question the girls of his youth to discover why no one ever wanted to be his girlfriend. The results are both painfully true and truly funny. When it came to dating, Josh already had a few strikes against him. First of all, he was homeschooled in a strict Christian family that didn’t allow him to even consider dating girls until he was sixteen. Secondly, his mother was a proud thrift store shopper, so Josh only rarely scored some cool threads to impress girls with. And finally, after a horrific bout with childhood cancer, Josh’s left leg had to be amputated, leaving him feeling understandably hesitant when it came to talking to the opposite sex. He also set some pretty tough rules for himself after the amputation: “1. Never be a burden. 2. Never be different.” So under most circumstances, Josh was so busy trying to blend in that he had a hard time standing out. After documenting his failure to establish romantic relationships at the middle school, high school and college level, Josh finally realizes that his problem wasn’t with all the girls who turned him down, it was with the guy in the mirror who, despite all the obstacles he’d overcome, just didn’t believe in himself. And then, Ashley came along…This breezy, humorous memoir reads like a what NOT to do manual on dating. After finishing, readers will learn that honesty is often the best policy, Miss America is probably just as insecure about her body as you are and Close Fast Dancing is actually a thing. Want to read a sample before committing? Click here.
Most of us have heard of or read the story of the last royal family to rule Russia, about their immense wealth, sheltered lives and horrific end. But Candace Fleming tells the familiar history in a compulsively readable way, by including parallel narratives of real peasants and revolutionaries whose brutally poor lives provide a stark contrast to the opulence of the royal Romanovs. While the difference between the imperial family and the people they ruled seems cruel and extreme to us today, Fleming does an thorough job of showing that the Romanovs were products of their time period, who truly believed that the peasants were happy farmers who lived robust country lives. But this convenient belief couldn’t be “…further from the truth. Most peasants had never slept in a proper bed, owned a pair of leather shoes, eaten off of a china plate, or been examined by a doctor.” In fact, Fleming notes, “Many peasants were so poor, even the cockroaches abandoned their huts.” But Nicholas Romanov was willfully ignorant of the fate of his people because he had been raised to understand that his family had been divinely chosen to rule, an understanding that eventually led to the fall of czar-ruled Russia. I was surprisingly riveted by a story where the end is never in doubt. But Fleming’s detailed descriptions of the royal children (son Alexie was a holy terror in the school room, daughter Anastasia was nicknamed “dumpling”) and their luxurious surroundings juxtaposed against the rise of the disenfranchised revolutionaries made for obsessive reading. You also won’t want to miss the fascinating portrait of one of the most radical rock stars of history, the famous charlatan Rasputin, who wormed his way into the royal family and almost refused to die. I finished the entire book in two days, and I bet you will too when you nab your own copy from the nearest library, bookstore or e-reader.
I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s–raised and fisted
or Martin’s–open and asking
or James’s–curled around a pen.
With a beginning that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ DAVID COPPERFIELD, acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson guides readers through her early life using lyrical prose poems that evocatively describe the people and places that influenced her illustrious writing career. As her family moves from Ohio to South Carolina and eventually Brooklyn, New York, young Jackie never loses sight of the one thing she wants more than anything else: to become a writer. Every heads-up penny found/and daydream and night dream/and even when people say it’s a pipe dream…!/I want to be a writer. Even when reading doesn’t come as easily to her as it does to big sister Dell, Jackie doesn’t give up and is encouraged by the picture books by John Steptoe she takes out from the library. I’d never have believed/that someone who looked like me/could be in the pages of a book/that someone who looked like me/had a story. When she can’t make the words work, (Words from the books curl around each other/make little sense/until/I read them again, the story/settling into memory.) Jackie memorizes stories and quickly moves on to creating her own. Her first book is a stapled collection of butterfly poems, but we already know it will not be her last. Even though Brown Girl Dreaming covers Woodson’s childhood, I don’t know if I buy that this book is only a children’s title. Her clean, lyrical poems have a classic feel that can easily be enjoyed by readers of all ages. And anyone who’s ever yearned to be a writer will especially appreciate the longing that comes through on every page. This achingly wistful, heartfelt tome is a both a personal story and a universal one. It is the origin story of one writer and all writers. And it pairs beautifully with Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry.
I keep writing, knowing now/that I was a long time coming.
I have been absolutely smitten with Lucy Knisley since reading her graphic travel memoir French Milk right before I went to Paris for the first time. That’s why I was thrilled to get my oven mitts on her new foodie autobio, Relish. In it, Knisley shares the luscious narratives of her upbringing (complete with to-die-for illustrated recipes) in a gritty 1970’s & 80’s New York City and rustic upstate Rhinebeck. Her stories of eating oysters at her uncle’s knee, running away from vindictive geese and chowing down French fries on the sly so as not to offend her gourmet parents are hilarious and delicious. But my two hands down favorite stories are when she chronicles eating her way through Mexico with her mom and best guy friend Drew while getting her first period at the most awkward of times, and the day when she helped her mom cater an event at DIA Beacon as a college student and came face to face with Richard Serra’s massive iron sculptures. By herself with the sculpture while the party goes on in another room, Knisley feels surprisingly blessed to be a waiter. “I could be alone, touching the cool metal of a famous and affecting work of art, a gift gained through circumstance. I thought of all the builders and guards and custodians who have had similar moments, and felt lucky to be a server.” (I’ve seen and been inside those sculptures and they are indeed awe inspiring.) And then there are the RECIPES. For perfect chocolate chip cookies, homemade pesto and my personal favorite, sautéed mushrooms. And those are just a very few mouthwatering examples. While it’s hard to know where to shelve Relish (living room bookcase or kitchen cupboard?) it’s not hard to enjoy each and every one of Knisley’s tasty anecdotes. Whether you’re a foodie or just a sucker for a good coming of age story, you’re going to savor every page of this yummy graphic memoir.