Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Do You Hear the People Sing?

It does seem like good timing. Tuesday, February 26th, marks the 211th birthday of Victor Hugo, the author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, The Man Who Laughs -- and Les Misérables.

Les Mis tells the story of Jean Valjean, a nineteenth-century French convict sentenced to 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister and her children. After being released -- and subsequently breaking his parole -- Valjean is pursued by the doggedly-determined police inspector Javert. (Javert's rigid code of morality allows no room for him to see the imbalance between Valjean's minor crime and violent punishment.) The book spans a thirty-year period, finishing with the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris.

Hugo's book was a smash hit upon publication of the initial volume (the 2,500+ page count resulted in the novel being published in five parts). It's been adapted into films and plays countless times -- but it's most famous adaptation is undoubtably the musical. Starting life in 1982 as a French concept album, it has, according to its website, been seen by over 65 million people, and is the world's longest-running musical. Last year's film adaptation of the musical, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway, was a box office success, and it received several Academy Award nominations.

So in honor of Les Mis, let's take a look at some other musicals ... that started life as something else entirely.

-- Carrie

In 1974, Stephen King's novel Carrie was published for the first time. Telling the story of a misfit high school student who discovers she's got a telekinetic power -- which she's not afraid to use if pushed too far -- the book was King's first published novel. It was also the book that started King on the fast track to authorial superstardom. The book was a bestseller, prompting a film version (starring Sissy Spacek in the title role) just two years later.

That film is regarded as a horror classic to this day. Less fondly remembered is the 1988 Broadway production of the story -- which is remembered, but only for being one of the most notable flops in Broadway history. While audience response was to the show was positive, critical reviews were mixed, and the show closed after only 21 performances.

But in 2012, the show's original authors joined with a new director to rework and re-imagine the musical for a new audience. With music by Michael Core (Fame and Terms of Endearment) and lyrics by Dean Pitchford (Fame and Footloose), the musical was released as an Off-Broadway revival. The acclaim was, once again, mixed -- but the cast album, when released, debuted as the No. 1 selling album of the week on Billboard's "Top Broadway" chart.

-- A Christmas Story

There's a good chance you've seen A Christmas Story, the classic 1983 movie telling the story of Ralphie Parker, a nine-year-old whose sole goal of the Christmas season is to acquire a Red Ryder carbine action BB gun under the Christmas tree. Capturing the feel of many viewers' childhood memories, this comedy classic has become a holiday staple for thousands of fans.

The film was originally based on a book, Jean Shepherd's short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, published in 1966. But it wasn't until 2012 that the film was adapted again -- this time, into a Broadway musical.

Set in Indiana in 1940, critics said that the musical worked to retain the snapshots-of-childhood quality of the original movie. (And, yes, for you fans of the movie: the leg lamp gets a whole musical number in its honor.) While the musical closed on Broadway after Christmas, it seems likely that it will return to theater venues every holiday season for some time to come.

-- Wicked

Gregory Maguire's book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is a re-imagined version of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although Maguire's story is far more sympathetic to the "Wicked" Witch in question. Elphaba, the future Witch, grows up as an awkward and misunderstood green-skinned girl in the Land of Oz. The book was a New York Times Bestseller, and led to Maguire writing three more books in the series.

With The Wizard of Oz already one of the most popular musicals ever created, it seems the idea to turn Wicked into a musical must have been a no-brainer. Wicked: The Musical debuted in 2003, and went on to be a smash hit, winning three Tony Awards and remaining on Broadway since its debut, where it's still running. (It's the twelvth-longest running musical in Broadway history.)

-- Spamalot

The British comedy troupe Monty Python is legendary. And of all their shows, films, and performances, their 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail probably remains their most legendary work. Loosely telling the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail, the plot set-up serves to string together a variety of hilarious skits, including encounters with a three-headed knight, a witch trial, a Trojan rabbit, a wedding party, and, of course, the Knights who say "Ni!"

The movie is a cult classic, and the musical adaptation Spamalot was billed as being "lovingly ripped off" from the original. Indeed, original Python member Eric Idle wrote the book and lyrics (as well as the music, with help from John Du Prez and Neil Innes). While the humor has a different flavor to it than the original movie -- it is, after all, a music-filled stage performance, as opposed to a film -- the musical retains many of the movie's original elements, with obvious affection.

Like Wicked, Spamalot was a hit, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005.

