Tag Archive: biographies


Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier

This autobiographical picture book is about a young boy growing up in the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans where music was a simple part of everyday life and was always in the air. Tony particularly loved the music and energy of Mardi Gras where he could see brass bands play every day. Troy first played an imaginary instrument and then found a broken trombone that didn’t sound perfect but at least it was something he could play. Troy started to teach himself to play the trombone, an instrument that was almost as tall as he was, which is how he got the nickname of Trombone Shorty. He even slept with his horn in his hands. When Troy gains the attention of Bo Diddley for his playing in the crowd at his concert, Trombone Shorty knows it’s time to form his own band. And he still has his own band today!

Andrews is a Grammy-nominated trombone player and runs the Trombone Shorty Foundation committed to preserving the musical heritage of New Orleans. Andrews writes like a master on these pages which read like music is in the air between them too, just like the air in New Orleans. He shows children how an inspiration to play an instrument can become a lifelong calling. He also shows exactly how music empowers people in a place, gives them strength, creates a united culture, and unifies them. It’s a narrative about the power of music.

Collier’s illustrations are strong and dynamic. He creates motion on the page with his collage illustrations with patterns and textures that weave together. His paintings are a zingy mix of softly rendered closeups filled with detail and personality and then images of people farther away that are rougher but add even more energy to the art.

An inspiring picture book filled with music and vivaciousness, this autobiography celebrates New Orleans and the music in its veins and in one boy specifically. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Abrams.

Elvis by Bonnie Christensen

Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King by Bonnie Christensen (InfoSoup)

This picture book biography offers a glimpse into the journey of Elvis Presley from poverty to becoming a rock and roll legend. The book begins in segregated Mississippi with the birth of Elvis in 1935. Elvis’ father went to jail and even after he returned to the family, they lived a hard life of poverty. But through it all flowed music from their Sundays in church to listening to the radio at home. Elvis was shy and quiet, but he could sing and at age 10 he entered his first contest and then at 11 got his first guitar. His family moved to Memphis when he was 13 and Elvis found a new kind of music. He graduated from high school and eventually worked up the courage to enter a recording studio and offer his singing services. After a disastrous first session, Elvis was filled with nerves and picked up a guitar, singing That’s All Right. It got onto the radio and suddenly everyone wanted to hear more!

Christensen makes sure that readers understand that Elvis came from a difficult background, one where there was no money and no opportunities. His shyness was another thing that Elvis had to overcome, turning his shaking on stage into his signature moves. Christensen also keeps it clear that this was a different time, a time when these sorts of music did not mix together and that Elvis was uniquely situated to be the one who created the new sound. In all, this is a testament to the power of dreams and talent.

Christensen’s illustrations gleam with hope and the future even as Elvis is being moved to yet another house and another school. She makes sure that the light shines on the little boy and that readers see that there are possibilities to come.

A strong introduction to Elvis, make sure to play some of his music when reading it to children so that they can feel that beat too. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Small Wonders by Matthew Clark Smith

Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre and His World of Insects by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Giuliano Ferri (InfoSoup)

In a small French village lives a strange man who is interested in the smallest of creatures, the insects around us. He lures flies with dead animals that he pays the children in the village to find. His home is filled with specimens. No one realized that he was one of the greatest naturalists of his time. Jean-Henri Fabre grew up in the countryside where he was fascinated by the natural world around him. No one else seemed interested in the same things that he was, but that didn’t deter him from investigating them. Henri became a teacher and studied hard, but not about insects. It was not until a book rekindled his interest that he started to study them in a serious way as an adult. He discovered things about insects that no one else had ever seen and he documented them fully. So when scientists in France nominated one of their own for a tremendous national honor, they voted for Fabre.

Smith writes with a gentle tone throughout, documenting Fabre’s entire life from his childhood to the great honor he received from his peers and his nation. The story starts with the arrival of the president of France for the award and then shows how Fabre’s fascination with insects started as a boy. The period of time when insects were not a focus is clear but also brief and then the book grows almost merry as it documents the many accomplishments of this humble man who followed his own interests in science.

The illustrations are pastoral and lovely. They capture the beauty of the French countryside and also the wonder of the insects, showing them in great detail. There is a playfulness to the illustrations that also reflects the childlike joy that Fabre found in his wonder about insects.

A lovely book about a scientist who followed his own dreams and interests to great acclaim. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

little melba and her big trombone

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Melba had always loved the sounds of music: blues, jazz and gospel.  Even when she slept notes and rhythms were in her dreams.  When she signed up for music class at school, Melba picked out a long horn that was almost as big as she was.  Melba practiced and practiced, teaching herself to play.  Soon she was on the radio at age 8, playing a solo.  When Melba was in sixth grade, she moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles where she became a star player in the high school band.  When she was 17, she was invited to go on tour with a jazz band.  She played with some of the greats, but she was one of the only women on tour and racism in the South was harrowing.  Melba decided to quit, but her fans would not let her.  All of the top jazz acts in the 1950s wanted her to play with them.  So Melba came back, went on more tours, and her music conquered the world.

