Sitting in the biography section of my children’s room are crisp, new, clean, pristine biographies of all sorts of people. Saints and sailors, presidents and queens, you name it. We got `em. But roundabout the "sch" side of things lies an old autobiography circa 1980. It’s called Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Me and All the Other Peanuts Characters, by Charles M. Schulz with R. Smith Kiliper. I think that back in the day my library had tons of copies of this title in all the library branches, but due to the sheer amount of use that number has dwindled down to a measly two copies. The worst part is that no matter how beat up, ragged, and torn they become we can’t get rid of them either! This is the only Charles Schulz biography for kids out there and by gum we’re going to keep it until it falls apart . . . or until we see something better. Enter Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz. Author Beverly Gherman has, probably unbeknownst to her, answered my prayers. A biography that is not only necessary and desirable but also beautifully designed and fun to read, kids who have never even heard of Peanuts (and they exist) will be inclined to read about this shy Minnesota boy who went on to become a war hero and America’s most successful comic strip artist.
Born November 26, 1922, Charles Monroe Schulz grew up a shy, bespectacled boy when a penchant for drawing. His nickname "Sparky" turned out to be almost portentous, coming as it did from a horse in the comic strip Barney Google. After graduating from art school he served in the army with distinction. After that he started drawing cartoons and one in particular, a comic strip with a title he never really liked, took off. Sparky is the story of the man behind Peanuts and not the story of the strip alone. Still, by looking at Mr. Schulz’s life, kids can see how art is influenced by experience, even when the person doing the drawing can’t see how much of their life escapes through their pen.
Kids read biographies for a variety of different reasons. They’re given a biographical assignment or they have to research a certain person at a certain time. The kids I like are the ones who have an interest in reading up on famous figures that touch them in some way just for fun. And Charles Schulz, like it or lump it, is one such fella. We have biographies of Walt Disney and Jim Henson in our children’s rooms. Why not Charles Schulz? The thing is, Sparky is heads and tales better than any of those Disney/Henson bios (at least for now). It knows how to make its subject palatable, and it’s complemented by a well designed text that gives you enough Peanuts comic strips and photographs to keep you interested, but not so many that they distract from the story of Sparky’s life.
A couple years ago a very different Charles Schulz biography came out. Called Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, author David Michaelis was writing for adults and so made no bones about some of the unhappier episodes on Sparky’s life. Readers of that book might be baffled as to how such a man could be honestly portrayed in a children’s biography. Gherman doesn’t shrink from the prospect, and neither does she paint Schulz’s existence as a never-ending series of puffy pink clouds and rainbows. We live in an age when a children’s biography can show the complexity of its subject without dwelling on the gory details of adulthood. So it is that we learn about the "Little Redheaded Girl" who jilted Sparky, his divorce from his first wife, and his childhood shyness and unhappiness at times. On the flip side, no mention is made of Michaelis’s contention that Sparky’s mother was domineering. The loss is not keenly felt. Indeed, you get the feeling that there is little speculation going on in this book. Gherman has chosen to pull from a variety of sources, including Michaelis, and rounds out her research with the archives of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, as well as interviews with Jeannie Schulz (second wife), Monte Schulz (son), Amy Schulz Johnson (daughter), and Jill Schulz Transki (daughter). The result is a biography compelling in its openness and honesty.
Insofar as I can tell, the publication page seems to be saying that one Jennifer Bostic of Paper Plane Studio did the design of this book. If this is true, can someone go on out and buy Jennifer Bostic some kind of big shiny award or something? Designers come and designers go but coming up with a design for a children’s biography that pleases the adult gatekeepers and is enjoyable enough to be read by the small fry voluntarily is no walk in the park. On top of that, it does an excellent job with the large font. Though it comes in at 128 pages, the book really isn’t that long. And with the visual elements and colors constantly shifting, it’s anything but a dry read. A page of white text on blue paper can turn to yellow text on green paper with the flip of a page and for some reason it doesn’t jar the reader’s senses. Add in all the photographs, Peanuts strips, and old drawings and you’ve a book any kid would be mighty pleased to read. The design fits the subject matter.
I’m reminded of the power of Peanuts any time I try to read the very first one and not laugh out loud. "Good ol’ Charlie Brown . . . How I hate him." Hate Charlie Brown if you must, but hating Charles Schulz would take some doing. Kids looking for a book about the Peanuts comic strips won’t find a book that’s all about Snoopy or anything like that. This is just the story of a cartoonist. An artist that all kids can appreciate and maybe hope to become. Good writing, good images, good design, good deal. A bio too long in coming. Let’s hope that there are more of its ilk coming down the pike.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher.
Misc: Take a gander inside the book to see what I mean about the interior spreads.