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January Books: Stimulate the Imagination, DREAM

By on December 28, 2012

From the riveting to the humorous to the inventive, these biographies of significant individuals mesmerize readers with their attention to captivating details, seizing one’s interest, and often impelling one to further exploration. This small collection of artists, a poet, and leaders, also contains two different books about the same musician. For adults who want to read something more than the usual fare of stories with the important children in your life, these absorbing books open opportunities for conversation with your child about compelling elements in the lives of these amazing dreamers.

by Meribeth C. Shank

Electric Ben:  The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

by Robert Byrd.

This picture book biography of Benjamin Franklin is clearly for children older than the usual storybook crowd — with its dense text and intricate, detailed, and nearly cartoon-like ink-line, watercolor, and colored ink illustrations. Especially for those with an interest in history, the subject’s own autobiography and his writings supply an abundance of information, reflection and insight into the person of one of the most celebrated individuals of his time, and one who is still considered influential even into the current century.

Born into a working class family, Ben, as we still familiarly call him, discovered early on the delights of reading and the written word, becoming a printer, which he considered himself all his life. With his restless imagination and fertile creativity he not only used his skill as a writer to become a wealthy man but, investing himself in his community, he believed profoundly in organizing and planning with others, to solve problems for the “common benefit of mankind.”  From establishing a hospital, a fire brigade, a police force, and schools of many different kinds, to inventing streetlights, a heating stove, bifocals, and a twenty-four hour clock — to name a few — Franklin felt it was his “civic duty to share anything that improved the common good.”

As a self-trained scientist, philosopher, negotiator and diplomat, Franklin’s skills became an invaluable asset to not only the city of Philadelphia (his residence), but also to the emerging American nation, as it navigated independence. His sense of humor, lack of arrogance, innate curiosity, skill in conversation, openness, and sense of respect for others have rightfully earned him the descriptor of “Renaissance man.” Dial, $17.99, Ages 8-14

Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies by Marc Aronson.

Professor, editor, and award-winning author Aronson, whose passion for historical detail and interest in the individuals who populate our country’s past, is once again evident in the research, writing, and archival photos, chosen to illustrate this almost novel-like biography, of one of the most influential officials in both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Government.  Hoover’s secrecy, use of power, and tangle of control, security, and relationships characterize this book of historic intrigue, challenging readers to explore stimulating material, consider the questions the author raises, and probe the questions that surface in the reader’s own mind, as the pages unfold.

Beginning with a tantalizing Prologue, and an exceedingly readable and absorbing section of back matter about the author’s own fears experienced during the research and writing of the book.

Candlewick Press, $25.99, Ages 14+

Desmond and the Very Mean Word: A Story of Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams, illustrated by A.G. Ford.

In one of South Africa’s poor townships Desmond speeds on his beautiful new bike to show his friend, Father Trevor. A red-haired boy among a gang shouts a mean word, repeated by the others. Desmond is hurt by this, and even forgets why he wanted to see Father Trevor, who knows something is wrong as soon as Desmond arrives.

The illustrations done with illuminating oil paints reflect the action in the text, as we see the yelling red-haired boy in near life size, on a double-page spread, followed several pages later, by Desmond’s face in similar size and shouting mode. The colors of the daylight contrast with the darker night and indoors, reflecting Desmond’s painful experience of bullying.

Desmond’s observation of the red-haired boy being bullied by his older brothers offers Desmond space to reflect on Father Trevor’s insightful comments. Later, when the two boys encounter each other, Desmond is able to make the first move toward forgiveness.

Based on an actual incident in the Archbishop’s early life, and also on his childhood hero, Father Trevor, this vivid tale, with its vigorous illustrations supplies readers with an unsentimental but compassionate message about forgiveness. Candlewick Press, $15.99, Ages 6-9

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown, illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Using poetic language, Brown shows readers Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, who as a child loved words, although his father didn’t approve of his poetry. As “the poet of the people,” Neftali renamed himself Neruda and became “one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century.”

Illustrator Paschkis’ paintings twirl with words; words written on the leaves and tree trunks Neruda loved, words whirling golden orange to create the sun, and blue and white, to make the moon, words that make up the oceans waves, words written on the streets, and flowers, and swirling as the wind.

Henry Holt, $16.99, Ages 5-9

Vivaldi and the Invisible Orchestra by Stephen Costanza.

A daydreamer of music, Vivaldi wrote many of his pieces for the musicians of the all-girls orphanage in Venice, who were famous for their spirited playing while hidden behind a curtain. This lyrical story, accompanied by pastel illustrations, introduces us to another daydreamer, Candida, who copies Vivaldi’s music for the instrumentalists, and begins to write words, poetry even, to accompany his notes.

Henry Holt, $16.99, Ages 4-8


Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by JoAnn E. Kitchel.

Eighteenth century Venice, known as the city of music, is where Vivaldi’s pieces are played by orphan girls until the board stops paying him and he leaves to make his music elsewhere.  When he is lured back by the promise of his works being played regularly, he sends two compositions every month, and later arrives to tell the story of his music as they play.

The famous Four Seasons Concerto is the focus of this heartwarming story of friendship between the composer and the students who love him. Imaginative watercolor paintings amplify the text and kindle the poetry of the music.

The seasonal Sonnets are printed at the story’s end, followed by an Author’s Note. Also included is a CD recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Charlesbridge, $19.99, Ages 6-10

Monet Paints a Day by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Caitlin Heimerl.

Written as if Monet himself were sending a letter to his fiancé, Alice, the text speaks as if the artist were currently doing the painting. A sidebar on each double page spread offers a short snippet of information.  On this day Monet is so focused that the sea explodes over him, washing everything away before “the ocean spits me out” on the sand with only his empty palette in his hand.

At the back are an Author’s Note, Monet’s Painting Techniques, and a Bibliography. Charlesbridge, $15.95, Ages 7-9

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Amanda Hall.

Henri Rousseau begins painting after he’s forty years old, teaching himself by examining “paintings of his favorite artists,” and studying photographs, “postcards, magazines and catalogues.”  When he paints on canvas with bold colors, he’s often startled by what emerges, and despite ridicule and limited finances, he persists.

After a time, younger artists are impressed, and join him when he hosts a party in his neighborhood to feature the music students he teaches. Even Picasso throws a banquet to honor him. At the end, an Author’s Note explains briefly about his imagination and the dreams he painted. An Illustrator’s Note describes her trip to Paris for research and her combined use of watercolor and acrylics in her playful illustrations. Eerdmans, $17.00, Ages 5-9

Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse by Marjorie Blain Parker, illustrated by Holly Berry.

From an industrial nineteenth century French village emerged a dreamer whose early attempts to become a lawyer tied his stomach in knots so severely that he was hospitalized. There he discovered painting and after he was released, music.  Although initially unable to earn a living, gradually his bright colors and mischievous paintings earned him both respect and an income.

The art for this book begins in near colorless blacks, grays, and tans on white. By contrast, the following pages roar with color and bright shapes as Henri’s imagination soars. In his final years, back in bed, Henri “’painted’ with colored paper.” “As more and more people noticed” his famous collages, he drew “with scissors” until his death. Dial, $16.99, Ages 5-10

Meribeth Shank works in the Media Center at Miami Country Day School, an independent school in Miami Shores, Florida, teaches classes on Writing Books for Children, and earned her MFA in Writing for children from Vermont College.  You can also find her on the web:

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