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Comparison Paper on Kathleen Krull

by Becky Laney, spring 2004

Kathleen Krull is a prolific nonfiction writer who is best known for her conversational narrative style. Her style and tone are unique--not many nonfiction writers use her approach. What is this "unique" approach? Krull combines her in-depth research with her down-to-earth kid-friendly prose. She writes on a level that kids can understand without ever coming across as condescending. Therefore her books are entertaining and factual. Some critics say she is too gossipy.

If Krull has a weakness, it would be her lack of source notes. While she often does include a bibliography at the end of her books, she rarely shares where she found each fact. Therefore, it would be extremely difficult--if not impossible--for readers to double check Krull's research.

I will examine Krull's strengths and weaknesses as I discuss three of her books: THE BOY ON FAIRFIELD STREET: HOW TED GEISEL GREW UP TO BE DR. SEUSS, LIVES OF EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN: RULERS, REBELS (AND WHAT THE NEIGHBORS THOUGHT), and KIDS' GUIDE TO THE BILL OF RIGHTS: CURFEWS, CENSORS, AND THE100 POUND GIANT. The books were chosen because they represent three different kinds of nonfiction that Krull writes. THE BOY ON FAIRFIELD STREET is an example of an individual biography; more specifically, it is a partial biography on an individual—Dr. Seuss. LIVES OF EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN is an example of a collective biography. It is one of six in Krull's "Lives of…" series. I chose KIDS' GUIDE TO THE BILL OF RIGHTS because it is a nice survey nonfiction title on the subject.

THE BOY ON FAIRFIELD STREET: HOW TED GEISEL GREW UP TO BE DR. SEUSS is Krull's latest nonfiction title; it was published in January 2004. The book tells the story of the first twenty-two years of Ted Geisel's life. Krull shares how everyday events in Geisel's life influenced him later in life as a writer under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss. (For example, his love for drawing, visiting the zoo, watching parades, etc.) THE BOY ON FAIRFIELD STREET combines original illustrations from popular Dr. Seuss books such as THE CAT IN THE HAT, THE SNEETCHES AND OTHER STORIES, GREEN EGGS AND HAM, and FOX IN SOCKS with new illustrations by the husband and wife team of Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. The illustrations complement the text perfectly. For example, on pages sixteen and seventeen Krull describes how Geisel was teased by other schoolboys because of his German heritage. Accompanying the text is a classic illustration by Seuss of two sneetches—one with a star on his belly and one without. Johnson and Fancher's painting shows a young boy hiding in the shadows on the playground with two classmates in the sunlight taunting him. Both illustrations show the emotions evoked by the text.

Krull's text has many strengths. She shows kids that a man as famous as "Dr. Seuss" was an ordinary little boy who did things similar to the things that they do. He doodled instead of listening to his teachers; he played games with his best friend. He liked being a kid and just fooling around. She does an excellent job of portraying this "legendary" author into a "real person."

I view BOY ON FAIRFIELD STREET a successful picture book biography. I believe it is appropriate for a biography about a writer of picture books to be in the format of a picture book. Also by being a picture book, it becomes more accessible to younger children. Older children may find a longer biography that is more complete—a biography with a table of contents, photographs, and an index—but for younger children this book is excellent. It is a good introduction or survey of a fascinating life. As an adult, this book just whets my appetite for a more thorough examination of his life.

Callaghan calls it a "terrific look at the boyhood of one of the most beloved author/illustrators of the 20th century" (119). Publisher's Weekly praises the illustrations of BOY ON FAIRFIELD STREET saying of Johnson and Fancher's "representational, nostalgic paintings effectively evoke both the period and Geisel's appealingly puckish personality" and that "familiar Seuss characters frolic through these pages, thematically complementing the illustrations while reminding readers why Geisel's life is worth celebrating" (54).

The second book I am examining is LIVES OF EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN: RULERS, REBELS (AND WHAT THE NEIGHBORS THOUGHT). It is a collective biography featuring twenty short biographies of women who "triumphed over attitudes and conditions that couldn't have been more adverse" (Krull, 9). These women include: Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc, Isabella I, Elizabeth I, Nzingha, Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette, Victoria, Harriet Tubman, Tz'u-hsi, Gertrude Bell, Jeannette Rankin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Eva Peron, Wilma Mankiller, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Rigoberta Menchu. Her selections represent women throughout time from many diverse cultures.

Like all books in the "Lives of " series, each biographical entry is accompanied by a caricature portrait by Kathryn Hewitt. The portraits--along with the text--create an inviting introduction to some fascinating and scandal-causing women. The entries are by no means complete or thorough. However, they are very entertaining. The information is mostly trivial with a few necessary facts included. It is easy to see how this "gossipy" text would appeal to readers.

