Offbeat. Non-conformist. Never quite fit in as a child. These describe the subjects of three new picture book biographies for children. Let’s get right to it.
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Patricia Rusch Hyatt’s The Quite Contrary Man (Abrams), illustrated by Kathryn Brown, tells the story of Joseph Palmer, a relatively unknown 19th-century American folk hero. Joseph, who had “grown up stubborn since the cradle,” sported a “mighty beard [which] broke all boundaries” and came to be known as “Beard Palmer.” This was shocking in the early 1800s, a time during which women wore “tightly twisted topknots” on their heads, men kept their faces clean-shaven, and folks never “dared to stand out from the neighbors.”
Palmer would have none of this, much to the dismay of his own elderly mother—“What would become of her pig-headed son?” is the book’s repeated refrain—and this made his neighbors see red: His preacher reprimanded him from the pulpit, four of his neighbors accosted him and tried to shave his beard, and eventually he was sent to jail. Refusing to shave while there and sneaking out (via his family) letters to the editor of the local newspaper about unfair treatment in prison, he was finally released, only to be told he owed a fine. After refusing to pay (did you expect any less?), two of the weary jailers—in a very funny illustration—carry him out seated in his chair and place him in the middle of the street. “The next morning, the chair was empty,” and we see Beard—in one of my favorite picture book spreads from 2011—marching home joyfully with his mother, children and wife, his long auburn beard flowing.
Hyatt lays out Palmer’s story with grace and spunk. Though she doesn’t include her sources, which would be good to see, she includes a fascinating Historical Note. With fluid lines and inviting earth-toned watercolors, Brown brings the New England of the 1800s and one of its most spirited activists to life with warmth and verve.
Author/illustrator Bonnie Christensen has brought readers a wide variety of artistic media in her picture books. I love it when she works in oils, as she does with her latest release, Fabulous! A Portrait of Andy Warhol (Ottaviano/Holt). Bonnie tells me—she’ll be visiting 7-Imp next week—that she considered this a risky title. That’s probably because, as she puts it, she created "faux Warhols” throughout the book in order to give children a snapshot of his work. Her complicated process for the illustrations involved collaged photos, acrylics, black-and-white ink and the aforementioned oils. The result? Visually complex, textured illustrations on a brooding palette.
Christensen begins this biography, after a brief glimpse of Warhol in ’66, with the small, smart, shy boy of the 1930s, who is hit by a girl on the first day of school. Emphasizing his sensitivity, social isolation (kids called him “Spot,” not to mention a “sissy” for choosing time with his mother over football), and illness (Saint Vitus’s dance, which caused his blotchy skin), she shows readers a young man who “kept his head down,” filling notebooks with drawings through it all. She chronicles his rise to fame, as well as the difference between fine and commercial art (and Warhol’s attempts to merge them), with clarity. Children feeling left of center, not to mention art lovers of all stripes, will be drawn to this well-crafted biography.
In When Bob Met Woody (Little, Brown), Gary Golio brings us the story of Bob Dylan, another artist who felt like an outsider as a child and teen. “Bob floated into this world on waves of sound,” opens this biography about Bob Zimmerman, a young man in Minnesota “[t]eased for being Jewish, for being different…Some kids called him crazy.” Covering Dylan’s musical influences—Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Elvis, Lead Belly, Odetta—as well as his love for Dylan Thomas’ poetry, Golio lays out vignettes in the musician’s childhood and teen years that humanize the icon. After changing his name to Dylan, in honor of his favorite poet, Bob discovers the music of Woody Guthrie, even phoning him in a New York City hospital upon hearing his hero is ill.
The rest of the book is focused on the connection Dylan forged with Guthrie after this visit, having sung his “first real folk song” (“Song to Woody”) to him at Greystone Hospital. The closing afterword, sources and resources, author’s note and quotation notes provide supplemental information for both budding and longtime fans—this is truly a picture book for both the young and old. Burckhardt’s folk art-inspired acrylics and oils and their crackling varnish give the book a fragile, aging look. His depictions of Guthrie particularly shine.
All in all, these are engaging new picture book biographies. I’ll have some spreads from each to showcase at 7-Imp a week from today.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.