Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Waving Her Wand

On January 19, 1920 my mother was born on a farm in a small town outside the capital of Michigan.  On August 18, 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified; no citizen shall be denied the right to vote based upon sex.  When you consider the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788 (our system of government began operating under the United States Constitution in 1789), it's hard to believe the first generation of women who grew up with the right to vote by constitutional amendment was my mother's generation.  In 2016 Hillary Rodham Clinton is the presumed nominee for President of the United States for the Democratic Party.

As you can imagine not only in the United States but all around the world women struggled to achieve this equality.  Prior to this achievement (and still today) if a woman assumed or pursued a role outside of the expected or accepted norm, it was not easy.  Anything But Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic (Candlewick Press, April 12, 2016) written by Mara Rockliff with illustrations by Iacopo Bruno highlights the considerable accomplishments of an extraordinary woman.

Addie never wanted to be ordinary.

This girl certainly was not going to conform to the status quo.  In fact, noticing an ad in a newspaper one day, she secretly pursued a plan which landed her on the stage in front of a live audience.  She was excellent but as far as Addie was concerned, it was still not astonishing.

Her next attempt at being daring and different had her traveling from London to other large European cities, dressed in appalling (for this time in history) attire riding on a new invention.  (The name given this mode of transportation has changed but it remains.) Addie's delight in exploring the world had her on a ship from Europe across the ocean to America.  It was in New York City, at the age of 21, that she married a fascinating gentleman, a magician named Alexander Herrmann.

They built his one man extravaganza into a show together and then added more artists.  In fact, Addie ended up being shot out of a canon!  Fearless to a fault, there was a single trick which Addie begged Alexander not to do, The Bullet-Catching Trick.  (I wonder how it would have been to sit in the audience watching a row of riflemen shoot at someone holding only a plate for protection.)

After more than twenty years together, Alexander suddenly died as they traveled by train between shows.  This is when Addie decided to do the most uncommon thing of all.  She would continue to keep the show alive.  She would become the main attraction as a magician doing what was rarely done.  For her entire life she lived as her younger self had imagined.

The research for a particular nonfiction subject is nearly always challenging but for some topics it is even harder.  In two separate author notes at the end, Mara Rockliff offers further explanations about the life of Adelaide, Alexander and their family of entertainers.  She also delves into the search for information about Addie which is a bit of a detective story.

In presenting Adelaide Herrmann as a living breathing person, Rockliff begins with a sentence which ties all other details of her life together. This mantra or viewpoint Addie had on how to embrace everything creates a subtle tension or force behind all her decisions and the narrative of this book.  It supplies readers with a series of pauses and exclamation points within a truly amazing existence.  Rockliff repeats key words and phrases to enhance this flow.  Here is a sample passage.

Alexander was no ordinary husband.
He set fire to Addie.
He chopped off her head.
He made her vanish
into thin air.

The two of them got 
along splendidly.

Together, they
audiences around
the globe.

Rendered in pencil and colored digitally all of the illustrations beginning with the matching dust jacket and book case are as alluring as Addie.  Designed to mirror the look of a stage on both the front and the back with pillars framing the pictures on each, readers are taken to an era from the past.  Iacopo Bruno includes details on the front depicting the love of animals which Addie and Alexander shared.  They used them in their acts.  He includes Addie's flare for elaborate clothing, the flying cards and Addie's wand.  There is most definitely magic in the air.  On the back, to the left, scrolled, intricate letters, A and H, are intertwined on a background of deep rich red.  The opening and closing endpapers announce the changes over the course of Addie's career.

Nineteen full, two-page visuals portray the life of this remarkable woman.  A technique Bruno uses is to highlight portions of the image in a wide white line making those elements appear to stand out from the others.  It gives the pictures a 3-D effect.  In the first illustration for the first sentence most of the picture is done in sepia tones except for Addie.  She is in full color.

Throughout the book, Bruno places small visuals within larger wholes adding interest and expanding the narrative.  The text is carefully fitted within portions of the pictures in areas provided by Bruno; inside a big drum, curtains on a stage, the side of a ship or on the back of a woman's dress in the audience.  For most of the book, the moods of the characters are happy and light, but the illustrations adeptly depict the sadness of Alexander's death on the train and the state of the show at his passing.

Repeatedly for emphasis the viewpoint zooms into the page.  Pieces of newsprint add to authenticity.  Attire of the general public and specifically the Herrmanns supplies a real sense of time and place.

One of my favorite pictures is of Adelaide and Alexander seated at the captain's table on a ship.  Large borders on both sides showcase cards, golden balls moving through fingers, large rings, a rabbit above a top hat and a hand waving a wand.  In the center at a large table set for an extensive meal sits the foursome.  Alexander is making the roses rise from the centerpiece.  Adelaide is gasping in pleasure and surprise.  There is a glow to this scene.

Anything But Ordinary Addie:  The True Story Of Adelaide Herrmann Queen of Magic written by Mara Rockliff with illustrations by Iacopo Bruno is as dazzling as the subject.  This collaboration by Rockliff and Bruno demonstrates their ability to make the same kind of wonderful nonfiction picture book as given to readers in Mesmerized:  How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France (Candlewick Press, March 10, 2015.  If a woman can rise above the prejudices of her time and do so garnering respect and admiration from her peers, this will inspire others to do the same even if their circumstances are not entirely identical.

To learn more about Mara Rockliff and Iacopo Bruno please visit their online presence by following the links attached to their names.  At two separate publisher websites you can view images from the interior of this title, here and here.  Candlewick Press provides an activity kit linked here.

Please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected this week by bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. Margie, This sounds like such an awesome book. Love books where women defy convention and pursue their dreams despite the odds. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a HUGE fan of Mara Rockliff's work and Addie sounds terrific. Going on my list. Great review!

    1. It is an awesome book, Robin. This is what continually impresses me about nonfiction picture books; their ability to make us aware of important people who rarely find a place in classroom textbooks. It would be fun to teach using trade books whenever possible. That's okay, I am a huge fan too. Thank you, Robin.

  2. I love your observation about how Bruno creates a 3-D effect in the illustrations. They are really lovely--I guess he was working a little of his own magic!

    1. Thank you. I'm not sure without going back and looking at all his other books if he has done this previously. Yes, definitely magical.