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Review of the Day: She Sang Promise by Jan Godown Annino

SheSangPromise 300x236 Review of the Day: She Sang Promise by Jan Godown AnninoShe Sang Promise: The Story of Betty Mae Jumper, Seminole Tribal Leader
By Jan Godown Annino
Illustrated by Lisa Desimini
Afterword by Moses Jumper, Jr.
National Geographic
$17.95
ISBN: 978-1-4263-0592-4
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

I’m tired of Einstein. I’m tired of Edison too. Heck, I’m even tired of Martin Luther King Jr., Marie Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and so on. Not the people themselves, you understand. Rather, you might say just I’m tired of those people who each and every year have yet ANOTHER picture book biography come out about their lives. Our children need heroes, you say? Darn tootin’. That’s why I always feel far more interested when I see new bios out there. Biographies of people who did great things and are heroes but who rarely get books written about their lives for young people. You can imagine my excitement then when I ran across a picture book biography of Betty Mae Jumper. Who was Betty Mae Jumper? I didn’t have a clue! There was something refreshing about that. Here we have a figure who did great things and led a great life but until now has remained relatively unknown in the public consciousness. Bravo to National Geographic for publishing this book. Bravo to Jan Godown Annino for writing it.

She was “the first female elected leader of the unconquered Seminole Tribe of Florida,” but I doubt anyone could have predicted such future greatness when she was first born. The daughter of a Seminole woman and a French trader, Betty Mae Tiger entered this world in 1923. The daughter of a white man and living in a family that incorporated his religion into their beliefs, Betty Mae and her relatives were threatened early on by fellow Seminoles and moved away when she was five. Over time, Betty Mae showed an interest in getting a good education. She trained as a nurse, and when she returned to her tribe she was able to put her medical skills to good practice. Her experience with English allowed her to aid her fellow Seminoles until at long last in 1967 she was elected Seminole Tribal Chairman, the first woman to gain such an honor. This biography of her life includes an afterword by her son Moses Jumper, Jr., a Chronology of her life and the life of her tribe, an author’s note including further information on Ms. Jumper, a Glossary of terms, a Selected Bibliography, and a list of websites for more information.

One of the difficulties (you might say the primary difficulty) in encapsulating an entire human lifespan into a picture book comes in telling the necessary information while being honest about that person’s life. If they had some major difficulties then is it dishonest to not mention them? At the same time, how do you bring up harsh realities in a book where your readership is around the median age of seven? In the case of Betty Mae, she was a child of mixed-race, fighting prejudice. Heck, right after she was born tribal members came to “throw her . . . into the swamp”. This plan didn’t work, but it did convince the family that maybe moving wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Annino’s job, to a certain extent, is to show the difficulties Betty Mae had with her own tribal members and how she overcame sexism. Interestingly, we don’t hear about Betty Mae meeting with any racism in the white world, but that appears to be only because it would not serve the purposes of this particular story. It’s an interesting choice.

I didn’t know the work of Jan Godown Annino prior to this book, possibly because this is a non-fiction picture book debut for her. As it happens, her writing is superb. There is a poetry to her words, allowing the facts to shine through the syllables. For example, when describing Betty Mae’s time at school it says, “She tells stories about swamp custard apple trees, alligator mamas floating babies on their backs, orchids, cabbage palms, her tamed tall crane, and her dog, Jeep, who always tugged her home from the dangers of the wood.” Beautiful writing is not necessary when writing a children’s biography, but it tends to be a good idea. One of the things I admired about this book was that it was a consistently interesting read. Rather than a series of rote facts, Annino has created a real story. One that kids will not object to hearing, once they get into it.

There’s something comforting in the author’s personal connection to the material as well. As she tells it in her Author’s Note, when Annino was fifteen she read a newspaper article about Betty Mae Jumper. Years later she found herself at a Native American festival and there, seated at a table, was Betty Mae herself. Annino recognized her and struck up a conversation. Years later, she created this book and with the help of people like Moses Jumper Jr. (Betty Mae’s son) she was able to create a portrait that is probably more historically accurate than any other book published about Betty Mae today (aside from Jumper’s own autobiographies, of course). That’s another kind of non-fiction book for kids I like. The ones that have indulged in a lot of original research, even more so than their adult contemporaries.

