November 17, 2017

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The Power of Possibility: Dreamers Who Changed the World

 

Why do we need dreamers? Dreamers have the power to change the world by envisioning new ways of doing things, coming up with innovative ideas, combating powerlessness with possibility, looking beyond established obstacles, and finding the means to bring aspirations to fruition. The picture book biographies featured here introduce nine individuals who have dreamed big, fought against impossible odds, and persevered to achieve magnificent things.

Dreamers… Transform their Communities

Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997), the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, shares an autobiographical story that is eloquent, accessible, and empowering. The author describes her childhood in Pakistan, where, inspired by a favorite TV show, she dreamed of possessing Malala’s Magic Pencil (Little, Brown, Oct. 2017; Gr 3 Up). Readers are immediately pulled into the inviting first-person narrative, as the young Malala imagined herself using this wish-granting device to stop time for an extra hour of sleep, erase the smell of a nearby trash dump, or draw beautiful dresses for her mother. As Malala gradually became aware of the plight of other children in her city, her goals became more altruistic (“First, I would erase war, poverty, and hunger. Then I would draw girls and boys together as equals”). Determined to put her energy into doing rather than wishing, she worked hard at her studies, until the Taliban forbad girls from attending school. Picking up a real pencil, Malala began to speak out, bringing the world’s attention to the hardships faced by her community. In fact, as she states simply, “My voice became so powerful that the dangerous men tried to silence me. They failed” (paired with an illustration of Malala in a dark hospital room, this is the only reference to the Taliban’s 2012 attempt on her life). The young woman persisted, speaking about the importance of education for all and spreading a message of hope. Done by Kerascoët, the lovely, color-drenched watercolor artwork blends realistically depicted moments with whimsical gold renderings that underscore the unlimited potential of dreams to change the world. This compelling book offers much to explore and discuss, and inspires children to find their own voices, speak up for what they believe in, and strive tirelessly to make their aspirations come true.

Nancy Churnin tells the story of a poor laborer whose remote village in India is separated from the closest town—and access to schools, markets, medical facilities, and jobs—by “a mighty mountain,” necessitating a perilous 40-mile trek from point to point. Determined to find a method to help his impoverished community, Manjhi Moves a Mountain (Creston, Sept. 2017; K-Gr 4)—literally, spending the next 22 years hand-cutting a pathway 360 feet long, 30 feet high, and 25 feet wide through the imposing rock. Churnin’s engaging text and Danny Popovici’s energetic light-infused illustrations trace this feat of imagination, engineering, and willpower as Manjhi envisions a course of action, patiently sets his chisel and swings his hammer (“Clink. Clank. Clunk.”), and perseveres until inches turn to feet and a dream becomes reality. Though they ridicule him at first (“You’re crazy…A man can’t change a mountain. It’s there before he’s born and after he dies.”), his neighbors eventually support his efforts with gifts of tools and food and an occasional helping hand. Finally, the road is completed and the path is clear to a better way of life. An author’s note provides more information about Dashrath Manjhi (1934-2007), the inspiration for this tale, and encourages kids to move their own “mountain” and find a way “to make things better in your community” (a link to share their efforts with other readers is included). Filled with heart and hopefulness, this uplifting tale shows youngsters that one person can make a difference.

Dreamers… Inspire Others through Imagination

In Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote (Peachtree, Oct. 2017; Gr 3-6), Margarita Engle utilizes 14 evocative poems to introduce the childhood of the famous Spanish author (1547-1616) and muse upon the origins of one of Western literature’s most celebrated characters. Fact blends with fiction, as the free-verse offerings describe a youth fraught with hardship—Papá’s gambling debts left the family in difficult financial straits, necessitated frequent moves across Spain, and resulted in the man being hauled off to debtors’ prison. Underscoring Miguel’s love of learning and storytelling, Engle envisions the boy seeking solace from the harsh difficulties of life in his imagination: “the spark of a story flares up./A tale about a brave knight/who will ride out on/a strong horse/and right/all the wrongs/of this confusing/world.” Raúl Colón’s detailed watercolor illustrations create a realistic sense of time and place; shadowing, flowing lines, and clever page placement delineate the fanciful creations beginning to coalesce in Miguel’s imagination. In addition to providing a fascinating entrée to the life Cervantes and his classic work of literature (supported by lengthy back matter), this stunning book will also speak to contemporary children enduring hard times, and remind them, as Engle points out in her author’s note, that “the power of imagination can be a great source of comfort and hope in times of struggle and suffering.”

