For the Love of Books and Baseball: Interview With Author/Illustrator Matt Tavares

tavaresauthorphotoMatt Tavares has turned his lifelong passion for baseball into a library of extraordinary picture books for the world to enjoy. And he’s illustrated a number of books on other subjects too. His latest title about baseball, Growing Up Pedro is so beautifully illustrated and well written that you don’t even have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. After I read it several times and admired the artwork for a good, long while, my curiosity about Growing Up Pedro a masterpiece of a biography for children – left me with a list of questions I was eager to get answered. I’m sure you’ll be just as impressed as I was to discover how this incredibly talented author and artist (since toddlerhood) achieves a level of excellence in his children’s books that is difficult to match. Hint: It involves a great deal of raw talent and an incredible work ethic.

How old were you when you got hooked on baseball, and did you play yourself?

FenwayParkBaseball was a part of my life from the time I was very young. I played youth baseball, and kept playing right up through high school. For as long as I can remember, I always loved playing wiffle ball with my friends, collecting baseball cards, watching the Red Sox and drawing baseball players. I grew up near Boston and got to go to Red Sox games with my dad. That’s probably what got me hooked more than anything. Fenway Park is still one of my favorite places, and it’s pretty special for me to be able to bring my daughters there now.

Image of Fenway Park int he Public Domain

“I think I gained a lot of confidence from having this one thing that I was pretty good at, and it just made me want to draw more, which made me slowly get better at it.”

How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?

My parents say that even when I was 2 years old, I was always drawing. By the time I was in elementary school, I started getting attention for being able to draw well. At indoor recess, kids in my class would ask me to draw different things, and I would draw pictures at home and bring them in to show my teacher. I think I gained a lot of confidence from having this one thing that I was pretty good at, and it just made me want to draw more, which made me slowly get better at it.

It sure sounds like you were destined to be an artist. Can you tell us about the strange ocean voyage several thousand copies of Growing Up Pedro went through to get to Los Angeles?

Yeah, the advance copies didn’t arrive when they were supposed to, and at first I heard it was due to some weather-related delay. But then the publication date arrived, and the books still weren’t here. Turns out they were trapped on a cargo ship off the coast of Los Angeles, unable to dock due to a labor dispute at the port. The ship had come all the way from China, but then it was stuck there for over five weeks until the dispute was over. Fortunately, the first books arrived just in time for my first book signing, a few weeks after the publication date. And at least they were here in time for baseball season.

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That must have been unnerving. yet it adds so much to the story behind your book. Can you elaborate on the extensive research process you went through before writing Growing Up Pedro, and how long did that take you?

I spent about a year working exclusively on Growing Up Pedro, but my research started about a year before that. At that point, I was still working on another book too, so I’d work on the illustrations for that book during the day, then read about Pedro at night. My first step was to read every article and interview I could find and learn everything I could about his life. I also gathered hundreds of photographs and video clips, to use as reference for my illustrations. The most rewarding part of my research for this book was my trip to the Dominican Republic. My family usually takes a trip to Florida in the winter, but last year my extremely supportive wife and kids agreed to skip Florida and travel to the Dominican Republic instead. So it was part family vacation, part research trip. We got to drive up into the countryside and visit some places where it still looks just how it did when Pedro was a kid. It was incredibly helpful to be able to experience these places in person, instead of just finding pictures online.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

What was the experience like traveling to the Dominican Republic, and what did you uncover about Pedro Martinez that you had not known before you went?

It was a pretty amazing experience. Most of my research in the DR wasn’t really focused on Pedro Martinez, but on the hqdefaultplace. I took hundreds of pictures of the houses, trees (especially the mango trees), and scenery, and just tried to soak it all in, so all the details in my illustrations could be as authentic as possible. It was great to get back to my studio after that trip and use all these memories that were fresh in my mind and incorporate them into my illustrations. It made the whole book feel much more personal for me.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

One thing I did learn about Pedro during that trip was just how beloved he is among the people there. I guess I knew that already, but I was actually surprised by how universally adored he seemed to be. People are just so proud of all he has accomplished, and all he has given back. So many people I encountered were eager to help me, once they heard I was working on a book about Pedro Martinez.

“I still think of myself more as an illustrator than as a writer, so I really appreciate it when people say nice things about my writing.”

I enjoyed the verse-style text you use in the book and was wondering if it was challenging for you in any way to write this biography for such a young audience?

