Category Archives: Biographies

Ruby Bridges

Painting of Ruby Bridges, by Norman Rockwell

Ruby Bridges was six years old when she was one of a few children chosen to be the first student to desegregate a public school in Louisiana. When the day came for her first day of First Grade, she was accompanied on this journey by federal marshals. The gauntlet of hate that this little girl walked through that day and through the rest of the school year, was horrific.

Last fall was the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of a New Orleans public school. I read two books about this milestone happening in the struggle for civil rights in this country. The first was a picture book written by Robert Coles, called The Story of Ruby Bridges.  It’s a powerful and moving telling of a little girl’s experience and her inner strength and faith that helped her through it. The gauntlet of hatred she had to walk through on that first day of school, and for most of that school year, was horrific. But this book is an excellent introduction to this historical happening for young people. Robert Coles is a Harvard professor emeritus, a child psychiatrist and author, who actually worked with Ruby Bridges during that school year in 1960, helping her cope with the effects of that experience.

The second book was Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges herself. She narrated the audiobook version, and I’m glad I listened to her read it. That incredible experience, described in her own words, was so powerful. I also enjoyed hearing about her life after that year, and about what she is doing now to help others and educate others about racism. She really is a hero…not just because of the courage she showed at such a young age, but because of the life she has chosen to live since that time.

I highly recommend reading both of these books!

Misty Copeland: A Life in Motion

Being snowed-in during a quarantine is an interesting happening. We’ve had unusual snow and ice in the last week here in the greater Portland, Oregon, area, so hubby and I just hunkered down (more than usual) and withdrew into books, tv shows, and indoor projects. I spent my time with Misty Copeland, learning about her life through three books checked out of the online section of our library.

The first book was the young reader’s edition of Misty Copeland’s autobiography, Life in Motion: an unlikely ballerina. I had heard of Misty Copeland as a gifted ballerina, but I didn’t really know her story. This book was a very interesting way to get to know more about her, through her own words, and I enjoyed the experience. Not only is she an amazing ballerina, but she is an inspiration to and a role model for so many people, young and old.

From the publisher:

With an insider’s passion, Misty opens a window into the life of an artist who lives life center stage, from behind the scenes at her first classes to her triumphant roles in some of the world’s most iconic ballets. A sensational memoir as “sensitive” and “clear-eyed” (The Washington Post) as her dancing, Life in Motion is a story of passion, identity and grace for anyone who has dared to dream of a different life.

There were not many people of color in ballet when Misty Copeland began her journey. Better said, there were very talented dancers of color, but not many ways to advance very far in the white world of ballet. She was a late-starter in ballet at age 13, but she was tremendously gifted, a prodigy, who excelled right from the beginning of her training. She was fortunate to have an early mentor/teacher who embraced her talent and nurtured her growth of confidence and pride of self.

“Most of the students at the San Pedro Dance Center were white, but I wasn’t the only child of color. A lot of people think that ballet dancers should all look the same: thin and delicate, with white skin. Cindy thought different shapes, colors, and sizes should be represented to reflect the variety of talent in the ballet world. I feel lucky to have been nurtured by someone so supportive of my differences so early in my career.”

Her drive and ambition to become the best she could be was integral to her career in dance. Her dream was to become a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, and she worked fiercely toward that goal.

“I went back to my journal to write about ABT: I need to go in there and show them how good I am. I wasn’t ready to stop fighting my way to the top at ABT. Maybe I’d have to work ten times harder than anyone else because of my skin color, because I didn’t have the body they thought was ideal for ballet. If that’s what it took to become a principal dancer, I’d keep pushing myself. I couldn’t stop now. I’d given up so much to get here. I’d make them see that I deserved it—and more.”

But that drive and ambition was for more than herself. She was deeply appreciative of all those people ( white and people of color) who mentored her and helped her achieve her dreams. She talked in this book about them and about who she also included in her dream:

“If this could open doors for black women in ballet, that would mean the world to me, I penned in my diary. It would all be worth it. That’s what I’m doing this for. Not for my own pleasure and gratification. I need to remember this every morning I wake up tired, just think[ing] of what I could do, not just for me but [for] others.”

