Posts tagged ‘biography’

MICKEY’S MAGIC

Walt Disney: Saving America’s Lost Generation

Written by R.H. Farber
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I thought I knew quite a bit about Mickey Mouse and the Mickey Mouse Club TV show that I enjoyed watching on TV while growing up in the fifties. Turns out, the Micky Mouse Club involved a lot more than the TV show, and its origin happened quite by accident.

Back in 1927, the young Walt Disney signed a one year contract with Universal Pictures to do animated films with his new creation, Oswald the Rabbit. After the contract expired, Walt learned that he had been misled. A loophole in the contract gave Universal full ownership of the character. To make matters worse, the studio had stealthily hired Walt’s best animators so they could continue making the cartoon. Walt refused to deal with the studio and developed a new character, a mouse named Mortimer. His wife encouraged him to change the name to Mickey, and so the soon to be famous character was born. When Disney decided to produce his third Mickey cartoon, Steamboat Willie with sound, it met with rave reviews.

Children were flocking to the movies to see the cartoons that preceded the movie. An entrepreneur named Harry Woodin of the Fox Dome Theater had a brilliant idea. He suggested to Disney that they launch a fraternity for children which would focus on the latest Disney cartoon. Walt’s brother, Roy, worked with Woodin to develop the club with Mickey Mouse as its central character. Walt was delighted that these clubs could teach children about values he thought were important: honesty, integrity, compassion and patriotism. He insisted that these clubs be made available to all children regardless of race, creed or sex. Club membership was open for children in grades one through seven; children had to be enrolled in a school. They needed to maintain high grades and moral values. All members were eligible for election to officer positions. The first club opened in September, 1929, and by 1933, three million children were enrolled. The Saturday meeting with entertainment, contests, and child centered activities helped lift the spirits of children and parents during the Depression when there was so little to be hopeful about.

Mickey Mouse became a role model to children and adults. Merchandise and advertising sprung up everywhere. Mickey Mouse and his character friends became associated with every major holiday and event like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Mickey became a part of weddings and family vacations. The California Pacific Exposition and the New York World’s Fair featured the cartoon character. Mickey became a symbol of all that is good versus all that is evil in society. By the time World War II came around, the original Mickey Mouse Club members would find his name and image a significant inspiration in war operations.

This book contains pictures of priceless Disney mementos. There are movie posters, flyers, pictures of historical events, touching photos of Disney and his family, as well as Disney merchandise and the adorable children who enjoyed it. Personally, I wish the author would have continued the saga into the later stages in the fifties and beyond with the advent of television and the development of Disneyland. Perhaps too much time was spent on the early years. Unless, of course, the author plans to write another book finishing the story to the end of Disney’s life. If you are in the mood for some nostalgia and an uplifting read, this book is recommended for ages eight through eighty.

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MUCH MORE THAN A SWIMMING GAME

HISTORY FOR KIDS:AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY OF MARCO POLO

Written by Charles River Editors

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Many children who live in the 21st century like to play a game in the pool called Marco Polo. The man who lived from 1254-1324 certainly knew a lot about water because he was born and raised in Venice. His father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo traveled world-wide as successful merchants. It appears that Marco did not even meet his father until he was a teenager because due to his father’s long absences from home. When Niccolo returned to Venice in 1270, he did not know that his wife had died nor that she had bore a son. Marco accompanied Niccolo when he left on the next business trip in 1272. The journey would take them to Jerusalem, Persia, Armenia, Turkey and the Mongolian Empire where Marco met Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan.

Few Europeans could imagine the palace of Kublai Khan who dressed in robes of silk and gold and lived in a building so large that 40,000 people could dine at the same time. Marco and he became good friends. Marco became an official royal messenger and tax collector for the Emperor traveling to Indonesia, India and Africa. He learned how to use native weapons like the bow and arrow, discovered how coal could be used for fuel, and used their paper currency for trade. Polo became fluent in the Mongolian language. His journals describe exotic animals like the rhinoceros, peacock and rhinoceros unknown to the Western world.

