I was a year old when Sesame Street debuted. I was eight when The Muppet Show debuted. I was a senior in college when Jim Henson died. My daughter Zoey was born months before the muppet Zoe debuted on Sesame Street. Jim Henson and his creations were a huge part of my childhood, adulthood and my childrens's lives. I share these details with you so you get an idea of how much Jim Henson means to me and also as a way of explaining why I am reviewing a book in a series that I have chosen not to review in the past because it did not meet my criteria.
Ordinary People Change the World is a biography series by Brad Meltzer, author of mystery-thrillers for adults, who is also the author of Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, biographies that I find more accessible to young readers and usable in an academic environment. I have mixed feelings about biographies of for kids to begin with. I think that it's important for kids to learn about the lives of others, especially people who have contributed to making the world a better place, but I often find it challenging to engage the general kid public with these stories as they are published today. One of the gimmicks of this series is the cartoonish illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos which feature the subject as a big-headed, adult character in a child-sized body. As an adult, I find this jarring when reading the books in this series, especially since the other adults in the story are illustrated as regular sized adults. It's just weird to see a cartoony, infantilized George Washington headed into battle with full sized adults. While the idea may be to make these iconic figures relatable to readers by keeping them child-sized, I worry that it can also diminish their lives and accomplishments for readers. That said, and despite the extreme weirdness of a full-bearded Jim Henson in a child-sized body, as a biographical subject, he seems to be a good fit for this concept series. Henson definitely brought a profound creativity and magnificent artistry to the world of puppetry and entertainment in general with children as his main audience, so embodying him is a child's body doesn't feel quite as weird as it does with other subjects.
Meltzer begins I Am Jim Henson, which is narrated by Henson, by showing readers the creative and laugh-filled childhood that Henson had. Experiences like listening to Edgar Bergen's shows on the radio and getting a television when he was thirteen and seeing Kukla, Fran and Ollie are seminal moments. While hitting high points and important moments of Henson's life, Meltzer incorporates a message derived from his life that he repeats and sums up in the final pages of the story: childhood is when we learn the best things in life, "Laughing. Sharing. Imagining. Dreaming. Creating. Never stop doing them. And never stop being kind. There's nothing wrong with being a do-gooder." He closes with, "I am Jim Henson, and I will keep believing and keep pretending." This is followed by a timeline of Henson's life, letting readers know that he died in 1990.
I avoid kid's books with messages like the plague. But, as I said at the start of this review, Jim Henson is an important person in my life and I want to be able to share his life with my students. As best as I can tell, I Am Jim Henson is one of only three biographies for kids available now, making Meltzer's book important and needed, despite shortcomings. Hopefully, someday, there will be more biographies that do even more to inform and inspire young readers.
Source: Review Copy