-- Catch Me If You Can

After running away from home at the age of 16, Frank Abagnale, Jr., needed a way to make money. His plan was, perhaps, an odd one: pose as a professional, and banks will be more likely to cash your fraudulent checks. What's even odder is how well the plan worked.

Over the next five years, Abagnale successfully posed as an airline pilot, bumming free flights in the process as well as passing plenty of bad "paychecks." He also posed as an attorney (he passed a bar exam on his third try and was hired by a firm), a college professor (he taught a summer course in sociology), and a doctor (he was hired as a night-shift supervisor at a hospital). By the time he was captured, he had cashed $2.5 million in bad checks, in all fifty states as well as 26 foreign countries. He spent five years in various prisons in France, Sweden, and the U.S., but was eventually released for good behavior -- and under condition that he assist U.S. federal law enforcement agencies on the matter of spotting check forgeries.

Since then, Abagnale has been associated with the FBI for 35 years, assisting on manners of fraud and identity theft, writing books and giving seminars on fraud prevention, and eventually setting up his own security company. And his honest success allowed him to pay back every bad check he ever wrote.

At its heart, Abagnale's story is one of redemption -- which makes his real-life exploits good fodder for the stage and screen. The Stephen Spielberg-directed movie came first, in 2002, but the story was later turned into a musical, with songs penned by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (of Hairspray fame). The musical centers on Abagnale's exploits, and on Carl Hanratty, an FBI agent determined to track Abagnale down -- if with decidedly more sympathy than Les Mis's Inspector Javert.

I had the opportunity to see the musical on Broadway in 2011, and it remains my favorite musical to date: great songs, fantastic dance numbers, and characters at the heart of the story that you relate to and root for.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, February 21, 2013

It's almost time for the Oscars!

Once again, it's that time of year: awards season in Hollywood. This coming Sunday, February 24th, is the cumulation of the season -- when the 85th Academy Awards will be presented.

As seen in a previous blog, I'm a fan of films. I like most kind of movies, although I won't go and see just anything. Even if a film has been nominated for an Oscar, it doesn't mean I will rush out and see it. In fact, in this year's crop, I've only seen three of the nine films nominated for Best Picture.

Having said that, in honor of the Oscars, I'm going to take a chance on making my predictions as to who will win in the major categories. This is not something I normally do. Actually, I have two friends who have a friendly bet every year over who can predict the most winners -- which I do not participate in, because they are far more knowledgeable about movies than I am. Still, I thought it might be fun to take a chance this year and try it for myself.

So, here goes!

Best Picture

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

My Prediction: This is a tough one because they all have their merits. But I think that, in the end, Argo is going to win. The Academy likes "true" stories, which Argo qualifies for. Lincoln is also a "true" story, but I think that Argo will win because it is a good film -- and to make up for the fact that Ben Affleck was not nominated for Best Director.

Actor in a Leading Role

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

My Prediction: This award is going to Daniel Day-Lewis, and if anyone else wins I would be shocked. If it wasn't for Day-Lewis's becoming Abraham Lincoln, Bradley Cooper or Denzel Washington would have been duking it out for the award.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Alan Arkin, Argo
Rober De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

My Prediction: This is a toss-up between Arkin and De Niro, with Jones as an outside chance. But I'm going to go with Robert De Niro. I have seen both performances, and De Niro stands a bit more. This is one of the best roles he's had in quite a long time.

Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

My Prediction: The competition seems to be between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, but I think in the end, Lawrence will win this category, for her role as a young widow trying to get her life back on track. If you only know Lawrence from The Hunger Games, you will be very surprised by her performance.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, The Master
Salle Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

My Prediction: Early on, Helen Hunt was getting a lot of buzz for this category. But that has changed. The buzz now belongs to Anne Hathaway, who is my pick.


Michael Haneke, Amour
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

My Prediction: If Argo or Zero Dark Thirty win Best Picture, it will only be the 4th time that the director of the Best Picture did not also win. Of course, there is no way for Affleck or Kathryn Bigelow to win, since they neither were nominated. That being the case, Spielberg will most likely win for Lincoln.

I will check back in on Monday to see how I did. If I did well, I may have to rethink not betting with my friends!

-- Post by Tracy

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

America's Pastime

Baseball. America's favorite pastime, or a once-legendary sport that is steadily losing popularity -- it depends on who you ask. (After all, according to Star Trek, the final World Series will be played in 2042.)

