Tag Archives: biography

Library Heroes

For millennia the written word has held special significance among those whose faith is centered on holy writ. Some ancient Jewish and Islamic traditions imposed safeguards to prevent the desecration of any piece of writing—sacred or secular—that might bear God’s name.

Christian history is marked by missionaries and others who made literacy and education a priority, on the premise that everyone should have personal access to the written Word of God. Among these, Martin Luther, William Carey, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar names. A less familiar example is the Kyrias family of Albania, active supporters of language development, publishing, and education, particularly among girls.

In contemporary America it can be hard to fathom a culture where the written word is not readily accessible. We read to our children from the day they are born, fill shelves with assorted Bible editions, and ship off excess volumes to thrift stores and little free libraries. The handful of picture books below give elementary-aged children a glimpse of the lengths to which people have gone—and still go—to preserve, procure, and distribute the wealth that is literacy.

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Girl at Arms, by Jaye Bennett

Notwithstanding the remarkable youth of the historical Joan of Arc, I wouldn’t have automatically assumed her a ready subject for a middle grade novel. Of course it’s impossible not to admire her courage and determination, and I recognize that she must be considered in the context of her times. But let’s just say that her story has the potential to be a little … troubling.

For starters there are the voices. Not that I don’t believe in visions, but the question of whether God would employ them for the defense of a European monarch has always raised doubts in my mind. Then there’s the fact that Joan was leading armies into battle, which inevitably involves violence. And then there’s the ending: she gets burned at the stake. That alone was enough to make me a reluctant reader. Continue reading

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Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Greg Mortenson didn’t set out to be a hero. Shortly before he stumbled into a mountain village in northern Pakistan, he was wandering around on K2 trying to save his own life. Out of gratitude to the villagers who took him in following his climbing expedition gone awry, he promised to come back and build them a much-needed school.

And he did–return, that is–but his first heroic mission almost ended in disaster. I won’t supply the details, because it’s a bit of a cliff hanger as Mortenson relates the story in the book. But since Mortenson has gone on to build hundreds more schools (that’s the reason Three Cups of Tea was written), it’s safe to tell you that the school did get built, eventually, and that’s how it all got started. Continue reading

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Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder

The long waiting list for Mountains Beyond Mountains required us to wait some time before it became available at the library. But through the first few chapters, we were hard-pressed to identify the reason for the popularity of this biographical account of doctor Paul Farmer (b. 1959). Farmer struck us as arrogant and narcissistic, and we found the voice of Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder flat and journalistic. Continue reading

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A Midwife’s Tale–Chronicle of a 19th-century New England Woman

Painstaking research by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has produced this Pulitzer Prize winner—a captivating investigation into the life of a Maine midwife. Martha Ballard’s diary records not only her midwifery activities, but such mundane undertakings as weaving, washing clothes, visiting neighbors, and entertaining guests. With help from other historical documents of the period, Ulrich has gleaned revealing insights from what other historians have termed “trivia.” Continue reading

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