Thanks! I still think of myself more as an illustrator than as a writer, so I really appreciate it when people say nice things about my writing. I guess the greatest challenge in writing this book was wading through the sea of information and trying to decide what story I wanted to tell, what information I wanted to include, and how it was all going to fit into a 40-page picture book. In a book like this, I find that I really need to narrow my focus. If I try to do too much and tell everything that’s ever happened in a person’s life, the whole thing falls flat.

My earlier drafts were way too long, and followed Pedro’s career right up until the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. But with the help of my editor, I decided that what really made this story special was the theme of brotherhood. This wasn’t just the story of Pedro Martinez, it was a story about two brothers who both overcame so many obstacles together. Once I established that, it was easier to decide which moments in Pedro’s life to include and which ones to leave out. Winning the World Series was certainly a major moment in Pedro’s big league career, but it wasn’t really a part this story, so in the end, I only mentioned it in the afterward.

“I never really work from life when I’m working on a book, mostly because it’s a lot easier to get someone to pose for a photograph than it is to ask them to stand there for 50 hours while I paint them!”

Watch this 3-minute drawing lesson with Matt Tavares

What medium(s) did you use for the book and do you paint from photographs, real life, or a combination of both?

I used watercolor, with some gouache here and there, mostly for highlights. I use a lot of reference photos to ensure that all the details in my illustrations are historically accurate. And I often find people to pose for me as my characters, and take photos or videos, which I use to help my drawing. I never really work from life when I’m working on a book, mostly because it’s a lot easier to get someone to pose for a photograph than it is to ask them to stand there for 50 hours while I paint them!

Usually the composition of my illustration comes from my imagination, and I mostly use reference photos for historical accuracy and to help with details like folds in the fabric, or lighting.

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© Copyright image of Matt at work in his studio, courtesy of Matt Tavares

“Then I got out my tiny paintbrushes and tried to make the little adjustments I needed to make. I felt like I was heading into surgery, and I was either going to rescue my picture or destroy it.”

Your ability to recreate the likeness of Pedro and his brother Ramon is remarkable. Are there specific techniques you use to accomplish this or does it just come natural to you?

DSC_0002Really, it’s just a matter of going back and making tiny little changes until I felt like everything looked right. The first time I thought I finished my cover illustration, I snapped a picture of it and emailed it to my editor and art director to see what they thought. They both loved it, except they thought that it didn’t quite look like Pedro. So I put it away for a few days to help me see it with fresh eyes. Then I got out my tiny paintbrushes and tried to make the little adjustments I needed to make. I felt like I was heading into surgery, and I was either going to rescue my picture or destroy it. Fortunately, Mr. Martinez came out of the procedure looking much more like himself!

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

How do you manage to capture light and accurately depict the time of day in such astonishingly beautiful ways?

Wow, thanks again. I guess it comes from careful observation, and lots of trial and error. Watercolor can be so tricky and unpredictable, so there are plenty of times when I’m trying to achieve a certain effect and it just doesn’t work. But that’s when I start over and try it a different way.

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The relationship Ramon and Pedro have had all their lives is heartwarming and inspiring for kids. During your research did you ever discover any rivalry or jealousy between them at all, since they had to play against one another at times?

Amazingly, no. The only rivalry I ever came across was friendly and good-natured: seeing who could knock down the most mangoes when they were throwing rocks at the mango trees. Pedro would openly root for Ramon, even when their teams were playing against each other. Their bond was so much greater than even that of brothers. Ramon played such a large role in helping to raise Pedro, and Pedro has said many times that everything he learned in life, he learned from Ramon.

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Can you tell us what you learned about how Pedro has helped his family members and the people of the Dominican Republic since becoming wealthy and famous?

This is something I didn’t know about Pedro during his playing days. He has done some amazing work to help the people of the Dominican Republic, especially the children of his hometown, Manoguayabo. He has built schools, churches, and dozens of homes for families, and he’s started academic programs to ensure that the kids of Manoguayabo get a great education.

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How wonderful that he puts his wealth and fame to such great use! Have you met Pedro Martinez and has he had anything to say about your book?

I got to meet Pedro a few years ago, before I started working on the book. But he didn’t have any direct involvement with the making of Growing Up Pedro. I contacted his agent early on, but he told me that Pedro had just signed a book deal to write his memoir, so he couldn’t help me with my book. Fortunately, Pedro has done thousands of interviews over the years, so I had plenty of information to work with. I sent him a copy not too long ago, but I don’t know if he has seen it yet.

