Stories That Need to Be Told – Picture Books Take Up the Challenge

Lynn and Cindy: One of the things we love about picture books is that authors and illustrators often take up the challenge of bringing a little known story to young readers. It is so important to keep our history and our stories alive! As reviewers, we also love that we get the benefit of these stories too. Here are two new picture books that do this important work—and do it wonderfully.

Lynn: Decades before Rosa Park refused to sit in the back of a bus, another brave determined woman demanded her rights on a streetcar in New York. Beth Anderson tells her inspiring story in Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2020). It was 1854 in New York City and Elizabeth Jenkins, a teacher and organist from a wealthy family, was on her way to church. When the horse-drawn streetcar arrived it had empty seats and Lizzie and her friend hurried to board. But the conductor would not allow them on, telling them to wait for the car for “her people.” Lizzie had no intention of waiting. There was no law keeping anyone of color from riding the streetcars although there was a custom of not riding if a white passenger objected. When no one on board objected, Lizzie persisted and the conductor physically threw them from the car. Lizzie, whose family were leaders in their community and well connected, took the Third Avenue Streetcar company to court where, with her attorney Chester A. Arthur, she won her case, paving the way for people of color to fight for their rights to ride then and in the future.

The text is wonderful, lively, and compelling and I’m truly sorry it has taken me so long to learn about Elizabeth Jennings. The author notes that the “dialogue closely follows her account as it appeared in the newspapers of the time,” and this gives the story a very immediate and personal feel that will appeal to kids. The back matter is outstanding too with fascinating additional historical material on Elizabeth Jennings and her case in an Author’s Note, information on the research. a bibliography, a list of further readings, and a Note from the Illustrator.

And speaking of illustrators! I am a big admirer of E.B. Lewis’s illustrations and here they add wonderfully to the overall impact of the story. Lewis, who usually uses a muted palette, chose intense colors and the result is a wonderful sense of the drama of the event. In an artist’s note, Lewis says, “I wanted to go all out in the way of color—to stretch my own internal prism.” He even had to purchase colors he had never used before. I’m so glad he did as the result is beautiful and effective!

Once again a picture book has introduced me to a memorable and important historical person that I had never heard of before. I’m beginning to think that we should give up textbooks and flood our classrooms with shelves of outstanding nonfiction picture books!

Cindy: Another African American girl who took an important seat is featured in A Ride to Remember (Abrams, 2020) by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan. Occasional peaceful protests at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore, Maryland were held for a decade asking for the right for people of color to visit the park. Nothing changed. But after new segregation laws were passed in Baltimore in 1962, a big protest was planned at the park for Independence Day, July 4, 1963. Arrests were made but the protest continued a few days later. When pressure mounted as the publicity surrounding the protests spread, change finally occurred and the park officials corrected their policy. On August 28, 1963, the park was opened to everyone. Sharon Langley’s parents bought tickets and they were the first family of color to walk through the gates. Sharon was photographed riding a horse on the carousel, a photo that ended up in the newspapers the next day. The carousel is now turning its circles on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and Sharon Langley’s name is on a horse’s saddle and horseshoe.

Co-author Amy Nathan wrote a book for teens and adults Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement that also includes the other historic event of 8-28-63, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper’ artwork helps tell this important story in moving paintings.

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh: A Controversial Life

Cindy: From the back cover of The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 2020) by Candace Fleming:

First person to successfully
fly across the Atlantic.

Media Sensation.

Nazi Sympathizer,
Anti-Semite.

Environmentalist.

White Nationalist.

Charles Lindbergh
was all this and more.

Fleming delivers a stunning teen biography of a complex man, structuring it in two sections: his historic rise to world fame, and his fall from hero-worship by many and his disenchantment with technology that had been his life’s passion. Most students will have heard of his achievement of completing the first solo trip across the Atlantic in an airplane, a feat that brought him discomfort with the celebrity. Some will have heard about the kidnapping of his firstborn son, but Fleming’s storytelling, using much dialogue right from Charles’ and wife Anne’s diaries and other writings will keep them turning the pages as the tragedy and the investigation unfolds. Fewer will know the details of his fascination with Hitler and Nazi “orderliness,” his serious work with a doctor in inventing a pump that kept organs alive outside the body in order to prolong life, perhaps indefinitely, and his rise as a White Nationalist leading rallies that sound oh-so-familiar today.

