Book review: Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman, by Box Brown

Brown, Box. Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman. First Second, 2018. $19.99. 260p. ISBN 978-1-626-72316-0. Ages 16+. P5Q6

Best known as Lafka in the television sitcom Taxi, Andy Kaufman also made his name as a stand-up comedian. His obsession with wrestling combined with his need to make people dislike him led to fame during his short life. Kaufman’s pretense as a lounge singer Tony Clifton and his practical jokes caused people to boycott his real funeral because they thought he was pulling another joke on them. As in Andre the Giant, Brown laboriously tracks his career and detailed conversations between Kaufman and Jerry Lawler in following the Memphis (TN) professional wrestling scene.

Verdict: Filled with trivia, this graphic biography for adults becomes tedious and Kaufman is not a likable subject.

January 2019 review by Nel Ward.


Book review: Herstory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook Up the World, by Katherine Halligan, illustrated by Sarah Walsh

Halligan, Katherine. Herstory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook Up the World. Illus. by Sarah Walsh. Simon & Schuster, 2018. $19.99. 112p. ISBN 978-1-5344-3664-0. Ages 8-12. P7Q8

Each woman receives a two-page spread with the same format with vivid gouache, colored pencil, and Photoshop illustrations surrounded on the white background by a text that simulates hand printing. Each begins with the subject’s birth and childhood and ends with the portion, “Shaking Up the World.” The five chapters highlighting leading, creativity, helping, problem-solving, and believing in change feature artists, writers, political leaders, scientists, and activists. Later entries demonstrate more progressive hope for the world, whereas some of the early female leaders demonstrated brutality in their methods. The book is heavy on the past: only four of the subjects were born in the past half century, and only four of them are still alive.

Verdict: Text-heavy, the book may be difficult for younger readers because of the lack of context for biographies. Some of the entries indicate that the subjects died young but don’t give the age or date of death. A two-page chronological addition gives both birth and death dates, but the readers must go back and forth to find the death dates.

January 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump, by Martha Brockenbrough

Brockenbrough, Martha. Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump. Feiwel & Friends, 2018. $19.99. 416p. ISBN 978-1-250-30803-0. Ages 13+. P5Q9

Two years ago, Donald Trump mistakenly used the word “unpresidented” for “unprecedented”; now the mistake is enshrined in the first book about  his term is enshrined in the first biography about Trump for teenagers. Using media reports and books published for adults, the author of popular novels and non-fiction traces the patterns throughout Trump’s life to identify personality traits and characteristics such as his history of fact distortion and his self-aggrandizement as background for his current behavior. Also detailed in the book is the pattern of fraud displayed by his grandfather, who left Bavaria to avoid the draft, and his father as they used deceit to acquire their wealth. The book finishes in the middle of 2018, calling for a sequel.

Verdict: Information is extensively and carefully researched and chronicled in the 52 pages of small-print endnotes. Highly useful are the “Milestones,” “Presidency Timelines,” “Campaign Team Players” and “Legal Team” brief bio-sketches, and “Russian Connections.” The blue ink throughout the book can be distracting as are the boxes of quotes from the text. Younger readers may get lost in the details of lawsuits, settlements, malfeasance, etc., but this book would also be vital reading for adults. In her introduction, Brockborough pointed out that being “both accurate and fair” is not always defined as “a balance of positive and negative information. . . . But this is a bit like saying you can create balance by putting ten elephants on one side of the scale and ten babies on the other.” The book is broader than ones such as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear because it is not one person’s insider view from interviews. An advantage of this chronicle is that information is revealed in chronological fashion, not as the news came out months and years later. Missing from the biography is information about his siblings. One reviewer rated it “R” because of the language from Trump and his ten-day communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

January 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Thimmesh, Catherine. Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women. Illus. by Melissa Sweet. HMH, 2000, 2018. Updated edition. $17.99. 106p. ISBN 978-1-328-77253-4. Ages 8-12. P8Q9

From the popularity of Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Cookie recipe in 1930 to Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen’s Roominate, a toy to encourage girls to build and use circuits, these 15 profiles of women innovators describe how they made lives better through their curiosity and creations. The seven additions to the 2000 version include women and girls’ innovations in solar, waste management, cyberbullying prevention, and drought while eight earlier inventor such as windshield wipers and Kevlar are retained.

Verdict: The lively style of illustrations by a Caldecott Honor winner and accessible format have been retained with the advantage of more diversity of subjects in ethnic background and age that reflect fast-growing technology during the 21st century. Recommended for middle-school libraries.

Fall 2018 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Crossing Niagara: The Death-Defying Tightrope Adventures of the Great Blondin, by Matt Tavares

Tavares, Matt. Crossing Niagara: The Death-Defying Tightrope Adventures of the Great Blondin. (Candlewick Biographies). Candlewick, 2016. $14.99. 33p. ISBN 978-1-5362-0341-7. Ages 6-9+. P9Q8

The following review is for the original larger-format title from 2016: In the summers of 1859 and 1860, Jean François Gravelet, known as the Great Blondin, thrilled huge crowds when he made a one-fourth mile journey across the top of Niagara Falls from the U.S. to Canada—and back—on a three-inch rope. Each time, he added to the challenges, one time carrying a man on his shoulders. When his dangerous feats no longer attracted crowds, he left for other adventures. The author’s large gorgeous watercolors dramatically illustrate Blondin’s careful preparations and complexity of his bravery, and a gatefold provides a look into his tricks, including the use of stilts and a chair. A brief author’s note and list of resources completes the tale.

Verdict: The larger format is more suitable for the sweeping images; stick to that one.

Fall 2018 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator, by Catherine Reef

Reef, Catherine. Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator. Clarion, 2018. $18.99. 212p. ISBN 978-1-328-74005-2. Ages 10-14.

The daughter of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft led an unorthodox life from the time of her widowed father’s remarriage when she was four years old to her death at the age of 53 and her son’s discovery that she had kept what was assumed to be her husband’s heart after his cremation. In between, she ran away from home at 16 with the charismatic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, lost all except one of four children at early ages, and traveled throughout Europe until she returned to England after her husband’s drowning when she was 24. Well educated, Shelley suffered terrible losses but managed to write seven novels. Small black and white vintage illustrations have been added to the text.

Verdict: By omitting the stressful relationship between Mary and her stepmother and attributing childhood issues to her father, Reef has restructured the biographical information and left out part of the impetus for Mary running away. The book is also somewhat slow. A better view of Mary Shelley is Lita Judge’s Mary’s Monster.

Fall 2018 review by Nel Ward.

Book reviews: Alexander Hamilton, by Teri Kanefield

Kanefield, Teri. Alexander Hamilton. (The Making of America Series). Abrams, 2018. $7.99. 203p. ISBN 978-1-4197-2943-0. Ages 10-13. P6Q8

From Hamilton’s early life as an orphaned illegitimate child to his untimely end in a duel, he demonstrated great drive and principles that led him to a prominent place in the Revolutionary War and the ensuing formation of a government. Kanefield uses a comparison with Aaron Burr, the man who killed him, to show Hamilton’s belief in a strong central government and a federal bank to stabilize the new country’s economy. Her narration brings such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson to life, complete with many of his flaws. Liberally sprinkled throughout are quotes from Hamilton and the black and white illustrations are copies of those from the 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of his writing are included at the end of the book. Verdict: The popular Broadway hit Hamilton may create interest in the first of this series, and Kane has written a personal view of the subject. She has also done an excellent job presenting the battle between lawmakers’ difference of opinion between an agrarian society with local governments and an urban structure that could be strengthened.

Fall 2018 review by Nel Ward.