This picture book biography of Melba Doretta Liston shows how music virtuosos are born.  Her connection with music from such a young age, her determination to learn to play her selected instrument, and her immense talent make for a story that is even better than fiction.  Melba faced many obstacles on the way to her career but overcame them all.  She survived the Great Depression, found her musical voice early and then professionally.  She also had the challenges of sexism and racism to overcome on her way to greatness.  This is all clearly shown on the page and really tells the story of a woman made of music and steel (or brass).

Morrison’s art beautifully captures the life of Liston on the page.  His paintings are done in rich colors, filled with angles of elbows, horns and music, they leap on the page.  They evoke the time period and the sense of music and jazz. 

Put on some Dizzy Gillespie with Melba Liston playing in the band and share this triumphant picture book with music and band classes.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Lee & Low Books and Edelweiss.

star stuff

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson

This is a picture book biography about Carl Sagan and how he got interested in the stars.  It all started when he went to the 1939 World’s Fair and was inspired.  He started researching stars and space and wondering about the universe around us.  He got his doctorate and worked with other scientists to create machines that would investigate planets and take pictures of them.  Then he went on television with his show Cosmos and told everyone about the universe and how we are all made from the same stuff as the stars.  This is an inspirational story of how a child who loved the stars turning into a man who taught a generation about them.

Sisson keeps this book at the exactly right level for young readers.  She does not dwell on Sagan’s time in college, but instead spends much more time on his childhood dreams and interests.  She focuses too on his work as a scientist and then speaks very broadly about his time on television.  I greatly appreciate that his work was not narrowed to just Cosmos, but instead it is celebrated as a part of what he accomplished in his life.  The book ends with an Author’s Note and a bibliography and source notes that readers looking for more detailed information will find useful.

In her illustrations, Sisson wisely incorporates elements of comic books with panels and speech bubbles.  These give the book a great modern feel and help propel the story forward.  Done in a friendly cartoon style, the illustrations make astronomy approachable and friendly for the reader.

Children will be inspired to see a young person’s dream become their vocation in life.  This picture book is a new way for Sagan to inspire people to learn about the stars.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

ben franklins big splash

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S. D. Schindler

Ben Franklin grew up the son of a soap maker and loved to spend his free time on summer days swimming in the river near his home.  In the time of his childhood, people just did not swim or wash regularly because they thought it would make you sick, so Ben was considered rather odd for the amount of time he spent in the water.  As he swam, Ben started to wonder why it was that fish swim so much better than he could.  And so Ben starts to come up with inventions that would help him swim like a fish.  First, he made swim fins for his hands out of wood and they did make him much faster, but they also made his wrists sore and tired.  The next invention was swim sandals, but they didn’t improve things much since they slid off his feet.  But Ben was not a quitter and so he took each defeat as a way to improve his idea.  After all, he was a scientist through and through.

Rosenstock sets just the right playful and rather silly tone with this biographical picture book.  She includes plenty of details about the society in the 1700s and how it was different from our modern one.  Using different fonts and repeating words, she also emphasizes the importance of trial and error in science and solving problems.  She also ties in the fact that this is how science works and how scientists learn things, along with a healthy dose of dedication and resolve.

The illustrations by Schindler are marvelous, cleverly covering up the more private parts of the naked swimming boy with splashes and waves.  They have a light-hearted quality to them and also a visual lightness that makes the book even funnier as they swim across the page.

A book to inspire children to try to solve problems they discover, this is a fresh and summery look at a boy genius at play.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

right word

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

The incredible and award-winning team of Bryant and Sweet return with a picture book biography of Peter Roget.  The book looks deeply into his childhood as a boy who grew up moving around a lot in Switzerland.  He found that books stayed good friends through the many moves he made.  Roget was also a boy who enjoyed making lists, lists about all sorts of things:  Latin words, elements, weather and words for things in the garden.  As a teenager, he spent time silent and alone outside, making lists of birds and insects.  Then one day, he realized that it would be great to have a book that listed all the different words to choose from, and his idea of a thesaurus was born.  But it would take many years of hard work to come to fruition.

Bryant’s text has just the right amount of information about Roget and his life.  She wisely chooses to focus on his interest in lists as a child and how that grew into the thesaurus as Roget himself grew up.  This natural progression of interest from youth to adult is something that children will enjoy seeing in both Roget and in their own lives.  Bryant’s Author’s Note at the end of the book speaks to all of the research that goes into writing a biography for young children and the inspiration she herself found in Roget.

