Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Review of House of Dreams, by Liz Rosenberg

Friday, June 12th, 2020

House of Dreams

The Life of L. M. Montgomery

by Liz Rosenberg
illustrated by Julie Morstad

Candlewick Press, 2018. 339 pages.
Starred Review
Reviewed July 7, 2018, from a copy sent from the publisher.
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

I am an avid L. M. Montgomery fan. I have read all of her published journals. I’ve read all her novels. Usually when I read a biography, I think how much nicer it was to read about these things in L. M. Montgomery’s own words. But I didn’t feel that way about House of Dreams.

In the first place, Liz Rosenberg did a great job of giving us the high points of L. M. Montgomery’s life. She speaks frankly of bipolar disorder and that there was no real treatment for it in her time. When Maud had a long low period, we don’t have to wade through the despairing journal entries, but we get a summary.

I thought I knew the whole story. But this book was the first I heard a crucial fact about Maud’s passionate love affair with Herman Leard – he was publicly courting another woman. It always made me crazy in her journals to read all the reasons why he wasn’t actually suited to her for marriage. I had no idea that she was protecting herself from jealousy. (I did know that she herself was engaged at that time to Edwin Simpson.)

I also knew that her life ended very unhappily and that she was very disappointed in her oldest son Chester. This book puts perspective on that and gives more details than Maud did about what Chester had done. (It’s this part that makes the book more for young adults than for children.) And I did not know that her death was probably a suicide, though I did know that she ended her days feeling despairing.

Her life ended unhappily, but there was so much inspiring about her life. Her persistent work at writing and her eventual success of climbing “the Alpine path” is always an uplifting story to hear. This quiet imaginative girl from Prince Edward Island achieved fame and wealth and a lasting legacy. The illustrations by Julie Morstad are perfect and make the book a treasure. (I’d love to see Julie Morstad illustrate all of L. M. Montgomery’s novels!)

I’m not going to keep all of the books that publishers have sent me to consider for the Newbery – but this one is going right into my collection of books by and about L. M. Montgomery. It’s a lovely book about a fascinating and inspiring life. I do recommend it to all my friends, teen and up, who love the Anne and Emily books.

candlewick.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Kindness and Wonder, by Gavin Edwards

Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Kindness and Wonder

Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever

by Gavin Edwards

Dey St. (William Morrow), 2019. 248 pages.
Review written December 29, 2019, from a library book.

Kindness and Wonder is a biography of Mr. Rogers, followed by ten lessons from his life, with anecdotes. I like the biography. I had tried to get through the much more detailed biography, The Good Neighbor in audio form, and hadn’t ever finished it. This one gives you the basic facts and the basic story of his life without getting bogged down.

The ten lessons are:

Be deep and simple.
Be kind to strangers.
Make a joyful noise.
Tell the truth.
Connect with other people every way you can.
Love your neighbors.
Find the light in the darkness.
Always see the very best in other people.
Accept the changing seasons.
Share what you’ve learned. (All your life.)

Some of the stories presented alongside these lessons weren’t what I expected. For example, the “Love your neighbors.” chapter told how the lives of Andy Warhol and George Romero paralleled the life of Mr. Rogers. I’m not sure I cared about them!

But mostly, this book tells about a man’s life who saw his ministry as using television to reach children, and who took children’s developmental needs very seriously.

As a children’s librarian, of all people, I need to learn everything I can from Mr. Rogers. I like the way this book points out the lessons from his example.

rulefortytwo.com
harpercollins.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Lights! Camera! Alice! by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

Lights! Camera! Alice!

The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker

by Mara Rockliff
illustrated by Simona Ciraolo

Chronicle Books, 2018. 56 pages.
Starred Review
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

Who knew? One of the first people to create movies was a woman! This is from the note at the back:

Alice Guy-Blaché (1875-1968) was the first woman in the world to make movies – and one of the very first moviemakers, period. Long before Hollywood turned from silent films to “talkies,” Alice directed the first sound films ever made. She was also one of the first to film made-up stories instead of real events. (Some historians say she was the first, while others credit the Lumière brothers or Georges Méliès.) Between 1896 and 1920, Alice made over seven hundred movies, and her studio, Solax, produced hundreds more. She truly earned the title “Mother of the Movies.”