That said, it seems unlikely that baseball is on the brink of disappearing. After all, bat-and-ball games have been around so long that it's difficult to trace exactly where baseball "came" from. The first known mention of the name came in John Newbery's 1744 book Little Pretty Pocket-BookThe first all-professional team was formed in 1869, known as the Cincinnati Red Stockings, led by captain Harry Wright.

Since then, baseball has gone on to become one of the defining aspects of American culture, with more people attending Major League Baseball games each year than any other sport (including football). The game has acquired legendary status in American pop culture, with movies like Pride of the Yankees and Field of Dreams adding to the mystique of the game.

The month of February features birthdays of two of the game's most-famous players -- so read on to find out more about these unforgettable legends from baseball history.

-- Babe Ruth

Even if you don't know baseball, you know Babe Ruth. Beginning his career as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, he went on to play for the New York Yankees and became one of the most prolific home-run hitters in baseball history. (The sale of Ruth to the Yankees by Boston owner Harry Frazee is the defining moment that led to the infamous legend of "the Curse of the Bambino" -- the eight decades that passed before the Red Sox ever again won the World Series. Read more about that here.)

George Herman Ruth, Jr. was born on February 6, 1895, in Baltimore, one of eight children of a saloonkeeper. At the age of seven, judged to be a mischief-maker, he was sent to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. It was there that he was first introduced to baseball, learning the game from one of the monks. Ruth's brilliant left-handed pitching skills led to Jack Dunn, of the Baltimore Orioles, adopting Ruth in 1914 in order to secure Ruth's release. Ruth was picked up by the Boston Red Sox that same year.

By 1919, Ruth's 29 homeruns had set a sports record and ushered in a new era of baseball. He was sold to the New York Yankees in 1920, for a whopping (for the time) $100,000 (along with a $350,000 loan). He would go on to lead the Yankees to seven championships, which included four World Series titles. He made 714 home runs in his lifetime -- second only to Hank Aaron's 755. He's considered by many fans to be baseball's all-time great player.

His career ended in 1935 -- and his somewhat dubious personal reputation (he spent money as quickly as he earned it) made a career as a major league manager difficult to achieve. Instead, he became the head of the Ford Motor Company's junior baseball program -- helping to usher in a new generation of players.

To those of us in the 90s generation, Babe Ruth is of particular popularity thanks to his "appearance" in the 1993 film The Sandlot. Set in the 1960s, the movie tells the story of Scott Smalls, who's moved to a new town with his mom and stepdad. Desperate to make friends with the baseball-loving kids in the neighborhood, Smalls volunteers to filch a baseball from his stepdad's collection so they can continue their summer-long game. All's well until Benny Rodriguez, the star of the Sandlot, smacks a home run over the fence and into the adjoining yard. It's a great play, but the ball is now in the possession of The Beast, the massive guard dog that inhabits the yard. The kids offer to buy Smalls a new baseball for his stepdad, when Smalls makes his inadvertent confession: the baseball they lost had been signed by Babe Ruth. 

Antics ensue as the kids try to retrieve the ball before the return of Smalls's stepdad from a business trip. The problem seems hopeless -- until Benny Rodriguez receives a ghostly visit from the Great Bambino himself, who encourages Benny to give it his all. "Heroes get remembered," says Ruth. "But legends never die."

-- Honus Wagner

Johannes “Honus” Wagner was one of the finest baseball players in the history of the game. To this day, almost 100 years since he retired, he is still considered the best shortstop the game has ever known. 

He spent most of his career playing for his hometown's team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wagner himself claimed that he was offered $20,000 cash in 1901 to play for the Chicago White Stockings. But Wagner, who was making $2,700 for the Pirates at the time, turned it down. Playing in his hometown meant more to him than any sum of money. 

Wagner, born February 24, 1874, was the son of German immigrants to Western Pennsylvania. His father was a coal miner, like Wagner would most likely have become if not for his baseball talent. He was one of six children, five boys and one girl. All of the Wagner boys played baseball. His older brother, Al, was supposedly more talented, but was not that interested in pursuing a career as a baseball player (although he did play professionally for a time).

Wagner learned how to play every position in baseball, including pitcher. While pitching didn’t really work out that well for him, his versatility at other positions helped him find jobs and keep them. Wagner played his first professional baseball game in 1895, and two years later, he made his major league debut with the Louisville Nationals as a center fielder and, occasionally, as a first baseman. 