The Emperor was generous to his people, but eventually a war with Japan caused unrest. Polo could not leave without the Emperor’s permission. When he finally returned to Venice at age 38,  they were at war with Genoa. Polo was imprisoned. There he met another prisoner named Rustichello who encouraged him to record his world -wide journeys. By the time he got out of prison, Polo had inherited his father and uncle’s fortunes. Europe was about to enter the age of exploration. Sailors and cartographers based their calculations on his journals. Christopher Columbus decided to sail west to get to China discovering a new continent in the process.

As you see, this concise biography is not written simply to explain one life but to show the influence and future consequences of his fascinating life. The editors say that the book is aimed at the 7-10 age group and I feel that they are on target. The illustrations help to visualize the textual descriptions and the maps give a flavor of the knowledge of the period. I believe that most of the information is accurate though there is a dearth of written documentation. Both children and adults can use this book as an introduction to a study of religions, trade and culture of regions not well known to the Western world in the thirteenth century. Children may have a better understanding of just what they mean when they say, “Marco….Polo” in the pool.

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A LIFE OF ILLUSION

History for Kids: An Illustrated Life of Harry Houdini

By Charles River Editions

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Harry was born Ehrich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in the year 1874. His father was a trained lawyer who moved to Wisconsin due to discrimination against Jews. Here he became a  rabbi moving from congregation to congregation to support his wife and six children.

At the age of nine, Ehrich was already putting on magic shows in his backyard, When he was twelve he tried his hand at magic by traveling west. He soon moved back to New York to join his father where he worked as a messenger and factory worker while training and developing his body into that of an athlete. He discovered the French magician Robert Houdin and added an I to his name. For a while Ehrich put on magic shows with his younger brother Theo. Ehrich became Harry Houdini. When he met Bess, he teamed up with her magic card act, and they worked to develop new magic show acts. Harry began developing his escape acts beginning with escaping from a steamer trunk and then handcuffs. The tricks became more and more elaborate. After visiting a mental hospital, Harry came up with the idea of escaping from a straitjacket. A man named Martin Beck discovered Harry and booked him for a European tour. At this time he learned the swallowing forty needles trick. All throughout Europe, Harry perfected his handcuff escape and straitjacket tricks and added a new trick which was to escape from a tank filled with water.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Harry and Bess were rich. He tried other pursuits like writing diaries and magic books. Then he became obsessed with “death-defying” stunts. He threw his manacled body over bridges and dove handcuffed into rivers. He even performed an escape from being buried alive stunt that almost killed him. Harry was no longer a young man. His kidneys were failing, but he refused to quit. Harry became a pilot; he developed an interest in the movies believing that they would replace stage shows one day. But one night after being punched in the stomach, he collapsed during a performance suffering from appendicitis. Harry ignored his pain and refused to cancel the performance. Houdini died on Halloween night in 1926 at the age of fifty two. His life could best be summed up in his dying words, “Dash, I am getting tired and I can’t fight it any more.”

This biography is replete with photographs and posters from the family and mentors as well as pictures of some of the more famous Houdini stunts. Children age seven and older will find his personal struggle, moral character and determination inspiring. The story moves along quickly and is well written. Boys and girls, and of course, magic lovers will find it an interesting read.

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AN UNFAMILIAR CULTURE

EskmosandIntuitpicHistory for Kids: The Eskimos And The Inuit

By: Charles River Editions

This is another excellent selection in the Charles River Editions providing comprehensive knowledge in a concise and enjoyable format. Most of us use the terms Eskimo to uniformly refer to the people who live in the harshest climates of Canada, America, Russia and Greenland, but many of them are Inuit. They are descendants of the travelers who crossed the land bridge that once connected Russia and Alaska. The editors use the term Eskimo to simplify. The Eskimos are associated with igloos, sleds, seals and dogs. This book briefly covers their origin, their history and legacy.