This picture book biography dramatizes Alice’s life without enormous amount of text and plenty of visuals. She grew up in France and got her start there, but came to America and made movies outside New York City. But the rise of Hollywood and the start of World War I meant her studio went out of business.

Each “episode” of her life has a “title card” like the old-fashioned title cards used in silent movies, and it turns out that each one is the title of a movie Alice made, with titles like “A Terrible Catastrophe,” “The Great Discovery,” “Starting Something,” “Imagination,” and “Her Great Adventure.”

There’s lots of back matter, and I took the time to look up one of Alice’s short films on YouTube. I was quite taken with this amazing woman I’d never heard of before – who changed the world.

mararockliff.com
chroniclekids.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration, by Leonard S. Marcus

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

Helen Oxenbury

A Life in Illustration

by Leonard S. Marcus

Candlewick Press, 2018. 288 pages.
Starred Review
Review written 02/20/2020, from a library book

This big, beautiful, heavy book tells the story of the career of the amazing picture book artist, Helen Oxenbury. I was delighted to read it, because Helen Oxenbury’s Tom and Pippo books were a huge favorite of my firstborn child, who is now almost 32 years old.

The pages are as large as a picture book, the paper is thick, and there are almost 300 pages. There’s a decorative ribbon, so this is suitable for a coffee table book, which is where I kept my library copy while I was reading it – but I’m afraid that meant I didn’t get around to it very often. By far the majority of the pages are filled with paintings, and when there is text it isn’t long. So this book doesn’t take a long time to read if you sit down and look. Every time I thought I should give up because I wasn’t getting around to it, I’d read another chapter and be so delighted that I didn’t have the heart to part with it until I was done.

It’s a beautiful book and filled me with nostalgia especially about the books I’d read to my kids. But I also enjoyed the wonderful art from books I hadn’t been familiar with. It’s arranged in a way that you can see Helen Oxenbury’s strengths and her growth as a writer. The story of her career is fascinating, too. She met her husband, the noted illustrator John Burningham, when they were both in art school. She began her own career in the 1960s and continues to this day.

This wonderful book looks in great detail at her many illustrated books and celebrates her life. There’s a Bibliography at the back as well as testimonials from authors she’s worked with. So much fun if you or your child have ever loved a Helen Oxenbury book. And if you haven’t, you’ll discover ones you must find and enjoy.

At the back of the book, we discover that Helen Oxenbury is the one who created the Walker Bear, also used by Candlewick Press. The book finishes with a quote from Deirdre McDermott, the Publisher of Walker Books:

So it is that the story of Helen Oxenbury’s astonishing contribution to children’s books is intrinsically woven into the fabric and legacy of Walker Books and Candlewick Press. She is as steeped in our history as we are in hers. Helen’s beautiful, iconic bear has illuminated the creative path for the thousands of stories that we’ve published, and shines a way forward for the many, many more to come.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix

Thursday, May 7th, 2020

The Faithful Spy

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

by John Hendrix

Amulet Books, 2018. 176 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 1, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2019 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

This book isn’t quite a graphic novel – but every page is covered with art and the text is arranged on the art. Some pages do have panels and/or speech bubbles, but most just have an arrangement of text. There are many diagrams and some maps, and every spread has some kind of graphic element.

The story is true. This book tells about a German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his spiritual journey, which eventually led him to get involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

The book also explains the rise of Hitler in an easy-to-understand way. In fact, I feel like I understand it much better than before. I hadn’t put it all together and understood that he took power completely legally and how he pulled that off.

A really striking part was when Dietrich went to seminary in New York City in 1930 and became close friends with a black man. He did some traveling in the South and was appalled when he saw how Blacks were treated, even by pastors. This part was chilling:

But there was something oddly familiar about what he was seeing. It reminded him of the rhetoric of that young nationalist upstart, Adolf Hitler, and his Nazi party, who had tried to seize control of the government a few years earlier.

It was, of course, nothing to the level of what was happening in the United States.