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Once he does see it, I imagine he’ll be overwhelmed by it. After reading your book, I was inspired to read more about Martinez and his success and positive press was overwhelming. I uncovered the Don Zimmer incident too and wondered what you thought of that?

Yes, I remember watching it. Pedro has said that is the one thing he regrets about his career. In his defense, it was sort of a no-win situation. Don Zimmer himself said that he wanted to “put my head in his chest and bowl him over and nail him”. Zimmer also said that Pedro “didn’t do nothing wrong.”

Watch a video about Don Zimmer discussing his fight with Pedro Martinez

Pedro had someone charging at him and had to decide in that split-second what to do. He sort of re-directed Zimmer and tossed him aside. I think they both felt really bad about it afterward. I know Yankee fans see it one way, but I guess that’s our right as sports fans, to be completely biased and unreasonable! I never condone fighting, but it’s just something that happens in baseball sometimes, unfortunately.

“Try to come up with a story that hasn’t told before. Even if you’re writing about a well-known person, try to find some different angle, something about the person that isn’t the same as what you’re finding in other books.”

I have to agree with you. Given the circumstances, I believe I would have reacted the same way Pedro did. What advice do you have for someone who wishes to write and illustrate sports figure biographies for children?

Try to come up with a story that hasn’t told before. Even if you’re writing about a well-known person, try to find some different angle, something about the person that isn’t the same as what you’re finding in other books.

Excellent advice. What book is next for you?

I just finished my next book, which is called Crossing Niagara (unless we change the title). It’s a picture book about the first person who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. It will be published by Candlewick in Spring, 2016.

9781455617661That’s sounds like a terrific story for a picture book. For your research, I recommend you check out the awesome picture book, Barreling Over Niagara Falls by Nancy Kelly Allen, the true story of Annie Edison Taylor, the first person to ride over Niagara falls in a barrel and live to tell about it.

Matt, thanks so much for sharing your passion for baseball, books and art with us. I can’t imagine a more perfect day than reading Growing Up Pedro and taking your child to a baseball game on the same day. Without the inside stories from artists and authors like you, none of us would know just how much thought, research and work goes into educating our children with outstanding books like Growing Up Pedro; you make it look so easy, but now we know there’s a lot more to the story than the story itself.

The next time you come down to Florida with your family, perhaps you can plan ahead so you can attend a Miami Marlins vs. Boston Red Sox game. We’ve got a spectacular new state-of-the-art stadium here in Miami with a retractable roof, and honestly there are as many Red Sox fans as Marlins fans at those games.

Readers, visit Matt Tavares’ website here.

Read my review of Growing Up Pedro here.

Buy Growing Up Pedro here.

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Edward Hopper Paints His World and He Will Paint Yours Too

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Cover – Courtesy of Henry Holt Publishing

 Edward Hopper Paints His World

•        Targeted Audience: Lower and Upper Elementary School (Ages 5-10)
•        Genre: Nonfiction
•        Author: Robert Burleigh
•        Illustrator: Wendell Minor
•        Publisher: Henry Holt
•        Publication Date: August 19, 2014
•        Binding: Hard Cover
•        Dimensions: 10″ x 10″
•        Printing: Full Color
•        Length: 40 Pages
•        Retail: $16.99
•        ISBN: 978-0805087529

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“America was changing, and Edward was eager to make art in a fresh, new American way. There was one big problem. No one wanted to buy his paintings. Still, he didn’t give up.”

Note: All images on this post are © copyrighted material and are not to be used without permission from the publisher, Henry Holt.

EH spread 28-29I’ve always admired the work of Edward Hopper, and then while visiting Boston in 2007, I happened upon an extraordinary Hopper Exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. I was so enamored with his work, and how he used shadow and light, that I couldn’t tear myself away from the exhibit until I was literally asked to leave at closing time. I left that day with a beautiful box of Hopper note cards, which I use sparingly, and only people I truly respect and admire have ever received a note from me on one of those treasured cards.

The Story of One of America’s Greatest Artists for the Youngest Readers

Lately I find myself saying, more and more, how wonderful it is that there are new EH spread 4-5biographies popping up in picture book form. Traditionally, biographies have been available only for older children and adults, but that’s all changing. Edward Hopper Paints His World is a gloriously sophisticated picture book that takes illustration to a level of soaring heights. Veteran author Robert Burleigh knows how to write for a very young audience, and does so in such a way that children can  understand what he’s saying and at the same time be challenged intellectually. (Very young children will want to read and discuss the book and vocabulary words with their parents.) Pairing the clever text with the paintings by Wendell Minor results in the most beautiful picture book I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen many.

