Nonfiction Monday: Oh, Alice!
(And Elizabeth! And Margaret!)

h1 April 21st, 2008 by jules

It’s Nonfiction Monday, and I never finished Part Two of last week’s picture book round-up, so consider this it.

I thought I’d talk today about a handful of new picture book biographies of three trailblazing, unconventional women who all thought—and lived—outside the box. And, since it doesn’t get much better than the first one, let’s get right to it…

Yes, first of all, there’s What to Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! by Barbara Kerley and with illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic; March 2008).

“I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly DO BOTH.”
— Theodore Roosevelt

Have you seen this book (which pretty much revolves around the fabulous Roosevelt quote above)? As I mentioned over at Diane Chen’s School Library Journal blog when Eisha and I guest-blogged over there two weeks ago, this is another one of my top-three favorite titles thus far from this year (I mean, just look at that cover, Alice tear-assing through the White House gardens on her bike. That’s fabulous and funny in seven different directions). Oh, and I must digress for a moment and quickly add the other two are Jim Averbeck’s In a Blue Room with illustrations from Tricia Tusa (Harcourt) and Bonny Becker’s A Visitor for Bear with illustrations from Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick). I’m placing my Caldecott bets now. In April. Why not?

Anyway, back on track here. Kerley quite successfully gets the attention of young readers right off the bat in this title: “Theodore Roosevelt had a small problem. It wasn’t herding thousands of cattle across the Dakota badlands. HE’D DONE THAT. It wasn’t leading the Rough Riders as they charged up Kettle Hill. HE’D DONE THAT, TOO . . . Her name was Alice. Alice Lee Roosevelt was hungry to go places, meet people, do things.” Kerley continues with this accessible, engaging manner of speaking to readers throughout the rest of the book, and there are some laugh-outloud moments of true understatement, proven to be such with Fotheringham’s dramatic, action-packed illustrations (“In 1901, when Alice was seventeen, Father became president of the United States. The whole family moved into the White House. Alice tried to be helpful. She watched her younger brothers and sister so her stepmother could get some rest.” And what does Fotheringham show Alice doing? Sledding down the White House stairs, with siblings close behind).

Fotheringham’s highly stylized illustrations are a wonder of movement and energy and line, as he plays with perspective and shadow and font, incorporating such things as newspaper headlines into the story. Oh how I wish I could show you a spread or two from the book (however, if you go here and click on “Books” and then “Interiors” on the left, you can see many spreads from this book). The Horn Book wrote, “{w}ith a palette that emphasizes Alice Blue, her signature color, the illustrations often match Alice’s spirit with zigzag streaks, circular pieces of spot art, and slanting figures. Both text and illustrations can depict a demure Alice (on her wedding day, for example), but that decorum is short-lived as she dances the turkey trot or plays poker with ‘the boys.'” Booklist wrote, “{t}he large format gives Fotheringham, in his debut, plenty of room for spectacular art, which uses digital media. In almost every picture, Alice is running, motoring, racing. One clever spread shows what it was like to be a media princess: newspaper pages fly across the spread, obscuring Alice.” I have to say: That’s my favorite spread (the “Oh, Alice” one), and I wish I could show you that one, in particular. Wah. Yes, I’m whining. It’s not becoming, I know.

The enthusiastic energy of these spreads are the perfect match for the story of Alice (pictured here), who was eager to experience life to the fullest, never wanting anyone to refer to her as “the poor little thing,” even after her mother died when she was very young. Kerley takes Alice’s remarkable accomplishments and personality—teaching herself astronomy, geology, Greek grammar, and more as a child; her spirited globe-trotting; becoming a trusted adviser for her father; joining the American delegation headed to Asia; creating the Night Riders; and much more—and brings her to life for readers. But she also succeeds in taking us even further in our journey to know Alice by casting her in the role of daughter — the unruly, curious child (possessing an irrepressible joie de vivre) of a man eager to keep a proper public image. And all this during a time when women were not expected to gallivant around as feisty Alice did (“Letters poured in to Father from conservative women’s groups. Alice’s behavior was OUTRAGEOUS, they said.”)

I could go on. A superb title. Don’t miss it.

Here’s the attention-grabbing opening, aimed squarely at young female readers, of Tanya Lee Stone’s Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Henry Holt; April 2008):

What would you do
if someone told you
you can’t be what you want to be
because you are a girl?

