September 08, 2011
(++++) HISTORIES, A BIT OFFBEAT
Big Wig: A Little History of Hair. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Peter Malone. Arthur A.Levine/Scholastic. $18.99.
Profiles: One Event, Six Bios—World War II. By Aaron Rosenberg. Scholastic. $6.99.
Kathleen Krull’s hair history may be “little” in page count and paragraph length, as the title indicates, but it is so packed with interesting, unusual and just-plain-strange hair information that young readers and adults will likely compete to determine who gets to read it first. And reread it first, for that matter. “The Yoruba-speaking people [in what is now Nigeria] think of hairstyles as an art form” about 5,000 years ago, Krull explains at one point. “Children born with knotted hair are considered lucky and allowed to keep their hair uncut, forming dreadlocks.” A few pages later: “Rubbing goat pee on his head. That’s how the wise philosopher Aristotle thinks he will cure his baldness. But Hippocrates, known as the Father of Medicine, prefers his own brews, which include opium, wine, green olive oil, horseradish, and pigeon poop.” Things change later, for example in Europe during the Dark Ages: “Hair becomes boring. Church leaders decree short and simple for men, long and covered for women.” But nothing stays boring for long in this wonderful book. Krull talks about the “rat” (a several-foot-high wire form) used by women at court in Versailles in the 18thcentury; about “long haired music,” which is what classical music was called because so many composers wore their hair unfashionably long; and, as time marches onward, about Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower (1882), about the first celebrity hairdresser (1924), and about the world’s most expensive haircut (2007: $16,300, including lunch). Everything here is once-over-lightly, but the lightness is a big part of the enjoyment, and the oddball facts that Krull has dug up — coupled with Peter Malone illustrations that range from realistic to interpretative to peculiar — make Big Wig a big hit.
History is far more serious, and far more seriously handled, in Aaron Rosenberg’s six-biography story of World War II. This entry in Scholastic’s Profiles series discusses Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Emperor Hirohito, all in brief and in straightforward language. The narrative is sometimes written a bit sloppily: “In the [Versailles] treaty, Germany took full responsibility for starting the war [World War I]. That meant they had to disarm their soldiers, disband most of their army, and pay the other affected countries for the damage the war had caused.” Who is the “they”? The German people? Members of the government? Weimar Republic staff? The lack of clarity undercuts the really remarkable information elsewhere in the same paragraph, where it is noted that war reparations were the equivalent of $400,000,000,000 today. This book gets a (+++) rating for the strength of its concise biographies, despite the inelegance with which they tend to be presented. It is punctuated with photos, some of them highly interesting (Churchill as a Harrow schoolboy and a picture of Stalin’s mother, for example). The information is sometimes skimmed a bit too thinly — it would be nice, for instance, to know why it was a problem for Roosevelt to accept help from Tammany Hall in his 1930 bid for reelection as governor of New York. But the basic stories of the individuals, and the paths that intersected among them in World War II, are well presented, with plenty of fascinating historical elements (such as General Douglas MacArthur’s backing of Emperor Hirohito after the war). This is not a substantive or substantial book, but it is a well-presented one that will give young readers some background that they can readily use for further exploration of one of the defining events of the 20th century.