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The Queens of Animation

In this eye-opening, fascinating, and heartbreaking account, author Nathalia Holt takes readers through the history of female animators at the storied Walt Disney Company. Women faced great obstacles personally and professionally (harassment, intimidation, abuse), making this story difficult to read at times. And yet, it's gripping. The stories of Mary Blair, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, and Bianca Majolie intertwined with the detailed history of the studio and the larger world make for a compelling read. While the focus is on the early years, the author takes readers through the studio's renaissance of the early 90s and the 2013 blockbuster Frozen. Warning: life at Disney wasn't always a fairy tale.

If you enjoy hidden histories (such as Hidden Figures), you'll appreciate The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History (2019). The engrossing story is well worth a listen, thanks to the fantastic performance by Saskia Maarleveld.



Pocket Full of Colors

Explore the colorful and magical world of Mary Blair in this junior biography told with beautiful pictures. While we can now find Blair listed among top Disney artists, animators, and designers, we get to see how her childhood love of colors and sketching led to that future working with Walt Disney himself. It is not an easy journey, trying to compete with men as well as color cynics (perhaps somewhat surprising for the world of Disney we know today). Ultimately, though, Blair receives an invitation to help create arguably the most recognizable and nostalgic theme park ride of all time—and my personal favorite—It's a Small World, truly epitomizing Blair's talent and vibrant imagination.

Check out Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire (2017) by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville. For more information, visit Oh My Disney for The World Behind "It's a Small World" and The Life and Work of Mary Blair.

The Radium Girls

Be prepared: this book is heartbreaking and infuriating. But it is so worth the read. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women (2017) tells the true story of a tragic time in American history. In the early 20th century, advertisements touted radium as a miracle cure. During World War I, factories in the U.S. were employing women to paint watch faces. Their method? Lip, dip, paint.

The constant exposure to radium eventually led to workers' horrific pain and suffering—and the companies denied any wrongdoing. Author Kate Moore shares the personal stories of these women, their fight for justice, and the impact their perseverance had on workers' rights and labor laws.

There is a local thread about a radium plant in Ottowa, Illinois. Check out the NPR Illinois article for more details.

If you enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or The Girls of Atomic City, try this book. It has a mix of hidden history and compelling characters—and it's great for book clubs.



Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)

Trevor Noah has a gift for storytelling (which makes it no surprise that he is now a comedian). I would have liked this book more if it were told in chronological order, but ultimately, I assume the order in which it is presented goes back to the fact that he's a comedian and likely thinks anecdotally vs. chronologically. That said, Noah tells such fascinating stories of his childhood, teen years, and young adult life, all while intertwining the cultural setting of South Africa while he was growing up. I highly recommend the audio to fully appreciate both the variety of languages Noah references and the emotion and humor in his storytelling.

Check out Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and other titles on this year's 2019 Lincoln Award (PDF): Illinois Teen Readers' Choice nominee list.

Betty Ford by Lisa McCubbin (2018)

bettyFormer First Lady Betty Ford thought her husband Gerald Ford was going to retire after his time in the U. S. House of Representatives, but instead he moved to a higher office, taking over the Vice Presidency when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned, setting her husband up as one of the most powerful men in the world without even running for office. His demanding job made him a largely absent husband, forcing Betty to raise her four children almost as a single mother.

While her husband was in the White House, Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, it was like receiving a death sentence. She also suffered from an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. In 1978, her family staged an intervention. Ford was open with the American public about her health issues and would go on to co-found the Betty Ford Center. Her outspokenness about her personal experiences put the focus on women’s health issues, alcoholism, and addiction, prompting many to seek treatment themselves.

You don’t need to be a fan of President Ford or Betty Ford’s politics to enjoy Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer by Lisa McCubbin. This is an inspirational and sympathetic portrait of a woman dealing with many issues while living in the political arena.

RBG (2018) PG

81njbw6zvql-_sy445_It's no surprise to people who know me well that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my personal heroes (and in the immortal words of The Notorious B.I.G. via Lin-Manuel Miranda -- "and if ya don't know, now ya know").  When I found out that there was a documentary coming out on her life, I knew I would be seeing that in the theaters—but now RBG is out on DVD for everyone to enjoy!  The documentary includes interviews with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her family members, political figures, authors of the book The Notorious RBG, and many more.  It covers her life from childhood to current service and includes footage from her confirmation hearing, as well as audio files from court cases.  What struck me as the best part of the film though were the moments that we, the public, don't always get to see -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg interacting with her granddaughter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg watching Kate McKinnon play her on Saturday Night Live, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life with her beloved husband. I also have to admit that I was delighted to see information on her pop culture influence, including one of the best baby costumes ever: Baby RBG.

I think this is an important documentary for anyone with a political interest to see.  U. S. Supreme Court Justice Bader Ginsburg's friendship with Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their political oppositions, is something we can all learn from.

