In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Biography season

Dear Annie,

Life gets busier and busier at the store these days.  I'm supplying a book fair that starts two weeks from today -- will all the shipments make it in time?  I'm in the middle of ordering books from the summer catalogs of publishers -- I have meetings this week with Macmillan and Hachette sales reps.  And our severely challenged inventory system, exacerbated by being short-staffed, means that I'm not completely up to speed on re-ordering all books post-holiday.

I realize all this pales in the face of caring for a less-than-two-week-old amazing human who probably doesn't know day from night yet, even though his sisters do.  We all hope you're getting at least a little sleep.

One of the book sections I'm struggling to keep stocked these days is the Who Was shelf.  It's part of Biography, which gets a serious workout from elementary schools at this time of year.  I suspect the Who Was series (which occasionally includes Who Is) will eventually be something this generation waxes nostalgic about, as their elders have been known to do about other now-unavailable series.   I'm constantly reminded of how popular they are.

The books are aimed at first-to-fourth grade readers. They're packed with illustrations, have occasional factual sidebars, and always end with timelines.  The reading level is harder than Magic Tree House, but not by a lot.  When it's not biography season, some kids work their way through the titles in the same way others go through fiction series.  They make a nice read-aloud for younger kids.

They have distinctive covers, with bobble-headed people.  One of the series' big strengths is the wild variety of subjects.  The Usual Suspects are covered: Washington, Lincoln, M.L. King Jr., Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman.  Then it veers off into the less-usual movers and shakers: Einstein, Jefferson, Reagan (haven't read that one yet), FDR and a separate book for Eleanor Roosevelt.  And various others: King Tut, Picasso, Mozart, Magellan, DaVinci.  And the cultural contemporaries (or almost): Steve Jobs, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, the Beatles, J.K. Rowling, Jim Henson, Roald Dahl, Maria Tallchief.  It goes on and on.

I count at least 44 of them currently in print, with Sally Ride, Christopher Columbus and Maurice Sendak coming out in May and June.  In the back of every book there's a list of all titles, irritatingly alphabetized by first name, as was this publicity graphic, which goes from Abraham to Elvis:

Tonight as I left work, I grabbed a Who Was and a Who Is to refresh my memory.  Who Was Charles Darwin? concludes refreshingly clearly:
   Today Charles Darwin's ideas are considered a cornerstone of modern science.  Darwin is just as important now as he was when he lived.  And scientists have been able to fill in information for much of what he could only guess at.  It's amazing that Charles Darwin got so much right....
   Scientists now accept the process of evolution as a fact.  Charles's hunch is now a "Big-T Theory."  The evidence for evolution by natural selection is overwhelming.  Even so, Darwin's ideas are still controversial.  Some people will not accept them.
And from
Who Is J.K. Rowling?
, when U.S. publishers were bidding for her first book:
The winner was Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic.  He was a little scared about spending so much money [more than $100,000] on a first-time author.  But he loved the book so much.  He thought kids in America would, too.  His favorite thing about Harry Potter was "the idea of growing up unappreciated, feeling outcast, and then this great satisfaction of being discovered."
   Jo understood the feeling of being discovered.  With her newfound wealth she bought a new jacket.  It was strange for Jo to be able to spend money on herself and not worry about it.
A good series.

Wishing you sweet dreams, and the time to have them.



1 comment:

  1. My second grader has some of these in her classroom and enjoys them. But the NYPL has hardly any of them, which surprises (and disappoints) me.