A Man of Courage, Resilience and Determination

EH studio artEdward Hopper wrote, “Edward Hopper Would Be Artist” on his colored pencil box when he was a small boy. He was a quiet and gentle child who enjoyed spending time outdoors painting the natural beauty around him. As an adult, he set out for New York City to study art. He worked tirelessly at his craft to become the painter he longed to be. He even traveled to Paris to visit art museums and broaden his artistic horizons. Back in New York he worked  as an illustrator for magazines to pay his bills, but he just wanted to paint. The problem is that no one wanted to buy his paintings. Edward Hopper Paints His World is the story of how this quiet determined artist persevered and dedicated his life to painting what he saw and what was not commonly painted by other artists.

Illustrations Worthy of Hopper’s Original Art

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If you’ve had the chance to read my interview with Wendell Minor, then you know the caliber of his artistic abilities and his admirable integrity. Wendell has taken the artistic genius of Edward Hopper and put his own mark on it through the many paintings he completed to illustrate this book. His use of color is astounding. Wendell explains in the back of the book how Edward Hopper influenced him as a EH Sunday Morningpainter from the start of his own career in his use of light, color and composition. In addition to many magnificent full-color paintings in the book, there are  also gray scale sketches, giving the reader a varied view of the world of Hopper as a celebrated artist. Also in the back of the book are images of four of Hopper’s original paintings, so children can compare and contrast them to Wendell’s illustrations. There simply aren’t enough adjectives to describe the magnificence of Wendell’s work here.

What This Book TeachesIllustrator Hopper

Edward Hopper Paints His World teaches children about the long road Edward Hopper took to success, and how he achieved that on his own terms, painting exactly what he saw in the exact way he wanted to paint his subjects. Children will learn that passion, patience, determination and persistence are commendable and necessary qualities for achieving great things and that people who are talented often don’t always get noticed right away. They will discover the importance of Hopper’s extraordinary work and perhaps embrace their own uniqueness. Robert Burleigh explains more about Edward Hopper’s life in the back of the book and also includes some notable Hopper quotes. I love books like this that engage readers so much that they can’t wait to do more research on their own.

Why You Should Buy This Book

EH at Good Harbor Beach art Edward Hopper Paints His World is an incredibly inspiring true life story. All children can appreciate beauty, and Hopper’s work and the way this author and illustrator depict it, is quite simply beautiful. You never know what will ignite a child’s interest, and if you ask any artist – including Wendell Minor – he or she will tell you the passion was there at a very young age.  Edward Hopper is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding biographies for young readers. It is to be read, studied, admired and kept safe in your home or school library. I will not be parting with my copy and I am certain, once you and your child read this book, you too will want to treasure it for a lifetime.

Buy Edward Hopper Paints His World here.

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About the Author

bobBurleighRobert Burleigh earned his undergraduate degree from DePauw University and his Master’s in Humanities from the University of Chicago. He has written more than 40 picture books on many different subjects, including several illustrated by Wendell Minor – Abraham Lincoln Comes Home, If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond and most recently, Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue. In addition to writing, Robert paints under the name of Burleigh Kronquist. He splits his time between Grand Haven, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois.

About the Illustrator

Wendell Minor is the illustrator of over fifty children’s books including The Last Train, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADaylight Starlight Wildlife, Sequoia, How Big Could Your Pumpkin Grow and most recently, Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue. He works in oil, acrylic, gouache and watercolors in his beautiful studio in rural Connecticut. His interest in nature and the environment has taken him and his wife, Florence from the east coast to the west coast and everywhere in between. Wendell’s outstanding artwork has been exhibited in universities and museums and has been acquired by private collectors. An exhibition of 25 years of his children’s book art, entitled, “Wendell Minor’s America,” was on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum from November 2013 through May, 2014.

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Read my in-depth interview with Wendell Minor
Read my
review of Sequoia

Further Learning

  1. Download the Teacher’s Guide for this title.
  2. Visit the Edward Hopper House.
  3. Find an art museum housing Hopper paintings or possibly a traveling exhibit.