In 1899, the Louisville team disbanded, and Wagner signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He would end up playing the rest of his career with the Pirates, retiring in 1917. At that time, he held the all-time records for games, at-bats, hits, runs, stolen bases, and total bases.

He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 as one of the five original inductees.

One of the most well-known facts about Honus Wagner is how valuable his 1909 American Tobacco Company baseball card is worth. Before the company had Wagner’s permission, it had a portion of the planned cards printed. Wagner did not give his permission, because he did not want young children buying cigarette packages just to get his photo. Even though he was a tobacco user (although not a cigarette smoker), he was very concerned about young boys getting involved in a bad habit. The limited number of cards and Wagner’s refusal to give his permission is what has made this card so valuable. No one knows how many cards are still in existence, but the most famous one recently sold for $2.8 million in 2011. While this amount is extreme, other ATC Wagner cards have sold for more than $75,000. So you might want to check your grandpa’s baseball card collection to see what hidden gems there may be!

-- Post by Tracy and Ms. B

Friday, February 15, 2013

Season 3 of Downton Abbey Draws To A Close

If you are like me, you're probably already wondering how you're going to make it until next January, when Season 4 of Downton Abbey will start. And there is still one more episode of Season 3 to watch! Downton Abbey has helped me this season get over the loss of my favorite show (Fringe, which is very different from Downton Abbey), and also helped me until the NHL season started again. Now, at least, I have the distraction of hockey to get over the (temporary) loss of Downton Abbey. But for those who don't have another obsession -- or just would like to read and watch things that are similar to Downton -- see below!

Films and Television

-- Gosford Park (2001)

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, won an Academy Award in 2002 for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park. This story is set in 1930s England, but is also about family dynamics, the relationships among the staff, and all of the lies and secrets that are often kept in a great English estate. Many of those lies and secrets are revealed during the weekend of a shooting party, which quickly turns into an investigation of the sudden murder of Sir William McCordle. 

This was the Downton Abbey of the 1970s. It ran for 5 seasons on PBS and was immensely popular. The series follows the lives of the Bellamy family (upstairs) and the servants (downstairs), from the early 20th century through the 1930s in London. 

From the creators of Upstairs, Downstairs, this is a story of two privileged sisters who find themselves penniless in 1920s London. They attempt to turn their love of fashion into a successful business. 


-- The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

This is three novels in one volume, and follows the upper-middle class Forsyte family from 1886 through 1920. It examines their struggles financially and socially. This was also made into a mini-series on PBS.

-- The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

While this book is set during some of the same time period as Downton, it's tone and subject matter are different. A young, privileged American woman travels to Syria with her father during the Armenian genocide during World War I. While there, she meets a young refugee, and the two fall in love. In modern times, their great-granddaughter discovers their story through letters and photographs.

-- Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide

A saga of the upstairs and downstairs residents of an English country house, this novel spans more than two centuries and includes the stories of the house's original architect, soldiers billeted in the house during World War I, and a young couple who restores the house in the 1950s.

-- Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon

Here is the real story for the inspiration for Lady Cora -- as told by the current owner of Highclere Castle, where much of Downton Abbey is shot. Lady Almina was a young and wealthy woman whose dowry helped save the estate. This rich tale contrasts the splendor of Edwardian life in a great house against the backdrop of the First World War, and offers an inspiring and revealing picture of the woman at the center of the history of Highclere Castle.

-- Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

This powerful book is told by a woman who lived a life as a servant in great English homes. Margaret Powell began work as a kitchen maid in the 1920s and later worked as a cook. Originally published in England in 1968, it became available in the US last year after the success of Downton Abbey.

-- Post by Tracy

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Freedom's First

Thanks to our Children's Librarian for another great post -- all about Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and companion to one of our country's most famous First Ladies! 

Elizabeth Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben) and Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Fields)

The Oscar-nominated film Lincoln brings to life many historical figures who played a part in the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment. Some, like Secretary of State William Henry Seward (1801 – 1872) or Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (1792 – 1868) were well-known in their own right.

But the character portrayed by Gloria Reuben probably would not be remembered at all if it wasn’t for her connection to President Lincoln through Mrs. Lincoln --  even though her life is the stuff movies are made of.

Elizabeth Keckley (some places spelled Keckly) was born a slave, and through her skills as a dressmaker, was able to buy her freedom. She met Mary Todd Lincoln on the day of the first inauguration, and she soon became dressmaker, companion, and confidant to the troubled First Lady.

