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.
Inquiring Minds Want to Know
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.
Just the name of history’s original bad boy conjures up connotations of double-crossing and betrayal. Say “Benedict Arnold” to any group of school kids in the country and while they may not be able to come up with his birth and death dates, they can tell you that he was a traitor. In September of 1780, Arnold’s plans to turn over the American fort of West Point to the British were discovered through a series of fascinating mishaps and coincidences, meticulously chronicled in this captivating biography. Though his plot was discovered in time to avoid the capture of West Point, Arnold was forever branded a turncoat. The irony is that Arnold should have gone down in history as a hero. After all, he was known for his courage on the battlefield, his clever attack plans, and his winsome ways with the ladies. But politics, anger and a little thing called ego got in his way. How did one of the bravest champions of the American Revolution end up becoming one of history’s most reviled villains? Rev. War buff and author Steve Sheinkin explains in this detailed, entertaining biography that plots out both the events of Arnold’s life and the life of Major John Andre, the British soldier who also ended up taking the fall for Arnold’s actions. Benedict Arnold: rascally rogue or misunderstood victim? You be the judge after finishing this intriguing biography.
To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story by Casey Scieszka & illustrated by Steven Weinberg
Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg perfectly capture what it’s like to travel the world while simultaneously navigating your first grown-up relationship in this lavishly illustrated travel memoir. Casey, a writer, and Steven, an artist, are in love and can’t wait to start experiencing life post-college. “So here we are, adults. We are no longer required to do anything. It’s liberating! It’s…full of pressure. Because now that we can do whatever we want, we’re constantly asking ourselves: Is this what we want to be doing?” So together they cobble together a year long, grant-funded plan to travel from China, through Southeast Asia and end up in Timbuktu, Mali. On their way, they will work on their art and try to decide what direction their adult lives will take. Of course, it isn’t easy. Casey is plagued by intestinal troubles while Steven is plagued by doubts about his chosen career as an artist. In addition, their travel fortitude is sorely tested by China’s interminable winter, Mali’s exhausting heat, and by trying to stay patient with each other in all temperatures. Still, it’s exhilarating when their Chinese students begin to understand and speak English, or when their neighbors in Bamako, Mali accept them as their own even though they can barely understand each other’s language. But they never stop questioning themselves about their motivations even as they immerse themselves in the culture of the country they’re in. “Oh, the constant paradox of trying to “go native.” How much do you want to live locally? How much do you want to be the foreigner who—look!—does such a good job of living locally?” When they finally get to Timbuktu, you will feel like you traveled right along with them and know them as well as any of your friends. I just loved this book–it’s heart, it’s humor, and especially all the funny little nuggets of information that Casey shares along the way—like how to speak Bamanankan, what to keep in your fanny pack, and where to find the best hand-pulled noodles. A just right summer read even if the furthest place you’ll be going this July is camp.
Yes, we think we know everything there is to know about Amelia Earhart, especially if you saw that movie with Hilary Swank. But since I skipped that film, I was actually surprised by how much I didn’t know about this first lady of flight. For example, did you know that:
She looked uncannily like this man, another early pioneer of flight?
Her “naturally curly hair” wasn’t natural?
Her father was an alcoholic? This caused Amelia to become a caretaker of her family at a young age.
She wasn’t a big fan of marriage? She was engaged in her youth for about four years and then broke it off. Then she fell for a married man. After he was divorced she finally married him, after making him beg her for two years. But only after he agreed to one-year probationary period.
She worked for a while at a settlement house for new immigrants? She taught English and coached a basketball team.
She was a fashion designer? The Amelia Earhart Clothing Company: “Good lines and good materials for women who lead active lives.”
She was the Lady GaGa of her time in terms of self-promotion? There wasn’t a speaking engagement or a parade she wouldn’t attend in order to make more money for flying.
She was best buds with Eleanor Roosevelt?
She wasn’t solo on her final flight? Her co-pilot was Fred Noonan, a former navigation teacher for Pan Am who suffered from alcoholism, but was also considered “a navigational genius.”
Her husband didn’t declare her dead until two years after she disappeared?
