I don't know about these passion-project picture book biographies. Don't get me wrong - *I* love 'em. My colleagues love 'em. Awards committees love 'em. Parents sometimes love 'em.
But I have to heave a heavy sigh and admit that I have trouble getting a kid to take Andrea Davis Pinkney's marvelous, swingy Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa into his or her hands, or The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, or the new picture book biography of Golda Meir, Goldie Takes a Stand!: Golda Meir's First Crusade.
Golda. Meir. WHO... reads that book? HOW... do they end up picking it up? Without adult intervention, that book NEVER gets read. I interviewed the brilliant Chris Raschka about his new picture book biography The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening this past spring. And I somehow never got up the courage to ask, "What the hell, Chris Raschka? What child will be interested in the life of Sun Ra?" I played Sun Ra's music for my kids in the car, and after about 20 minutes, they politely asked me to turn it off because it was making them crazy.
They've never wondered about these people. They've never even heard of them, in some cases. It is usually possible to tease out a reason for kids to learn about them - we need true stories of struggle against adversity, the power of will, or an example of a kid "just like you" who grew up to find his or her place / succeed on his or her own terms / change the world. But in ten years at the library, I bet have helped fewer than ten kids who were looking for a picture book biography.
I'm not saying they'll never get read. WITH the aforementioned adult intervention, they'll get read. They'll also show up in classrooms an get taken home for reports. Although since they aren't programmed to provide report answers (no bolded vocabulary words, no timeline, no maps), kids tend to reject them in favor of Time for Kids or Who Was when report time comes around.
Hello, I'm Johnny Cash stands a greater chance than most of getting plucked off the shelf by an auntie or a dad - there are plenty of grownups who just can't wait to share The Man in Black with their kids. Heck, my friends Aimee and Jim named their firstborn June.
And I'm so glad. I love this book. Greg Neri is clearly a devoted fan, inspired by the way struggle and talent shaped the life of this extraordinary musician. In a note at the back, Greg states that he shaped this biography around the stories Cash told about himself - in essence, telling Johnny's story the way Johnny would tell it.
That is such an interesting take on research, and I think especially thoughtful for a children's book. Everything I've read about Johnny Cash seems to indicate that he wanted to inspire people to do good deeds and follow their conscience, and to that end he would probably have told children about the poverty and sorrow that shaped his actions in his early years, and how music kept him going and ultimately lifted him up.
The oil illustrations are in a straightforward pictorial style, full of air and open faces. That picture on the cover pretty much says it all - this is one case where the cover is just as strong as the interior art (I'm looking at you Grandfather Gandhi - why is your cover so blah when your inside is so dramatic?!).
In the end, regardless my misgivings about the audience for picture book biographies, as long as the publishing companies will put a few bucks into them, I am of course happy they're around. School libraries should keep buying 'em, teachers should use them to introduce music units and history units and to put a human face on math and the sciences.
And I'll keep shoving them at youngsters and parents at the public library. "Golda Meir! Very important lady!" "Sun Ra! Um... it's important to show that even serious weirdos have a place in our culture!" Who knows, that kid may grow up to be our next serious weirdo, brilliant mathematician, or straight-shooting Israeli prime minister.