To think that something like this kind of repulsive segregation could come to his Germany was impossible.

But of course it did come, and Dietrich became part of the “Confessing Church” – the first public religious opposition to Nazi policies of discrimination. He even opened his own rebel seminary, which operated under the radar as long as they could.

Another striking moment in the book was that Dietrich and a friend went to visit Martin Niemöller just minutes after he’d been arrested – and were taken into custody, but released that night. This is striking because Martin Niemöller was the one who wrote:

First they came for the socialists,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak for me.

Honestly, this book was hard to read in September 2018! It wrestles with how a Christian should act under a corrupt regime. What should they do? How can they simply stand by? Is speaking up enough? What if speaking up brings danger to your loved ones and relatives?

Dietrich had to really wrestle with himself to join the group (composed of some relatives high in the military) who were plotting Hitler’s assassination. They made three attempts – and were very close to success each time. And it feels strange as you’re reading this book to wish that the assassinations had worked!

Dietrich also was a spy. He was supposedly a spy for the Abwehr, but was actually working as a double agent, trying to get some foreign support for the group planning the assassination.

There were times during the war and just before the war when Dietrich had a chance to get out of Germany, including a chance to escape after he’d been arrested and was in prison. But for the sake of his country, which needed people working to do what’s right, and for the sake of his loved ones, who would be sure to suffer if he escaped, Dietrich stayed until the end. He was killed just before the end of the war.

It’s all very dramatic and thought-provoking and laid out in a visual way, making it easier to understand.

Because of the heavy nature of the topic, this is probably more for high school students. But since it’s in such a visual format, some middle school kids will want to read it, too. I highly recommend it for adults as well. I feel much more knowledgeable about World War II and the rise of Hitler than I did before I read it. And I’m thinking hard about what a Christian should do when they see their government pursuing evil policies, infiltrating the church, and making people suffer.

johnhendrix.com
amuletbooks.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Nothing Stopped Sophie, by Cheryl Bardoe, illustrated by Barbara McClintock

Monday, April 27th, 2020

Nothing Stopped Sophie

The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain

by Cheryl Bardoe
illustrated by Barbara McClintock

Little, Brown and Company, 2018. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written June 27, 2018 from a library book.
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

At last! The Boy Who Loved Math was a picture book biography of a mathematician that was hugely popular a few years ago. Now there’s one about a girl who loved math! And Sophie Germain accomplished amazing things.

It’s always interesting to illustrate someone being good at math. This is accomplished with interesting variety in this book. I like the illustration where her parents tried to take away her candles so that she couldn’t stay up late doing math. But later her work involved patterns of vibrations, and those are nicely illustrated.

Another interesting episode is where Professor Joseph-Louis Lagrange goes to visit the brilliant student who has been writing to him and discovers she’s a woman.

With so many women who broke ground in fields that were closed to them, a key part of Sophie’s life was her persistence. That is portrayed beautifully here, from the title to the final page.

Sophie is celebrated today because nothing stopped her. Her fearlessness and perseverance have inspired many people.

Perhaps she will also inspire you.

cherylbardoe.com
barbaramcclintockbooks.com
lbyr.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Dancing Hands, by Margarita Engle and Rafael López

Thursday, April 9th, 2020

Dancing Hands

How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln

by Margarita Engle
illustrated by Rafael López

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2019. 36 pages.
Starred Review
2020 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Winner
Review written February 10, 2020, from a library book

Dancing Hands tells the story of Teresa Carreño, who was born in Venezuela in 1853. She learned to play the piano when she was very young.

I love that this book won the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award, because the artist does a wonderful job of using the art to convey the joyful music Teresa played with bright, colorful, and playful images. The author does a good job of using poetic language that was a perfect vehicle for the art. Here’s what’s written on two spreads about Teresa learning to play the piano:

At first, making music seemed magical,
but Teresa soon learned that playing a piano
could be hard work. Sometimes she had to struggle
to make the stubborn music behave
as she practiced gentle songs
that sounded like colorful birds
singing in the dark and light branches
of a shade-dappled mango tree . . .
and powerful songs that roared
like prowling jaguars, beside towering waterfalls
in a mysterious green jungle.