Mrs. Lincoln had grown up in the care of her beloved “mammy,” and Elizabeth became another great source of strength and comfort to her, especially when the Lincolns' son, Willie, died.

The President, on the other hand, was not accustomed to dealing with “coloreds” on a personal level. He certainly did not grow up with servants, and because he was from Illinois (a state that had a severely enforced segregation policy), he did not have the experience with free blacks that many in his government did. This scene from the movie (screenplay by Tony Kushner) sums up the feelings of both Lincoln and Elizabeth:

(The carriage has pulled up and Mary is entering the White House. Lincoln helps Mrs. Keckley down from the carriage.)

(She hesitates before proceeding in. Then she faces Lincoln.)

I know the vote is only four days away; I know you’re concerned. Thank you for your concern over
this, and I want you to know: They’ll approve it. God will see to it.

I don’t envy Him His task. He may wish He’d chosen an instrument for His purpose more wieldy than the House of Representatives.

Then you’ll see to it.

(Lincoln looks at her, considering. Then:)

Are you afraid of what lies ahead? For your people? If we succeed?

White people don’t want us here.

Many don’t.

What about you?

I … I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re … familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you. But what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.

What my people are to be, I can’t say. Negroes have been fighting and dying for freedom since the first of us was a slave. I never heard any ask what freedom will bring. Freedom’s first. As for me: My son died, fighting for the Union, wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?

On the night the President was shot, Mary called for Elizabeth to be by her side. After his death, Mary gave Elizabeth some of the President’s personal grooming items, as well as the blood-spattered cloak and bonnet that Mary had been wearing at the theater. (These items were later the center of controversy with Mary, when Elizabeth attempted to sell them.)

Elizabeth traveled with Mrs. Lincoln to Chicago to help her start a new life. There was no pension for the President’s widow, and Mary, who had often been criticized for her lavish spending, was deeply in debt. When Mary, with Elizabeth’s help, tried to raise funds by selling her White House wardrobe, she was again harshly criticized.

In 1868, Elizabeth's book, Behind the Scenes: or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White 
House, was published. In her book, using alternating chapters, she attempted to “place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world,” while also describing her own “rise from slavery to [being] a middle-class businesswomen.”

The publisher included letters from Mrs. Lincoln to Elizabeth, and instead of being viewed as a personal narrative giving insight into history, as she had intended, Elizabeth was stunned to find her memoir viewed as a tell-all by the hired help. It has been suggested the Mary’s son, Robert, who had his mother committed to an asylum in 1875, played a part in the negative backlash over the book.

Elizabeth Keckley died in 1907, a resident of the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C.


Titles in our collection:

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave by Jennifer Fleischner

Mary Lincoln's Dressmaker: Elizabeth Keckley's Remarkable Rise From Slave to White House Confidante by Becky Rutberg

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini

From the county:

Behind the Scenes: or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley & Mary Todd Lincoln by Lynda Jones

Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference from Visible Ink Press

An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley by Ann Rinaldi

Friday, February 8, 2013

Tesla > Edison

It's been said that art is not made in a vacuum. The same is true in the fields of science and engineering, and in just about every other major invention, discovery, and design in human history. Most advances are made, after all, by building on ideas and inspirations of past discoveries.

What this means is that the people we often credit as the "inventors" and "creators" of history's most famous gadgets, scientific breakthroughs, and even artwork may not be the only people behind their creations. As often as not, there's more to the story as to who invented what -- and sometimes, the credit may be going to the wrong person entirely.

From Walt Disney to Thomas Edison, the stories of our most famous inventors' and creators' breakthroughs usually have a more complex history to them than we realize. As often as not, they relied on the help of people who have been less well-remembered in popular history. 

So to celebrate Thomas Edison's birthday this upcoming February 11, let's take a look at some of those inventors and discoverers who are in need of a little more of the limelight:

You might remember the names "Watson and Crick" from high school biology class. James Watson and Francis Crick (along with Maurice Wilkins) are remembered as being the discoverers of one of the biggest biological finds of all time. In April 1953, they identified the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid -- DNA.

But Watson and Crick would have never made the discovery that forever altered our understanding of biology without not only the help, but the groundwork, of chemist Rosalind Franklin. Franklin, who had a particular skill with photography, took an X-ray diffraction photograph of a DNA molecule. The photo was the first to show DNA's basic structure, which, with its double-helix shape, was the necessary clue for scientists to understand how it replicated.

