My favorite reading challenge in 2014 is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. Visit Alyson’s blog to learn more about the variety and diversity of nonfiction picture books.
The Boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel Grew Up to Become Dr Seuss is a terrific picture book biography of the beloved children’s book author, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Krull focuses on Geisel’s childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts, which sounds pretty idyllic until we learn that he was bullied for his German heritage. Geisel was a doodler and a daydreamer from a very young age. Although his parents wanted him to take a different path (his mother dreamed that he would become a doctor), they also seem to have been fairly supportive of him–not getting angry when he colored on the walls of his bedroom, inviting him to move back in after he graduated from college and couldn’t find a job, paying to send him to study in Oxford. Krull traces the beginnings of his interest in writing, drawing animals, and thinking through themes of justice and anti-authority.
Kathleen Krull is one of my favorite nonfiction writers for children. Her books are so elegantly written and compellingly crafted. What sets her biographies apart, for me, is her ability to find a.narrative thread to follow throughout a story. She zeros in on the driving theme of her subject’s life and emphasizes particular episodes and experiences that exemplify that theme. She cuts what is extraneous; she never clutters her books with facts that don’t really matter for the story she’s trying to tell. Certainly biography needs to be about facts, but biography also needs to tell a story, and Krull is a master storyteller.
Krull ends her story at an interesting point: Geisel is twenty-two years old and newly arrived in New York City, where he has his own tiny apartment, hours to write and draw, and will soon find gainful employment. He doesn’t publish his first book until he is thirty-three years old, so there is much more story to tell. But she has done what she set out to do: explained how little Ted Geisel grew up to become Dr. Seuss.
This book left me utterly satisfied as a reader, yet also eager to learn more about Dr. Seuss. Krull provides a four-page summary of the rest of Geisel’s life as well as a bibliography of his works and suggestions for further reading and research.
Finally, the illustrations by Johnson and Fancher are lovely, and small cartoon images of many of Dr. Seuss’s own creatures decorate many of the pages.