of the Center for Children's Books:
|Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books..
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It's no mean trick for an author to slip five titles past this persnickety crew of reviewers and have each meet with unreserved acclaim. But author/illustrator Don Brown has done just that with a quintet of easy reader biographies of intrepid adventurers, and we shoot off our July fireworks in his honor.
The 1998 title on Neil Armstrong has by now found its way into many young hands. So with a respectful bow to its fresh focus on how a boy's dreams turned into a man's achievements, we leap on to his other offerings about women who startled their contemporaries with their unbridled curiosity resourcefulness, and nerve. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, Mary Anning never strayed far from her Lyme Regis home, but broke ground--literally and figuratively--in the discovery and interpretation of fossils. Mary Kingsley closed that century probing the mysteries of West Africa (mysteries at least to her European peers), a place where no genteel female Brit had ventured unaccompanied before. Alice Ramsey drove her Maxwell coast-to-coast in 1909, proving that there's nothing the hoary old pioneers accomplished that a well-equipped, determined modern woman couldn't do faster and better. Ruth Law took to the skies, completing a 1916 record run of 590 miles in an undersized stunt plane (because, of course, the Curtiss company wouldn't sell a newer, larger model to a woman.)
Brown doesn't waste words in unnecessary adulation, but lays out the journeys and explorations in the plainest terms. "A mile above the ground, Ruth sliced through the frigid winter air at one hundred miles an hour. She set her course by consulting the crude scroll of maps she had taped together and attached to her leg." Pictures then speak eloquently of the societal and environmental challenges faced. The four women, nearly interchangeable in features and deportment, are portrayed in filament line and translucent watercolor wash as fragile and vulnerable, neatly capturing the way they were doubtless regarded in their times. Brown eschews monumental close-ups generally accorded to heroes, but rather shrinks them into sweeping backgrounds-the better to suggest the height and breadth of obstacles overcome. Impoverished Anning stands small and forlorn in a claustrophobic court of buildings as neighbors cart away the family furniture. Young Kingsley seems dwarfed by the looming, gloomy gray hulk of her childhood home. Law is a thumbnail of brown paint soaring over a quilt of farmland spread beneath a limitless sky; Ramsey is a moon-streaked contour on an endless desert, smothered by the deep, inky night. < p>Wry, gentle humor suffuses each account, and again illustration rather than text supplies the giggles. Each adventurer, whose deadpan expression remains unruffled by all challenged, is too focused on the task at hand to acknowledge the peril or humor of her immediate situation-peril or humor that is, however, glaringly obvious to the reader. Kingsley perches precariously at the end of her canoe and paddles an unmannerly crocodile attempting to board unbidden; later, like a stern schoolmarm, pokes disapprovingly with her umbrella at a lumbering hippo. Law fixes her goggled eyes on the field ahead, oblivious to the scattering crowd whose hats and heads she narrowly shaves at landing. Ramsey's dainty high-topped shoes and proper skirt peek modestly from beneath the Maxwell as she rewires a broken brake pedal. Anning holds back an encroaching tide with an ineffectual-looking shovel to defend her precious find from the ocean itself.
Unquestionably these women's accomplishments were magnified by their contemporaries simply because they were exactly that--women's accomplishments. But in our hopefully more enlightened times it would be unconscionable to perpetuate this view by relegating Brown's titles to Women's History Month. Celebrate them where they belong-in units on transportation, paleography, geography-and let them share the curricular stage with the ubiquitous Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, Roy Chapman Andrews, and Stanley and Livingston.
--Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer
Books Written and Illustrated by Don Brown
This page was last updated on July 1, 2000.