Watson and Crick built up on Franklin's work -- without her permission or, unfortunately, even her knowledge. Franklin died in 1956 at the age of 37, making her ineligible to share in the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins.

Walt Disney -- the animator, voice actor, director, producer, and the creator and founder of Walt Disney Studios. Famous for his work in animated films, short cartoons, and live-action features, it is already understood that such creations are not manufactured by one man alone. Disney obviously oversaw hundreds of writers, artists, animators, designers, special-effects experts, and actors who all contributed to the creations of Walt Disney Studios, and without whom the company's films and animation would never have been possible. It's just a little surprising to discover that Disney's most famous creation -- Mickey Mouse -- wasn't created solely by Disney himself.

The honor also goes to Ub Iwerks, an animator from Kansas City. Iwerks and Disney first met in 1919, both of them employees at a Kansas City commercial art house. The two men left a year later, hoping to start their own independent organization, but the venture ultimately fell through.

Traveling to Los Angeles, Disney established a successful studio, eventually inviting his friend Iwerks to join him. In 1927, design began on a new animated character. Taking some inspiration from a previous series the duo had done, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney and Iwerks created the most famous and recognizable animated character of all time: Mickey Mouse.

The first Mickey Mouse cartoons were animated, not by Disney, but solely by Iwerks. Iwerks went at record-breaking speed while working on the first Mickey cartoons, producing 700 drawings a day (compared to the 80-100 drawings a modern animator might produce in a week). 

No one really knows for sure how much of Mickey's design was done by Disney, and how much by Iwerks. But what is certain is that it was, at minimum, a joint effort. Without Iwerks's artistic style and abilities, the character might have never reached the popularity he's enjoyed for over eighty years.

Designs of theoretical "flying machines" have been in existence since at least the time of Leonardo da Vinci. But without civil engineer Octave Chanute's improved glider designs, Orville and Wilbur Wright would probably never have made their historic flight.

Born in Paris, France, Chanute's family immigrated to America when he was six. He attended private schools in New York City, but received no formal training in the field of engineering. Nonetheless, he found employment with the Hudson River Railroad, and eventually went on to be the chief engineer of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. He was the planner and superintendent of several major bridges and and railroads, but should be best remembered for his work in aerial navigation.

Otto and Gustav Lilienthal had begun groundbreaking gliding experiments in Germany in 1867. Chanute studied the Lilienthals' experiments carefully, improving on the designs by studying sparrows in flight. He eventually designed a biplane which weighed a mere 23 pounds, capable of carrying up to 178 pounds at 23 miles an hour.

The Wright brothers' first glider was based largely on Chanute's biplane model. Chanute visited the Wrights' camp in 1901 (two years before their historic flight), and was warmly supportive of their efforts. The Wright brothers, for their part, didn't fail to credit Chanute for the role he'd played in their success.

If the Internet has a "patron saint," it may very well be Nikola Tesla. This Croatian-American inventor and electrical engineer was the first scientist to perfect the use of alternating–current electricity. He acquired over 100 patents over the course of his life for his inventions -- including one for the Tesla coil, a vibrating air-core transformer, capable of producing high-frequency and high-magnitude currents. 

After achieving wireless communication via radio waves over 25 miles, he turned his attention to the idea that radio waves could carry electrical energy (which would involve transmitting electricity without wires). After working with high-frequency currents, he developed several generating machines, forerunners to those that would eventually be used in radio communication. 

While partnering with Westinghouse, Tesla designed the world's first hydroelectric generating plant. Westinghouse also used Tesla's alternating current system when providing electricity to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, making it the first world's fair to use electricity.

The Internet is rife with stories of the "epic battle" between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, with Tesla championing the use of alternating current, and Edison determined to stick with direct current electricity as the technology went forward. (Tesla spent some time working at the Edison research laboratory in New York City.) Today, Tesla's alternating current is used to power businesses and homes; Edison's direct current is present in batteries.

How much credit for Edison's discoveries and inventions should go to Tesla's inspiration remains a topic of debate. What is certain is that Tesla's inventions had a lasting effect on the use of electricity to this day. Be sure to think of him the next time you flip on a light switch!

(Click here to hear "Dueling Banjos" played by Tesla coils!)

(Be sure to click on the comic to read it in full-size!)