Growing Up Pedro: The story of the Martinez Brothers Rise to Baseball Fame

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Growing Up Pedro

•        Targeted Audience: Upper Elementary & Middle School (Ages 8-12)
•        Genre: Nonfiction Picture Book
•        Author/Illustrator: Matt Tavares
•        Publisher: Candlewick Press
•        Publication Date: February 10, 2015
•        Binding: Hard Cover
•        Dimensions: 10″ x 12″
•        Printing: Full Color
•        Length: 40 Pages
•        Retail: $16.99
•        ISBN: 978-0763668242

 An Improbable Rise to the Top

GrowingUpPedroInside1Growing Up Pedro tells the story of how two Martinez brothers rose to the top of their game, despite many obstacles. . .

Growing up poor in a big family in Manoguayabo in the Dominican Republic, Pedro Martinez loved baseball more than anything. As a very young boy, he watched his older brother, Ramon play with neighborhood kids, but was told he was too little to handle a hard ball. Ramon was the best child pitcher around town, and he looked out for his five younger siblings, including Pedro. On his own, Pedro practiced pitching by throwing rocks at ripe mangoes.

By the time Ramon was 16, the Los Angeles Dodgers offered him a contract paying him $5,000. For the Martinez family, that was a lot of money! Ramon could finally afford to buy Pedro his first baseball glove. Pedro tagged along with Ramon when he traveled to training camp, and kept on practicing. By the time he was sixteen, he too tried out for the Dodgers, and after 30 days, the Dodgers decided to give him a chance in the Minors. He was small and thin, so he started out as a relief pitcher, and oh what an excellent relief pitcher he was. Eventually he got traded to the Montreal Expos, and by 1997 he became the best pitcher in the National League, with a 97-MPH fast ball. He pitched to help the Red Sox win the World Series in 2004 and is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Outstanding Illustrations Bring to Life a Most Inspiring Story

Matt Tavares’ realistic watercolor and gouache paintings are outstanding in every way – from color to light and shadow – and the extra large two-page spreads make them breathtakingly beautiful; you’ll find yourself taking your time to linger on every page. The text is cleverly written in verses (non rhyming), making it easy to read and is well-crafted for the age of the audience, flowing well and keeping the reader’s attention. It’s easy to comprehend, yet is in no way condescending.

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

What This Book Teaches

DSC_0002Growing Up Pedro teaches children that anything is possible with hard work and unfaltering determination, no matter what their background, opportunities or socioeconomic status. The Martinez brothers grew up very poor, but they always supported one another, and it was their passion and work ethic that made them superstar athletes. Readers learn that greatness takes time, and that despite overwhelming challenges, lofty goals can indeed be achieved. Pedro was considered too small and lightweight to pitch, he had to travel far away from his family to the US where he could not understand the language, he suffered from significant injuries, yet he pressed on until he could prove he was the best of the best. I appreciate the way the book weaves culture into the story too, as it begins in the Dominican Republic and delves into the cultural adjustments the brothers had to make in America.

Be sure to read the Author’s Note and Pedro’s stats in the back of the book.

GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Why You Should Read This Book

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GROWING UP PEDRO. Text and Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares, Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Any child who loves baseball or a feel-good story about achievements in professional sports will thoroughly enjoy Growing Up Pedro. In fact, if you have a child who is a reluctant or struggling reader, that child will likely find this subject to be so riveting, he or she will be fascinated enough to read about it. The way it is written makes it ideal for reading out loud too. Author Matt Tavares demonstrates the closeness of the Martinez family and the generosity of Pedro and Ramon to each other, their family members and the people of their country. The story is uplifting and awe-inspiring, and it presents Ramon and Pedro Martinez as the phenomenal role models they truly are.

About the Author

tavaresauthorphotoMatt Tavares has always been interested in baseball. He is the author-illustrator of Henry Aaron’s Dream, There Goes Ted Williams, and Becoming Babe Ruth as well as Zachary’s Ball, Oliver’s Game, and Mudball. He is also the illustrator of Doreen Rappaport’s Lady Liberty and Alicia Potter’s Jubilee!, among others. Matt Tavares lives in Ogunquit, Maine.

Further Learning

1. Download the Teacher’s Guide.

2. Find Manoguayabo, Santo Domingo in the Dominical Republic on a map.

3. Watch the Growing Up Pedro Book Trailer

4. Watch Five Questions (Plus One) with Matt Tavares:

Spic-and-Span: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen

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Cover Image courtesy of Tundra Books

Spic-and-Span: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder KItchen

•        Targeted Audience: Lower Elementary (Ages 5-8)
•        Genre: Non-Fiction Picture Book
•        Author: Monica Kulling
•        Illustrator: David Parkins
•        Publisher: Tundra Books
•        Publication Date: August 5, 2014
•        Binding: Hard Cover
•        Dimensions: 8″ x 10″
•        Printing: Full Color
•        Length: 32 Pages
•        Retail: $17.99
•        ISBN: 978-1770493803

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I first learned about industrial engineer, Lillian Gilbreth when I read Women of Steel and Stone (Chicago Review Press) by Anna M. Lewis. Now I am happy to share with you Spic-and-Span, a title about the life and great accomplishments of Lillian Gilbreth written for a younger audience.

