August 14, 2014


Mr. Ferris and His Wheel. By Kathryn Gibbs Davis. Illustrated by Gilbert Ford. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life. By Catherine Reef. Clarion. $18.99.

Superstars of History: The Good, the Bad, and the Brainy. Created by Basher. Written by R.L. Grant. Scholastic. $7.99.

     Young readers get some fascinatingly involving stories of the past – ones that tie into the present – in these well-written books that simplify complex subjects and people, but not to the extent of rendering them into caricatures. In the case of Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, the story has so many fascinating elements that all Kathryn Gibbs Davis needs to do is tell it straightforwardly to make it gripping. Kids today may not realize that the Ferris wheel is named after its inventor (who himself called it a “Monster Wheel”). But they will certainly understand why Ferris’ investors – without whom he could not have built the wheel, since the banks refused to lend him money for it – decided to give it his name. There is so much that is fascinating here. The Ferris wheel was built in response to the Eiffel tower, then the world’s tallest man-made structure, which had been erected for the 1889 World’s Fair. Ferris conceived of his wheel as the main attraction for the next such fair, in 1893, and specifically wanted to show that American ingenuity could produce a marvel even greater than French skill had already made. The trials and tribulations that Ferris faced in trying to get the project approved and funded, the frantic pace needed to get it done before the opening of the World’s Fair – these are the stuff of great drama, and Davis’ decision to let the events unfold naturally only heightens the excitement. Davis explains how Ferris first conceptualized the wheel based on his boyhood memories of water wheels in Nevada. She tells how it worked, why it did not collapse despite widespread belief that it would, and even a bit of the engineering behind it: “George’s wheel worked like a bicycle wheel. Both are supported by skinny, flexible rods called spokes. As the wheel turns, the spokes work together to share the weight. These are called tension wheels.” The enormous success of the first Ferris wheel went beyond the engineering marvel itself. Ferris used electric lights on it at night – helping convince people that the then-new form of lighting was safe. And his wheel helped make the 1893 World’s Fair, known as the “White City,” the inspiration for some very famous places in future generations: the Emerald City of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories, and Walt Disney’s Disneyland – Disney’s father had been a construction worker at the 1893 World’s Fair. The words in Mr. Ferris and His Wheel bring history to vibrant life, abetted by Gilbert Ford illustrations that attractively mix digital media with ink and watercolors. Today’s Ferris wheels owe a lot – everything, in fact – to the original. Kids who read Mr. Ferris and His Wheel will never again look at a modern carnival ride in quite the same way.

     Nor will they look at the art of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as old-fashioned museum pieces after they read Catherine Reef’s Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life. The story of these two extremely turbulent and unconventional personalities is a difficult one to tell for younger readers, filled as it is with sex, violence and Communist sympathies. Simply understanding the background of the lives of Rivera and Kahlo is a potentially difficult task for young readers – one that Reef tackles with care and compassion but without attempting to gloss over their personal flaws or controversial political stands. She does not, for example, hesitate to include a photo of Kahlo at the site of Rivera’s now-lost mural, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace, or to explain that, in this work, “Rivera had again contrasted life under capitalism and the ideal world he believed was possible through communism. He portrayed Mao Tse-tung and Joseph Stalin as peacemakers and the United States as the world’s warmonger, the only nation to have used the atomic bomb. He showed a dying soldier hanging from a cross, and a humble Mexican laborer guiding his people toward peace.” To be sure, Reef suggests that “Rivera did these things because he was painting dishonestly. He created this mural to please the Communist Party, in the hope of being readmitted to it.” This is a mild remonstrance, although it is true that Rivera was an avowed Communist who had been expelled by the party in 1929, the year he married Kahlo, and was not readmitted until after Kahlo’s death in 1954. But the passage shows just one of the many difficulties inherent in discussing Rivera and Kahlo for younger readers – difficulties that Reef’s forthright exploration of their interconnected lives and their very different art helps overcome. Reef does not shy away from discussing the many love affairs of each of them (including, speaking of Communism, Kahlo’s brief one with Leon Trotsky). But her primary focus is on other elements of their personal lives – and on their art, a number of samples of which appear at the back of the book. The artists’ complex relationship with the United States is explored as well, involving not only the lost Rivera mural but also Rivera’s commission by the Rockefeller family to create a mural for the RCA Building in New York City – a project abandoned when the Rockefellers fired Rivera after he refused to remove Lenin from his art. Then there are the murals Rivera painted for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the 27 panels he created for the Detroit Institute of Arts – plus the very personal art that Kahlo created, including Henry Ford Hospital, after a miscarriage in 1932 required her to spend 13 days under hospitalization. Controversy dogged Rivera and Kahlo, singly and together, throughout their interlinked lives. It is ultimately the many ways in which their lives were linked that makes their story so fascinating, and if Reef does not get into those ways in depth, she at least gives them more than passing references, as when Rivera describes Kahlo’s paintings as “acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing.” A caption for one of the many photos that enliven the book sums the core of it up neatly: “Kahlo and Rivera were happiest when they were together.” But happiest does not necessarily mean happy, and it is this difficult concept that Reef strives to communicate. She explores it well enough so that young readers of this book will be able to see the art of both Kahlo and Rivera with new understanding.

     Aimed at younger readers and taking a much longer historical perspective, a new Basher book called Superstars of History manages to take the Basher trademarks from science and math books and apply them in a whole new way – to excellent effect. Those trademarks include make-believe first-person narration by the characters portrayed (mixed with some real quotes); art in which everyone is round-headed and drawn in a very simple way that nevertheless manages to capture his or her personality; and a clean book design and layout that make it very easy to read what is written and digest the well-researched facts. Basher books look like no others, and this one shows that they can be used in previously unexplored fields and be as effective as they have proven to be in math and science. Superstars of History is divided into “The Ancient World,” “The Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” “Revolution and the Enlightenment,” and “The Modern Era,” with each section starting with a very clear timeline giving dates of major events – and names and drawings of people associated with those happenings. The following pages are then devoted in more detail to the people – starting with a full-page illustration and quotation and then offering a page of narration “by” the individual, with information on what he or she did and what his or her legacy was. For example, for China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi: “I defeated all the other states and paid officials to run the different regions. …Let’s face it, there was only going to be one ruler, and that was going to be me.” One part of his legacy: “If it weren’t for his example, China might now be split into a number of different countries, just as Europe is.” Another example, for Isaac Newton: “I never had much time for people. I rarely spoke, had no friends, and often forgot to eat. Science was my thing.” In a box called “Quirky Fellow,” we find out that “Newton tried to calculate the day on which the world would end. Using the prophecies of Daniel in the Bible, he reckoned 2060 was the likeliest year.” As for the actual quotations from the people in this book, we have Simón Bolívar saying, “I have been chosen by fate to break your chains”; Queen Victoria proclaiming, “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist”; and Joseph Stalin stating, “I trust no one, not even myself.” Superstars of History is an engaging and engrossing book, fascinating for including people from Aristotle to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Attila the Hun to Adolf Hitler. Not comprehensive and not intended to be so, it is just the sort of book that – like the Basher books on math and science – is designed to pique young readers’ interest and encourage them to learn more elsewhere. History books for adults would do well to be as involving as this one.

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