28 Jun

The Day-Glo Brothers and other nonfiction about entrepreneurs

Bob and Joe Switzer weren’t just inventors — they were businessmen, too. As eagerly as they sought better and brighter colors, their interests were entrepreneurial as well as aesthetic. Making advances in the science of color was thrilling to them, but so was creating a successful company where they could have the freedom to pursue those discoveries in the ways they thought best.

The Day-Glo Brothers honors and explores that entrepreneurial streak. And while the shelves are not overflowing with other children’s and young adult titles that do the same, it’s not alone. So, as I’ve done with nonfiction about other notable siblings and picture books about the 1930s, I’ve compiled a list of other titles complementing this aspect of the Switzers’ story.

I have no doubt that I’ve missed some good ones, so if any come to mind, please tell me what they are — I’d be happy to add them to an updated version of this list.

The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum
by Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade
Equal parts show and business, the Barnum portrayed in Fleming’s riveting, rollicking new biography possessed a quality essential to entrepreneurs — resiliency — in a quantity so freakish it belonged in a sideshow exhibit of its own. His eye-opening forays into politics and the ASPCA only add to the appeal of this title.

Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker
by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Nneka Bennett
Candlewick Press
In too short a lifetime, Walker made the journey from the daughter of former slaves to the inspirational employer of hundreds. Lasky and Bennett vividly depict the determination, ingenuity, and activism that contributed to the rise of beauty products magnate known as Madam C.J. Walker.

Everyone Wears His Name: A Biography of Levi Strauss
by Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz
Dillon Press
Offering much more than a retelling of how we all ended up with copper rivets on our jeans, Henry and Taitz weave a gold-dusted tale of immigration, industriousness, and enterprise. And they do it against a backdrop of 50 years of San Francisco history, which is fascinating in its own right.

Bill Gates (Up Close)
by Marc Aronson
Viking Juvenile
Heavy on character analysis, short on computer jargon and corporate play-by-play, and structured as a series of “Principles of Getting Rich Fast,” Aronson’s account focuses on the factors that — like them or not — led to Gates’ rise as a programmer, businessman, billionaire and philanthropist.

Model T: How Henry Ford Built a Legend
by David Weitzman
Crown Books for Young Readers
There’s plenty to dislike about Henry Ford, but the tinkerer and entrepreneur himself gets only a few pages in this picture book. Instead, Weitzman refreshingly focuses on the car Ford created, the workers who made it, and the resulting cultures of the assembly line and the open road.

Inventing the Future: A Photobiography of Thomas Alva Edison
by Marfé Ferguson Delano
National Geographic Children’s Books
Edison made no bones about being both an inventor and a businessman: “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent.” With compelling text and gripping photos (my favorite is the two-page spread of Edison zonked out on a lab table), Delano gives both sides of the man’s legacy their due.

Chocolate by Hershey: A Story About Milton S. Hershey
by Betty Burford, illustrated by Loren Chantland
Carolrhoda Books
If at first you don’t succeed, fail and fail again. Milton Hershey did. But as Burford’s crisp text and Chantland’s affecting woodcuts show, the disappointing end to those first few ventures couldn’t compete with ambition and vision far greater than the candy maker’s simple ingredients would suggest.

And for more lists of suggested US history reading, you’ve come to the right place.

01 Mar

The Day-Glo Brothers and other nonfiction about notable siblings

As much as I’ve made about the daylight-fluorescence aspect of The Day-Glo Brothers, the sibling relationship between Bob and Joe Switzer — night and day opposites, in many respects — is central to the story as well.

In looking around for other children’s and young-adult nonfiction about notable sets of siblings from previous eras of American history, I’ve been surprised by how few are represented. (Where are the Marx Brothers? Frank and Jesse James? Donny and Marie?) For some additional context about sisters and brothers, I’ve assembled a list of my favorite titles. There are undoubtedly other worthy books that I’ve overlooked and would do well to add in updates to this post — I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire
by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch
Candlewick Press
If you’re not sold on Footwork by the time you get to young Fred and his older sister in costume as a dancing lobster and champagne glass, then you’re harder to please than even the most jaded vaudeville crowd. But take notice: The Astaires eventually won them over, too.

Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth
by James Cross Giblin
Clarion Books
Until April 14, 1865, Edwin was more famous than younger brother and fellow actor John Wilkes. But the story offered by Giblin is more complex than that, with “good” Edwin’s earlier career nearly undone by his drinking, “bad” John Wilkes’ heroic feats on stage (34 performances in 18 roles during one four-week engagement), and the brothers’ own awareness that their affection could not survive even a discussion of their political differences.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers
by Jean Fritz
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
In one of the most famous American families of the mid-19th century, the girls were not allowed to follow their father into the ministry, and the boys were not allowed not to. Fritz winningly relates how, with her history-changing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet proved herself the best sermonizer of the lot.

Sisters Against Slavery: A Story About Sarah and Angelina Grimké
by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson, illustrated by Karen Ritz
Carolrhoda Books
The Grimkés didn’t just transform themselves from slaveowning Southern belles into abolitionist Quakers — they went further, pushing against the prejudices within their adopted faith and the 19th-century restrictions on women speaking out in public about anything.

The Two Brothers
by William Jaspersohn, illustrated by Michael A. Donato
The Vermont Folklife Center
In this absolute gem based on a true story, Jaspersohn and Donato tell of the heartrending separation in the 1880s of Prussian brothers Heinrich and Friedrich Eurich, followed by their coincidental, goosebump-inducing reunion along a fenceline between two Vermont farms.

To Fly: The Story of the Wright Brothers
by Wendie C. Old, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker
Clarion Books
If there’s a shortage of books about other notable siblings, there’s a surplus of titles about Orville and Wilbur Wright. But there’s always room for the likes of this contribution by Old and Parker — accessible, insightful, and soaring.

Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy, Crusader
by Marc Aronson
Aronson embraces both fact and speculation in his engrossing, eye-opening account of an ill-fated life entwined with those of older brothers Joe and Jack.

28 Jan

The Day-Glo Brothers and other picture books about the 1930s

Most of The Day-Glo Brothers takes place in the 1930s, when Bob and Joe Switzer began experimenting with inks and paints that glowed under black light while moving ever closer to their discovery of daylight fluorescence.

For some additional context about that era, I’ve assembled a list of some of my favorite picture books set (at least partially) during the 1930s. There are undoubtedly some worthy subjects and titles that I’ve overlooked and would do well to add in updates to this post — I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Aliens Are Coming! The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
by Meghan McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf
McCarthy revisits Orson Welles’ famously panic-inducing radio play by combining a smattering of the original script, a matter-of-fact description of the aftermath (“One man thought he saw a Martian spaceship”), and illustrations that offer the old-fashioned kick of cheesy sci-fi.

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator
by Shelley Tanaka, illustrated by David Craig
Abrams Books for Young Readers
Tanaka’s stirring account of the aviator’s daring and determination awakened my own, long-dormant childhood fascination with Earhart.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ross MacDonald
Alfred A. Knopf
Nobleman and MacDonald make a dynamic duo in their depiction of how mild-mannered teens Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster parlayed the strength of their imaginations into an enduring hero.

Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa
by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children
Hip feline “Scat Cat Monroe” takes readers on a stylish, jazzy tour through Fitzgerald’s rise from big-dreaming Yonkers girl to unforgettable First Lady of Song.

Hoover Dam
by Elizabeth Mann, illustrated by Alan Witschonke
Mikaya Press
Mann’s Wonders of the World books are wonders in their own right. Her words and Witschonke’s art pay as much tribute and attention to the underappreciated workers as they do to the feat of engineering that tamed the Colorado River.