"Hark, a Vagrant" comic strip copyright (c)2006-2012 Kate Beaton 

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Other Awards Season

-- Thanks to our Children's Librarian for today's great guest post about the big winners in this year's children's book awards!

January 28 was a big day in the world of children’s literature. Just as Broadway has the Tonys, and  movies are honored with the Oscars, two books were given the highest awards in American children’s literature. Awarded annually by the American Library Association, the Newbery Medal goes to the author of the most distinguished story, and the Caldecott Medal to the illustrator of a picture book where the pictures (rather than the text) are the heart of the book.

The Newbery Medal

This year’s Newbery Medal went to The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. Ivan is a silverback gorilla living in a small glass room at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. He spends his days watching TV, “drawing” with the crayons and paper he is given, and looking at the people who are looking at him. He rarely thinks about his former life in the jungle -- until a baby elephant, taken away from her family, arrives at the mall. Written in the first-person from a gorilla point-of-view, Ivan shares his thoughts on friendship, hope, and humanity.

Click here to watch Amazon's Book Trailer video for The One and Only Ivan!

Applegate, who is also the author of the Animorphs series, got the idea for this book after reading about a real gorilla named Ivan, who lived for 27 years in a tiny cage at a shopping mall before a public outcry got him moved to a zoo in Atlanta. There he became famous for his paintings, which he “signed” with a thumb-print.

Newbery Honor Books (runner-up titles):

- Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

- Bomb: the Race to Build, and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

- Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

The Caldecott Medal

The Caldecott went to Jon Klassen, who is both the author and illustrator of This Is Not My Hat. In the book, the tiny fish steals a hat from the big fish. The tiny fish knows this is wrong, but the hat just fits him so perfectly, and the big fish is sleeping -- and, anyway, the big fish will never know who took it. Or will he?

Click here to watch an animated Amazon video about This Is Not My Hat!

With just slight changes to the pictures, the illustrations tell the reader (or observer) things that the tiny fish does not know.

Jon Klassen is a name heard often in the world of children’s literature these days. He is also the illustrator of Extra Yarn, one of this year’s Caldecott honor books -- and another book he illustrated, House Held Up By Trees, had been mentioned as a contender for the prize.

Caldecott Honor Books (runner-up titles):

- Creepy Carrots written by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown

- Extra Yarn written by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

- One Cool Friend written by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by David Small

- Sleep Like a Tiger written by Mary Logue, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

- Green written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Click here to read Green online

The Children’s Room has display copies of all of this year's winners, all Newbery-winning titles since 1922, and all Caldecott titles since 1938 (as well as circulating copies!).

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The New West

We admit -- we're not, personally, much into Westerns. But this classic, quintessentially American genre remains a favorite of many fans of novels, film, and television. The "Old West" has been a romanticized version of our country's history, while still emphasizing the hardships and challenges of new settlers facing a harsh reality.

So in honor of the January 31 anniversary of Zane Grey's birthday, let's take a look at some of the more "modern" Old Westerns to appear in the last few decades:


-- The Quick and the Dead (1995)

A rare western starring a female lead, The Quick and the Dead stars Sharon Stone as the "mysterious gunslinger" who comes to the town of Redemption. She's looking to exact revenge upon the town's leader, John Harod (played by Gene Hackman), by challenging him to one of the town's gunfight competitions. With Russell Crowe as a local reverend (and Leonardo DiCaprio as "the Kid," one of his earlier screen roles), this unique film is not to be missed.

-- Shanghai Noon (2000)

A Hong Kong native, Jackie Chan was famous across Asia for his skills as an actor and a stuntman -- long before movies like Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Rush Hour (1998) brought him to the attention of American audiences. Known for his quirky fight scenes and incredible stunts, the comedy of Chan's physical routines made the actor a great fit for Shanghai Noon, in which he stars as a Chinese native who finds himself as the proverbial fish-out-of-water when he journeys to the old west. Cast alongside Chan is Owen Wilson, playing an unsuccessful train robber (whose quirky line delivery borders on the anachronistic). It's a great comedy -- even if you don't generally enjoy westerns.

-- 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

This is a remake of the 1957 version (starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin). It’s the story of two men -- one an outlaw, the other a Civil War veteran who is struggling to maintain his ranch in Arizona. The rancher, played by Christian Bale, agrees to take the outlaw, Russell Crowe, to Yuma. The psychological games played by both men lead to the action-packed ending.