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home by Denise Kiernan (2017)

jacketI adored Denise Kiernan’s first book (The Girls of Atomic City) on a little known piece of history. Now, she turns her attention to the creation of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

In The Last Castle, Kiernan details the lives of Edith and George Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt) along with the construction of the massive house and the development (and protection) of the surrounding forests and land. The author effortlessly weaves the threads of the stories of people, places, and events in American history from the Gilded Age to WWII. An engaging and fascinating slice of history.

 
 
 
 

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)

51v55l2fxflWhen I checked out Born a Crime, I knew vaguely that Trevor Noah was a comedian. I even remembered sharing a post of his on social media since I thought it was funny. Yet somehow, I did not expect to have to pull my car over to the shoulder to finish listening to one of Noah's stories. I was laughing so hard, I was crying.

And if that's not a ringing endorsement of an audiobook, I don't know what is.

I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of this book because you hear Noah speaking the different South African languages with accuracy. And you get to hear Noah's voice imitation of his mother, among other people in his memoir.

Oh? And the story I had to pull over to finish on the road? I've been telling it to everyone, convincing them to read the book. If you do read Born a Crime, stop by the K&T desk upstairs and see if you can guess which story made me laugh so hard I cried.

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King (2016)

In this engagingly readable mix of art, history, and biography, author Ross King details the later years of Claude Monet’s life. Set against the backdrop of WWI, Mad Enchantment documents Monet’s work on paintings both large and small as well as his life in Giverny, France (and his relationships with other artists such as Renoir and Rodin). The prolific artist, although hindered by grief and failing eyesight, produced the massive paintings found in l’Orangerie in Paris.

The Art Institute of Chicago plays a role in the book, too. Did you know its representatives tried to purchase the paintings that ended up in l’Orangerie? At least we have many other Monet works in Chicago. Whether you’re planning a trip to Paris or Chicago, or just want to learn more about one of the greats (who was not always admired during his lifetime), I recommend this book—I lost track of the number of times I thought, “I didn’t know that.”

 

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)

At turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, Trevor Noah’s candid memoir is a powerful, moving story of his life as a mixed race child growing up during apartheid. Told in vignettes, Born a Crime documents his relationship with his mother, his childhood and teenage antics, and his struggle to fit into a world that considered him a crime (at the time of his birth, interracial relationships were illegal).

Perhaps best known as the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Noah does infuse humor into his stories, but this is not your typical comedian’s memoir. Listen to the audiobook: the author’s command of multiple languages and skill at impersonations shine in his engaging narration.

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel (2013)

astronautAnyone who grew up during the race to the moon era can identify with the mystery and mystique of the astronauts. This nonfiction account from the perspective of their wives may disenchant some, but readers will have a whole new respect and admiration for these great American women. In The Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel does a good job of presenting the facts and opinions through extensive research and interviews in a story-like format. The epilogue ties everything up in a neat package explaining what happened after the space race was won and life returned to normal.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon (2014)

index.aspx1930 was the year of New York Justice Joseph Crater's infamous disappearance (his body was never found). This novel tells the story as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best: his wife Stella, his mistress Ritzi, and the maid Maria. Their story, expertly woven around these events, comes from the author’s imagination and she builds a fascinating tale of what may have happened.

Author Ariel Lawhon saves the why of Judge Crater disappearance until a twist in the very last pages. The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress will transport readers to a bygone era of chorus girls, speakeasies, bootleggers, Tammany Hall corruption, gangsters, and irritating rich people.

Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? by Billy Crystal (2013)

Upon turning 65, Billy Crystal, a comedian, actor, and director, wrote this entertaining, humorous, and sometimes poignant book. It alternates between quips about aging and reflections on his family life and career. In the audio version of Still Foolin’ ‘Em, the chapters on aging seem right out of his stand-up act complete with laugh track. I especially enjoyed the sections on the making of the movies When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers and learning about his friendship with Muhammad Ali. Reading about his early marriage years with Janice through being a grandpa gave me a different perspective on this funny man.

Seriously, I’m Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres (2011)

The audio version of Seriously, I’m kidding is hilarious due to the fact that it is narrated by Ellen DeGeneres.  Her comedic timing coupled with her funny stories make this audiobook of her reflections on life “laugh out loud.”

The Girls of Atomic City: the untold story of the women who helped win World War II by Denise Kiernan (2013)

Shrouded in secrecy, Oak Ridge didn't officially exist despite its population of over 70,000 residents at its peak in 1945. Denise Kiernan unveils the amazing true story of the government’s efforts to harvest fuel for the atomic bomb by building industrial factories – and an entire town – from scratch in rural Tennessee. As a history major with an avid interest in World War II, I had never heard of this – so I’m guessing many others are unaware of this aspect of the Manhattan Project.
The Girls of Atomic City traces the lives of several women working in Oak Ridge for the war effort – which is about all they knew: that their job would help end the war, but no more. Workers were given just enough information to properly complete their jobs. Part military base (guards patrolled entrances), part small town America, Oak Ridge housed military and medical personnel, scientists, and skilled and unskilled laborers from all walks of life from across the United States.

Read this book – it provides a fascinating glimpse into a little known part of American history and effortlessly weaves history, science, biography, and ethics through vignettes about several strong women.