Seabiscuit Vs. War Admiral: The Greatest Horse Race in History
by Kat Shehata, illustrated by Jo McElwee
Angel Bea Publishing
The story of the 1938 contest runs on two tracks — a ticker-tape version in the staccato stylings of a stadium announcer, and another in the warm prose of an author who knows how to unfold the winning tale of an unlikely champion.

Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building
by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James E. Ransome
Schwartz & Wade Books
A boy with a newly unemployed father watches the rise of the New York City landmark — from the 50-foot toss of a red-hot rivet to the finished tower’s glow against Manhattan’s nighttime sky — with wonder and inspiration. Readers will, too.

That Book Woman
by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Henson and Small depict a pack-horse librarian’s impact on a farm family, told through the skeptical eye and mountain vernacular of a non-reading boy named Cal.

Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People
by Bonnie Christensen
Alfred A. Knopf
With a generous dose of Guthrie’s own lyrics, Christensen shows how the singer and activist came to give voice to Americans in need through “This Land Is Your Land” and a thousand other songs.

22 Jun

Goin’ to Boston

As I mentioned a few months ago, my family is going to Boston for vacation later this summer. It will be the first time my wife and boys have been, and my first trip there since I was 11 years old, and so I’ve been on the lookout for books to prep us on our visit.

Complementing the titles mentioned (and commented upon) in my original post, here’s what we’ve currently got on our vacation-themed shelf. (Well, right now, these titles are actually piled up on the floor next to my desk, but I hope to have them back on the shelf before the kids are awake. Or perhaps I’ll treat the boys to a conspicuous show of putting books back on the shelf, but that’s really a topic for another post…)

Whales. We’ll be up bright and early (or early and bleary) one Sunday for a whale-watching cruise, which explains why we’ve got so many whale-related titles around the house these days:

Where are you bound this summer (whether by flight or by foot), and are you reading anything to get ready?

05 Sep

Another anniversary

Today marks 49 years and 11 months since the Soviets launched Sputnik. A few years ago, I predicted that major children’s book publishers would make a fuss over the golden anniversary of the inauguration of the space race — maybe not a fuss of Wright-brothers-in-2003 proportions, but something.

Well, I guessed wrong, but not before I’d done a few drafts of the sort of Sputnik picture book I thought my boys might like. A few editors had a look and passed, and once the time remaining until the anniversary date shrank to less than the picture book production cycle, I set my manuscript aside.

Until today, that is. Below, for your watershed-commemoration and reading pleasure, I’ve posted my full manuscript for What-nik?!? Enjoy, comrades!

05 Sep


When I woke up on October 4, 1957, all I could think about was professional wrestling.

[Poster on bedroom wall:

One night only! Friday, October 11! Come see Mr. Spectacular! The Bruiser Brothers! The Masked Whacker! And more!]

When I went to bed that night, all I could think about was Sputnik.

[Family gathered around the radio:


“He said ‘Sputnik.'”]

We heard about it after dinner. The Russians — the Russians! — had launched this … thing into space, and it was sending back beeping signals.

It was called Sputnik. Sputnik weighed 184 pounds, and it was orbiting around and around the earth. Even over the United States.

[“Hey, 184 — same as me.”

Shhh, listen.”

Beep-beep-beep… beep-beep-beep]

Part of me was amazed, and part of me was scared. I wasn‘t sure which part was bigger.

Amazed because I didn‘t know anything about satellites or orbits or things that went “beep” in space. My dad knew a little, but he’d never tried to explain it before.

[“What makes Sputnik stay up there? Why doesn‘t it fly off into space or come crashing down?”

“Um, well… Gravity.”]

I was scared because the Russians were our enemy. We’d always heard that everything in the USA was better than in Russia. But we’d never launched a satellite, and now Russia had.

The worse an enemy is, the more names you have for them. We had a lot of names for the Russians.

Soviet Union

The Russian leader once bragged, “We will bury you.” And if that wasn‘t frightening enough, at school we had to practice hiding under our desks in case a Russian bomb ever fell on us.