If Teresa felt sad, music cheered her,
and when she was happy, the piano helped her
share bursts of joy. By the time she was six,
she could write her own songs, and at seven
she performed in the peaceful chapel
of a magnificent cathedral, playing hymns
that shimmered like hummingbirds.

When she was eight years old, her family was forced to flee Venezuela because of war, and they came as refugees to New York City. Teresa began to perform in her new country and became famous as the Piano Girl.

But the United States was at war, too. Teresa traveled many places to perform, but this book features the invitation she received to play for President Abraham Lincoln at the White House when she was ten years old.

The president’s son had recently died, so the book focuses on how her joyful playing – and dancing hands – brought comfort to the grieving family.

A note at the back adds details to put it all in context, but this exceptionally beautiful book tells the true story of a young girl who used music to bring joy to others.

rafaellopez.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Free Lunch, by Rex Ogle

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

Free Lunch

by Rex Ogle

Norton Young Readers, 2019. 208 pages.
Starred Review
Review written January 2, 2020, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-outs: #4 in Longer Children’s Nonfiction

Free Lunch looks like an ordinary middle school novel. If you don’t pay attention, you might think it’s simply a hard-hitting, gritty story, with the hardships maybe a little overdone. But this story is true.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to quote from the Author’s Note at the back. In fact, knowing that it’s true makes this all the more powerful.

I just finished writing the story you’ve just finished reading. I feel exhausted and sad and a little sick to my stomach. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to puke on you.) The reason I feel like I’m about to vomit, or maybe just burst into tears, is because everything that happened in this book happened to me in real life. Every laugh, every lunch, and every punch that you’ve read about is the result of an emotional deep dive into my past.

Like most children entering sixth grade, I was focused on friends and grades and locker combinations. But I was also worried about other things: where I’d get my next meal, what mood my mom or stepdad might be in when I came home from school, and when other kids would finally discover my darkest secret – that I was poor.

I was beyond terrified of my peers knowing that my parents – and by proxy, me – were on welfare, using food stamps and living in permanent-subsidized housing. Along with living under the federal poverty line, I also dealt with verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis. I hated my life and I hated myself. I didn’t want people to know that my family was scraping the bottom of the barrel, because I believed being poor meant being less-than. And I was deeply ashamed for it. And worse, it made me feel completely alone.

The title comes from Rex being on the free lunch program, and every single day the cafeteria worker would make him tell her he was on the free lunch program and loudly tell her his name so she could look it up in a notebook. This made it tricky to hide it from his friends.

In fact, many things in his life revolved around not letting his friends know he was poor. When they moved to subsidized housing near the school, he’d linger at school until most of his friends had left on the bus, so they wouldn’t see where he lived. And he never told them why he hadn’t gone out for football.

This story pulls you into the mind of a middle school kid, including his surprise at people who are kind and like him for who he is. It also gives you an inside perspective on a major problem in America, where nearly one in five children under eighteen live in poverty. This book is written on a level children can understand, but I hope adults will read it, too.

nortonyoungreaders.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Ordinary Hazards, by Nikki Grimes

Saturday, November 9th, 2019

Ordinary Hazards

A Memoir

by Nikki Grimes

Wordsong (Highlights), 2019. 325 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 9, 2019, from a library book

Wow. Nikki Grimes wrote a powerful and moving memoir in verse.

Between this book and Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson, I should make a new page on my website for Teen Nonfiction. This book isn’t for children, even though it tells about Nikki Grimes’ childhood. It is for teens, and will speak to teens who have to deal with hard things.

There’s a caption at the front:

MEMOIR:
a work of imperfect memory
in which you meticulously
capture all that you can recall,
and use informed imagination
to fill in what remains.

The author explains that there are blanks in her memory because of trauma. And her childhood had lots of trauma. At the point when she finally found a loving home in a foster home, her mother took her back, and the difficulties began again.

At one point, when she’d described the abuse she went through at the hands of her mother’s husband, she then wrote about being thirteen – and I wanted to cry. So young! Later, when she was in high school and had built a good relationship with her father at last, more tragedy struck.