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© Copyright Image courtesy of Tundra Books

A Most Enterprising and Inspiring Woman

DSC_0005Lillian Moller Gilbreth was born in 1878 into a privileged family, but she preferred living a simpler life. She went to college (at a time when few women did), married Frank Gilbreth and together they had eleven children! They became efficiency experts both in and out of their Montclair, NJ home and performed a study of factory workers using a movie camera to film the workers’ actions to determine ways to improve productivity. After Frank died suddenly from a heart attack, Lillian was left with eleven children and needed a job so desperately. But most companies would not hire professional women back in those days. Eventually Lillian got a job working for Macy’s department store improving the operations of its cash room. Later the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company hired her to improve kitchen operations. She invented the electric mixer, a garbage can that opened with a foot pedal, the compartments on the refrigerator door and a desk to make the homemaker’s job easier.

© Copyright Image courtesy of Tundra Books

What This Book Teaches

imagesSpic-and-Span is an incredibly inspirational story that demonstrates the power of ingenuity and motivation. Lillian Moller Gilbreth was a widow with eleven children, during a time when women were rarely afforded opportunities in professional jobs. Yet she prevailed as an industrial engineer, a psychologist, an author, a professor and an inventor.  There were two movies made about her including Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes. She was the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and the first female psychologist to have a U.S. postage stamp issued in her honor. Young readers will come away from this book feeling motivated and seeing the extraordinary achievements that one single person can accomplish despite numerous obstacles and odds.

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© Copyright Image courtesy of Tundra Books

Why You Should Buy This Book

I am so thrilled there are biographies like this in picture book form for younger readers. It’s never too early to share real life stories about outstanding people with children. Author Monica Kulling has an amazing ability to write for elementary age students in engaging and fascinating ways without talking down to them.  She gets their brains spinning, appeals to their curiosity and helps them see the potential inside of themselves. The superb watercolor illustrations by artist and cartoonist, David Parkins are beautifully expressive and tell the story with great emotion. You’ll love his remarkable attention to detail. Buy the child in your life a copy of Spic-and-Span, and both of you will be enlightened and inspired by the story and this outstanding book.

About the Author

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Monica Kulling is a poet who has published over forty books for children, including picture books, adaptations of classic novels, and biographies. Known for introducing biography to children who are just learning to read, she has written about Harriet Tubman, Henry Ford, Houdini, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart, among others. Her award-winning Great Idea Series features biographies of inventors and their captivating inventions. She is also the author of the hilarious Merci Mister Dash! and Mister Dash and the Cupcake Calamity.

About the Illustrator

David Parkins is an award-winning illustrator of more than fifty books for David_Parkins1children. After studying wildlife illustration in Wales and general illustration at the Lincoln College of Art, he became a freelance illustrator whose work has appeared in The Guardian, the Toronto Star, Bloomberg Business Week, Nature, The Economist, and in the British children’s comic The Beano. He does a regular editorial cartoon for the Globe and Mail and is the critically acclaimed illustrator of two other books in Monica Kulling’s Great Idea Series: In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps It Up, shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award in Children’s Illustration, and Going Up! Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top.

Further Learning

  1. Read my interview with author Monica Kulling.
  2. Learn more about Lillian Moller Gilbreth.
  3. Watch the movies about the Gilbreths, Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes.
  4. Ask your child about ideas they may have to streamline or make a task more efficient.

Be sure to also read these titles by Monica Kulling:

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Ten Best Biographies for Children 2014

Here’s the list of the ten best biographies for children I’ve reviewed in 2014. These books are all educational, fascinating and the writing is outstanding. Each would make an excellent gift and a wonderful addition to any home or school library. The titles are not ranked; they are simply listed in order of the targeted audience ages:

 Read my List of the 15 Best Picture Books 2014

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Davie Crockett from A to Z

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Written by William Chemerka, illustrated by Wade Dillon (Pelican Publishing) Ages 5-8

What Makes This Book Outstanding

I so thoroughly enjoyed Davy Crockett from A to Z for many reasons. Author/actor William Chemerka, founder of the Alamo Society, breaks down the life of Davy Crockett into alphabetical topics and fills them with fascinating facts young readers enjoy learning. The illustrations by self-taught artist Wade Dillion are so colorful and beautiful, they are a pleasure to admire. He got the job illustrating the book, because he has been an Alamo enthusiast his entire life and now works as a tour guide at the Alamo. The dedication these two men have to preserving this part of America’s history is evident in this book. It was enlightening to read it and a pleasure to interview the men about writing and illustrating it.

