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.
The Power of One meets Cheaper by the Dozen in this hilarious, heart-breaking memoir by Robyn Scott. When Robyn was seven, her New Zealand hippie parents moved her and her brother and sister to live in rural Botswana, where her father took a job as a bush doctor. He flew a small engine plane three days a week to different far-flung clinics where he would see more than 100 patients a day, and treat everything from pnemonia (real) to witch doctor’s curses (fake) and soon, the terrifying symptoms of AIDS. Robyn’s mother was into holistic food, medicine and home schooling, and her wacky lessons were like nothing you’ve ever seen in OR outside a classroom. Robyn and her sibs grew up swimming with crocodiles, taming house snakes, and riding bareback on half-broken horses. But they all managed to make it to adulthood with their limbs intact. This well-written and rollicking memoir may be just the ticket next time you’re feeling a little bored with your suburban existence. I guarantee you’ll get at least ten giggles and ten lumps in your throat from reading Twenty Chickens!
If all you know about John Lennon is from your parents’ Beatles collection, then are you going to be surprised about what you find between the pages of Elizabeth Partridge’s stellar biography of the Fab Four’s darkest member! Partridge examines Lennon’s life from childhood, through angry adolescence and Beatle mania, to his quiet househusband days as the partner of avante garde artist Yoko Ono. World traveler, peace advocate, and passionate rocker, John Lennon’s first priority was always his music, which led to many problems in both his personal and professional life. Though there have been hundreds of books written about John Lennon and the Beatles, Partridge pitches her book directly to teens, focusing on the aspects of Lennon’s life that you guys will find most interesting. Whether you are a seasoned fan or a Beatles neophyte, you will find something to love in this gorgeously made book about one of the most complicated popular culture icons of our time.
Maybe all you know of Eleanor Roosevelt is that she was sort of tall, wore a lot of hats, and was first lady to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was one of the more, well, famous presidents. While all those things are true, Eleanor was also a scrappy, tireless advocate for human rights, incredibly loyal to her friends, and one of the most radical president’s wives EVER. Don’t let the pearls and long skirts fool you, Eleanor did things no other first lady had done before her. She held the first ever press conference just for women, wrote her own newspaper column, and resigned from the prestigious DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) when they wouldn’t allow African American opera singer Marian Anderson appear in Constitution Hall. And that’s just in the first few chapters! Flirty, fascinating, and just plain fun, Candace Fleming’s chatty scrapbook approach to this American icon makes Eleanor seem more like a wonderful acquaintance you’d love to get to know better as opposed to a distant political figure. Fleming is careful to address all aspects of Eleanor’s full and often controversial life, including the question of her sexuality, and apathetic attitude concerning Jewish refugees during WWII. Full of personal stories and Eleanor’s witty quotes, this book will pull you into the inspirational life of this phenomenal woman who was way ahead of her time!
What would you say if someone offered you $10,000 just to help sail a ship from the island of St. Croix to New York City? I’m willing to bet you’d probably say yes even if you never sailed before in your life. That’s some serious pocket change. Now, what if you found out there were drugs aboard? Still keen on deck duty? Reckless teenaged Jack Gantos decided that the risk was worth it. He was tired of dead end jobs and just reading about other people’s exciting lives, he wanted to live his own adventure. This sailing job sounded like just the ticket–for very little work, he’d have enough money to go to college and start his life as a writer…except the unbelievable happened–he got caught. Stuck in a medium-security prison with hardened criminals, Gantos turned to the one thing he knew he could count on to get him through–his writing. This is the story of his arrest and scary time behind bars where surprisingly, he learned the discipline needed to become the amazing author he is today.(and if you’ve never ever read any of his other books, this is a great one to start with) Don’t miss this Hole in One–it’s my favorite book of 2002.
Of course, you’ve been singing the song around campfires and in school assemblies since kindergarten. But did you ever wonder about where those famous words originated from? Folksinger and songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote over 3,000 songs in his lifetime, including that famous one we all know by heart. Did you know that it actually started out as a protest song against “America the Beautiful”? Or that Guthrie was haunted all his life by what he believed to be a “fire curse” that killed several of his loved ones? Did you know that he lived the wandering life of a hobo, was married three times, helped orkers across the country set up unions, and inspired some of the greatest songwriters ever like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan? Or that he died with who knows how many songs left in him at age 55 from Huntington’s Disease? You didn’t? Well, I guess you’d better read Elizabeth Partridge’s amazing biography and discover, like I did, that all of today’s modern musical roads lead back to Woody.
Jesse and Eric live in Idaho—a state not exactly known for setting the world on fire with its cutting edge technology. Yet here in the middle of nowhere, Jesse and Eric are consummate Doom-playing, Internet-obsessed, expert computer hackers. They’re geniuses when it comes to hardware—it’s just their software (or social skills) that needs a little work. Pop culture guru Katz follows these two self-proclaimed “geeks” as they try to break out of their dead end, strip-mall-working lives and into the big city doings of Chicago. It’s an enlightening trip full of revelations about computer culture, societal pressure to be “normal” (whatever THAT is!) and how the labels people wear (in this case, GEEK) never really tell the whole story.