[“I’m not sure this will help.”]

The next day was Saturday. Instead of playing Mr. Spectacular vs. the Masked Whacker, my friends Ronnie and Dave and I talked about Sputnik.

[“Why don’t we just shoot it down?”

“Because it’s 560 miles up and going 18,000 miles an hour.”

“Do you think it’s got an A-bomb or an H-bomb?”

“Maybe a death ray.”

“Do you think it’s spying on us?”

“We aren‘t doing anything.”

“What does that ‘beep-beep-beep’ mean, anyway?”

“Someone told me that it’s really ‘deep-beep-beep.'”

“Well, what does it sound like to you?”


Most everyone took Sputnik seriously. Some people took it really seriously. My Uncle Earl, for one. My dad tried to be funny.

[“Not only are the blasted Russkies watching us, but you know what they’re gonna do next? Paint the moon red, just to show us they can!”

“Oh, come on. I weigh 184 pounds. How come no one’s scared of me?”]

All weekend, we could hear Sputnik beeping on the radio. We didn’t know if it was doing anything else. The Russians said it wasn‘t, but who believed them?

Politicians told us not to panic. But then they gave us reasons why we should.

[“If the Soviets can launch a Sputnik into orbit, what can’t they do? What can’t they do?“]

I learned everything I could about Sputnik, but even with three TV channels and two newspapers, it wasn‘t much. At school on Monday, everyone was talking about flying saucers. I tried to set them straight.

[“It’s actually round. Like a beach ball with antennas.”]

Our teachers told us how hard school was in Russia, and that was why they had the first satellite. We got twice as much homework as usual.

My mom went out and bought every science book she could find so that I could catch up with Russian kids.

[“Mom, this is about earthworms.”

“You think rocket scientists don’t need to know about earthworms?”]

I began to worry about Friday’s wrestling matches. Uncle Earl was supposed to take me, but he said Sputnik’s beeps were a secret code, and he wouldn‘t rest until he’d broken it.

[“Uncle Earl?”

“I’ll be out when I’m finished!”


“‘Boo hoo hoo?'”


“‘Bwa ha ha?'”]

I heard you could actually see Sputnik before sunrise or after sunset if it passed overhead. So I got up early and ate dinner late so I could watch for it.

Sometimes my friends joined me.

[“I bet we’ll beat ‘em to Mars.”]

Sometimes my dad did.

[“I don’t see why all the fuss. After all…”

“I know, Dad — you weigh 184 pounds, too.”]

But Sputnik must have been over some other part of the world whenever I was looking.

Friday evening came. Mom was playing bridge. Dad said he had to work late. I sat on the porch to wait for Uncle Earl, just in case.

And then I saw a bright orange glow begin to streak across the sky. It was speeding along, but the sky was so big, it seemed to take forever. At that moment, I wasn‘t scared at all. I was just amazed. People had put that streak up there.

[“It’s beautiful. No one told me Sputnik was beautiful.”]

My uncle showed up a few minutes later.

[“Did you break the code?”

“No. It broke me. Let’s go see some rasslin‘.”]

Just before the main event, the announcer spoke to the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special guest tonight, joining us all the way from Moscow, Russia, in the U.S.S.R.”

The rest of the crowd booed, but I didn‘t. The masked grappler looked familiar. And ridiculous.

“Weighing in at a mighty 184 pounds, it’s… Sputnikolai!”

The boos turned to laughter. Sputnikolai winked at me.

Now I really wasn‘t scared.

The End
09 Jul

1915, give or take 10 years

The gravitational pull of my current project is such that it’s even changing the way I’m choosing U.S. history books for 8-year-old S and 3-year-old F.

This month, we’re focusing on biographies of Americans born within a decade of Alan Lomax — between 1905 and 1925. The subjects are an eclectic bunch:

The boys’ favorite so far seems to be the Grace Hopper book, because of its deft use of a visual pun. It includes a photograph of the computer bug — that is, the actual moth, taped to a notecard — that brought an early room-sized calculator to its knees. Even Jackson Pollock can’t compete with that.