A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider (Holt, Oct. 2017; Gr 2-5) describes the childhood of E. B. White (1899-1985) and the inspiration behind two of his beloved works for children. Barbara Herkert’s delightful verses and Lauren Castillo’s exquisitely composed paintings depict formative moments, as young Elwyn was befriended by “a bold house mouse” while he lay sick in bed, spent hours sequestered in the stable (his “senses sharpened/to the ripe scent of manure,/the creak of harness leather…the snort of tired horses,/the sweet-dry smell of hay,/and a spider’s masterpiece”), and fearfully endured required forays to school. Quiet times observing the world around him and reflections jotted in a journal allowed him to realize that writing “filled him with joy.” In college, Elwyn, now called Andy, was visited during a dream by a “dapper” mouse “completely dressed/with a hat and cane;” Stuart Little became the subject of stories compiled years later into his first book (1945). After starting a family and relocating from New York City to a much dreamed-of farm in Maine, Andy raised a pig, observed a spider spinning in the barn, and brewed up a story starring “Charlotte A. Cavatica” (1952). Tenderly told and imbued with gentle warmth, this book introduces a man who celebrated life through the “power of words,” “basked in…the beauty of the world,” and wrote stories that captured “the glory of nature/and the comfort of hope.” It’s perfect for author studies and inspiring kids who always have pen in hand to keep writing…and dreaming.

Dreamers… See the Wonder in Nature

Jeanette Winter’s The World Is Not a Rectangle (Beach Lane, Aug. 2017; Gr 1-5) offers a stirring glimpse at architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016). Simple and succinct, the lyrical text describes how Hadid explored the dunes, rivers, and ruins of Iraq as a child, dreaming of one day designing her own cities. Leaving home to study architecture in London, she created unique designs of buildings that “swoosh and zoom and flow and fly.” Though her innovative ideas were repeatedly criticized and rejected, she persevered (“Hadid means iron in Arabic, and Zaha is strong as iron”), and eventually succeeded in creating impossible-seeming structures that embraced the patterns found in nature—tall buildings that danced like swaying marsh grasses (Signature Towers, Dubai, United Arab Emirates), an opera house that looked like a stone in a stream (Guangzhou, China), a ski jump that “reach[ed] to the sky like the mountains” (Innsbruck, Austria), and other constructions across the globe. Quotes interspersed throughout, including the book’s title (which becomes a refrain), reveal this groundbreaking architect’s courage, artistic vision, and incredible originality. The clean lines and faded jewel tones of Winter’s acrylic paintings emphasize both Hadid’s design principles and stoic determination. Share this entrancing book with students to open a discussion of structural artistry and engineering, introduce a female trailblazer, or provide encouragement to children who revel in thinking outside of the box.

Who is the mysterious old hermit who lived in a sunny village in the south of France, where he peered at insect life during the hottest afternoons and darkest nights, paid village children to find dead moles (to lure bluebottle flies), and received a visit from the President of France? Matthew Clark Smith grabs readers with this enticing glimpse at the naturalist and entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915), before traveling back in time to his boyhood. Captivating text describes the ups and downs of Fabre’s often-difficult life, his love for exploring the outdoors and closely observing nature’s Small Wonders (Two Lions, May, 2015; Gr 2-5), and his passion for sharing his knowledge with others. At the time, his groundbreaking findings about the “bloodthirsty exploits of ant warriors” or the “secret live life of plants” shocked his fellow scientists, and Fabre was fired from his teaching job.  Still, he remained determined to reveal the secrets of insects to the world, and, using “words that often flowed and danced like poems,” he informed everyday people about these fascinating creatures (he would eventually be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature). Giuliano Ferri’s watercolor paintings expressively depict Fabre’s joy for nosing around his subjects’ natural habitats, his trials and tribulations, and the beauty of the French countryside and its small inhabitants. Share this enchanting look at a dedicated scientist as an introduction to backyard nature studies, or an example of the importance of finding one’s passion in life.