What would you do
if someone told you
your vote doesn’t count,
your voice doesn’t matter
because you are a girl?

Would you ask why?
Would you talk back?
Would you fight . . .
for your rights?

Elizabeth did.

Telling the story of how one of the first leaders of the American women’s rights movement came to determine that women should have the right to vote, this is a reverent look at American social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton — her early life when she heard statements, such as “What a pity it is she’s a girl!” (spoken about her younger sister) and “Ah, you should have been a boy!” (the words of her father); her education; her marriage to abolitionist Henry Stanton (who “did not laugh when Elizabeth talked about freedom” and “did not laugh when she told him she would add his name to her own but would not give up hers just to marry him”); her friendship with Lucretia Mott and other women who shared her thoughts on women’s rights; and her work up until July 19, 1848, when she read the Declaration of Right and Sentiments at what is now called the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention. The book ends at this historic convention, as rumblings from the crowd begin: “It grew louder and louder as people argued whether or not women should be allowed to vote,” the final spread emphasizing the power of Elizabeth’s words (“she was unstoppable. She changed America forever”). Gibbon’s flat gouache-and-color-pencil illustrations have an old-fashioned sweetness to them. Her perspective seems purposely askew, giving her art a folk-art feel. An author’s note fills out the rest of Stanton’s life.

Last, but far from least, there is Lynn Plourde’s picture book biography of Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to run for president on a major party ticket, sub-titled A Woman for President and illustrated by David McPhail (Charlesbridge; February 2008). This is the only one of these three titles to include a timeline of the subject’s life, actually at the book’s close, in this case. But on each spread of this title, you’ll find—to boot—timelines that shed light on the subject matter of that spread, such as “US life expectancy” on the spread about how her younger brothers died when she was a child or a timeline on “Women in the US military” on the spread about Margaret’s support of women in uniform. The biography hits on major moments in Smith’s personal and political life, including her family; education; marriage; appointment to the House of Representatives and, later, Senate; her passion for flight and space exploration; her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech, aimed squarely at Senator McCarthy; her bid for the presidential nomination; and her death in 1995. Each spread includes a tag line of sorts — graceful, pithy commentaries about the many personal and political roles and successes of her life: “What a sister she was—a compassionate and responsible one” and “what a wife she was—one who was valued as a political partner.” McPhail’s warm, soft-focus illustrations are restrained, reverent. This would be an excellent addition to the biography sections of public and elementary (and even middle) school libraries.

And, while we’re on the subject and though it’s not nonfiction, don’t forget Kelly DiPucchio and LeUyen Pham’s Grace for President (Hyperion), reviewed here in February. Now, when Grace asks:

. . . perhaps we can point her to these three titles from today.

Until next time . . .

5 comments to “Nonfiction Monday: Oh, Alice!
(And Elizabeth! And Margaret!)”

  1. Hi Jules —

    Thanks for all the kind words. So glad you enjoyed ‘meeting’ Alice! And wow, I must say you chose a fantastic photo. (I’ve seen many photos of her but hadn’t seen that particular one — gotta love the hat!)

    There are extension activities (and some fun links) for the book on my web page in the “For the Classroom” section — for teachers, homeschoolers, and curious kids!

    Thanks for the great post about ALL these pioneering women!

    Barb Kerley

  2. Jules,

    I really liked Barbara Kerley’s WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE?. (I wrote a review of it for Women’s History Month.) It would be a great book to read aloud to young children. I think Kerley has written a number of wonderful picture book biographies for older kids, too. Loved THE DINOSUARS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS and her book about Walt Whitman–both illustrated by Brian Selznick.

    I haven’t seen the other books you posted about here. Thanks for keeping us updated on all the new picture books.

  3. Wow! I hit the motherlode when I stopped over here for a Nonfiction Monday visit!! Thanks for all the wonderful women titles! Can’t wait to read them myself!

  4. […] Abby the Librarian (Close to Shore) 11. World of Words (Dolley Madison saves George Washington) 12. Jules, 7-Imp (three amazing political women today in my post) 13. Becky (America Through A Lens) 14. Nancy I. Sanders (Research Tips) 15. I.N.K. (Don Brown on […]

  5. […] questionnaire and then we can hear more from him, too. If you saw his work in last year’s What to Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Fathe… by Barbara Kerley, then you know how exuberant Fotheringham’s highly stylized illustrations […]

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