Krull's weaknesses are most apparent in this text. In this book where most of the facts are trivial it would be nice if she included where she found these "odd" facts which she has included. Although she does include a bibliography for further reading, I cannot imagine that these "trivial" facts would be easy to find. I guess what I'm saying is that it would be hard to retrace her research steps given what information she's included. Footnotes or source notes would have improved this book. There is also not an index, however, since each entry is only three to five pages and since there is a table of contents—an index is not missed in this case.

Reviewers also noted some of Krull's weaknesses. Ilene Cooper notes that each individual biography contains "only enough for short reports, and the information is sometimes vague . . .there are no source notes." However other reviewers are more forgiving such as SLJ's Callaghan who concludes her review by calling the book "a captivating browsers' delight and a jumping-off point for report writers."

The final book I have examined is A KID'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S BILL OF RIGHTS. I must admit that this is one of my favorites by Krull. In this book, Krull examines each of the ten amendments. She tells why the amendment was first written (historical context) and how that amendment has been used since its creation (legal context). With each amendment she includes historical tidbits, legal cases, charts, lists, and perhaps most importantly of all, she explains why each amendment is relevant to children and young adults. She is honest with the readers. When an amendment is not relevant to kids, she admits it. She presents a balanced overview of the ten amendments. She presents both arguments. She provides further information for each side. For example, she discusses both the supporters and opponents on issues such as gun control or the death penalty. She provides mailing addresses and web sites for many organizations and groups. She provides a thorough bibliography as well.

Perhaps what I find most appealing about the text is the fact that she goes beyond the Bill of Rights. Her last chapter sums up all of the other amendments. She discusses how African Americans, Native Americans and women were treated unfairly and how these later amendments sought to correct these mistakes. She deals with these issues honestly and openly.

I love this book because she makes this subject relevant and significant to the reader. She shows how the Bill of Rights is a matter of life and death. She writes, "the history of the United States is the history of the struggle to put these words [the Bill of Rights] into action" (14).

A KID'S GUIDE is organized well. There is a detailed table of contents. If I was writing a research paper on one of the amendments, I could easily navigate my way around based solely on the table of contents. Within the chapters themselves there are graphics, charts, and sidebars filled with information. The book concludes with a three-page bibliography of suggestions for further reading. She notes which books are specifically for kids. There is also an index.

A KID'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S BILL OF RIGHTS show that Krull can present a subject thoroughly—immersed in facts—without losing her conversational style. She does not trivialize the importance of the Bill of Rights. I would definitely recommend this book as a way to introduce the topic or subject of the Bill of Rights (or the Constitution) as opposed to the traditional textbook that is dry and boring. I was actually quite surprised by how entertaining a book on this subject could be, and the best thing about it is she doesn't sacrifice factual integrity by her style.

The two reviews that I read summarized briefly that Krull wrote about each amendment and noted the illustrations by Anna Divito. However, the reviewers disagreed with each other. Carolyn Phelan writes that they add a "visually appealing touch" (702). However, Susan H. Levine writes that the illustrations seem "inappropriate" in regards to the seriousness of the topic finding them sometimes too irreverent and lighthearted.

Overall, I thought these three books illustrated Krull's diversity. She has a great gift for writing, and she is someone I have definitely come to appreciate. I personally find her individual biographies (all picture book biographies) more appealing than her collective biographies. But I would definitely recommend her works to other people.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Callaghan, Anne Chapman. 2004. Review of The boy on fairfield street: How Ted Geisel grew up to be Dr. Seuss, by Kathleen Krull. School Library Journal (January 1): 119.

---. 2000. Review of Lives of extraordinary women, by Kathleen Krull. School Library Journal. (September 1).

Cooper, Ilene. 2000. Review of Lives of extraordinary women, by Kathleen Krull. Booklist (October).

Krull, Kathleen. 2000. Lives of extraordinary women: Rulers, rebels (and what the neighbors thought). Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. New York: Harcourt, Inc. ISBN: 0-15-200807-1.

---. 1999. Kids' Guide to the Bill of Rights: Curfews, censors, and the100 pound giant. Illustrated by Anna DiVito. New York: Avon Books. ISBN: 0-38-097497-5.

---. 2004. The boy on Fairfield street: How Ted Geisel grew up to become Dr. Seuss. Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. New York: Random House. ISBN: 0-375-82298-4.

Levine, Susan H. 2000. Review of A kid's guide to America's Bill of Rights: Curfews, and the 100-pound giant, by Kathleen Krull. Voice of Youth Advocates.

Phelan, Carolyn. 1999. Review of A kid's guide to America's Bill of Rights: Curfews, censorship, and the 100-pound giant, by Kathleen Krull. Booklist 96.7 : 702.

Publisher's Weekly. 2004. Review of The boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel grew up to be Dr. Seuss, by Kathleen Krull. Publishers Weekly (January 12, 2004) : 54.

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