I was flabbergasted! (Especially by the hair thing:) Author Candace Fleming also intersperses each chapter with accounts of regular people who claimed to have heard Amelia radioing for help on their home radios, which adds another level of intrigue to this history mystery. Full of great archival pictures, interesting anecdotes, and plenty of speculation about what really happened on that fateful flight, this fascinating biography will be flying into a library, bookstore, or e-reader near you March 2011.
On a spring day in 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was dragged from the bus by two adult police officers, called “Thing” and “Whore,” and put in a jail cell. She was scared out of her mind, but she was tired of being told she was less than just because of the color of her skin and the texture of her hair. From her activist-minded teachers, she knew it was her constitutional right to sit where she wanted on the bus, and the entire Montgomery police force couldn’t change that. So she dared to challenge the city’s segregated bus laws that demanded an entire row of African Americans must get up if even just one White person wanted to sit down. This happened nine months before Rosa Parks made her famous protest, and I KNOW you’ve heard of her. So why hasn’t history also made much of Claudette? The answer may surprise you…Author Philip Hoose takes you right to the tumultuous center of the Civil Rights Movement with this true story of a girl who fought back even when no one would fight for her. The most powerful words in the book come from Colvin herself, who shares the pain and fear of her frightening experience and its aftermath firsthand. “The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped…I didn’t know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there…” This is one of the best bios for YA’s around, and don’t just take my word for it—the National Book Award Foundation just named it the 2009 winner in the Young People’s Literature category.
If you think your parents are awful, they are probably peaches compared to the folks that raised Caldecott award winner artist David Small. This gut wrenching graphic memoir of selected events from Small’s Detroit-based childhood and adolescence chronicle his survival of his parents’ loveless marriage, a botched surgery on his throat that left him scarred and voiceless, and the burning of all his favorite books by his vindictive mother. Through it all, Small maintained hope through his artwork. His sketchbook became a welcome escape from his chilly home life and silent school days, a portal to another world–just like Alice’s rabbit hole. Small was very influenced by Alice in Wonderland, and even portrays the therapist who ended up saving his life when he was a teen as the benevolent White Rabbit. In spare prose and stark panels, employing images that are startling, dream-like and reminiscent of classic cinema, Small takes you on an insightful and poignant journey through his own personal hell and eventual redemption. In the end Small perseveres, becoming an artist against all odds and with no support from his family. While this book is for everybody, it is especially for the somebody whose family has made them feel insignificant. Because as the inspiring author and illustrator demonstrates in this terrible, wonderful GN, even if you’re Small, you can still walk TALL. If you end up loving this gripping graphic memoir as much as I do, try the equally engrossing Blankets by Craig Thompson. Until then, enjoy this awesome book trailer narrated by the author himself.
If your life had a soundtrack, who would be on it? For comic artist Mike Dawson, the answer is simple: “When I think of Queen, I can remember my whole life.” From the moment he sees Freddie Mercury strut his stuff on Top of the Pops as a wee lad, Mike knows he’s found his muse. When his family moves from England to New Jersey, Freddie is there, singing “I Want to Break Free” and “Death on Two Legs.” When everyone in his high school in 1991 is rocking out to Nirvana and all the other “alternative” bands, Mike can turn up his nose in favor of Freddie, who “can actually sing.” When Wayne’s World makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” a mainstream hit, Mike can brag that Queen was “his” band first. As he develops his drawing skills, suffers through his first serious romantic relationship, and tries to discover who he really is, the classic rock music of Queen is always playing in the background. This quiet, slice of life graphic memoir emphasizes the incredibly important role music plays in our lives, especially during our teen years. Dawson’s art is realistic and fearless–he isn’t afraid to depict himself in all his adolescent glory, bad haircut, braces and all. Occasionally, Dawson literally “rocks out” on impressive two page spreads (one of which hilariously depicts him singing an endless rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at a local talent show, while the MC keeps trying to shoo him off the stage) that juice up his gently paced narrative and temper his contemplative tone. If you’re a fan of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, or the late Freddie Mercury, you’re gonna want to give Freddie & Me a go.