As always, the illustrations by Sweet are a highlight of the book.  Here, as she explains in her Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book, she has incorporated the Latin words that Roget used in his notebooks.  The other words that she weaves into her art are found in the first edition of his thesaurus.  Her art incorporates different papers, watercolors, and objects.  There is one page where it feels like it pops off the page, a book that contains words, creatures, plants and ideas.  Simply amazing art.

A noteworthy addition to the already impressive shelves of Bryant and Sweet, this is one that belongs in every library and in the hands of all young wordsmiths.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

viva frida

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

Frida Kahlo is one of the most celebrated female artists in the world.  This picture book is less a biography and more a celebration of her life and art on the page.  Written in brief sentences, the book shows her unique perspective on the world.  It pays homage to the rich love she had in her life, her pet monkey, and all of the inspiration she found around her.  In a world that needs more diverse picture books, this is one worth celebrating.

The book is told entirely in short sentences from Frida Kahlo’s point of view.  Cleverly done, the sentences are done in English and Spanish, the Spanish almost a bright floral note next to the black English words.  It is the illustrations here that are exceptional.  Morales is known for her paintings but her she chooses a different medium entirely.  Kahlo is shown as a doll and the illustrations are photographs of that doll as she moves through her day.  Kahlo retains her distinctive single brow as well as her signature beauty. 

Using a doll in this way plays directly against the blonde bombshell beauty of Barbie.  With the same plastic structure, this Frida Kahlo doll with her black hair, warm brown skin and intelligent eyes shows a much richer form of beauty.  The images are cleverly photographed, showing Kahlo from different and interesting angles and moving into a dream sequence where the illustrations turn to paintings. 

A dynamite addition to any library, this is a necessary purchase that speaks to why diverse picture books are needed for all children.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

Layout 1

Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza by J.L. Powers, illustrated by George Mendoza and Hayley Morgan-Sanders

George loved to move, so he decided to be a basketball player.  Then one day the world outside looked red to him and he started to see other colorful squiggles in the air and suffer from constant headaches.  The doctor told him that he was going blind, but George didn’t lose all of his sight, instead he continued to see bright colors and flashing lights.  He had to stop playing basketball because he could no longer see the basket.  Eventually, George took up running, mostly because it made him so tired that he could forget being blind.  He could run very fast, so fast that he went to the Olympics, twice.  But George continued to see a world of colors that no one else could see.  It wasn’t until a friend was killed that he started to ask himself why he was there, and George started to talk about being blind to groups and also to paint the world that he sees.

A truly inspirational story, Mendoza is an example of someone being incredible resilient in the face of a life-changing disability.  The fact that he began to run after losing his sight is amazing and also inspiring.  But it is his visions and his art that shine on the page, a world painted in colors that only he can see.  The process of George becoming an artist is shown in all of its slow progression which also gives the sense that there is time to find your path, time to be the person you are meant to be.

Seeing his paintings on the page is immensely powerful.  They are bold and bright, done in thick lines.  They have a voice to them that shouts on the page and they tell the story of what George sees more clearly than any words can. 

Highly recommended, this picture book biography is a powerful tale of resilience and overcoming barriers.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from pdf received from J.L. Powers.

mr ferris and his wheel

Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, illustrated by Gilbert Ford

After the Eiffel Tower stunned World’s Fair visitors in 1889, it was up to Chicago to impress people at their 1893 World’s Fair.  So a nationwide contest was announced, but unfortunately many of the designs were just slightly-modified Eiffel Towers, so all of them were rejected.  George Ferris was an American engineer who had already designed big bridges, tunnels and roads across the nation.  He had an idea for a structure that would not just rival the stature of the Eiffel Tower, but would also move and be able to be ridden.  The judges of the contest reluctantly agreed to let him try, but would not offer him a penny of funding.  Ferris managed to find a few wealthy investors to help him and construction began on the huge project of creating a delicate wheel that would be strong enough to turn filled with people.  The tale of the building and invention of this now iconic ride is rich with suspense and the delight of accomplishment.

Davis has written a very successful picture book biography on George Ferris and his delight of an invention.  Occasionally in the text, there are sections in smaller font that offer more details and information.  It is all fascinating and those sections will be enjoyed as much as the main text.  Davis clearly explains differences between today and the late 1800s, such as the lack of Internet to carry ideas.  The story has plenty of dangers, lots of action and the ever-present danger of failure to carry it forward and make it enjoyable reading.

Ford’s illustrations are filled with rich, deep colors that capture different times of day.  They are a winning mix of straight, firm lines and hand-drawn characters and structures.  The play of the two on the page makes for illustrations that are eye-catching and that draw you into the story and the time period.

This is a particularly strong picture book biography that children will pick up thanks to the everlasting appeal of the Ferris Wheel.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

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