Friday, May 06, 2022

Guy Friday- Ralph Baer, John Lewis and Elijah Cummings

Hannigan, Kate and OHora, Zachariah (illus.). Blips on a Screen: How Ralph Baer Invented TV Video Gaming and Launched a Worldwide Obsession 
May 3rd 2022 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers 

Born in 1922 in Germany, Ralph Baer played lots of different games that were typical of his era, most of which involved physical action, often outside. When Hitler came to power, his family managed to leave the country right before the borders were shut, which was important, since they were Jewish. Upon arriving in the US at the age of 16, Baer took a job at a leather factory, but was more interested in the machines and making them run well. He took courses in radio repair, and used some of these skills in the army during WWII. When he returned home, television was an up and coming medium, and he saw the potential in this new technology. He took a job designing televisions, but often thought that the passive medium could be made more exciting if there were an interactive element. He experimented with various versions of a "game box" and carefully documented his process, filing innovations with the patent office. Working with other engineers that he met through his job with an electronics company, he came up with a working prototype of a video game. It took years to develop and fine tune this invention, and his company was not interested in marketing it, because they were a military electronics company. No one was interested in this new type of game, but he finally worked with a television company to sell the Skill-O-Vision game system, that eventually was renamed Odyssey. This was slow to catch on, but eventually became popular and lead to the development of many, many more games. 

My favorite part of this whole book was information in the text and the page devoted in the back to documenting inventions so that brilliant ideas can receive credit! What an important bit of information. While he lacked formal scientific education, Baer's skills, development process, and record keeping adhere strongly to scientific principles! He developed other products as well, and had a long career in the electronics industry, which is inspirational. Sometimes, hard work and persistence do pay off. Of course, his story also illustrates how if you work for a tech company, they benefit monetarily from anything that you develop while in their employ. 

OHora's heavily black outlined artwork captures the feel of the 1950s and 60s with lots of avocado green and harvest gold, and Baer's outfits are all on point, with his scientific short shirt sleeves, sweaters, and ties, in addition to his black framed spectables. The text is set well in the pages, and there's not too much of it to preclude read alouds. While I would have liked a bit more about the names of companies or scientific process, this offers a great overview for younger readers who might struggle with more details, but a great introduction to an interesting tech figure for older readers who might then be motivated to find more information. 

There are lots of picture book biographies, but young readers who are obsessed with computers and video games will be fascinated to see that video games haven't been around all that long. Pair this with books about other technological innovators such as Krull's The Boy Who Invented T.V. (about Philo T. Farnsworth), Gigliotti's Who Was Nikola Tesla Saving the Day Parson's Garrett Morgan's Life-changing Invention of the Traffic Signal, or Gilbert's The Marvelous Thing That Came From A Spring (about the invention of the Slinky!).

Patrick, Denise Lewis and Walthall, Steffi (illus.) John Lewis (You Should Meet)
December 14th 2021 by Simon Spotlight
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

John Lewis passed away in 2020, so it is possible that there are students who remember seeing him in the news. After a brief introduction for those who don't, this book covers Lewis' beginnings with his family of sharecroppers in the 1940s, through his schooling and growing awareness of inequities for people of color, to his extensive work with the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s to the time of his death. 

Each chapter is fairly short, but gives good explanations of things young readers might not understand. The concept of sharecropping, the effects of the Jim Crow Laws on people in the South, Freedom Riders, and peaceful protests are all explained at an elementary school level, and illustrated with the examples from Lewis' life. Other historical figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson are mentioned briefly, giving a good overview of the Civil Rights movement. 

Lewis' personal life gets a very passing mention in most areas, and since the book is short, his experiences are usually used to point out the historical relevancy. His wife and children are mentioned, and his later career, with accolades from President Barack Obama, is briefly discussed. 

The illustrations are colorful and give a lot of good details, showing the way people dressed, what prominent historical figures looked like, and even simple moments, like Lewis' childhood on the farm. There is a fair amount of text on each page, since this is a level three reader. It's just enough for newly independent readers to be able to handle on their own, but might be a bit too much text for read alouds for younger children who like the pages to turn frequently. 

Biographies are a great way to introduce young readers to history and social activism. Books like Grant's NatGeo Kids Kamila Harris, Chelsea Clinton's She Persisted series, or  other titles in the Simon Kids Ready-To-Read series are great ways to introduce prominent and inspirational figures to a new generation of students. 
Weatherford, Carole Boston and Freeman, Laura (illus.)
The Faith of Elijah Cummings: The North Star of Equal Justice
January 11th 2022 by Random House Studio
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

In this picture book biography, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduces the former member of the House of Representatives who died in 2019. Born in South Carolina to sharecropping parents, Cummings' parents moved to Maryland when he was young to try to escape the prejudice in the South. Along with his six brothers and sisters, Elijah had the opportunity to go to school, although her struggled with his classes. He was also able to go to the public library where he received tutoring from some of the librarians, which helped him to place out of special classes. His mother, who worked in a factory and cleaned houses, managed to become a minister, and Elijah was able to see her work first hand. Encouraged to pursue more education by his parents, he decided to study law. He attended Howard University and assumed leadership positions, eventually becoming a lawyer. In 1983, he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. He continually worked to ensure that people of color had fair representation, even as he battled ill health towards the end of his life. 

There are lots of examples of Cummings' struggles in schools, juxtaposed with his successes, such as delivering newspapers and gaining the support of a pharmacist for whom he worked who gave him the money to apply for college. The role that religion played in his life and work is clearly drawn, which is something I haven't seen very often. 

The pictures are vibrantly colored, and the warmth of Cummings' family life is especially well represented. I loved the story about his parents saving to buy a home and not having money for Christmas presents, and Elijah and his siblings pooling their own meager saving to give their parents gifts for the new house. There is a complete timeline at the end of the book, and a small photograph of Cummings, which is always a nice addition, even when the illustrations are well done. 

This would make an excellent read aloud for a Book a Day classroom program, and offers a look at a perhaps unknown later Civil Rights figure. Add this to a list of Black picture book biographies that also includes Harrison's Little Leaders, Respress-Churchwell's Follow Chester! : A College Football Team Fights Racism and Makes History,  Winter's Lillian's Right to Vote : a Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Miller's The Quickest Kid in Clarksville.

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