-- True Grit (2010)

Here is another remake of a classic Western. The original starred John Wayne, in one of his most famous roles, as Rooster Cogburn. In the new version, Jeff Bridges takes on this iconic character. True Grit tells the story of a young girl who is determined to track down her father’s killer, and she is also determined that only Cogburn can help her.

-- Rango (2011)

The first animated feature to be produced by special effects company Industrial Light and Magic, this unusual film tells the story of Rango, a house-pet chameleon who abruptly finds himself lost and forgotten in the backwoods town of Dirt. The motley band of animals that make up the citizenry of Dirt are in desperate need of water and a new sheriff, in that order -- and Rango is quick to pass himself off as a tough-enough guy to fit the role of law enforcer. Unfortunately, no illusion lasts forever!  This unique animated movie features the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, and Timothy Olyphant (of the TV show Deadwood and Justified) as the mysterious Spirit of the Old West.

-- Django Unchained (2012)

Currently up for several Academy Awards -- including Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (for Christoph Waltz), and Best Picture -- Django Unchained is director Quentin Tarantino's controversial nod to spaghetti Westerns. The film takes place in the pre-Civil War South, and stars Jamie Foxx as a freed slave who is out to rescue his still-enslaved wife. The film costars Waltz as a German bounty hunter, who helps Django find his wife still trapped by brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (played in appropriately sinister fashion by Leonardo DiCaprio).


This quickly-cancelled but much-loved show is a classic example of a Space Western. Star Wars is one of the best creations of this genre, and Firefly is the most recent example to appear on television.  It is set 500 years in the future, when humans have had to leave Earth and attempt to resettle on new planets. An Alliance is formed that is very repressive, which leads to a rebellion -- quickly crushed by the Alliance. Mal Reynolds, who served with the Rebellion, is now the captain of Serenity (a Firefly-class spaceship). Its motley crew travels across space, usually one step ahead of the Alliance, taking on any job they can -- be it legal or not. Firefly had become such a cult favorite that they made a feature film, Serenity, in 2005.

-- Deadwood (2004-2006)

Created by David Milch (the co-creator of NYPD Blue), this HBO series is set in 1870s Deadwood, South Dakota. It ran for three seasons, detailing Deadwood's transformation from camp settlement to true town, and featured a wide variety of historical figures on the show -- including Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, and others. While some of the plot details were, of course, fictionalized, Milch did his homework, and many of the events and character inspirations were taken from actual diaries and newspapers of the time.

-- Justified (2010 -)

This modern Western is a critically acclaimed FX show that is based on a character created by Elmore Leonard (the first episode is based on Leonard's short story “Fire in the Hole”). U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens takes care of justice, with his old-school style, in his hometown in Eastern Kentucky. (Interesting fact: the pilot was shot in Western Pennsylvania).


Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker

The first in a series by Parker, the book follows the lives of two lawmen, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, in a small 19th century town. Robert Knott has continued the series with Ironhorse after Parker’s death in 2010.

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

"Go then, there are other worlds than these." King may be known as the Master of Horror, but this eight-book series (seven original books, plus one "midquel") is one of his many works that fall outside of that genre. While reading mostly like a mixture of science fiction and high fantasy epic, the Dark Tower series also has a strong Western elements. Main character Roland is both knight errant and gunslinger (the first book, in fact, is called The Gunslinger); the first book opens with Roland crossing through Old-West styled towns on his way to take up his eventual quest to find the Tower.

The Border trilogy by Cormac McCarthy

Set in a more modern Western era, McCarthy's trilogy takes place in New Mexico and Mexico in the 1940s and 50s. All the Pretty Horses tells the story of John Grady Cole, fleeing to Mexico after the death of his grandfather. The Crossing focuses on 16-year-old Billy Parham, who must catch a lone wolf hunting his father's cattle, only to find himself journeying into the mountains to set it free (rather than kill it). The third and final volume, Cities of the Plain, centers on the friendship between Cole and Parham, after the two meet working as cowboys on a New Mexico ranch.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

This book, first published in 1985, led to a successful television mini-series that spawned numerous televised sequels. It tells the story of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, two former Texas Rangers, and the cattle drive to Montana that they attempt to make. McMurtry also wrote one sequel (Streets of Laredo) and two prequels (Dead Man's Walk and Comanche Moon).

-- Post by Tracy and Ms. B