Archive for November 29, 2013

Jay-Z: CEO of Hip-Hop

Written by Stephen G. Gordon

Buy on Amazon

It used to be that biographies were written years, often decades or even centuries after a person’s passing. The current trend is to write about people who have achieved greatness in their field during their lifetime.

In the book Jay-Z: CEO of Hip-Hop, Stephen G. Gordon picks up the most compelling aspect of his subject: “Shawn Carter had talent — a lot of talent. Even as a teenager he showed a special gift for rapping. …He rapped about growing up in poverty. He rapped about drug dealing. He rapped about violence. These were topics Shawn knew well.”

In one paragraph the biographer encapsulates the key aspects of the extraordinary musical talent that is Jay-Z — his genius for rap and the rough background that he emerged from. “Jay-Z’s rise in the music industry is a tale of determination and inspiration, a true rags-to-riches story.”

Shawn Carter (he took the name Jay-Z later) grew up in Marcy Houses, a Brooklyn housing development for low income families. Family life was happy. Music filled the home, which became “the house around the neighborhood that everybody went to because we had all the newest records, and we just had super cool parents.”  Dad introduced young Shawn to chess and basketball and music. Tragedy struck and Dad left the family, obsessed with finding his brother’s killers. Mom became the bread earner. We get a picture of strong parents who cared for their children and believed in them. When Shawn took to writing rhymes his mother gave him a three-ring binder to record them in.

The book conveys well the ethos that formed Jay-Z. His talent was honed in the Marcy development where hip-hop was in the air. Neither Jay-Z nor the author hide his drug-dealing days, the dark times he fell into, and the growing realization that “this life has no good ending.” Fortunately for him and for his fans, he had friends who steered him away from the dark path.

What comes through is the portrait of a genuine person, not just a celebrity air-head, growing in strength and understanding of the world. The book details why he decided to go indie in the production of his first record. We follow along as he goes from strength to strength, building his musical empire, diversifying into a very successful clothing line, using his millions for philanthropy. His marriage to Beyonce was a very private affair. He celebrated the birth of his daughter with a song for her.

“In the course of his career, Jay-Z had brought rap music from the streets of Brooklyn to the finest concert halls in the world. In the process, he had broken down barriers.” And this may well be the greatest achievement of a prodigiously talented artist.

The back matter provides much information for discussion and reading activities.  There are many photographs and articles from the newspaper USA Today. Middle school and high school students will enjoy the book, learning much about negotiating the difficulties of life even as Jay-Z did. A worthwhile addition to all reading lists.

  • Jay-ZTitle: Jay-Z: CEO of Hip-Hop
  • Author: Stephen G. Gordon
  • Publisher: Twenty-First Century Books, 2013
  • Reviewer: Anjali Amit
  • Format: Hardcover, 112 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-4677-0811-1
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Biography

The Misadventures of Dreary & Naughty

Written by John LeFleur
Illustrated by Shawn Dubin

Buy on Amazon

Dreary and Naughty are new kids in school. How will the other students relate to them? After all, Dreary and Naughty aren’t your usual middle or high schoolers. Dreary is the son of the Grim Reaper and Naughty the daughter of the Devil. The parents have sent their children to a school for mortals to help Dreary and Naughty learn about the inhumanity of mortals.

Written in couplets and four line stanzas, the poem story is dedicated to “the misunderstood, the under-appreciated, the confused, the troubled, the anxiety ridden, the overlooked, and the lonely everywhere.” Dreary and Naughty are all of these, and the other high school students don’t know what to do about them for D & N are so unusual. The result is a story of bullying and hatred that end in what could be called “hate crimes.”

Black and white sketches illustrate the right side of each double-page. Only Dreary’s skull face shows under a hoodie; Naughty has haunting vacant eyes and wears edgy teen clothes. The homes of Dreary and Naughty are creepily made of bone and fire.

While an obvious lesson for numerous classroom or club discussions about divergent lifestyles and acceptance, and while it has the appearance of a picture book, it is definitely not for the young reader. The illustrations of the students in the school are very obviously middle or high school; the main characters are seductive and blatantly evil looking. The other students wear the usual school jackets and preppy outfits, but their thoughts and actions indicate they are prejudiced.

This is the first of a slightly revised version of a 2003 trilogy initially published by Dragonfly Books featuring Dreary and Naughty. In 2003, the book was ahead of its time, featuring characters not part of mainstream literature. A current, more open culture may be drawn via interest in the occult and paranormal.

  • MisadventuresTitle: The Misadventures of Dreary & Naughty
  • Author: John LeFleur
  • Illustrator: Shawn Dubin
  • Publisher: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2013
  • Reviewer: Marion Mueller
  • Format: Hardcover, 58 pages
  • ISBN: 9780764344947
  • Genre: Poetry

Passion Blue

Written by Victoria Strauss

Buy on Amazon

If you think this is about the passions of a young woman, you’re right. But it turns out her real passion is painting, and passion blue is a specific color that is not easy to reproduce. In the Italian Renaissance, women were considered incapable of complex thought. Giulia is a seventeen-year-old girl who loves to draw, but she is at the mercy of an evil stepmother. Her father, who was never married to her mother, has died and left money for her dowry. His widow uses the dowry to buy Giulia’s way into a convent. Determined to get out and find a husband, Giulia uses sorcery and astrology to aid her in her quest. When the nuns discover her artistic talents, she is assigned to apprentice in a workshop famous for making altar pieces. While she plots to leave, Giulia finally figures out that what she really wants is to paint, and that a husband would frown on that pursuit. This complex tale is about coming of age, being happy with who you are, and the plight of women and other people who are suppressed.

Recommended for sixth grade readers and up, the text includes a lot of detail about what life was like in the Italian Renaissance and also what it’s like to be at someone else’s mercy. Reading activities could include learning more about the era, the rights of women, about specific painters, and about painting itself. How do you get a true blue? How is tempera made? Why do many painters prefer oil? This may appear to be a book for girls, but boys can certainly benefit from reading it. Giulia does conduct clandestine meetings with a young man, but there is no sex to shock the reader.

  • Passion BlueTITLE: Passion Blue
  • AUTHOR: Victoria Strauss
  • PUBLISHER: Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2012
  • REVIEWER: Sue Poduska
  • ISBN: 978-0-0-7614-6230-9
  • FORMAT: Hard cover, 346 pages
  • GENRE: Women, Italian Renaissance