Her athleticism and artistry are extraordinary. I was completely enthralled when I watched clips on YouTube from some of her performances, and then I discovered that there was a movie of her called A Ballerina’s Tale. I look forward to watching that soon.

The other two books written by Misty that I checked out at the same time were Bunheads, a book on ballet for 5 to 8 year olds. It had wonderful illustrations and would please any young person interested in ballet.  The other book was Firebird, also written for young children. Both books encourage hard work and dedication as ways to become a dancer and also to build confidence in one’s self.

The temperatures here are warming up and the melting has started today. The snow and ice will be gone soon with the coming rain, but  thanks to Misty Copeland, I really enjoyed my time being snowed-in during this quarantine. (But I will be glad to be able to get out to the grocery store once again!)

 

 

Adventures of a Biographer

I sometimes have the feeling that every biography I have written is a part of my autobiography. Remembered experiences and emotions grant me a lens of empathy through which I can view my subject. One’s writing and one’s personal life frequently mesh. We are the stories we tell.

Natalie S. Bober is an author I came across during my teaching years who quickly became a favorite author of mine (and of my mother after I introduced her to some of her books!). She has written excellent biographies for young people, and I found them fascinating to read.

I discovered recently that she had written a book about being a writer and specifically a writer of biographies. Of course, I had to find it and read it immediately. Simply put: I loved it!  It tells her own story about becoming a biographer, and explains to young writers how to make that happen. It also describes her immersion into the lives of the subjects of her biographies, and so gives a fascinating new view of the lives of those people and extends the experience of each of those biographies. I just wish my mother were still here to enjoy this book as much as she enjoyed the other books by Natalie Bober!

This book gives a wonderful view into the life of a writer. I found myself highlighting many passages, wanting to store them away and refer back to them many times. Here are a few of her ideas that resonated with me:

The story becomes, then, not simply the life of a subject, but the portrait of an era as well. And – in this way biography becomes a prism of history. In fact, biography has been described as the human heart of history. The biographer, then, becomes a historian as well as a portrait painter.

To be a writer, I was discovering, one must first be a reader!

Every biography that I write offers me an excuse to travel. Documents can never tell the whole story. I must go to the territory. I must walk where my subjects walked, and see what they must have seen. The language of landscape is essential.

I have always felt that writing is exploration. I write to learn. My drafts become a lens helping me to see my subjects from a new perspective.

Research can be exciting, for me perhaps more so even than the writing, because when I’m researching I’m learning. It’s like a game, a treasure hunt. I’m playing detective, and the excitement comes from search and discovery – from recreating a life from details.

Most importantly, the good biographer combines the detective work of the historian, the insight of the psychologist, and the art of the novelist.

Always, as I write, I have in mind something written by Sir Sidney Lee (1859-1926), editor of the Dictionary of National Biography in England, and known for his biography of William Shakespeare. He wrote: “The aim of biography is the truthful transmission of personality.”

There are still a couple of her biographies I haven’t read yet, and I would love to reread many of the others. I’ve read her books on Abigail Adams and on Robert Frost but didn’t review them. I would love to reread both of those! When I do, I will definitely review them and add to the list below!

Please check out the other blog posts I have written on Natalie Bober and her wonderful biographies:

I do hope you’ll read some of her books! They are so well written and so interesting!

The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables

This beautiful book called to me from the library shelf just recently. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am sad to have to return it soon. The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, by Catherine Reid, is the story of the author, L.M. Montgomery, and her beloved fictional character, Anne Shirley. It is an exploration of place, creativity, and the inspiration of the natural world. I love reading books about authors, especially authors of favorite books, and this one was lovely. The place where L.M. Montgomery lived, Prince Edward Island, shaped and inspired the author in her own life and became central to her writing and to the life she created for her character, Anne.

In the journals she kept throughout her life, Maud Montgomery reveals so many similar experiences to those of Anne Shirley that much of the novel appears to be autobiographical.

I didn’t know that much about L.M. Montgomery, so it was very interesting to learn about her life. The photographs of Prince Edward Island were beautiful. That beauty was a driving force in Montgomery’s life and work.

