January 2012

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

To Live a Life

Every time we talk about "coming of age" titles for teens there is a heavy emphasis on those books that show teenagers facing typical social situations such as peer pressure and bullying or family difficulties like poverty, abuse or divorce. All of this is well and good but none of those books shows teens how to live their lives. There are books that will show you how mean your friends can be but when it comes to figuring out what you want to do professionally with your life and how to accomplish that goal, well, you're better off choosing the job of vampire slayer (or lover) because there are a metric ton of titles to help you with that. What I wish I saw more of on the YA shelves was books about actual people, in the form of biography, memoir and historical fiction, that could provide readers with navigable pathways into the world. One of the best of these books I've recently come across in that vein is Michael Uslan's new The Boy Who Loved Batman.

Uslan is the producer of all the modern Batman movies, from Tim Burton's Michael Keaton, to the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. He started out as an average comic book loving kid from New Jersey (well, your average comic book loving kid who saved all his comics and funded law school by later selling some) who never wavered in his dream to return the Batman to his sinister roots and put him on the silver screen. What's great about The Boy Who Loved Batman is that he doesn't just tell what Uslan wanted to do but explains how he did it, every step of the way. This makes the book not only a fascinating peek into the comic book world but even more so a highly entertaining guide to professional success.

Uslan's love of Batman led him to teach the first college course on comic books (while he was himself enrolled at the University of Indiana), intern at DC Comics, and eventually go to Hollywood. Not only does he explain how he turned a hobby into a career, he shows how hard it was. As deeply personal as his story is, however, Uslan takes the time to discuss the history of the industry, the history of the Batman comic itself, and how fans turned what was once a dismissive aspect of childhood into the stuff of legend. (Just consider the moneymaking possibilities at Comic-Con.) But none of this would matter if Uslan was not such a likable author and if Chronicle Books had not done such an outstanding job with their design, with personal photographs, copies of letters, and a wealth of comic book illustrations. The Boy Who Loved Batman is a visual delight, and it does not matter if you are a comic book fan when it comes to Uslan's appeal. The Boy Who Loved Batman is fundamentally about how to make it in the world doing what you love. Every high school library should have this book and every business-minded teen should be reading it. Uslan made it, big time, and he provides a perfect example for others to follow.

For fans of historical subjects, and especially those whose dreams lead to exploration and adventure, Matt Phelan tackles three memorable individuals in his sublime graphic novel Around the World. In separate self-contained stories he recounts the exploits of late nineteenth century adventurers Thomas Stevens, who rode around the world on a bicycle; Nellie Bly, who traveled around the world in fewer than eighty days; and Joshua Slocum, who sailed around the world alone. While they knew great fame in their day -- Bly, in particular, enjoyed near infamy for a while -- they have largely fallen off the reality TV-dominated radar of modern teens. Phelan shows his subjects' passion for travel to be deeply personal choices, which draws readers in from the outset. As Stevens pushes himself for something more than a dead-end life as a miner, Bly seeks the journalistic respect denied her as a woman, and Slocum struggles to survive the loss of his beloved, Phelan's art and words presents them as people to both admire and emulate. This is heroic literature at its best, executed with an understated panache that lets the subjects tell their tales. Although written for teens, Around the World has a wide range; I wouldn't hesitate to offer it to adults interested in Stevens, Bly, or especially Slocum. (The Slocum story is gorgeous and heartbreaking -- a classic tale of love and loss and facing the elements at their most basic and raw.)

Aviatrix Beryl Markham receives the historical fiction treatment as well in Michaela MacColl's middle-grade novel Promise the Night. (Markham's own memoir is titled West With the Night.) Rather than focus on her 1936 record-making trip as the first pilot to fly west across the Atlantic from England to North America, MacColl instead writes about Markham's adventures growing up in British East Africa (Kenya). Abandoned by her mother at an early age and largely left to run wild by her horse-breeder father, Beryl learned to excel in the outdoors as a hunter and tracker, the proto-definition of "spunky." MacColl covers many of her subject's more noteworthy exploits including a lion hunt, the near death of her dog to a leopard (the dog does not die!), a run-in with a truly horrific governess wannabe, and a year spent in boarding school in Nairobi that includes all sorts of hijinks with fellow students.

Beryl is stubborn, bold, and oftentimes tone deaf to the superior class distinction she enjoys as a wealthy white girl but she is also realistic in both her exemplary and less impressive moments. MacColl is not interested in making Beryl a perfect little girl; the real story is interesting enough without allowing idealism to cloud the narrative. To bolster the significance of her subject's story, the author also includes diary entries from Beryl's greatest flight to show how things eventually end up and the influence her African childhood had on her life. The long afterword further explains the differences between fact and fiction in the novel (showing how some of the more outrageous episodes were indeed true). Altogether it's a nice way to introduce a criminally overlooked heroine to today's readers and makes for excellent reading even if you have never heard of Beryl Markham. MacColl follows her previous novel based on Queen Victoria in fine fashion with Promise the Night; here's hoping this is a genre niche she is comfortable with continuing to explore.

Two recent books on baseball's past for lovers of language and the game: Stars in the Shadows: The Negro League All-Star Game of 1934 and Lineup for Yesterday feature not only excellent poems but also eye-catching illustrations. Stars in the Shadows by Charles R. Smith, Jr. (whose Twelve Rounds to Glory was a Coretta Scott King Honor book) is written as a nine-inning verse novel, telling the tale of the second Negro League all star game (Smith explains why he chose this game in an afterword). In the recognizable patter of a play-by-play announcer, Smith mimics the rhythms of the game in the voice of Lester Roberts broadcasting live for radio station WNLB in Chicago. Readers are even given the text of commercials that ran during the game to add to the period flare. Frank Morrison's oversized, sometimes exaggerated pencil drawings are dynamic, emotional, and a perfect fit to the text. This is about as good a pairing of author and illustrator as you will ever find.