SheSangPromise2 209x300 Review of the Day: She Sang Promise by Jan Godown AnninoIllustrator Lisa Desimini was also unknown to me before this book. I think I’d seen her Dot The Fire Dog before, but not much beyond that. The book appears to have been painted in thick lush oils, just the right medium to bring out the colors in Betty Mae Jumper’s life. You can tell that she’s done her research for this book too. The patterns in the clothing are consistently interesting and don’t repeat. Desimini also would have had to have studied the local flora and fauna to give the images the right feel. This she has done consistently. I found some of her choices in this book interesting, though. Though we hear about Betty Mae Jumper’s husband, he never makes a physical appearance in this book. Instead, Desimini rests our focus entirely on Betty Mae. In fact, if you notice, Betty Mae appears on every two-page spread. Sometimes once. Sometimes twice. At no point does Desimini turn your eyeballs towards anything that is more important than our heroine. This appears to be a conscious choice on her part, one that works in the context of Annino’s story.

I had an eight-year-old kid walk into my library last year and say, “I need a biography on a woman who’s alive.” That was hard. If you’re not Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama or Condoleezza Rice, good luck to you. Living women don’t get biographies written about them much these days. I can tell you right here and now, though, that had this book been readily at hand I would have plucked it from the shelf quicker than the eye can see. It’s beautiful. Beautiful in storytelling, in factual accuracy, in content, in art, and in subject matter. So move over, Einstein. Here we have a picture book biography like no other in our collections today. I find that wonderful and hopefully an indication that more like it will be coming down the pike. A necessary purchase.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Professional Reviews: Asheville Citizen-Times

Interviews:

  • Over at Bowllan’s Blog, Amy interviews author Jan Godown Annino as part of her Writers Against Racism series.
  • Booklog also interviewed Ms. Annino.

Misc:

  • nonfiction monday Review of the Day: She Sang Promise by Jan Godown AnninoFor further information on Jan and her books, check out her work on Bookseedstudio.
  • Don’t forget that it’s also Non-Fiction Monday!  Shelf-employed has the round-up.
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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Jan Godown Annino’s writing is like a fresh breeze off the glades. It is lyrical and vibrant and it is matched perfectly by illustrations that open bright, vivid windows on life in a traditional Seminole village. It is also a rare look at a form of discrimination not often discussed–Betty Mae Jumper was ostracized for having been fathered by a white man. This is a beautiful portrayal of a strong woman who overcomes her circumstances to becomes the first female leader of the Seminole Tribe.

  2. This book definitely caught my eye when it arrived in my delivery bag recently. The illustrations are particularly warm and inviting. Now, if we could only get more teachers to drop the minimum page requirement and accept picture book biographies for school assignments!

  3. It’s especially good to see biographies of interesting women. They make great role models. This spring I’ve got a new book, “Eliza’s Cherry Trees” about Eliza Scidmore, the woman responsible for bringing the blossoming cherry trees to Washington, D.C. Writing a biography is a fun combination of detective work and hero worship!

  4. Kerry says:

    Thanks for sharing this and some of the story behind it. I was especially drawn to the fact that Betty Mae kept coming up in the life of the author. Isn’t it great when you can make connections in your life and then create something lasting and meaningful from it? I love how the world works that way sometimes…

  5. bio fan says:

    The lyrical text cast a spell that transported me to sultry Everglades nights! I was moved by the moment when Betty Mae discovered that words on paper could tell a story–she hadn’t known that reading even existed until she turned 14. And I especially loved how the artist captured the concept of Betty Mae’s voice visually in the art.

  6. Already this morning since posting the piece that includes this book as a new resource for American Indian Alaska Native Heritage Month I am hearing from local RIF coordinators delighted to know about this book…thank you for drawing attention to it, Betsy!

  7. J. O'Steen says:

    I agree. Thank you for highlighting this book and its author Jan Godown Annino. Betty Mae’s story is captivating and inspiring. The author’s descriptive prose truly brings our heroine to life. Jan deftly weaves Betty Mae’s story with each new thread of her eventful life – always colorful, sometimes frayed and knotted – into a beautifully designed work of art. The illustrator, Lisa Desimini, represents the Seminole patchwork clothing with great accuracy. In the early 70s my father worked with the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes and would bring back gifts from his travels. I still have the palm fiber doll, seed necklace, and patchwork dress as keepsakes for the next generation of family. This is an excellent book to pass on to students, teachers, and readers of all ages.