23 May

War is easy, peace is hard

This seems to be just as true in nonfiction for children as it in human relations in general. At least, that’s my interpretation of the relative lack of nonfiction titles for young children about American pacifism and peacemakers, diplomacy and diplomats, compared to titles focused on the wars we’ve been in.

Maybe it’s because war seems to have greater potential for drama, not to mention cooler technology. Or maybe — just maybe — this country simply has a richer history of conflict engagement than conflict avoidance, nonviolence, etc.

As peaceful topics go, Martin Luther King, Jr., is an obvious exception, and for this month’s U.S. history reading for 8-year-old S and 3-year-old F, I brought home Doreen Rappaport and illustrator Bryan Collier’s Martin’s Big Words.

There’s also a four-decades-old gem by Betty Baker and illustrated by Robert Lopshire, The Pig War.

Beyond that, I found a contemporary fiction picture book reflecting on our relationship with Japan (Jean Davies Okimoto and illustrator Doug Keith’s Dear Ichiro), whimsical cautionary tales both Seuss (The Butter Battle Book) and Seussian (Dav Pilkey’s debut, available here in its entirety), Todd Parr’s conceptual The Peace Book, and Vladimir Radunsky’s highly appealing (but, sadly, Belgiancentric) Manneken Pis: A Simple Story of a Boy Who Peed on a War.

(Many — shoot, maybe all — of these titles are featured at Weapons of Mass Instruction; thanks to Kids Lit for that link. I’d also hoped to bring home Paths to Peace: People Who Changed the World, but whoever last checked that one out from my library has been sitting on it for nearly a month past its due date. When I get my hands on that lousy so-and-so who hasn’t turned in that razzafrackin‘ peace book, I’ll…)

Anyway, here’s my Memorial Day Weekend question for you all: For young children — readers of picture books through early chapter books — what other nonfiction history titles can you recommend on this topic?

Until next week — peace, y’all.

02 Apr

Hey Batta Batta Swing! and other baseball books

Hey Batta Batta Swing!: The Wild Old Days of Baseball
by Sally Cook & James Charlton and illustrated by Ross MacDonald
Margaret K. McElderry Books

With baseball books, it’s easy to take the subject too seriously: It’s a metaphor for life! For America! For innocence (or the loss thereof)! Ancient stats and facts get a lot of play because they all mean something.

There’s a lot of history and a lot of lore in this new collaboration by Cook, Charlton and MacDonald, but most importantly there’s a lot of fun. Packed with old-time lingo and comically over-the-top art, Hey Batta Batta Swing! makes for a great leadoff book in this month’s U.S. history reading for 8-year-old S and 3-year-old F.

The other titles in this month’s lineup (which overlaps a little with the list offered recently by The Miss Rumphius Effect) include:

  • Ballpark: The Story of America’s Baseball Fields by Lynn Curlee
  • Take Me Out to the Ball Game by Jim Burke, with lyrics by Jack Norworth
  • Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth by Robert Burleigh and Mike Wimmer
  • Players in Pigtails by Shana Corey and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon
  • Teammates by Peter Golenbock and illustrated by Paul Bacon
  • Say Hey!: A Song of Willie Mays by Peter Mandel and illustrated by Don Tate
  • Free Baseball by Sue Corbett (Yes, it’s contemporary rather than history. Yes, it’s fiction rather than nonfiction. Still, the ump says it’s safe.)

There are lots of recurring themes among these titles — two have a character named “Katie Casey,” there are multiple (and conflicting) explanations of how Ruth came to be known as “Babe,” we get recurring descriptions of the long-gone practice of “soaking” (getting a runner out by hitting him with the ball), and so on. It’s discovering these sorts of connections that make reading history with my sons such a pleasure.

Say, maybe these connections all mean something. Maybe baseball is really a metaphor for children’s literature