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A train station, a cooking vocation, and news for a new nation


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Mar 22, 2024
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A Grand Idea: How William J. Wilgus Created Grand Central Terminal by Megan Hoyt, illustrated by Dav Szalay (Quill Tree Books, 48 pages, grades 1-5). At the turn of the (previous) century, Manhattan was filled with the smoke of trains, not to mention the snarl of traffic they caused, at one point resulting in a crash that killed 15 people and injured dozens more. Chief engineer William J. Wilgus struggled to find a solution, finally proposing the revolutionary idea of moving the trains underground, electrifying them, and building a bigger station.

Another country might have invested some government funding, but in the U.S., the project was taken on by robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. Although the winning design was submitted by architectural firm Reed and Stern, Vanderbilt’s cousin owned another company that he insisted be part of the design process. This resulted in 18 months of feuding, but the new design finally emerged. The rest of the book traces the magnificent station, with its amenities that over the years included a movie theater, a hospital, and a ski slope. As planes replaced trains, Grand Central Station was used less. Demolition was on the table, until a group of citizens led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis campaigned to save and restore it to its present glory. Includes additional information about Wingus and Grand Central Station, along with a timeline and a list of sources.

A Plate of Hope: The Inspiring Story of José Andrés by Erin Frankel, illustrated by Paola Escobar (Random House Studio, 48 pages, grades 1-5). As a child, José Andrés loved to help his parents cook for big gatherings at their home in Spain. Cooking school, a stint on a Navy ship, and a job at a Spanish restaurant prepared him for a move to the U.S., where he quickly rose to become a star chef. But he wanted his cooking to be for everyone, not just for those who could afford to eat in his restaurants.

When he was invited to help after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, José learned to prepare large quantities of local cuisine for people who desperately needed food. This experience gave birth to World Central Kitchen, an organization that travels around the world offering humanitarian food aid. When Huracán María hit Puerto Rico in 2017, José and World Central Kitchen spent three months serving almost four million meals all around the island. They continue to travel around the world, as described in the author’s note at the end, doing work that earned José a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2019. There’s also a bibliography.

Amazing Abe: How Abraham Cahan’s Newspaper Gave a Voice to Jewish Immigrants by Norman H. Finkelstein, illustrated by Vesper Stamper (Holiday House, 40 pages, grades 1-5). Growing up in Lithuania, Abraham Cahan loved languages, learning Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish. He became a teacher and political activist, which eventually forced him to flee to the United States. He added English to the list of languages he spoke, and gradually became fluent enough to begin writing about the experience of Jewish immigrants for American newspapers.

His first love was Yiddish, though, and in 1897, Abe founded Forverts, a Yiddish newspaper which grew to become the largest foreign-language newspaper in the country. In addition to news, the paper helped immigrants adjust to their new home, providing them with detailed instructions about baseball, how Americans set a table, and explanations of democracy and the importance of voting. The author’s note describes how the paper evolved over time, continuing as an online publication to this day. There’s also additional information about Abe and the Yiddish language, as well as a timeline and a bibliography.

I know, I know, March is Women’s History Month! But these three picture book biographies all landed on the library hold shelf for me at approximately the same time, all of them telling inspiring stories about men I knew nothing about who made significant contributions to their communities that continue to this day. All three have excellent illustrations; I particularly liked the endpapers of Amazing Abe that show laundry day in a busy NYC tenement, and the full-circle beginning and ending illustrations of A Plate of Hope that portray José Andrés as a child and an adult cooking large meals over an open fire. Readers will find plenty of additional resources in all three books to continue their research about these men.
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