What we do know of Anne is that her goal is to create something beautiful, something memorable, as she says in Anne of Avonlea, “I’d like to add some beauty to life.”

For Maud Montgomery, writing was all those things and more, as necessary as sleeping or eating, providing her the moments when she was most alive and happy. Through writing, she brought together her fertile imagination, her love of beauty, and her reverence for the natural world.

“Oh, as long as we can work we can make life beautiful.”

…photo from blackberryrambles.blogspot.com

It was lovely out this evening. I went up over the hill in the clear pure November air and walked about until twilight had deepened into a moonlit autumn night. I was alone but not lonely. Thought was quick and vivid, imagination active and bright. . . . Then I came in, still tingling with the strange, wild, sweet life of the spirit, and wrote a chapter of my new serial—wrote it easily and pleasureably, with no flagging or halting. Oh, it is good to feel well and vivid and interesting and all alive! ~ from THE SELECTED JOURNALS OF L. M. MONTGOMERY, VOL. 1

Learning more about the life and work of L.M. Montgomery made me want to visit Prince Edward Island and experience that beauty and inspiration firsthand. It also made me want to read and re-read all her works. Somehow I missed reading the Anne of Green Gables books when I was growing up. My Mom and I discussed that at one point and couldn’t figure out how we missed those wonderful books! What a lovely summer project it would be to read/re-read them all, one after the other!

If you love Anne Shirley, this book about Maud and Anne and Prince Edward Island is a must!

 

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book from Canada.

Heroes

On a trip to the library recently, I picked up two little books that I ended up just loving. Author Brad Meltzer, who is well-known for his thrillers and mysteries, has written a book for his daughter and another one for his sons about inspirational people….our “heroes.”  And he also has written a series of graphic novels about heroes. The series is called Ordinary People Change the World, and I’ve read a number of those and liked them very much, too. I definitely would have bought all of these books for my class library if I was still teaching.

In both Heroes for My Daughter and Heroes for My Son, there is a one word description of the character of each person he writes about. For his chapter on Dorothea Lange, the word is “Eyewitness.” For Wilma Rudolph, it is “Uncatchable.” And for Thurgood Marshall, it is “Trailblazer.” The last three stories are about his daughter’s Great-Grandmother (“Irrepressible”), and her Grandma (“Designer”), and her Mother (“Fighter”).  He tells the story of each person so his daughter can understand what was/is special and heroic about the person, and he also includes direct quotes so that she can hear from each person directly.

The graphic novels are little biographies of different heroes, and are nicely written and nicely illustrated.

These are lovely, hopeful, inspiring books, and are certainly not just for children. They were inspiring to me, a nice antidote to the ugliness we see so much of these days.

In the Great Green Room

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In the Great Green Room, by Amy Gary, is the life story of beloved author Margaret Wise Brown. Her children’s book, Goodnight Moon, is a classic and lives forever in the hearts of my family. The book is dearly loved by both our children and our grandson. But as much as we love this little book, I really didn’t know anything about the woman who wrote it.

So when this book was released last week, I was very interested in reading it. I bought it immediately and read it in two days. I wish I could say that I loved it, but I didn’t. The book gave me an interesting look into the publishing world of the time and into the creation of her very special books, but I found Brown’s life to be sad and tragically short, and I’ve been haunted by it in the last few days.

Her childhood was difficult with the constant dissonance between her parents and her struggle to find her own identity and worth in a world that seemed to undervalue her. She acted out as a teenager and young woman, and was considered rather “wild.” But she had a tremendous talent for writing, and especially writing for children, and that gave her a little more stability and her livelihood.

She had a strength that I admired — she survived life with very difficult parents and without much guidance overall. And she found her voice as an artist in her writing, although because her books were all for children, she was not esteemed as highly at that time as she should have been. She was instrumental in the building up of the children’s book publishing world. She was in many ways a strong woman.

But she made very poor choices for herself, especially in relationships, and I found myself feeling very sad about her life. She died young, and that, too, was a sad loss for all of us.

It was an interesting read. I do recommend it, especially if you love her work. But…I found it sad and haunting, and I’m afraid I’ll look at Goodnight Moon now with a tinge of sadness that was not there before.

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