Monthly Archives: October 2021

Kids’ Bio Bonanza

Wonderful children’s biographies are being published this fall, and even adults may discover new heroes and heroines! Here are a few that I’ve read recently.

Banksy Graffitied Walls and Wasn’t Sorry, by Fausto Gilberti

This small book is a cartoon-style, speculative biography of an artist that no one knows. Banksy started leaving his graffiti art in public places in England in the 1990s, and he has since placed random works of art in various museums, waiting to see when people would notice. He has never been caught, so there is a great deal of buzz over the mystery of his true identity, or whether he is actually a woman or even a group of artists. Italian writer Gilberti created all of the artwork for this book, with just one photo of a Banksy piece in the back, so this volume is best used as a jumping-off point to create curiosity in children for further research online. Very fun.

Einstein: The Fantastic Journey of a Mouse Through Space and Time, by Torben Kuhlmann

Okay, this is not technically a biography of Einstein, since it is told through the point of view of a mouse, but it will introduce children to the life and scientific theories of the great man. A little mouse wants to attend a cheese festival, but he arrives a day late, and somehow ends up in Einstein’s former workshop, trying to figure out how to go back in time. He goes too far back, though, and lands in Einstein’s lifetime, leaving the scientist notes that lead to his discovery of the theory of relativity. The real star of this thick picture book is Kuhlmann’s artwork, which is luminous and fascinating. If you and your children have not discovered this artist’s work in the past, do yourselves a favor and get all his books. Your kids will spend hours poring over all the tiny details, and they might even learn something!

J.R.R. Tolkien for Kids: His Life and Writings with 21 Activities, by Simonetta Carr

This large paperback is part of the Chicago Review Press series that relates easy projects to the subject of the book. If your children are of an age to read The Hobbit, this biography would be the perfect accompaniment. From his birth and the early death of his parents, through World War I and his romance with his beloved wife, to his professorship and famous works of literature, this volume chronicles Tolkien’s long life on an upper elementary or middle school level. Although all of the activities are simple to accomplish at home, some reinforce the narrative more appropriately than others. There is an annoyingly large number of typographical errors, but the content is worth it. Tolkien’s works will enrich every child’s life.

Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi, by Sigal Samuel and Vali Mintzi

Osnat was born in Mosul about 500 years ago. Her father was a rabbi, and even though he didn’t think girls needed to read, he didn’t have any sons, so he taught her. When he died, Osnat’s husband took over the yeshiva—or school—where he taught boys about Hebrew and their Jewish faith. Since he was busy, Osnat began teaching Torah, so that when her husband also passed away, she was the natural choice to lead the yeshiva herself. She went on to perform miracles, along with her beloved pet dove. Mintzi filled this picture book with vivid paintings in red, deep blue, and gold that recall the colors of ancient Iraq. A beautiful volume to introduce your children to a rich culture.

Unbound: The Life + Art of Judith Scott, by Joyce Scott, with Brie Spangler and Melissa Sweet

Joyce and Judith Scott were twin sisters and best friends throughout their early childhood in the 1940s. One day, Joyce came home from school to find that her beloved sister had been confined in an institution because she was deaf and had Down Syndrome, and at that time, doctors had no alternatives for parents. When Joyce grew up, she petitioned to have her sister come to live in her house, and each day, she would take Judith to the Creative Growth Art Center. At first, Judith seemed uninterested, but one day, the staff brought out yarn, ribbons, and fabric scraps. Judith began gathering up pieces of wood and various objects and creating sculptures with the materials. She hid things inside the layers of material, excitedly bringing meaning to her art. Eventually, people began to appreciate her creativity, and her work was displayed in art shows, written about in books, and honored in documentaries. Judith died in 2005, but her sister continues to spread the word about the value of creativity for all people. The body of the book is illustrated with Melissa Sweet’s lovely, childlike drawings, followed by photographs, a timeline, and other explanatory backmatter.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of all of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Rachel Held Evans

Rachel was the best little Christian girl. She won prizes in AWANA for her knowledge of the Bible. She looked for things to do for others so that she could be a servant. She pitied everyone else because they were all going to burn in hell. By her own admission, she was pretty insufferable. When she reached a certain age, though, she started to notice that some things just didn’t make sense in the worldview she’d been given by her parents and her church, so she started to ask questions. This did not go over well with her Sunday School teachers, but her very religious parents supported her curiosity and allowed her to pursue answers to her quandaries. It took a long time to shed the Good Evangelical Girl persona, but in time, Rachel Held Evans was able to write about her faith journey, and she became famous on one side of the church and infamous on the other.

Rachel Held Evans was the author of Searching for Sunday and The Year of Biblical Womanhood, among other works. She started the Evolving Faith conference with her friend, Sarah Bessey, and spoke and worked tirelessly for groups that the church had marginalized, especially the LGBTQ community. She was the mother of two little children when she suddenly contracted an infection, then had an allergic reaction to the medication. She died at age 37. Her death stunned the Christian world. She had just started on what looked like a brilliant career, and then she was gone. I recently listened to her speaking on a podcast from just a few months before her death, and she and the host were talking about her upcoming projects. None of us are promised tomorrow.