The word Eskimo translates to “eaters of raw meat.” Historical records prove that they traded with the Vikings in the 1100’s. By the 1500’s Europeans traded with the Eskimos living in the Arctic parts of America. In the 1800’s they traded the furs from the animals they hunted with the Europeans. But those same Europeans brought many diseases which reduced the Eskimo population. As late as the 1950’s many Eskimos continued to move from place to place, surviving by fishing and hunting and trading for things they could not make from animal bones like needles and wood. Utensils and plates were made from the bones of animals and clothing from seal and caribou. The Eskimos traveled by sled over the frozen ice and in warmer weather used boats made of caribou skin stretched over a wood frame. Some Eskimos lived in igloos during the winter but more often lived in small homes made of sod or tents made from animal skins. They lived in small family units with no formal government. Their family law was called maligait. Each member of the community was asked to think of others before himself. Each family felt it their responsibility to take care of members of the community and would be punished severely if they did not. Eskimos believe that people, animals and things all have magic powers. The sea goddess Sedna lives at the bottom of the ocean. Burial customs often involved a person laid on the ground and left face up surrounded by a ring of stones so the soul could return to nature.

After World War II, most Eskimos gave up  hunting and took government jobs. Today many Eskimos work for the government in both the US and Canada. They now live in modern homes that have, radio TV and electricity. The villages are still small with a school and church. They rely on airplanes to transport food and supplies. About 50,000 Eskimos live in North America. Most speak English, though some Canadians speak French. Those Eskimos living in Greenland speak Danish and in Russia, they speak Russian. But the Eskimos still pass down the native language and customs to their children.

Children from age seven up will enjoy learning about this unique culture. There are maps, photographs and drawings which bring out the unique characteristics of these peoples. This particular edition is very well written. Children will become immersed in the story and forget that they are learning. Adults will learn a few things as well.

SAILING THE SEVEN SEAS

SAILING THE SEVEN SEAS

The Illustrated Life of Blackbeard

by: Charles River Editions

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This book is part of  History For Kids series aimed at children in the middle grades. As is the case with other books in the series there are engravings, drawings and paintings. There are no maps of the voyages which would have been helpful. The editors attempt to separate the facts from the myth which is difficult to do because of the paucity of information.

Chapter One begins by telling us Blackbeard’s real name, Edward Teach, and how he might have been born in either Jamaica or Bristol, England around 1680. Teach learned how to become a sailor by serving in the British Navy during Queen Anne’s War. He attacked French ships and soon discovered how  to become a pirate. Later when the war was over, he moved to the island of New Providence on the Atlantic Ocean and worked for the pirate leader, Benjamin Hornigold. Together they attacked Spanish and Portuguese ships for  bounty of wine and flour. They then met a pirate named Stede Bonet who allowed Teach to captain a ship called the Revenge. These two men later broke with Hornigold because he would not attack the British. When the pirates captured a French slave ship that had 40 cannons, Teach assumed command of 150 pirates. Shortly after they attacked a ship named Margaret, its captain, Henry Bostock,  told the governor about Teach describing his long black beard. That is how he got the name, Blackbeard.

Legends about Teach continued to grow and by 1718, the British Royal Navy actively hunted him. Blackbeard feigned repentance and asked for the governor’s protection. His ship ran aground; but many think he wanted to sink his ship to split up the pirates and keep more treasure for himself. Blackbeard did not give up being a pirate as he had promised. He sailed up and down the Atlantic coast searching for ships to plunder. The governor of Virginia, Robert Maynard, chased him up and down the coastal seas. Would Blackbeard finally be caught or would he continue to plunder?

This book is not as well written as the others in this series. At times it appears as if the writers are stringing together information rather than telling a life story. The book does its job in introducing students to the real Edward Teach.

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