April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Passion for Words: Three Bibliophiles Who Changed the World

These captivating picture book biographies introduce three fascinating individuals whose passion for words translated into personal achievements that changed the world. Rousingly written and handsomely illustrated, each beautifully made book balances text and artwork to present a uniquely envisioned portrait of its subject, conveying each bibliophile’s storied accomplishments while also celebrating the power of books to express ideas, rouse imaginations, and inspire discussion. Share these biographies with students and have them think about the impact each of these word-lovers had upon his times. What are the common themes found in their life stories and professional endeavors? How can words and their usage affect a culture? Are words still powerful today?

Meet Mr. Newbery

There’s a reason his name is on a medal! Michelle Markel and Nancy Carpenter’s buoyant biography provides an engaging introduction to John Newbery (1713-1767), the English publisher, shopkeeper, and entrepreneur known as “the father of children’s literature.” Young readers are transported back to the early 18th century, when “England was brimming with books”—tantalizing tales of “pirates and monsters and miniature people…travels and quests and shipwrecks and crimes.”

Unfortunately, none of these enticing tomes were written for children, who were instead fed a dreary diet of “preachy poems and fables,” gloomy religious texts, and humdrum rule books. To contemporary mums and dads who feared that “if their little nippers read fun books, they’d turn wild as beasts,” Newbery, a book-lover from boyhood, responded with a resounding, Balderdash! (Chronicle, 2017; K-Gr 5). At his London shop, he pushed forward with his dream of publishing titles children would find intriguing, fortifying, and simply irresistible (a philosophy wholeheartedly supported by the writings of late 17th-century philosopher, John Locke, who makes an appearance in a sidebar). Would the books sell? “The children gobbled them up like plum cakes,” of course, and the rest is history.

Lively text and humor-filled artwork use a light touch to convey a solid understanding of Newbery’s life and times, as well as his groundbreaking (and business savvy) accomplishments in the world of publishing. Playful details in the artwork (including cameos by literary characters), an eye-catching array of typefaces, and a clever book design add to the fun, and open up more levels of conversation relating to book making and artistic choice. A delightful read-aloud, this book can also be used with older students to kick off studies of Newbery medal winners/honor books and mock Newbery discussions.

Dictionary Daredevil

Written by Tracy Nelson Maurer and illustrated by Mircea Catusanu, Noah Webster’s Fighting Words (Millbrook, 2017; Gr 2-5) presents a fiery—and funny—look at a lexicographer, author, and scholar (1758-1843) who is as American as apple pie. Covering from his boyhood in West Hartford, Connecticut to the publication of An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, this engaging book paints a portrait of a man who valued education (he entered Yale at age 15), was always free with his opinions (sometimes to the consternation of his contemporaries), and was a true Revolutionary War patriot (with his pen, he advocated for America to break free from Great Britain in “Politics. Trade. Even in its ways of speaking and spelling”).

As a teacher, Webster saw that students were forced to use British books and learned nothing about American history, geography, or literature, and sought to remedy the situation. His 1783 publication of a best-selling speller that included American pronunciations was followed by other American-centric publications, and his earliest dictionary, released in 1806 and containing 40,600 terms, was the first to include American words such as “chowder,” “hickory,” and “skunk.” Clearly the result of much in-depth research, the vivacious text holds readers’ interest with fascinating facts and a true taste of Webster’s persnickety personality. In fact (and much in the spirit of her word-maestro subject), Maurer provides Webster with a red pen and free reign to add his own humorous editorial comments to the text (he even gets a blurb on the book flap).

Created in a collage style, the illustrations strike an equally appealing tone, pairing characters created with a lighthearted touch (and often a hilariously anachronistic modern-day attitude) against backgrounds that incorporate period drawings and publications. In addition to providing a fresh glimpse at American history, this book can also inspire discussion of how people use (and quantify) language.

The Truth Will Shine

Carole Boston Weatherford’s soaring free-verse text and Eric Velazquez’s stunning oil paintings introduce Arturo Alfonso Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library (Candlewick, 2017; Gr 3-6). The book begins with Arturo’s (1874-1938) boyhood in Puerto Rico, where he “shadowed tabaqueros, cigar workers…[who] pooled money to pay el lector/to read aloud in the factory,” not only learning his ABCs, “but also to love the written word.” This passion sustained him “when his fifth-grade teacher/told him that Africa’s sons and daughters/had no history, no heroes worth noting,” igniting a lifelong quest to learn everything possible about his heritage and his people.

Schomburg immigrated to New York City in 1891 at age 17, and though his dreams of pursuing higher education were thwarted, he set his sights on collecting Africana books, ephemera, and art. As his collection grew, so did his reputation as writer and researcher, placing him in the company of Harlem Renaissance luminaries including poets Countee Culllen and Langston Hughes.

Double-page chapters blend art and text to describe notable moments in Schomburg’s life, while also introducing some of the individuals (and their primary documents) discovered through his research: Benjamin Banneker, the “self-taught inventor,/astronomer, and draftsman…[who] accurately plotted a solar eclipse;” Phillis Wheatley, a poet whose “biography was as remarkable as her verse;” fellow word-lover Frederick Douglass, who escaped bondage and used speeches and “the power of the pen” to “[roar] against slavery;” and other inspiring individuals of African descent. Always seeking truth, Schomburg also “turned up icons/whose African heritage had been whitewashed”—such as ornithologist John James Audubon, French writer Alexandre Dumas, and German composer Ludwig von Beethoven. Ultimately, Schomburg’s treasure trove was donated to the New York Public Library, where it become the cornerstone of the collection held today at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This book provides a stirring tribute to a brilliant thinker’s determination and insights, the importance of collecting facts and studying history “from all angles,” and an affirmation of the “role of African descendants in building nations and shaping cultures.”

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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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