3 Inspiring Biographies for Young People

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati

Here we are in the second week of December and we have our list of books. Perhaps you have had time to read one or several of them? Or maybe, you are waiting for me to give you a sense of what’s what. If that is so, happy to oblige! Let’s move on…

3 Inspiring Biographies: Freedom Over Me, Mary's Monster and Chef Roy Choi

So, what’s up with this list? Well, this is what I discovered: this corpus of books includes a variety of genres that includes biography, fantasy, and realistic fiction. The biographies include both current and historic figures, the fantasies contain great adventures, and the realistic fiction creates empathy and understanding across cultures. What’s so wonderful is that there is more than one of each of these genres, so they have the potential to be paired together if you are looking to undertake a genre study. Other possibilities include pairing across genres, but we will get to that in subsequent weeks. This week, let’s take a closer look at the genres and which books go into which category.

From my count, within the 12 recommended books are three biographies: Freedom Over Me (Bryan, 2016), Mary’s Monster (Judge, 2018), and Chef Roy Choi. Each highlight people who, really, have changed the world around them. Two of them, Mary’s Monster and Freedom Over Me are historical narratives while Chef Roy Choi is about a current food wizard who combines his Korean heritage with his LA neighborhood upbringing to create “Los Angeles on a Plate.” Let’s look a little closer at these bios, all of which are in picturebook format!

Mary’s Monster brings to life the story of Mary Shelley, a rebellious pregnant teenager who wrote the classic, Frankenstein, on a dare in 1818. This is a fascinating narrative written in free verse with stunning black and white watercolor renderings that create an atmospheric read worthy of any Halloween event or summer campsite experience. A full 320 pages, it didn’t matter! I was absorbed straight into the story, reading it in one sitting. Creating the classic story of a monster that combines horror and science fiction is explained by Shelley’s social and historical circumstance, and makes a great addition to classrooms where Frankenstein is read. I had no idea of the extent of Mary Shelley’s troubled life, but knew she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and the wife of poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, both of whom are fascinating.

Moving from the frightening to another type of haunting text brings me to Ashley Bryan’s, Freedom Over Me (2016), which is a collective biography with information told in free verse. This particular book highlights 11 slaves listed on the Fairchilds Appraisement (one fictionalized) from the official document of the Fairchilds Estate in July 5, 1828. The owner of the Fairchild Plantation has died and everything is up for sale prior to Mary Fairchild returning to England. From my read, the Fairchild Plantation was located in one of the Carolinas, and Bryan uses the appraisal document to create 21 poems about those who were enslaved, explaining who they were on the plantation as well as their dreams and perhaps an idea of what their lives might have been like if not enslaved. It begins with a contextual poem from Mary Fairchild, the widow of the plantation owner, Cado Fairchild. Readers are confronted with Mrs. Fairchild’s mindset and reasons for the sale. One has to wonder how deep the lies go in respect to relations between slave and owner.

The illustrations are hallmark Ashley Bryan with bold colors and outlining. Simply put, they are captivating, inviting readers to know more about those who gaze out at them from the pages of this picturebook. Bryan notes that ages were not given as part of the appraisment, so he needed to determine what ages these people might have been given the jobs they held on the plantation. This is a haunting text because readers are compelled to acknowledge that the poems and the illustrations are about real people, real lives and real circumstances that insist history cannot be forgotten. What happened in the past still impacts the here and now and will continue to affect the future if we refuse to look at history full-faced and unblinking. This Coretta Scott King and Newbery Honor Book will inspire further investigation. It did with me!

Finally for this week, I bring your attention to Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Briggs Martin. What a change in tone and mood from the last two reads! Current day Los Angeles and ramen noodles is all I can say to start this conversation. Taking a look at the cover will give readers a sense of what to expect from Chef Roy Choi— a quick-wit, in-your-face personality that blends Korean “sohn-maash” with love and Southern California street food, namely tacos, to make change within the neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

The illustrations are a combination of graffiti and pencil drawings with end papers of ramen noodle photographs by Man One, who has been part of the graffiti art movement in LA since the 1980s. End notes about the authors and illustrator explains more of their passion for Kogi Korean Tacos, Chef Roy Choi and his food trucks and commitment to community. This is truly an inspiring story about someone who made the choice to work within his community so everyone can have access to good food rather than a select few in high scale restaurants.

All three of these biographies are inspiring for different reasons, but they do share similar themes that include how individuals have the power to make change, how individuals matter and how the outcome of one person’s efforts can impact so many more. Bryan’s work to bring stories from history to a modern audience impact how we view current events such as the Black Lives Matter Movement with the hope that we start to see each other as singular human beings who deserve our respect. The narrative of Chef Roy Choi shows how one individual can make change that honors both his historical and current traditions. On the other hand, the text on Mary Shelley encourages us to look behind the curtain, to see the author of a work and what circumstances they may have overcome to bring us a story that has had such an impact on readers of both horror and science fiction.

How fortunate I am to have read these books! They are well worth the reading, and I hope you might also take advantage of the lives that inspired such wonderful reads!

You can view the complete list of the 2018 WOW Recommends book list here.

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