But she doesn’t ask you to feel sorry for her. And you can see her coping. One of the ways she coped, even as a child, was writing, always writing. She’s got excerpts from her Notebooks over the years, adding immediacy. (Though, alas, they are reconstructed and imagined.)

This is a quietly Christian book. She shows how important prayer was to her and how her faith in God was her lifeline – along with key people who came into her life and helped her through.

And there are tough things in her story, but Nikki Grimes infuses the book with joy. I love the story about going on the subway with her best friends – which goes with one of the handful of pictures in the back of the book.

One afternoon,
we three dressed up
in our finest rags
to help Gail’s boyfriend,
a fledgling photographer
in need of a portfolio
to display his considerable skills.
Debra and I ripped off our glasses,
and we three posed for portraits
in the park
(me in my new coat!),
then hung from a vertical pole
in the middle of a subway car,
swinging round it gleefully,
pretending to be
professional models.
In other words,
we hammed it up, yo!
And those photographs?
Oh, my God! Portraits
of joy.

I love reading this knowing that the little girl portrayed here, up against so much, did become the writer she planned to be.

“I want to write books about
some of the darkness I’ve seen,
real stories about real people, you know?
But I also want to write about the light,
because I’ve seen that, too.
That place of light – it’s not always easy
to get to, but it’s there.
It’s there.”

Yes! She achieved this. Even though this memoir portrays childhood trauma and difficulties, it’s a book about the light.

nikkigrimes.com
wordsongpoetry.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Alpine Path, by L. M. Montgomery

Monday, September 9th, 2019

The Alpine Path

The Story of My Career

by L. M. Montgomery

Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1990. First published in 1917.

I’m visiting Prince Edward Island in a few weeks (Yay!), and as part of my preparation, I’m rereading L. M. Montgomery’s books in the order they were published, so this short book about how she got started writing was up next.

In the Preface, the purpose of the book is explained:

In 1917 the editor of Everywoman’s World, a magazine published in Toronto from 1911 until the 1920s, asked L. M. Montgomery to write the story of her career. What she produced was published in six instalments, June through November, under the title she chose, The Alpine Path. It came from a verse that had been her inspiration during the long years when success as a writer seemed remote and only dogged determination kept her on

The Alpine path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime.

Now, I’ve read L. M. Montgomery’s Selected Journals and am currently reading her Complete Journals — so this little book doesn’t really contain any new information for me. Instead of focusing on just her writing career, Maud Montgomery writes a lot about her childhood. Though that part very much reflects how she came up with a child as imaginative as Anne and a child so in love with the natural beauty of Prince Edward Island – this is simply who she herself was.

She also finished up The Alpine Path by copying her journal entries from her honeymoon in Scotland. It’s not very pertinent to how she became a writer, and it feels like padding to make this long enough to be a book. Visiting Scotland is very interesting, yes, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the story of her career. This time through the book I enjoyed that section much more, since I got to visit Scotland in 2003 and have been to some of the same places.

Since I am now reading her books chronologically, I did notice in particular how much of this story of how she got started as a writer she later used in her book Emily Climbs, as her heroine Emily of New Moon works and struggles to become an author – just as Maud Montgomery did herself. In fact, some of these scenes are pulled exactly and used for Emily, emphasizing how autobiographical a character she is.

I was also reminded that Maud Montgomery did her apprenticeship writing short stories. Here she writes about how her first efforts were spurned. But she persisted and started getting published by magazines that paid her in copies. And she persisted still more until she actually got paid, and eventually made quite a sum with her pen, even before she published a book. So Anne of Green Gables didn’t come from nothing.

This book does remind me that L. M. Montgomery is in her element writing about characters in a small town and incidents and interactions that happen with them. She knows the foibles and quirks of human nature and can draw people to great effect with her pen.

It’s also interesting that her career had just begun when she wrote The Alpine Path. She had published the first three Anne books, Kilmeny of the Orchard, the two Story Girl books, a book of short stories, and a book of poems. She would go on to publish fifteen more books in her lifetime. So it’s no wonder that this book talks more about how she got her start than on what it was like to continue to build a career as an author. I do recommend reading her journals to find out more about that!

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?