Life isn’t going too well for Tina S. Her family is living in a welfare hotel, and her mother’s new boyfriend is always giving her the evil eye. So when she meets the beautiful, doomed, drug-addicted April, it’s easy for her to shrug off her old life and join April and the other homeless teens who make Grand Central subway station in NYC their hang-out. Tina adores April, and wants to copy her every move, including April’s addiction to crack cocaine and scamming commuters for money. Soon, Tina can’t remember much of her life before the subway tunnels and crack dealers. Slowly, one painful step at a time, Tina fights her way back from jail, drugs and homelessness to becoming the kind of quality person she knows she is inside. A gritty, four-hanky read.
In what has got to be one of the funniest, and at the same time saddest memoirs ever, Esme Codell, (or“Madame Esme” as she likes to be called by her 5th graders) shares what it’s like to be a 24 year old, first-year, white teacher in an inner city, predominantly African American Chicago public school. Despite all her heroic efforts to teach kids in a fun and innovative way by hosting authors, making a fairy tale festival, and letting her worst kids learn how it feels to be her by letting them teach for a day, she is reprimanded, shunned, and generally told to fit the standard teacher mode or else! A book that will make you stand up and cheer, Educating Esme gives you a behind-the-scenes look at what a teaching life is REALLY like.
Photographer Dorothea Lange hit the road with her camera before it was fashionable to be a working woman and gave the world incredibly moving pictures of poverty in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, bread lines in the cities during the Great Depression, and barbed fences around the Japanese WWII internment camps. Author Elizabeth Partridge had the privilege of knowing Lange when she was a child (her father was Lange’s darkroom assistant) so she’s got some inside scoop, including a cool description of Thanksgiving dinner at Lange’s house. Definitely worth your time if you’re assigned ANOTHER biographical book report–not just because its really good, but because tons of photos keep the text to a minimum.
In her day, Martha Graham was the DEAL. Paula Abdul and every other smooth-mover can thank Graham for paving the way for them way back in the1930’s and 40’s. She is known as the mother of modern dance, and she choreographed dances for over 70 years, right up until her death at age 96 in 1991. Not only was she a dance teacher to both Liza Minelli and Madonna,but she was also a wild woman who romanced young male dancers and broke every classical dance rule. Russell Freedman has filled this bio with stunning b&W photos that really give you a sense of how Martha Graham’s moves started a dance revolution. She was a rebel of the highest order and in the best sense of the word. You’ll want to read this one just for fun…
This is one of the best books I’ve ever come across, and I’m giving it a big pump-up here because I want it to be read. It’s hard for us living in the United States to imagine a society where too much intelligence is considered dangerous and being part of an upper-class family is a crime. But that is exactly how it was in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in China. Ji-Li was a pre-teen when Chairman Mao came into power, and watched as the Communist Party attacked the upper class and exalted the lower class in an attempt to make everyone equal. Her life was lived in fear of the Red Guards, who searched upper class homes for signs of the “four olds”–old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits. If they found any symbol of the four olds such as ceremonial robes or family heirlooms, it was destroyed and members of the family could be imprisoned. It was a frightening time, and even though Ji-Li tried to be a good Communist and embrace the ideals of Chairman Mao, she couldn’t forget her intelligence, her heritage, of the fact that her father was imprisoned just because his family owned land. You’ll definitely have a new appreciation for the freedom you have as an American teen of the 90’s after reading this powerful memoir.
In the 1970’s, Sonsyrea Tate was a member of a family that belonged to the Nation of Islam. She didn’t go to public school, but instead attended a private Muslim school where her subjects included Arabic, history according to the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, the Nation’s Leader, and black pride. She liked how the Nation gave her and her family a sense of identity and worth as a people. But as she grew older, Sonsyrea grew dissatisfied with the Nation. She hated the way the women were forced to be subservient and wear restrictive clothing. She felt that her parents were hypocrites who disobeyed the Nation’s rules against drugs by smoking pot. Her eyewitness account of the corruption that went on behind the scenes of the Black Muslim movement caused her to make a permanent break with the Nation when she became a young adult. The feelings expressed in Sonsyrea’s story will probably remind you of feelings of disillusionment that you may have had about your parents or the religion you were brought up in. An absorbing first hand account of the Nation of Islam from the inside-out.
Of course, no bio list from me, the rabid Doors fan, would be complete without the inclusion of the legend, the Lizard King, the bad boy to end all bad boys–Jim Morrison. Yes, the lead singer of the Doors had a very bad rep. as a drug-addicted alcoholic who publically exposed himself at concerts and ran around on his girlfriend. But author Danny Sugerman, who was part of the Doors entourage, also writes about the sensitive, wacky kid that Jim was. His I.Q. was off the charts and he read tons of philosophy and classical lit. in his teens that most people don’t even try to tackle until college. Sugerman also writes about the Jim Morrison who felt so distanced from his military parents that he told reporters during an interview that they were dead, even though at the time, they were very much alive. (Admit it, you’ve been tempted sometimes to do the same thing)This biography is also a good book about the 60’s and how the Doors music influenced and was influenced by the political and moral movements of that time. Now kids, I’m not endorsing Jim’s lifestyle in any way, shape or form. All I’m saying is that despite all his bad behavior, Jim Morrison was also a gifted poet and a voracious reader–one habit of his that I think would be great for you to pick up.