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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Adler, David A. America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle;illus. by Terry Widener.Gulliver/Harcourt, 2000. [32p]
ISBN 0-15-201969-3   $16.00    Gr. 2-4

Picture-book biographies for younger readers are problematic. Theoretically, the format precludes depth and scope and limits such a book's possibilities, since thirty-two pages will only hold so much information; there's also the difficulty of writing for the young reading audience instead of down to them. Nevertheless, the demand for such biographies is great, and, thankfully, authors, illustrators, and publishers have risen to the occasion. Diane Stanley, Don Brown, and Jeanette Winter have all produced respected picture-book biographies that embrace brevity's limits and take full advantage of format. As a team, Adler (himself an author of many such titles) and Widener made their debut in this genre with the excellent Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man (BCCB 4/97). Their latest offering is further proof that they have a marked talent for this invaluable genre.

Champion swimmer Gertrude "Trudy" Ederle was seven years old when she learned to swim and twenty years old when she swam the English Channel. She was the first woman to complete the channel swim and she broke the all-time record for swimmers up to that date. In a few choice opening words, Adler makes certain the reader gets a sense of the position of women in Ederle's day: "In 1906 women were kept out of many clubs and restaurants. In most states they were not allowed to vote. Many people felt a woman's place was in the home. But Gertrude Ederle's place was in the water."

The writing style is colloquial without being condescending, and the text has the flavor of an oft-told family story streamlined to highlight the most exciting points. The biographer wisely sticks to his subject's relevant formative experiences: Ederle's increasing swimming prowess; her big swim (seventeen miles) from lower Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey; her setting of twenty-nine U.S. and world records; and her three Olympic gold medals. After carefully placing the champion swimmer in the context of her home, family, and society, Adler then settles in for a calm look at her two attempts to swim the channel. Given Ederle's day and age, her decision to attempt to swim the English Channel was almost as important as her actual success. She was front-page news: "Many people were sure Trudy couldn't do it. A newspaper editorial declared that Trudy wouldn't make it and that women must admit 'they would remain forever the weaker sex.' It didn't matter to Trudy what people said or wrote. She was going to swim the channel."

The illustrations that accompany the succinct but informative text are equally effective. Widener's monumental figures and 'scapes have humor as well as scope, and the thick opacity of the paints gives a concreteness to the compositions that is reinforced by the sturdy lines and soft yet sculptural shapes. It's clear from words and pictures that Ederle came from a close family: her father was a staunch supporter who taught her how to swim; her sister Margaret was her assistant (and cheerleader) through both channel attempts. (Widener's acrylics show the closeness between the sisters in scenes depicting Margaret coating Trudy with lanolin and heavy grease to protect her from the icy water and cheering her on in various swims.) Contrasting values provide opportunities for dramatic emphasis, such as the white of a lifeboat against the blue of the sea, or the small swimmer and her tracking boat against the hugeness of the rough water. Unusual perspectives enhance the eye-catching compositions, encouraging the viewer to take a closer look at the determined swimmer's adventures at sea.

The author's admiration for Ederle's athletic and other accomplishments is obvious from the tone of his text. He evokes a sense of his subject's time and, without belaboring the point, indicates that Ederle's success came as much from indifference to the dictates of an unencouraging society as it did from her determination to complete her task. Adler makes sure that readers understand the magnitude of Ederle's achievement, both in the body of the text and in the final note, which discusses the hazards of swimming the channel and Ederle's later accomplishments. Bemoaning the fact that Women's History Month has already passed? Do a hero display and put Ms. Ederle front and center.

--Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
April's Bulletin cover illustration by Terry Widener
from America's Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle,
Copyright 2000. Used by permission of Gulliver/Harcourt, Inc.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 2000.