Read my review

Read my interview with author/actor William Chemerka and illustrator Wade Dillon

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Lewis Tewanima: Born to Run

9781455619412

Written by Sharon K. Solomon, illustrated by Lisa Fields (Pelican Publishing) Ages 5-8

What Makes This Book Outstanding

Lewis Tewanima was a Hopi Indian living in Arizona, who in 1906, was taken from his family by government officials and forced to live away from home, without contact with his family and cultural traditions. Despite his challenging situation, he had a natural ability for running and made it into the Olympics in 1908 and 1912. He won the Silver Medal in the 10,000 Meters in Stockholm in 1912. Sharon Solomon’s well-told story educates and inspires children and is a lovely tribute to an American athlete many children would not otherwise know about. I absolutely love Lisa Field’s big, vivid and outstanding illustrations. (She illustrated one of the Best Biographies on my list in 2013, Barreling Over Niagara Falls.) Young children can be motivated by what they read, just as much as we adults, and Lewis Tewanima: Born to Run is one of those books that inspire kids to work through their challenges to do great things.

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When Emily Carr met Woo

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Written by Monica Kulling, illustrated by Dean Griffiths (Pajama Press) Ages 5-10

What Makes This Book Outstanding

If it were not for this wonderful book, so many children would not know about the eccentric Ms. Emily Carr. She lived in British Columbia, Canada in a mobile home deep in the forest with her pet monkey named, Woo. This wild animal – acting like a typical monkey – often got into trouble and one day did something that almost took her life. Emily Carr was an exceptionally talented artist, who loved to paint the natural world around her, but no one wanted to buy her artwork while she was alive. Nearly 70 years after Emily Carr’s death, one of her paintings sold for $3.39 million. Artist Dean Griffiths did a wonderful job depicting Emily Carr and Woo with his watercolor illustrations. Author Monica Kulling took a subject that would typically be limited to older children and adults and made it shine for younger readers.  I love the way she combined Ms. Carr’s love of animals with her talents and personal and financial struggles. It inspires readers to celebrate the uniqueness inside of them.

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Read my interview with Monica Kulling

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The Cosmo Biography of Sun Ra

0763658065

Written and illustrated by Chris Raschka (Candlewick Press) Ages 6-9

What Makes This Book Outstanding

Herman Blount was born on May 22, 1914 in Alabama, and nicknamed “Sonny.” He declared that he came from Saturn, studied the great philosophers and later changed his name to Sun Ra. As a young child, Sun Ra was an accomplished pianist, and by the time he finished high school he was a professional musician. While living in Chicago where he studied the blues, he created the Sun Ra “Arkestra.” The Cosmo of Sun Ra was written to celebrate the centennial of this jazz great’s birthday. Two-time Caldecott Medalist, Chris Rashka brings Sun Ra to life with his spectacularly original modern art illustrations. They are just as colorful and alive as Sun Ra’s music. It is rare to find a book that celebrates the life of a jazz musician genius for children this young. This exceptional biography inspires children to be passionate about whatever it is they choose to do and to celebrate what it is that makes them unique. The illustrations are so wonderful, they are sure to inspire many children to learn to paint.

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Stone Giant: Michaelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be

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Written by Jane Sutcliffe, illustrated by John Shelley (Charlesbridge Publishing) Ages 6-9

What Makes This Book Outstanding

This is the story of how the renowned statue, David, lay unfinished in Florence, Italy for many years during the Renaissance era until Michaelangelo came to finish it. It became one of the world’s most celebrated pieces of art. Author Jane Sutcliffe has a unique talent to tell biographical stories to young readers that fascinates them while educating them at the same time. (I previously read another of her outstanding biographies for kids called Chester Nimitz and the Sea.) Stone Giant combines biography, history and art all into one beautiful picture book for young, curious minds. Jane’s story, complemented by John Shelley’s extraordinary detailed illustrations, make learning about Michaelango something extra special. Readers will not only be wiser about art history but they will also be inspired to finish what they start – no matter how challenging.