Just as Fleming did with The Family Romanov and another aviator in Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Charles comes to life with all of his human frailties, incongruities, and troubling behaviors. Just as clear is his drive and demand for precision. I realize it was a different time, but Anne was a saint to put up with him…as were his other two families in Europe that she didn’t know about. In fact, Anne is as fascinating to read about in many ways as is Charles. In this wonderful Publisher’s Weekly Q&A with Candace Fleming, she admits she came to like Anne quite a bit. Celebrities and heroes. There’s a lot to ponder here. Strap on your reading goggles and prepare yourself for quite a ride when you read this one!

Lynn: I am such a fan of Fleming’s biographies and this one not only captured my complete attention, it stayed in my mind for days after I finished it. Absorbing and wonderfully written, Fleming’s masterful biography incorporates the diaries and writings, as Cindy says, of both Charles and Anne, allowing these complicated individuals to tell much of their own stories. Charles especially reveals himself as incredibly complicated and flawed, socially stunted, and seemingly unable to connect emotionally with others. I was fascinated by his decades-long search for a way to end death, something that guided his thinking in multiple ways.

Lindbergh’s early years and the story of the tragic kidnapping of their first child was familiar to me from other books but I still appreciate Fleming’s presentations of this period of his life for young people. She did an excellent job of providing the necessary historical and cultural background necessary for understanding. I found the last third of the book, beginning with the family moving to England, the lead up to the war, the isolationist political efforts, and Lindbergh’s older years to be deeply interesting and packed with information that was new or provided expanded details.

The book includes outstanding back matter with an extensive bibliography and source notes and well-chosen photographs that tie directly to the text. I read this in galley and I am eager to see the finished copy. 6 starred reviews and every one deserved! This will be a great crossover book for adult readers.

Games of Deception – Basketball and History on the Brink of War

Lynn: Did you know the championship game of the first Olympic Basketball game was played on a converted tennis court and so much rain fell, the court looked like a “kiddie swimming pool?” Or that the inventor of the game, James Naismith, came to the Olympics but was refused admission to the first game? Or that while the male athletes had luxurious quarters with fantastic plentiful food, the female athletes were housed in a dormitory and fed on a sparse diet of boiled cabbage and sausage?

Andrew Maraniss packs Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany (Penguin/Philomel 2019) with fascinating sports tidbits like this and provides a breathless sense of being an eye-witness at these pivotal games. While the sports information is terrific, Maraniss is doing a lot more than historical play-by-play. The modern Olympics have always given us a window on the social and political events of their time but the 1936 games especially so. A crippling economic depression still gripped the world, Germany was preparing for war, the forces of racial, religious and gender prejudices and systemic discrimination afflicted people everywhere and the growing fanaticism of nationalistic hatred was intensifying. The Germans deliberately used the games to create a benign image of Nazism and while many were fooled, the truth was seen by a worried minority.

Maraniss does an excellent job of providing the complicated background of this intense and fraught period of history for young people, including information on the political, social, and economic situation as well as the origins of the game of basketball, the state of the game, and its inclusion in the Olympic games as a medal sport. And in a subject that will stand out to teen readers, he paints a horrifying picture of a state deliberately manipulating the truth to deceive the entire world.

With a broad array of primary sources, Maraniss includes the recollections of the team members, coaches, other athletes, and sportswriters of the day and their stories add a lively personal touch to the book. Often humorous, sometimes rueful, these accounts do a wonderful job of giving readers a sense of the attitudes and experiences of the moment. And in important concluding chapters, Maraniss also includes the stories of what happened to the athletes when they returned home. I especially enjoyed the Afterword chapter where the author writes about the origins of the book and his extensive research. Back matter includes excellent documentation and statistics.

This fascinating book will interest a wide range of readers, celebrating the first Olympic basketball competition, and placing it vividly in a critical moment of history.