Dreamers…Fight for Freedom

Kathryn Erskine and Charly Palmer’s Mama Africa! (FSG, 2017; Gr 2-5) introduces Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), a South African singer who used her voice to battle injustice. Though the talented young Miriam, who “sang as soon as she could talk and danced as soon as she could walk,” was told by choir teacher that she was “free to sing out,” the society she lived in, one ruled by the brutal system of apartheid, made it clear to people with darker skin that they were not free (“Police raid their houses. Sometimes they are arrested. Sometimes they never return”). Later on, inspired by the protest songs of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Makeba went to Johannesburg where she sang “…in IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Setswana, and more, because the baases [whites who ruled South Africa] did not understand those languages”—providing hope, strength, and encouragement with her songs. As her activism continued and her life was placed in danger, she escaped her home country and carried on her efforts abroad, even speaking about the plight of her people at the United Nations, where her voice filled the chamber “like the roar of a lion, a mother lion of South Africa. Mama Africa!” Told through stirring text and majestic paintings that shimmer with bold images and vibrant hues, this heart-stirring book culminates with the release of Nelson Mandela and Makeba’s return home. Mama Africa! provides a compelling introduction to a courageous and resilient woman and a testament to the power of a single voice to “shake up the world” and help bring about change, despite incredible adversity.


Cuban Poet, writer, and revolutionary José Martí (1853–95) also used his art to fight for his beloved homeland, which remained under Spanish control until 1902. Emma Otheguy’s free verse narrative, presented in bilingual text, and Beatriz Vidal’s delicately detailed paintings strikingly convey Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad (Children’s Bk. Pr./Lee & Low, Jul. 2017; Gr 2-5). Double spreads depict the young Martí falling in love with the natural wonders of his island, witnessing the cruel enslavement of individuals on sugar plantations, and living under a Spanish regime that “didn’t respect the diversity/of the Cuban people—/Spanish, African, Chinese, indigenous, some a mix of all of these—/or their demands for fair treatment.”  When war for independence began in 1868, Martí spoke out in support of the cause, an effort that resulted in imprisonment. Released at age 17 but forced to leave Cuba, he traveled the world, writing and speaking about Cuban independence, always inspired by “people who also believed/in equality and liberty.” He eventually settled in New York, penning verses about the splendor of the Catskill Mountains and his longing for home. When he returned to Cuba to take up arms in 1895, he fought bravely but died in his first battle, and though he “didn’t live to see his dreams come true,” his “friends carried his words in their hearts/and finished the fight.” Sprinkled with soul-soaring quotes from the poet’s own works, the streamlined text and evocative artwork emphasize the immediate impact and long-lasting legacy of one man’s dedication to fighting for freedom.

Dreamers…Believe Anything Is Possible

A true Trailblazer (Little Bee, Jan. 2018; Gr 2-5), Raven Wilkinson (b. 1935) was the first African American ballerina to dance with a major American touring troupe. The book opens with a five-year-old Wilkinson breathlessly waiting for a performance by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. After beginning ballet classes at age nine, she worked hard at her craft, and, while a student at Columbia University, auditioned for the Ballet Russe. Though told they would never accept her because of her race, she persevered, and was offered a spot after her third attempt. While touring the U.S. with the company, she encountered instances of racism, segregation, and true danger. Though she danced solo roles, “filling the stage with joy and grace,” a ballet mistress informed her that a black dancer would never be given the lead of Swan Lake, and she left the company in 1962. She later danced in Holland (where, as she stated, “people were far more interested in who I was, rather than what I was”) and eventually returned to perform with the New York City Opera and take on acting roles. Misty Copeland, who became the first African American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater in 2015, credits Wilkinson as an inspiration and mentor, and the book ends with the two meeting after Copeland performed the lead in Swan Lake. Throughout, Leda Schubert’s flowing text and Theodore Taylor’s appealing animation-style artwork emphasize Wilkinson’s hard work, talent, quiet dignity, and perseverance, and reveal the importance of remaining true to one’s dreams.

Dreamers…Build a Beautiful Future

In an eloquent letter to readers at the end of Trailblazer, Wilkinson talks about overcoming obstacles by always following one’s dream and “never giving up on the hope in [one’s] heart and the faith in [one’s self].” Have your students think about how the individuals portrayed in these biographies followed their dreams, faced and overcame challenges, and made the world a better place. Wilkinson also includes a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that is worth consideration and discussion in conjunction with these titles and beyond: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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