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The Paper Doll’s House

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Written and photographed by Eric Boman (Thames and Hudson) Ages 9 and up

What Makes This Book Outstanding

The Paper Doll’s House is a most unique book about an American girl named, Sara Elizabeth Birdsall Otis, who at the age of twelve in the late 1800s created a most magnificent paper doll house using collage materials she collected from magazines, scraps of wallpaper and catalogs. The story about how photographer Eric Boman came to write and photograph this exceptional book is just as interesting as the book itself.  The Paper Doll’s House, with its magnificent photographs, is worthy of a collector’s coffee table book. It shows readers what life was like in America at the end of the 19th century through the eyes of a little girl with a keen sense of style and grace. This book is unlike any other I’ve ever read, and it nurtures the creativity in all of us.

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Read my interview with author/photographer Eric Boman 

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Africa is My Home

0763650382

Written by Monica Edinger, illustrated by Robert Byrd (Candlewick Press) Ages 10 & up

What Makes This Book Outstanding

There’s nothing like a school teacher to tell a story, and author Monica Edinger has the skill and knowledge to educate children on the sensitive subject of slavery with her carefully chosen words. This book is about a girl named Magalu who was traded by her father for money in Sierra-Leone and sent aboard the slave ship, the Amistad, where she was shackled for weeks with many others. She eventually ended up in New Haven, CT where the US Supreme Court decided her fate.  Although Magalu was a real person, there was a limited amount of information about the slaves on the Amistad, so Monica Edinger presents this biography as historical fiction. She spent many years researching before writing her exceptional story, and it teaches readers about geography, history, the US judicial system and civil rights. What I respect most about her work is her ability to tell this account of unjust slavery without frightening young readers. They learn just how much of a privilege it is to get a good education. The illustrations by celebrated artist, Robert Byrd add to the beauty of this outstanding book for children.

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Read my interview with author Monica Edinger and Robert Byrd

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Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America

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Written by Tonya Bolden (Abrams Books for Young Readers) Ages 10-14

What Makes This Book Outstanding

Searching for Sarah Rector is a fascinating, true account of a young black girl from the early twentieth century who accumulated great wealth for her land ownership due to a series of historical events. It is a complicated story about slavery and laws, but Tonya Bolden breaks it down in a riveting way so readers can comprehend it. In addition to the captivating text, the extensive collection of old photographs is impressive.  This story gives those readers a chance to discover a piece of true American history they likely never knew about before. Along the way they can learn new vocabulary words and about civil rights, honesty, greed and even about the importance of learning to manage their own money.

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Earthrise

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Edgar Mitchell with Ellen Mahoney (Chicago Review Press) Ages 12 and up

What Makes This Book Outstanding

Edgar Mitchel was the sixth man to land on the moon, and the story of how he came to be an astronaut is spectacularly told in this autobiography for middle readers and older children. In fact, Earthrise is one of the best-written books – of any kind – I’ve ever read. I was reading it on a commuter train and was so engrossed in the story, I almost missed my stop. The book is told with such honesty, it is impossible not to be captivated by it. The road to becoming an astronaut is long and arduous, and the price Edgar Mitchell and his family paid to realize his dream was a big one. Learning about the education and work experience involved in becoming qualified for space exploration helps readers understand that accomplishing great things requires years of dedication, sacrifice and hard work. Every child in America should read this book, and so should their parents and teachers. It’s that exceptional.

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Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspiring Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers

9781613745083

Written by Anna M. Lewis (Chicago Review Press) Ages 12 and up)

What Makes This Book Outstanding

I have yet to read a Chicago Review Press title in the Women of Action Series I did not like, and when I started to read Women of Steel and Stone, I simply couldn’t put it down until I finished reading the last word. For starters, the subject matter is fascinating. How often have you heard about brilliant women in the 1800s and early 1900s who excelled in the male-dominated fields of engineering, architecture and landscape design, despite having little or no support of respect just because they were women? The amount of research that went into writing this book was extensive, and it shows. The only way I can describe Anna M. Lewis’ writing is to call it seamless. It is concise, flows beautifully and is super engaging. She never talks down to the reader; rather she inspires them to pursue their own career dreams, however challenging they may be.  I can’t wait until this author publishes her next book for children.

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Read my interview with author Anna M. Lewis

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Read my list of the Best Biographies for Children 2013

 Read my List of the 15 Best Picture Books 2014