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Growing With the Grain

Giovanni Santi and Raphael Sanzio by Chloe Feldman Emison

What do you get when you combine two homeschooled daughters with an art professor mother? You get a book like no other about 60 brilliant families through history. Illustrated by 14-year old Chloe Emison, this hardcover is an encyclopedia of parents and children who made their mark on the world



Okay, this one threw me for a loop. Growing With the Grain is about as far from Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket as language will allow. It has no plot and at least 125 characters from Scipio Africanus in 236 BC to modern day Benazir Bhutto. And yet this is a book for children, or at least, for some children, and it was illustrated by 14-year old Chloe Emison of Lee, NH who spent two years sketching portraits to accompany more than 60 short biographies of famous world figures written by her mother Patricia Emison.

Chloe and Patricia Emison / SeacoastNH.comIn a world where commercial books are designed to be instantly attractive and understanbable, Growing With the Grain refuses to play along. I spent at least 15-minutes flipping through the heavy stock pages of this weighty volume saying – huh? It appeared to be an encyclopedia illustrated by a child, with attractive primitive sketches of people. The people are always in pairs, one large and older, one tiny and younger. They stand apart, staring blankly, as if both caught up in their separate private worlds. Some of the names, like Louisa May Alcott, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, are familiar, but most are not. Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor? Ernst von Dohnanyi? Alma Cluck? Efrem Zimbalist, Jr? Wait a minute, was he on the TV show 77 Sunset Strip?

By now a half hour has passed and I’m still flipping, reading snippets, struggling to figure out what makes this collection of pages qualify as a book. The title contains a clue. Instead of growing against the grain, all of these clever kids seem to come from clever parents. That seems to be the underlying message – brilliance begets brilliance – dull begets dull.



The Bernoulli Family by Chloe Feldman Emison

Author Patricia Emison, a UNH professor of art history, says she began this project with her daughter after she was continually unimpressed by the low quality of "sentimental biographies" available on the market for children. Having just written two of those biographies for children myself, I probably should disagree. There are a number of high quality companies producing nonfiction for children these days and some of it is very good, but some of it is very bad. As Emison notes, a lot of books for young readers is hopelessly sentimental and, while there are volumes about world figures, many American publishers – not mine thankfully -- stick only to the most familiar American biographies.

I get a lot of letters from homeschooling parents who, not finding what they want in books, have turned to the Internet for content. I also used to travel around teaching other teachers how to publish student writing. My theory was that it makes no sense to teach kids how to write if the only people who are going to read their work are teachers. From my experience, most teachers are good readers, but are themselves poor writers. They know the rules of grammar and style, but my guess is that nine teachers out of ten could not write a book that any publisher would buy. Imagine taking violin lessons from a teacher who could not play the violin, but had a college degree in music appreciation.

So although I was slow to figure it out – it took me about an hour and 15 minutes – I have to applaud the Emisons for their self-published effort. Compared to most, this is a very attractive book, solid and well designed. It is also fearless. Unlike commercial publishers who have to sell thousands of children’s books to pay the staff and the rent, the Emison team has produced just 500 copies in this signed limited edition. They have followed none of the rules of juvenile textbook production and created, maybe for the first time, a hybrid volume. This is a juvenile-biography-artsy-encyclopedia. Ultimately it is more a work of art and family pride than a commercial enterprise, but in the right hands could be a treasure.

Growing With the Grain sells for $45. That is not bad for a Patricia Emison art book. As an important published art historian, her college-level texts sell for as much as $200 per copy. And it is not outrageous for a kid’s text either. I’ve certainly spent $50 on glitzy books for my nephews in the past, including an illustrated encyclopedia of James Bond films and one on the history of the US Navy.

This book is for a more rarified audience that wants to go where traditional school curricula fear to tread. It is perfect for homeschooling parents who want their children to know that there are important people all of the world who most Americans have never heard of. And it delivers the subliminal message that homeschooling, with all its particular challenges, can breed dynamic results.

This book might be perfect for a public school child too who, finding it in her school library, might be enthralled by the unslick pictures and the strange and fascinating cast of characters. This is, after all, a book of ideas. It’s something you flip through and wonder at when your brain is at risk of running dry. More than that, it is a book that suggests with every page that all the other books in the library are just a bit too easy to swallow. Despite its unconventional first impression, the more time I gave this book, the more it gave back. In a fast food impulse marketplace, this is a rare slow homecooked meal. -- JDR

Growing With the Grain:
Dynamic Families Shaping History from Ancient Times to the Present
Lady Illyria Press, 2006
Hardcover, oversized, 324 pages
Limited edition, signed & numbered
$44.95, plus postage
BUY THE BOOK: Official web site


Growing with the Grain, Dynamic Families Shaping History From Ancient Times to the Present tells about exceptional people from across several continents and more centuries, seen in the context of their family life and especially their childhood experience, education, and reading. Accomplishments in a variety of fields are described, from business to poetry, and from printmaking to mathematics. Approximately sixty brief family biographies are arranged chronologically, so skimming through the volume serves as an abbreviated introduction to world history, from ancient Rome to the present. The recommended readership ranges from under 10 to over 90. The book is ideal for informative browsing.

Drawings made by the author's daughter introduce each biography, and a world map is provided, along with suggestions for further reading. Each biography also features a historiated initial which comments on the text to follow, and there are abstract decorations as well. The book, produced in hard cover with heavy paper, is intended to be a beautiful object as well as a good read.

The author teaches the history of art and the humanities at the University of New Hampshire. The book originated as a homeschooling project with her elder daughter when she was 13 and 14. Her watercolors are now being shown by the Salmon Falls Village Gallery in Rollinsford, New Hampshire.

Terms children might not be familiar with are defined along the way, but the writing is not geared to any specific juvenile age. Instead, it is intended for browsing by readers of a variety of ages, ideally for parents and children to share both reading and talking about.

"I hope," Patricia says, "that readers of the book will come away both with a sense of what a huge historical span there is to explore and of how important individual people and books can be to the course of events."

The book is available from our website,, or at the UNH Bookstore, Time of Wonder in Exeter, The Salmon Falls Village Gallery in Rollinsford, and Cabbages and Kings Bookshop in Chatham, Ma. The price is.

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