Two new books by Rachel are being published posthumously this fall, one for adults and one for children.

Wholehearted Faith

As you might imagine, a prolific writer has a lot of manuscripts and fragments in computer folders, desk drawers, and sundry other places. After her death, Rachel’s husband, Dan, gathered up some of them and asked Rachel’s friend, Jeff Chu, to help get them to publication. Jeff edited and organized the manuscripts, plus he filled in those she had left unfinished. This volume is a collection of essays on a variety of topics, written in Rachel’s friendly, thoughtful voice. Some of them recount her childhood and faith journey, while others muse on the complexities of life and the corruption of the church.

Her chapter called “From Death to Life” is especially compelling. It is a long chapter that starts with self-deprecating humor. She admits that her Enneagram type 3 personality can turn a fun game into a fight to the death, and how that drive for success affected her life and her faith. She grows more serious toward the end as she shows how the drive to be successful in our country has influenced the church, and she reminds us that those afraid of death do not believe in the resurrection. If the death of the American church is inevitable, she recounts the many ways that it could be resurrected more gloriously, and she concludes by stating that death is not the end of the story. I would love to quote these beautiful passages, but I read an advance reader copy, so that is not allowed. In November, though, you can read them yourself.

For those who loved Rachel Held Evans or for those troublemakers who ask questions, this is a deep and moving collection from a writer whose canon closed too soon.

What Is God Like?

I did not know that Rachel Held Evans was friends with one of my favorite picture book illustrators, Matthew Paul Turner. Since she had little children, Rachel had started to write her ideas about God for a very young audience just two months before she died. At that time, she and her husband, Dan, had a three-year-old son and a new baby girl. Dan asked Turner to bring this unfinished work to completion. Using images and emotions from nature and children’s daily lives, she describes God in open, nonspecific ways that convey love and safety to little ones. Her language is inclusive and trinitarian, showing a mother on one page and a father on the next, three dancers of various genders and ethnicities, happy children playing outdoors or creating artwork, all using “he” and “she” pronouns equally. The illustrator, Ying Hui Tan, stays close to Turner’s usual style, with floaty, swooping figures and diverse skin tones.

This beautiful book will be helpful to parents who wish to convey reassuring ideas about God to young children. There is no reference to sin and punishment or even to any particular religious tradition. Evans prefers to introduce children to the mystery and lifelong pursuit of the divine, which may be a tall order for children at an age when their thinking is fairly concrete. Parents who are more sectarian might take note that this volume will not reinforce the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Whether parents find this book charming or not will be according to the style of their own pursuit of the divine.

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So, be open with your questions and share your gathered wisdom, because God already knows, but the rest of us might need to hear it.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Wholehearted Faith and a library copy of What Is God Like? Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Belle Greener’s father was a professor who became a civil rights activist in the years between the end of the American Civil War and the enactment of Jim Crow laws. For a short space of time, the future looked hopeful for freed Blacks, but during their years at the university, Belle’s parents saw the mood of the country turning against them. At that point, Belle’s mother decided that the only way her light-skinned children could be safe was to pass as white. The Greeners separated over this issue, and their daughter lived the rest of her life as Belle da Costa Greene, inventing a Portuguese ancestor to explain her olive skin.

After attending Princeton University and working for a short time, Belle was hired by the famous financier, J.P. Morgan, to be the librarian in charge of his incredible collection of ancient manuscripts and artworks in New York City. Her salary allowed her sisters and brothers to complete their education and secure good jobs of their own. Over the years, Belle’s career grew beyond her wildest dreams, and Morgan trusted her completely to journey to Europe to negotiate for rare volumes and works of art. These trips also allowed her to meet secretly with the much-older art dealer, Bernard Berenson, with whom she maintained a romantic relationship that lasted for decades, although they endured some rocky years.

On my last trip to Manhattan, in pre-pandemic times, my brother and I visited the Morgan Library. What a treasure! I had not heard of it before, but I read an article about its medieval illuminated manuscripts and its Gutenberg Bibles, so I thought it would be worth a trip. The soaring architecture, particularly the three-story main room, is awe-inspiring. The manuscripts were as beautiful as described, but there were many other fascinations, including sculpture and paintings, ancient cylinder seals from the near East that I looked for in vain as earrings in the gift shop, and the only intact copy of Lady Susan in Jane Austen’s own handwriting. There were other handwritten manuscripts and musical compositions, as well, and so much more. At that time, there were very few people in the museum with us, but the success of The Personal Librarian may have changed that.

The fact that a woman, and a black woman at that, was in control of the selection and acquisition of this important man’s collection is gratifying for this librarian! Morgan included Belle in many of his family functions, although not all of his children appreciated her prominent role in their lives. Marie Benedict turned to Victoria Christopher Murray to portray a more authentic understanding of a black woman’s feelings and experiences. Between the two of them, this novel hews very closely to the historical record, while sweeping readers along for all of the fear, thrill, excitement, sorrow, and triumph that was Belle da Costa Greene’s life.

I listened to this book on an excellent audio version, although I own an advance reader copy that I will treasure, as well. This is an absorbing novel for anyone who loves history, biography, art, and literature. Read the book, see the library. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to an audiobook version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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