Sunday, January 9, 2011

Uncommon Biographies of Exceptional Men (FAMILY magazine reviews)

Examining this small selection of now-famous personalities supplies readers with a window into several unconventional lives. Remembering that each of us is unique as well, we can consider how our own contributions make this world a better place.

The Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward

by Kathleen Krull

illustrated by Amy June Bates

Simon & Schuster, $16.99, Ages 6-9

This remarkable shared biography is also a story of three brothers whose intertwined lives made it possible for them to help shape the world we know today. While the book begins with Joe, the eldest of the nine Kennedy children (all of whom are mentioned by name on the first page of the story), the focus is on the three brothers who held public office.

Before he ever “had a chance to run for office,” Joe died, a World War II fighter pilot. His loss shadowed the entire family and contributed to the strength of the values they shared -– hope, compassion, and loyalty. These values become a theme not only in the book, but characterize the life of public service each brother chose.

John, often sick, was also the biggest reader. As the youngest elected president of the U.S., he spoke about equal rights for African Americans, started the Peace Corps and, sadly, was assassinated only 1000 days after taking the oath of office.

Robert, the quiet one, noted injustices he saw, and began to ask questions. As both Senator and presidential candidate he marched with migrant workers, saw appalling living conditions of Native American Indians, and lost his life to an assassins bullet as well.

Edward, the youngest, who often made the others laugh, was passionate in his family loyalty. As one of the longest serving U.S. Senators in history (more than 46 years), he worked to pass laws protecting the most needy, and in fact helped nearly every man, woman and child in America.

With additional pages of Further Information, a Time Line, and Sources at the end, this beautifully illustrated book uses subdued watercolor, gouache, and pencil to interactively support the strength of the well-written text. The portraits of the brothers as children, as adults, and whether thoughtful, grieving, at work or play, demonstrate the active contributions characteristic of the brothers Kennedy, whose lives continue to inspire.

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Suzy)

by Barbara Kerley

illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Scholastic, $17.99, Ages 8-11

What makes this book’s title accurate is not only that it’s subject (Mark Twain, also known as Samuel Clemens) is extraordinary, but its author and co-author are also extraordinary – all three, outstanding writers, capable of capturing their subjects with characteristic authenticity and charm. Author Kerley quotes liberally and with humor, from Clemens’ daughter Suzy’s little brown notebook, kept also as a diary during her thirteenth year (spring 1885 through summer 1886). She also employs Clemens’ comments, inserted into Suzy’s original manuscript, to inform her text.

Suzy studied Papa by day, noticing his habits, what he did, and said, and writing it down at night, before hiding it under her pillow. She wrote about his early years, his public and private life, distractions from his own writing, the complications of his fame, and anecdotes to summarize her observations. She mentions his work on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; followed by nightly readings to the family of the pages he had written that day. Especially she notes the work Mamma did, at Papa’s request, to “expurgate” “questionable passages.”

Book designer, Marijka Kostiw’s skill is also evident as smaller pages of a journal in imitation of Suzy’s handwriting are included multiple times throughout the book, accenting Kerley’s storytelling in the book’s larger pages. Additionally, artist Fotheringham’s over-sized illustrations lure readers’ attention, reinforcing the energy of the story.

This humorously told biography is engrossing for its engaging language, informative sidebars, changing text type to denote quotes, digitally produced illustrations with active movement, absorbing page arrangements and fascinating back matter.

The latter includes an Author’s Note, which incorporates a section on Papa, another on Suzy, and a third describing, in easy-to-use details and tips, how to gather information and write a biography. Additional end material comprises A Selected Time Line of Mark Twain’s Life, a family photo, and Sources.

Racing Against the Odds: The Story of Wendell Scott, Stock Car Racing’s African American Champion

by Carole Boston Weatherford

illustrated by Eric A. Velasquez

Marshall Cavendish, $17.99, Ages 7-10

A former cab driver, World War II veteran, and self-taught mechanic, Scott bought his first car (a Ford Model T) for $15 when he was fourteen years old. He used his many car related skills to put his sister, and all of his children through college.

Award-winning author and college literature professor Weatherford draws readers into this action-packed biography of NASCAR racing’s first and only African American winner. Cars were his passion, whether he was driving taxi, running moonshine, making repairs in his garage, building or racing stock cars. “And when Hollywood made a movie about his life” (Greased Lightening, 1977), “he built three cars for the film and even drove in action scenes.”

Using pastels, artist and award-winner Velasquez makes careful choices of both bright and dark colors, to shape his illustrations toward high-powered movement. Sometimes tilting the paintings, other times framing several on a double page spread, his canny work invests the visuals with brisk vitality. The successful marriage of text and image forms a dynamic biography of a dreamer who worked full-time, competing on the side, making his love of cars and racing the center of his life and work. (A Note from the Author supplies additional information at the end.)

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