In New York City, the early months of the year are known for two things: Cheek chilling winds of a bitter nature, and assigned biographies of famous people. All around the city children and their parents scramble to find something ANYTHING on their assigned subjects. And in February’s Black History Month some familiar names start to crop up. “Harriet Tubman. Do you have ANY Harriet Tubman books?” “Jackie Robinson. I’ll take whatever you have.” “I’m sorry, but do you have any books on,” glances down at paper, “George Washington Carver?” It’s funny, but a librarian can start to get a little picky about the biographies they’re handing out after a while. We have a couple George Washington Carver books on our shelves. There’s Aliki’s A Weed Is a Flower and of course David Adler’s A Picture Book of George Washington Carver. You’ll find some books for older kids as well, but these are usually either too complex for the fourth graders who need them, or too dull. So imagine my delight when I heard that Tonya Bolden not only had a new biography coming out, but that it was also going to be on George Washington Carver! My personal philosophy when it comes to biographies is that you can never have too many on one subject or another, and to my mind no children’s author has ever done this man justice. Now, with eye-popping visuals and a great deal of research, Bolden presents a man who accomplished much more than merely finding a use or two for the peanut.
Born during the Civil War, George was raised by a couple that had owned his mother before him. Quick to learn, if a bit sickly, George had an affinity for the natural world around him and was as interested in art as he was in working with plants. He got his schooling at the Neosho school and after a variety of jobs he attended college and became the first black professor at what is now Iowa State University. Booker T. Washington was quick to pick up on George’s skills and convinced him to come to the Tuskegee Institute. There, Washington did everything he could to teach others about revering and respecting nature. He helped farmers learn how to yield better crops and make the most from their land. He found infinite uses for the peanut and the soybean. In 1943 he died, but his legacy of caring for the earth and its products lives on and is more important now than ever.
As I read through this book, it became pretty clear that I knew next to nothing about Carver aside from his peanut-related accomplishments. Right from the start Bolden sucks you into his strange and interesting story. Born during the Civil War, George and his mother were kidnapped by raiders when he was a baby. George was rescued. His mother was not and he never saw her again. I also didn’t know that his notoriety as “the Peanut Man” was around even during his lifetime and that he had to fight against it, to some extent. I was particularly grateful for Bolden’s Afterword too, which is not afraid to bring up criticisms of Washington that he was a “non-threatening Negro” because he did not openly protest segregation. I respect any children’s book which isn’t afraid to show a little of its subject matter’s complexity. To me, this Afterword fits the bill.
If Tonya Bolden is known for anything, it may be for her remarkable ability to write visually stimulating, interesting biographies without a lot of photographic elements on hand. Her Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl was an excellent example of this. With Carver she has had a slightly easier time of it. Somehow she was able to find great photos of many of the important people in Carver’s life as well as images of him as young as thirteen or so. The book is designed to resemble a photo album both in its paper and in the lovely little corners that look as if they are holding each photograph in place. I also found it interesting that Bolden would sometimes, perhaps with space in mind, put interesting tidbits in her photo captions and not the proper text. For example, George was raised by Susan and Moses Carver who were opposed to slavery. Says the caption next to their photographs, “Some suggest that George’s mother was a mercy purchase, but it is unclear why she was not therefore immediately freed.”
Sometimes it’s a lot easier to write a biography about a firecracker. Writing one about a quiet man who enjoyed painting flowers is heads and tails more difficult, but no less important. In one section Bolden says, “If he had had the temperament of a Frederick Douglass or an Ida B. Wells, he might have packed away that microscope and raised rallies for equality of opportunity and against night riders and lynch mobs. Carver was no magician, no Douglass, no Wells. He was his own unique self with much to offer flowing from his innate and studied insights into nature’s ways and gifts.” As such, I’ve read few biographies of quiet scientific people that quite compare to Bolden’s beautiful 41-page title. She shows how our contributions to the world hinge upon the gifts we choose to use.