Smith sings out the praises of the players who move in and out of a game that hinges on superior pitching, while Morrison vividly depicts the athleticism and buoyancy of the men on the field and those watching them. While the poems themselves focus on the game, there are several moments in the stands where Smith highlights the larger issue of the Negro Leagues itself, and the long segregation of America's game is felt by the fans. Smith shows (yet again) how poetry is the stuff of action. Though aimed at middle-grade, Stars in the Shadows is a no-brainer for any reader.

Lineup for Yesterday is a modern edition of the 1949 collection of Ogden Nash's alphabet poems celebrating the players of baseball's early years. Now with full color portraits by C.F. Payne and biographical notes on the stars by Nash's daughter, Linnell Nash Smith, Lineup for Yesterday is far from the standard A-B-C book. The poems are a short four lines, but they stray far from the expected even when about well known players. For example there is "C is for Cobb / Who grew spikes and not corn / And made all the basemen / Wish they weren't born" and "E is for Evers / His jaw in advance; / Never afraid / To Tinker with Chance." (For teens who sadly do not know of the legendary Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play, Smith takes care of explaining and repeating the famous rhyme about it in her accompanying note.)

Well aware that many of these players will be unknown to modern readers, Smith's notes are wisely placed throughout the text, providing instant gratification to those curious about Nash's subjects. In this way readers discover Christy Mathewson (who created the screwball pitch and led the Giants to the Series four times but died very young from exposure to poison gas in World War I), the absolutely unapproachable winning record of the real Cy Young (there's a reason he has an award named after him), and why a Honus Wagner card is worth so much money. Nash's poems prove to be as timeless as the men who inspired them and the book's entire design is aimed at appreciating the talents of those who played the game and their fans of whom Nash was unabashedly one (he offers himself up as "I is for the Incurable Fan"). What's interesting about Lineup for Yesterday is that although it has all the trappings of a standard picture book it's more if an illustrated biography of a sport's early years. I only wish Nash had written his way through the alphabet a few more times as he clearly enjoyed himself so much on this go-round.

Finally, the University of Chicago Press has reissued two poetry collections by British siblings Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon. Originally published in 1932, they were last released in 1953, and the contemporary versions of Kings and Queens and Heroes and Heroines both hold to their mid-century sensibility. These are historical poems (one for each monarch beginning with William I in 1066 and up to the current Queen Elizabeth II) that manage to not only give quick peeks at famous (or forgotten) people but also show how they were perceived decades ago, and useful for the multiple insights they provide. The fact that Rosalind Thornycroft's illustrations continue to beguile and the overall design retains a classic and vintage feel make these volumes books to both enjoy reading and possessing. (E-books won't measure up at all in this case.)

Kings and Queens follows a steady chronological order recounting infamous episodes for certain monarchs (the mysterious deaths of Richard III's nephews in the Tower of London, the beheading of Henry VIII's wives, Oliver Cromwell's suppression of everything fun), while also reaching for something memorable for those who were, well, less than memorable. ("William and Mary / They sat on one throne / You can't think of one / Of the couple alone.") Heroes and Heroines is a much more eclectic mix including everyone from Julius Caesar to George Washington and the explorer Lady Hester Stanhope. I was impressed by the number of women in this volume (Joan of Arc; Mary, Queen of Scots; Flora Macdonald; Emmeline Pankhurst; etc.), and there are also several non-Caucasians such as Saladin and Pocahontas, although the emphasis on the "yellow skin" of Timour the Tartar will certainly give readers pause. (It's puzzling why the Farjeons did not refer to him as "Tamerlane" as he is more commonly known, but they definitely nailed the bloodthirsty aspects of his nature.)

In both books the authors use a variety of poetic forms to tell their subjects' stories and thus while the emphasis is on biography, there is no small amount of poetic teaching that occurs here as well. Kings and Queens and Heroes and Heroines are timeless peeks into world history for many reasons, but the exuberant presentation cannot be discounted. For a dip into some great lives, you can't beat these two books, and kudos to the University of Chicago press for resurrecting them for American readers.

COOL READ: Glennette Tilley Turner does a wonderful job of presenting an overlooked aspect of American history with the heavily illustrated Fort Mose. The fort, located just north of St. Augustine, Florida, was the first free sanctioned colony in North America. Administered by the Spanish, and established in 1738, it was led by Francisco Menendez, an African-born escaped slave who was fluent in several languages and a superior militia leader. Turner has mined all sorts of historical accounts to tell his story, including formal correspondence between the colonial governor and the King of Spain concerning Menendez's contributions to the security of St. Augustine. The heart of the book is his unique slave experience, the story of a man who was captured in West Africa, owned in South Carolina, and fought for freedom all the way to Florida. Ultimately, Fort Mose was vacated in 1763 after Florida became British property via treaty and slavery was extended to the colony. Menendez and others departed for Cuba where they were beyond its reach, and it is there that he died around 1770. He led, most certainly, an extraordinary life, and the fact that he is absent from history books (even those in Florida as Turner points out in an afterword) is a bit of an academic crime. (I also grew up in Florida and we never learned a bit about Fort Mose itself either.)

Designed for casual reading with short chapters and numerous period illustrations, drawings, and photos, even of the present day Fort Mose site (sadly the fort is long gone), Fort Mose is a classic example of how to shine a light on forgotten history and bring it to the attention of contemporary readers. It belongs in every classroom focused on Florida history, Spanish American history, African American history and, quite frankly, in the hands of anyone who is eager to learn just what the term "freedom fighter" really means. Well done.