Stories About Real Lives -- Both Animal and Human

"We Are the Ship" tells the story of baseball's Negro Leagues. Here, some of the Kansas City Monarchs survey the field from the dugout.
"We Are the Ship" tells the story of baseball's Negro Leagues. Here, some of the Kansas City Monarchs survey the field from the dugout.
Reviewed by Karen MacPherson
Sunday, May 11, 2008

In his newest book, How I Learned Geography (Farrar Straus Giroux, $16.95; ages 4-8), Caldecott medalist Uri Shulevitz recalls how his family fled the Nazis in Warsaw and ended up in the Central Asian city of Turkestan. The family shared a room with another couple, slept on a dirt floor and often went hungry. One day, Shulevitz's father headed to the bazaar to buy bread only to return much later with just a long roll of paper -- a map -- under his arm.

His famished wife and son were infuriated. As the days passed, however, the young Shulevitz found himself increasingly fascinated by the map, studying and later copying it and feeling magically transported to exotic-sounding lands. "And so I spent enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery," he writes, "I forgave my father. He was right, after all."

Shulevitz's simply worded text can be read to preschoolers, but it packs an emotional punch that will resonate with older children and even adults. The watercolor and ink illustrations add further depth as Shulevitz switches from a monochrome palette to a chorus of colors spotlighting how the map stirred his imagination.

Like Shulevitz, Art Tatum made a discovery as a child that changed his life. In Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum (Schwartz & Wade, $16.99; ages 4-8), author and illustrator Robert Andrew Parker recounts how Tatum embraced music the minute he could reach the keys of the family piano by standing on tiptoe. Tatum had poor eyesight, but he was captivated by the sounds he could make on the piano for hours each day. By the age of 16, he was playing professionally in his native city of Toledo, Ohio, and well on his way to becoming an international jazz star.

Keeping the text brief, Parker employs a lyrical, first-person narration that often echoes the pianist's style: "When I am at the piano, I close my eyes. I play clouds of notes, rivers of notes, notes that sound like skylarks singing and leaves rustling, like rain on a rooftop. I forget that my eyes aren't good. I have everything I need." Parker's masterful watercolor and ink illustrations, with their loose lines and washes of color, also evoke Tatum's dazzling music.

Laura Bridgman's eyes weren't good either. In 1832, a bout with scarlet fever left her blind and deaf at the age of 2. Life looked grim for Bridgman, whose hardworking New Hampshire farm parents had little time to help her cope. Yet as husband-and-wife team Sally Hobart Alexander and Robert Alexander show in the meticulously researched She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer (Clarion, $18; ages 9-12), Bridgman was an extraordinarily intelligent and strong-willed child, consumed with curiosity about the things she could touch and sense in the world around her. Through a fortunate turn of events, she became the student -- and eventual star pupil -- of Samuel Gridley Howe, the head of what is now the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.

With the help of Howe and other teachers, Bridgman learned to read and write, proving that deaf-blind people could be educated. Her accomplishments brought her worldwide fame; her admirers included author Charles Dickens and activist Dorothea Dix. Today, however, Bridgman is all but forgotten, overshadowed by another deaf-blind young woman named Helen Keller. The Alexanders demonstrate how Bridgman's education laid the foundation for Keller's success 50 years later, for it was Bridgman who taught Keller's teacher how to fingerspell.

Overcoming adversity is also the theme of We Are the Ship (Jump At the Sun/Hyperion, $18.99; ages 8 and up), in which author and illustrator Kadir Nelson uses the voice of an elderly "everyman" ballplayer to relate the achievements of players like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson. These were athletic giants who rose above racism to play baseball that was fast, flashy and often dangerous.

Nelson's painted portraits of Negro League players in this oversized picture book emphasize the muscular physiques and vibrant spirits of the ballplayers, who endured hunger, physical abuse, racist taunts and worse -- all because they loved the game. Divided into chapters labeled "innings," Nelson's inspiring book is a riveting read that is sure to be a home run with both kids and adults.

For a complete change of pace, try Sisters & Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 6-10). With verve and wit, husband-and-wife team Steve Jenkins and Robin Page delve into the many types of sibling relationships among animals. Some of these relationships will certainly seem familiar to young humans, such as the grizzly bear cubs who like to spar with each other. Other sisters and brothers interact far more brutally. For example, the strongest black widow spiders begin to eat their weaker siblings as soon as they hatch. The book's text is filled with such intriguing facts. Jenkins's signature collage illustrations further brighten the pages of this accessible science book. ยท

Karen MacPherson, the children's teen librarian at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, writes a weekly children's book review column for Scripps Howard News Service.

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